In A Monster Calls, the titular being is a most imposing, impressive creation, a towering beast that incarnates from a yew tree and tough-loves a young boy (Conor, played by Lewis MacDougall) into confronting and overcoming his concerns and fears. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the Monster is a CG marvel and an indelible character—though speaking of Marvel, some viewers may find themselves unavoidably thinking about another arboreal being from the smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy.
“Well, we had started shooting when that movie came out,” director J.A. Bayona says regarding potential Groot comparisons, “and I wasn’t really worried, because the conceptualization we did went in a different direction. Trees that look like humans are important figures in literature and other culture, and everything has been done so far. We were trying to do a man that looks like a tree, rather than a tree that looks like a man, which might get very close to Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. I loved the design that Jim Kay did in his illustrations for the original book, and it was very important to keep the face of the Monster human, in order to capture the performance of Liam Neeson. The moment you get too far, too separate from the shape of a person, it’s very difficult to retain the performance in the CGI.”
One piece of Kay art for the Monster Calls novel, by Patrick Ness (who also scripted the film), was a particular inspiration for Bayona. “There was a drawing that I loved where you see the Monster sitting on a rooftop, and it always felt very soulful,” he recalls. “It was a very simple image that reminded me a lot of The Thinker, the statue by Rodin. I thought that was very powerful. We went through a lot of different Monster designs for the movie, but there was a moment when we realized that the more we went away from that drawing, the more we were adding, the less powerful it was. So we decided to keep the simplicity of that illustration.”
Another influence on the character, as written by Ness, led to the casting of Neeson to bring him to life on screen. “In the book, the Monster is very much inspired by The Green Man, who is one of the most important characters in Irish folklore,” Bayona explains. “We started to think about an Irish actor who could not just do the voice, but also capture the persona, the gravitas, the wisdom that the Monster had to show in the story. Liam Neeson was our favorite from the very beginning, and we were lucky that he read the script and the book and said yes pretty early in the process. And we always wanted him for the voice as well as the physical performance. We spent about 10 days shooting the motion-capture at the beginning of the production, and that was very good for Lewis, because he was able to do all the scenes with the Monster, rehearsing all that, before he came to the set.”
The relationship between children and fantastical creatures is an enduring one on both the page and the screen; last year alone saw Pete’s Dragon, The BFG and The 9th Life of Louis Drax explore the theme. It’s one that resonates with Bayona, who is currently in the midst of the Jurassic World sequel (and says he’s looking for a project that will allow him to return to the horror territory of his breakout feature The Orphanage). “Fantasy is very important in the process of growing up,” he observes, “which is why these stories come back from time to time. I’ve really admired films like E.T., for example, and The NeverEnding Story—movies that deal with the complexity of growing up, and how we use fantasy to cope with reality. The fantasy element is something that you can definitely find in all of my films, even [his tsunami-survival drama] The Impossible, though it’s based upon a true story. I think that somehow, fantasy explains reality better than reality itself, and that’s what A Monster Calls is about.”