Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver and 14-year-old Lewis MacDougall attended the premiere of their new film A Monster Calls, a gothic fable directed by Spanish director J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”) that took place Wednesday evening at the AMC Lincoln Square on the Upper West side. Also on the red carpet was screenwriter Patrick Ness, who wrote the young adult book of the same name, from an idea by author Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before she could begin writing the book.
The talented MacDougall, who was only 12 when he made the film, is in nearly every frame of the film and has very emotional scenes that will leave you reaching for the Kleenex. He plays Conor, a lonely and angry British boy, trying to cope with his mother’s battle with terminal cancer (Felicity Jones). His mother was only 18 and dropped out of art school when she became pregnant with Conor and they are almost like best pals. Sigourney Weaver plays Conor’s grandmother, a seemingly cold woman with whom he seems to have no connection.
The movie has elements of a fairy-tale, featuring an animatronic monster in the form of a yew tree that is just across from Conor’s bedroom window. Every night the monster uproots itself and stomps over to the boy’s house at 12:07 a.m. when Conor has nightmares. The monster, voiced by Neeson who has a distinctive musical deep bass, is at first intimidating and a little scary, but turns out to be somewhat benevolent with a purpose for his nightly rampage, which is revealed at the end of the film.
Among the movie’s many charms are the graphics and stop-action animation, especially in the sequences when the monster recounts a pair of fairy-tale like stories that end with a particularly dark twist.
MacDougall, who is actually Scottish and not English, has grown up considerably since he made the film two years ago. He’s at least a head taller. On the red carpet, I asked him about working with Neeson and the process of working with an animatronic figure. “Since he’s the monster, he wasn’t actually on set,” he told me. “I had two weeks of motion capture with him before we started shooting, so I had an opportunity to rehearse the film.”
Given his young age, I asked what he drew on for his many emotional scenes. “Experiences in my own life,” he said. “I lost my mother three years ago. Although the experiences were different between Conor and myself, I could empathize with what he was going through.”
He added that the movie was therapeutic. “It can be extremely helpful with a lot of people, especially in my case. I read the book beforehand, and it’s also therapeutic, which is what we tried to replicate in the film.”
I asked director J.A. Bayona – who is best know for “Orphanage” and “The Impossible” – if in his films he found himself revisiting certain emotions or themes as a filmmaker.
“First of all, I follow my instincts when I choose a movie. I don’t have a plan,” he told me. “And your instincts always lead you to the same places. At the same time, I try not to repeat myself, so I go to the same places with a very different angle. If you take a look at the three movies I’ve done so far, you can find the similitude between them, but at the same time they’re very different.”
A common thread I noted in all thee films is that children are in peril. “Children in peril and the mother in the center and death in the horizon. I think that relationship between the mother and the kid and death in the background for me brings the stories to an intensity that I love.”
As for finding his young lead actor, the director told me he did a very long audition, with hundreds of youngsters. “He was very different from the other kids,” Bayona said. “He knew what his character is going through.”
The director praised the rest of his cast, as well, including Sigourney Weaver, who has never played a grandmother before. I noted that “Alien” fans might never forgive him for casting the Ripley actress as grandmother. “A young grandmother. It’s very important to keep that in mind. She’s a young grandmother,” Bayona laughed.
“A Monster Calls” opens in theaters December 23, 2016.