The visually spectacular, stunningly emotional A MONSTER CALLS takes us on a boy’s journey to deal with his mother’s terminal illness, the changes it has wrought in their lives and the depth of what they share...that which even death cannot take away.
Upon reading the award-winning novel, Director Juan Antonio Bayona recognized at once themes he had touched on in his previous films THE ORPHANAGE and THE IMPOSSIBLE, as he describes “...characters finding themselves in a very intense situation, with death on the horizon. In A MONSTER CALLS, we are exploring how fantasy is part of us as human beings and the power it can give us to help deal with life.”
Aiding in this exploration are his longtime collaborators Director of Photography Oscar Faura and Academy Award winners [PAN’S LABYRINTH] Production Designer Eugenio Caballero and Set Decorator Pilar Revuelta SDSA.
“For the film, I wanted to transcend what we know is coming—the death of Conor’s mother—and be able to fuse the boy’s need to draw with the strength of legacy. There is light at the end of the story, resulting from the idea that art heals. Patrick Ness’s screenplay has added themes while still being faithful to his novel, so in making the movie, there are some elements of the book that we have taken further.”
“All of the seeds of the fantasy are planted in Conor’s reality,” adds Caballero. “If you look deeply, you will find the shared elements; there are always links between his two worlds. One of this story’s core ideas is how fantasy is created out of necessity – and especially out of a need for hope.”
Bayona talks with SET DECOR about the sets and the symbolism throughout the film...
SET DECOR: When we talked with you about THE IMPOSSIBLE, one of the key elements was the tree that was specially built for the film. And now this incredible tree monster...
Director J.A. Bayona: Yes, and that makes Eugenio the most important designer of trees ever, because he also designed PANS LABYRINTH!
SET DECOR: And Pilar filled it with more magic realism.
Bayona: Yes, they are the perfect team. We, our crew, are a perfect team...we are all like family in Barcelona. That is how it is shooting in Spain. Crew is like a family, and so we always work really well together. From the very beginning, the preparation is very important and all the teams are working together very closely in order to bring the story alive.
SET DECOR: Well, the tree/monster is amazing in all of its manifestations. It seems as the film moves on and the outer layers of the characters become stripped away, that the tree reflects that. There was less green, less of the outer aspects and more of the bare branches, trunk and roots...the core of the tree.
Bayona: Yes it was always a reflection. I think that trees are so symbolic. They connect earth with heaven. And it’s a symbol for spiritual growth.
So it was interesting that somehow our monster was a tree, a very specific tree...a yew tree.
SET DECOR: A healing tree...
Bayona: Yes, a healing tree. Very true in so many ways.
And it’s an empty tree. Yew trees are empty on the inside, so there are holes where you can see through. The Monster also represents that part of your personality which you haven’t yet come to terms with.
And then there’s the symbolism you have in the tree standing on the hill, with the cemetery, the view that Conor always sees from his window.
The window is another significant element in the story. Windows and doors are very important because the threshold is the most important figure in fantasy. It’s because the threshold separates the real life, the reality, from the fantasy.
Conor is all the time dealing with two worlds in the story. One deals with fantasy, and another deals with reality, which is the world of adults. The world of adults is always separated through doors—doors that are not open, or only partially open. So he is listening to the adults from a different room, and not seeing the whole story because his vision is always just a section.
But you can see through the window. That is the separation between the two worlds, fantasy versus reality, and also is where the two meet.
Paper is another threshold.
There’s a moment when the two worlds blend...there is a frame that Conor draws on a piece of paper. That frame is the entrance to the fantasy, another doorway that’s very important.
SET DECOR: Yes, we saw him draw the final line of the frame very deliberately.
Bayona: Exactly. So from the moment I realized that the whole thing was about how we use fantasy to understand reality, I knew I would have two layers in the story—one for each.
So I used art to represent the spirit of Conor. He’s a free spirit compared to the more reason-based world of the adults. So when we introduced art into the film—art is an element that was not in the book—the whole film became more obvious about the confrontation between reason and emotion.
It’s something he inherited from his young mother, who tries to keep her free spirit alive even when she is hit with the reality of being so sick. There was this idea of legacy. That we can feel somehow that the mother is alive through the legacy that she bequeaths to her son through the art...
SET DECOR: Very much so. And then that final scene with her childhood room becoming his...
Bayona: Exactly. It’s all about Conor finding his place in the world. That is represented by that room...finding not just himself, but the people who came before him. The other day I learned a beautiful line that says, “We are what we learn to be.” And in that room all the experiences of Conor converge.
Besides the art, there are two very important elements of legacy that come from the generation before. One is the clock that his grandmother inherited from her grandmother. And the other is the projector, which his mother inherits from her father, Conor’s grandfather. They are both objects dealing with time, each in a very different way. One is very mathematical and all about order. And the other one is about fantasy and the freedom of imagination.
SET DECOR: And Conor’s reaction was that he couldn’t control time, so he finally decided to destroy it.
Bayona: Exactly! Conor had to destroy that clock to free his grandmother. Because his grandmother was locked, carrying this heavy weight that she cannot handle. He needs to break that clock to destroy her world exactly the same way the Monster destroys the parsonage house.
SET DECOR: So many of the set elements are key to symbolic imagery. More subtle than the clock but quietly compelling, is a chest standing just outside that locked room. It’s a soft green with handpainted trees on the front. We see it when Conor tries to peer through the keyhole when the door is locked, and then again when he gets the key to go inside the room, where he and we discover the tree-shaped bookshelves and the images throughout the room, a myriad of moments represented...
Bayona: Exactly. He is finding layers of his legacy represented, layers of himself.
SET DECOR: Well, we all come with childhood memories. Were there any specific elements that you asked Pilar to be sure to include?
Bayona: Well, I did care a lot about the drawings. A lot of the drawings in Conor’s room were mine. [He smiles.] Because I was obsessed with drawing when I was a kid.
SET DECOR: What a fantastic additional aspect to this, that these are yours!
Bayona: It was such an important part of my life as a kid, I was always drawing. And these drawings are a reflection of the psychology of the boy. So we can see these wild images of monsters and sharks and other beings...
SET DECOR: And while there are some watercolors, much of it is in black and white, which is the world he was trying to deal with...
Bayona: Exactly...an expression of his own world.
SET DECOR: And we loved the simplicity of the illustrations for the Monster’s stories. It gave credibility to the interrelatedness. As did the colors.
In their home, there was a lot of color but it was rather muted back at times from the English winter half-light.
Bayona: Yes. It’s a different light than here or in Spain. And it has it’s own reality and effect. And Oscar made certain to re-create that English light when we filmed in Barcelona.
SET DECOR: The beautiful pillows Conor’s mother had surrounding her offered a rich background palette in the scenes at home, but in her hospital room, against the white bed and as she’s fading away, the colors seem to really intensify. Was that purposeful, intended?
Bayona: Yes, And the fabrics, the textures...
SET DECOR: And it seemed like some of the fabrics might have come from the drawings.
Bayona: Yes, absolutely. When you see the animations, you see that the characters in the stories are related to the characters in Conor’s life. So you will find elements of his clothes in the prince and you will see that the blanket from his mother that he uses when he goes to the back yard is the same blanket that in the story the prince uses to cover the dead farmer’s-daughter.
So you will see that all the characters in the story reflect a personality of the real life of Conor, and he has these visual elements to put them together to create a link between them.
You know, the novel is an illustrated book. The first time I read it, I was stuck by all the beautiful illustrations. So from that moment on, it was impossible for me to separate Patrick’s book from the illustrations. This is why from the very beginning, when I thought about the stories, I thought, “This is going to be told through illustrations, because somehow you can’t separate one idea from the other.”
SET DECOR: Speaking of visual elements, please tell us about the hill with the tree and the church and cemetery. We see it in various forms in the illustrations but we also see it in reality as the view from Conor’s window and then later the place he is drawn to. It’s also the scene of his recurring nightmare.
Was that mostly CG/green screen or practical set as well?
Bayona: To establish the church and cemetery, we had to do that in a real cemetery in England. But the hill was in a different place...and we built a version of the tree on it. So we had the cemetery in one place, the hill was in another place and then we re-created all of that for the nightmare. We did that in Barcelona, a massive set with all the graves and special effects. It was a huge physical set and then we had a scale model, too. So that scene of the nightmare is a blending of two locations in England, a scale model and a gigantic set in Spain.
That was very symbolic, the cemetery. You know, you have the backyard that was so well written in Patrick’s book and you have the cemetery and tree on the hill. And it reminded me of the old movies from Hammer, the Dracula movies where you have the village and on top of the hill is the Dracula castle. Again, it’s two worlds, the real world and the fantasy world. And somehow, Conor is called by the fantasy, by this tree that’s on top of a hill in the same way the castle of Dracula was always on a hill.
SET DECOR: You have references to those films, which Conor and his mother loved, sprinkled throughout: character dolls, some of his black and white drawings, even the harsh, eerie lighting from the fallen, crushed lamps in his grandmother’s living room after the destruction.
Bayona: Yes, I’m happy you noticed. That was Oscar’s idea of putting the lamps on the ground so they would create strong shadows on Sigourney’s face and create a sense of drama.
SET DECOR: Another significant reference was the beautiful iron gate at the verge of the hill, with the filigreed leaves and the faces of the Green Man in bas relief, exquisite for those who notice...
Bayona: It’s another threshold that separates the fantasy from reality. And of course, Conor rejects the fantasy and he closes that gate at the very beginning. But he needs to cross that threshold at the end of the story.
And it’s the Green Man’s face on the gate, of course, because the monster was very inspired by the Green Man.
I think our visual motifs help an audience to connect in ways that they may not realize they see. I mean, the stories...you will see them through your eyes, but also you will see through your subconscious. And visual motifs help you in achieving that. Another threshold. Again, this is what I was telling you, the threshold is the most important aspect in fantastic cinema, it gives you a connection between fantasy and reality. And in this story, both are about love.