A Master Calls
by Jay S. Jacobs
In casting the title character of the film A Monster Calls, a forty-foot tall behemoth made of trees and earth who helps a small child come to cope with the impending death of his mother, you just can’t have the normal casting call. The actor must have a certain gravitas, a certain degree of threat, and a certain compassion.
It is hardly surprising that the filmmakers immediately turned to Oscar-winning actor Liam Neeson.
“From the moment you start to think about an actor for the monster, because he was based… on the Green Man, who is one of the biggest characters in the Celtic traditions, you start to think about who is the Irish actor who can bring the presence, the voice, the soul. the wisdom,” explained director J.A. Bayona. “Of course, it was Liam Neeson, the first name that came to my mind.”
“For the film, Liam Neeson would always be the top of your list,” novelist and screenwriter Patrick Ness agreed. “Because someone is on the top of your list, you always assume you’re not going to get them. But we did, he responded and it was great.”
Playing the monster was Neeson’s first experience with motion capture filming, a technique that was a little uncomfortable for the veteran actor to start, though he is thrilled with the results.
Based upon the popular 2011 young adult novel of the same title by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls tells the story of a young Irish schoolboy who meets (or imagines) a giant monster to help him come to terms with his unhappy school life and the inevitable death of his ill mother.
Playing the monster was a change of pace for Neeson, and yet the role takes advantage of the specialize skills that have been obvious in the actor for decades. Whether playing brave heroes (in his Oscar-nominated role for Schindler’s List, as well as Michael Collins and Excalibur), troubled mentors (in the likes of Batman Begins and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), to his newer specialty as aging action hero (in the likes of Taken and A Walk Amongst the Tombstones), Neeson has always brought an electric presence to his roles.
A couple of weeks before the New York and Los Angeles Christmas release of A Monster Calls (it will be spreading wider in early January), we were one of several media outlets lucky enough to sit down with Neeson and discuss the film.
What was it like to see yourself as a gigantic tree?
(excited) It was pretty cool. They had shown me a mock up, the bust [that director] J.A. [Bayona] imagined, when we started rehearsals for the motion capture stuff. I thought, oh my God, that looks really interesting. It kind of looked as if it was someone who had walked into a tree. The face had all been squashed. That helped inform me of how this thing might speak. With trouble breathing. Takes his breath from the graveyard in some way. It would be quite spectral. So it was lovely. The motion capture, I’d never done that stuff before.
What was that experience like, acting while in a motion capture suit?
The first day, I felt like a twat. Where I come from that doesn’t mean [the same sexual connotation as in the US]…. It’s just, I felt like a jerk. You’re in a onesie with ping pong balls all over your body attached to sensors. There’s five computer nerds behind laptops and they are supplying you with…. Well, I forgot to say, you’re out in space, but they don’t call it space, because they are computer nerds. It’s called “The Volume.“ There are 70 cameras going around in a circle, and there are 70 cameras overhead. The acting space – I’d call it in the middle, they’d call it the volume – I’d be acting to a puppet that size (indicates a little one with his hands). Lewis would be off camera, supplying these extraordinary emotions, even though he’s off camera. Then the computer nerds are giving you this digital make up. So, when we’d shoot a scene, J.A. would show it to me, roughly what it would look like. It was an extraordinary process.
What was it like to see the book come to life on the big screen?
I would have to say I was really drawn into it. The story. It’s an extraordinary book. Patrick did a wonderful adaptation from the book. I saw a cut version – it wasn’t complete – about six months ago, maybe. It was really telling it, this story, I have to say. [Lewis MacDougall] embarrasses Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the range of stuff he has there. Really remarkable, I think. And it wasn’t a performance. There was no acting. Certainly not when I was with him. He’s terrific. Terrific what that kid does. It’s real. He makes it real. There’s not an ounce of sentiment. Just terrific. I can’t praise that boy enough.
When you were a kid, did you have any recurring nightmares?
Well, I’ll tell you, I had crazy dreams. My sister and I used to go to a little picture house in my time. There would be Saturday matinees and stuff. I used to get terrified – but obsessed at the same time – with these black and white B-movies about mummies. [They] were absolutely terrifying to me. Even though the heroine or hero would be sprinting away, and those things (mimes holding out hands and shuffling, stumbling forward), they’d still catch up with them. But that didn’t matter. So, when I read the script to this, that came and conjured that. That brought that back to me. This terrifying thing: all it wanted was its princess to go and die with it again. The mummy’s myth. So it wasn’t really evil, but at that age it was very, very scary to me. And my sister.
Patrick just said you were his ideal choice to play the monster. When did you know this was something you really had to do?
He cut the check. (laughs) Yeah, I did. I felt that. I had seen J.A.’s The Impossible. I thought it was a terrific film. I’m a big fan of Ewan [McGregor]’s and Naomi [Watts]’, but these kids were extraordinary. I thought that he’s got to be another Steven Spielberg if he can bring performances like that from these children. I thought, okay, A Monster Calls, he’s obviously picked some special kid. So that was the allure to it, you know? And, obviously, to work with the same Pan’s Labyrinth team, which is an extraordinary film.
Had you seen Lewis [in his first role] in Pan?
I didn’t see that. I haven’t seen it. No. He’s just, I think he did a film in May with one of my favorite actresses, Vera Farmiga [called Boundaries]. She is great. I just did a movie [The Commuter] with Jaume Collet-Serra – this is our fourth [they had previously worked together on Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night] – another Spaniard. [It was filmed] in London. It’s a thriller. We had Vera for four or five days. I was like a kid in a toy shop with her.
You really pretty much only worked with Lewis as far as the actors go.
Yes, it was all with Lewis, yeah.
Did you feel fatherly with him at all? Did you have any advice for him?
I didn’t. Because he and J.A. were very close. J.A., I think one of the cores he has is he never talks down to a kid, I sense. It’s one on one. It’s very much an equal. No, I didn’t dare offer him any advice. I didn’t. We had a few laughs, too. He’s a kid. I’m a kid, too. (laughs) We get to play monsters, you know? It’s important to keep sometimes a lightness of touch. That doesn’t mean you treat the whole thing as fun, but just keep a [casual feeling], because the story has quite [a lot of] gravitas. It’s important sometimes with kids to just keep it light.
Did you find a lot of darkness in this children’s story, a lot of scariness?
Oh, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve read the book at all…
No, I haven’t had the chance yet…
It’s a very, very quick read. It was a very deceptive read. You read it and go, oh, that’s nice. You put it down and suddenly you start thinking about it again. I certainly did. I would pick it up, in fact, I was reading bits of it last night. It does weave a special web around you. I think it’s a classic. I would rate it with the best of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and certainly the Brothers Grimm. I think it’s one for the ages. I really do.
One thing I liked about it was that it could be very subtle. For instance, in that section where they just pan over the family photos on the wall and show that you were the grandfather. No fuss is made about the reveal, you could easily miss it, and yet it opens up so many possibilities for the story.
Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, the camera just passes it.
You start to think, well, okay, is he the grandfather, or…?
Well, I think that Conor has conjured up this presence that is a mixture of his mother’s early drawings that he remembers, his grandfather, and certainly this yew tree that has been part of his life. It’s just way in the back there somewhere. He’s just blended them all together, as only kids can do.
Was that picture taken on set?
We did a shot after we wrapped the motion capture stuff, I think. It was a set up, a make-pretend family.
What do you think the monster represents for Conor?
It’s got to approach the fear that he has, that he can’t quite put up….
And it could be a guy?
I think so, yeah. It could easily be, you could say it’s his grandmother, too. Sigourney Weaver’s character, who you think is very cold and unfeeling, but she’s about to lose her daughter, too. That’s interesting. I wonder if it would have had the same effect if the tree would have been a woman. I’ll have to think about that, actually.
It’s such a fine line between the monster and the guide in that particular character. How did you find yourself voicing that?
Yes. I mean, I knew the computer guys were going to sort of [make him] – not quite hideous, but this ancient sort of tree. A quite scary figure. I knew they were going to do that, so I don’t have to do that. Certainly worked on the voice a little bit, and I knew that also the sound guys would play with that as well, wherever they saw fit. To make it more… I don’t know, whatever they do to it. Adjust it to make it more raspy, or softer. They can do all that stuff. I just played it as I thought it should be played. Sometimes – certainly telling the tales, because they are quite involved tales – they had to be delivered quite punchily. That’s what life is like. It’s like: “Get on the train, here’s the story, dude. I’m telling it to you. This is the way it is.” The kid is trying to take all these images in. We, as the audience, are taking these extraordinary animated images in. Then suddenly you’re hit with the guy killed his own wife. He killed her for political reasons. And you go, “What???” Each tale is kind of like that, so I felt they should be delivered not in a “bum, bum, bum” (knocks on table three times, slowly and rhythmically) but they should go (snaps his fingers) drive like the carriage. Just little things like that. Then J.A. and I, would talk and he’d say, “You’re going too fast, or too hard. Maybe just pull back a bit.” Or whatever.
How does J.A. Bayona compare to the other directors you have worked with? You have said he is terrific with children.
I may have said this already, forgive me if I’m repeating myself – he is like Steven Spielberg that way. Steven has this magical relationship with children. When you think of Drew Barrymore in ET, it’s an extraordinary performance he brings from this girl. I’ve seen him – well, I’ve worked with him – but I’ve seen him in action with kids and he’s just… he and the kids are on the same level. J.A. was the same with Lewis. I’d see them huddled in a corner. J.A. would never give him personal direction in front of me, or his father. He’d bring him off and would quietly talk to him, which is very, very considerate. A lot of directors wouldn’t do that. I could see Lewis nodding his head. The two of them were like two kids, really sharing a confidence with each other. That’s part of his talent, too. It was magic. And his care. His genuine care and concern.
I hope this doesn’t get swallowed up by Rogue One.
(joking) What’s Rogue One?
Do you think the film should be mandatory viewing for those who have not experienced grief and death?
And maybe for those who have experienced it. I just lost a very dear relative of mine. [She] died of breast cancer in her forties. It’s a horrible, horrible disease. It’s wonderful a film like this can really confront something like that. A lesson you can take away from it is: we all live in hope, but sometimes it’s important to confront something for what it is. If you have two weeks left, or three weeks, maximum, it’s important that a family hears that. And the kids hear it, too. I think that really comes across in the film. They are dancing circles… well, they’re not dancing circles around the character of Conor, he’s desperate to be told the truth. They’re saying “Not now…” or “You wouldn’t understand.” That’s infuriating for a kid. It’s infuriating for an adult, but infuriating for a kid to hear that, because they can take things onboard. They may not intellectualize what was there, but they can grow to eventually understand it. And how important it is to have support. If it’s not family, close friends and stuff to lean on, talk to. The kid, the character of Conor, doesn’t, unfortunately. That’s why he conjures this essence, this creature, that he can share with.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 23, 2016.
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