Screenwriter Patrick Ness on ‘A Monster Calls’ and the ‘Doctor Who’ Spin-Off ‘Class’

     November 3, 2016

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The most unexpected tearjerker of the year comes as a fantastical vision of loss and coming of age—featuring a walking, talking tree monster with the voice of Liam Neeson)—in A Monster Calls. Quietly arriving on the scene at the Toronto International Film Festival and leaving scads of emotionally broken viewers in its wake (including our own Adam Chitwood, read his review), the film garnered immediate attention for its lush visual style and its fearless, emotional approach to grief. Directed by J.A. Bayona, whose often gorgeous directorial point of view has been characterized in prior works like The Impossible and The Orphanage, A Monster Calls was written by Patrick Ness who also penned the young adult novel on which it was based.

The film follows Conor (an astonishing Lewis MacDougall) as his mother’s slow deterioration at the hands of a terminal illness catapults him into an increasingly unfamiliar, unwanted life that leaves him adrift – angry, devastated and lost. Finding companionship in a monster who appears in his window one night, A Monster Calls tracks his gradual acceptance of his mother’s impending death that, with the help of Bayona’s aching visuals and Ness’ gutsy screenplay, results in a film that very well could garner Oscar attention (particularly for Felicity Jones as his mother).

Collider recently sat down with the film’s screenwriter to discuss the A Monster Calls‘ journey to the screen, how he and Bayona brought the book’s initial illustrations to towering life, the process behind finding the film’s electric lead and his work on the Doctor Who spin-off, Class.

The book was initially released about 5 years ago, did you ever see in some kind of dream scenario, this being turned into a film?

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Image via Focus Features

NESS: You always dream. But there’s a difference between fantasizing and expecting. Fantasize, go to town, but expect? I never expect anything. I was raised quite poor, and all I really wanted; my huge ambition, was to have a published book in my hand. And I did that, so everything else is like, “okay, great, bonus!” But I never expected it to happen. I always say that I don’t believe the film until I buy a ticket. But, what I also always say is that real writers don’t write, but they write anyway. I didn’t think I could publish a book but I wrote one anyway, I didn’t think I would ever make a movie but I wrote the script anyway, and that’s been my plan. I never felt as though I was capital “D”, destined. You gotta work at it. A lot of luck and a lot of hard work.

If I’m not mistaken, someone outside of your realm of influence or group of people, brought the book to the director. So at what point did you become involved in the script-writing process itself? Was there a decision making process as to whether someone else was going to write the script?

NESS: Nope. In retrospect, it seems like an enormous act of hubris but I really didn’t mean it that way. I’ve written a lot of books, nine. And people are interested, or not interested, and you take meetings a lot. So none of it is out of the usual, it was the usual course of things. I did have quite a good response to A Monster Calls for film stuff. Again we were skeptical the entire way but I have always been concerned that it might be softened or changed in ways that I felt would weakened or worsen the story or cheat the story. There were indeed early on some suggestions here and there really preliminary that began to soften it. I’m like “okay, it’s not really what I want”. So I wrote the script as a spect script, I didn’t have a deal with anyone, I didn’t have anybody waiting for me to turn it in. I said, “I will write it and I will include everything that I care about, everything that I feel is most important and then with luck maybe somebody will respond to that to that.” And that’s what happened.

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Image via Focus Features

It didn’t necessarily have to happen, at all. So I didn’t sell the rights and I didn’t sell the screenplay. We didn’t actually sell the rights until we started shooting, which you should never let happen, that’s far too strong of a negotiating position for me. [laughs] But it worked out for me, but it was an attempt to start the conversation that’s really all it was. I’m not a filmmaker and I knew from the illustration of the book what the experience was like of having somebody bring things that I could never imagine to the book and make it an even bigger thing, that’s a massively gratifying experience in order to use that a hundred times over. So knowing I’m not a filmmaker but knowing that I’m a storyteller and feeling like knowing what the spine of the story, what was necessary elements and to just talk and see if it works and see if anyone is interested that way and Bayona was. And that sounds ludicrously simple, it could have gone in a billion different ways but it worked. So that’s how it was. I kept ownership until they started shooting.

So did how did you connect with Bayona at the start?

NESS: He found me. I had seen his work. A contact of my agents said they have read the book and asked if there was a screenplay and as a matter of fact there was a screenplay. He said he loved the screenplay, so we met. We met, we started talking about it and he told me how he saw the story how I saw the story and they were extremely complementary with each other. So let’s take the next step. And that’s the weird way movies work tend to work I think, there’s never one big moment where you say, “okay this is the process for the next 10 months.” It’s always this is the next step, I think were in good shape. We had a director, a script and wanted to do it. Then we found someone to pay for it, so okay, cool what’s next? {Laughs}

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Image via Focus Features

In terms of next steps you already have the gorgeous illustrations that are part o f the original book and Bayona has his own kind of signature approach visually to things and they kind of happen to mesh incredibly well. How did you approach the discussions? Because the monster in the film looks quite similar to the illustration so when did you decide to keep that and how did you decide what you were going to change?

NESS: For a thing that was like that, I try to be a little more hands off because I don’t want to get in the way of a good idea. I don’t want to squash a good idea by insisting on something that isn’t as good. He is very visual, and hired a magnificent art director who is from Mexico, Eugenio Caballero, and won an Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth. And I thought, “well, they’re going to come up with some good stuff.” I’ll tell them the emotional stuff that this tree needs to be in and the history of the tree. And there’s this long journey, there is a surprisingly lengthy cinematic history of talking trees you’d be surprised because it starts long before Groot. It’s pretty much all been done, so that’s not the important thing. The important this is who is he as a character and how does he best communicate, and they just kept coming back to the book. So the tree monster is very similar to the book, which is no bad thing. It’s a great starting point so I’m happy with that, very happy with that.

There are sequences in the film that initially when the first story is told we sort of launch into this gorgeous watercolor animation that’s very different from the film. How did you know you wanted to represent the stories in that way?

NESS: Yes it was very much in the script, they were scripted beginning to end as animated in this kind of style. They were more than suggestions, but they weren’t limitations. So I thought I’d put these ideas in and hopefully the filmmaker will come in and make them even better. Again, like the illustrations, something I would have never thought. But I never even thought about going back to live action. To me, and I’ve said this a lot. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a realist story, even if it’s putatively so. Characters are still invented, they have arcs to go on, coincidences to follow. So if that’s true, which I believe that it is, why can’t there be more leakage in the way to tell a story as long as you do it properly. That’s the difference between a good movie and a bad movie, it’s not the material, it’s how you use it. In visual media, if you can shake a little bit of cynicism away, can still get to wonder. So why not go for the beautiful, go for the amazing? You haven’t seen it before, you haven’t seen it this way. I really think you should always shoot for the moon. You’re not always going to hit the moon, there could be something interesting in the way, so why not really go for it? Why be safe? Its another side affect to being raised quite poor, I feel like i’ll never get a chance to do any of this stuff so I’m going to cram everything into this one chance [laughing] so why not really be as bold as possible.

I want to ask about your casting especially for Conor, you guys saw so many kids. If you could just talk to me about briefly the casting process and sort of what made it clear that this was the young actor that was going to be able to do all this because he does so much.

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Image via Focus Features

NESS: From the start, I was very clear with them what I don’t like in some children actors. I don’t like preciosity, I don’t like the over polished hollowness that you can sometimes get, where its coached rather than acted. And that doesn’t have to be the case, there have been exceptional child performances. Anna Paquin in The Piano, that’s something else you know and she was twelve. So they agreed, he has worked really well with young actors before in The Impossible and The Orphanage so he knew the story and he had this acting coach he used to help him with the casting. We looked at hundreds and picked several that seemed plausible and good and they all sent lots and lots of video-taped acting exercises some from the script, improvisations, playing different roles just to see and every time we came back to Lewis [MacDougall], he was never false, he really understood the anger of Conor. Most of the actors would hit on the sad, and the sad is important, but the anger is more so. He could be still and quiet and still watch him, there’s just a real snap to him. Again in the script, I was asking a young actor to do really difficult things hoping we would get somebody like that, but willing to make it work out if it didn’t. And then in came Lewis and one after the other after the other he carries the film, he is the star of the film. He is in every single scene even if you couldn’t see him. It’s entirely from his point of view and he does it, it’s amazing. So that was another bit of good fortune.

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Image via Focus Features

I would assume generally when you release a book into the world, that you usually get responses after the fact, telling you how the book affected them. But when you release a film, you get to experience first-hand that story affecting people in the theater as it plays. How are those two things different for you, as an artist?

NESS: The best responses have still been personal; people would come up to me after and say things, and that’s lovely. Because the book has subject matter that can be extremely personal to a reader who have had in any way a similar experience. I really always tried to be one, protective of it, I don’t share what people tell me, but also kind of hands off. I don’t want to impress myself on their experiences and them sharing it with me which is very personal and very private and I don’t want to make it all about me. Because it’s totally not, it’s about them. So to our surprise, the movie has been the same. They would come up to me after and in a movie watching a crowd of people sniffling, wiping their noses and gosh watching it at TIFF. The line where Lewis says to his mother, “I don’t want you to go,” he says it twice and between it, after he said it the first time, this poor women a couple seats over you could hear kind of a yelp. And I thought “Oh, oh. I want you to respond but I don’t want to inflict pain.” I would never dream of forcing any emotion on anybody. But seeing it in cinemas are quite after it goes down, it’s not a bad quiet, it’s a good quiet.

Touching on differences between books and film what is the experiences of writing a novel versus a screenplay how is it different?

NESS: They take a lot longer in terms of purely boring technical terms but there’s more words involved, it seems like a small thing but it isn’t, it’s quite a big thing. I think you’ve only got a few good words a day. A screenplay is much more like a puzzle, you have much more rules to remember obviously, but I found that a really tasty challenge because that’s kind of how I rebelled as a kid. How can I follow the exact letter of your laws but still get away with murder? That’s how I write screenplays, how can I do everything a screenplay has to do, has to be in this shape, has to be in this format, how can I do that and still get away with every punch, kick and heartache that I want still in there. That’s how I see it. I come, as I do with all my writing, with spite and defiance, “how can I make this work? How can I make you feel something?” Give me a limitation; bring it. It’s also collaborative. A book you can feel completely ownership of, a screenplay you never can. So that’s interesting and I’m very glad that I have both, very very glad. I still consider myself a novelist, it’s been interesting. To be able to tell a story in a different way, is magic for a storyteller. To be able to learn that, see how it can work and the ways you can make it great and the ways that you can make mistakes, that’s magic. I never, ever want to be complacent, that is death to a writer. I always want to be scared that I’m going to fail because then at least I’m paying attention and at least it matters. So that’s how I try to approach it.

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Image via Focus Features

I wanted to ask you about the TV series Class, really quickly. You’re writing all eight episodes?

NESS: I have written all eight episodes were finished shooting them

What can you tell me about it?

NESS: It’s a spin off show to Doctor Who. It’s set in Coal Hill, which was featured, in the first episode of Doctor Who in 1963. One of the doctors grand daughters, he had a grand daughter who went to Coal Hill School, and is featured now and again over the course of the series, 53 years. The producers approached me and asked me if I wanted to work for Doctor Who. And I said, “at this point, I love Doctor Who, but I kind of want to do something new.” And they go, “we have this other idea possibly setting a show in Coal Hill,” and I went oh this is what I would do. They really responded, and so I have a show, four young leads, one teacher lead it’s in the Doctor Who universe, the Doctor make an appearance in the first episode as a guest star. But I really believe the show has to stand on its own legs and the school has so much Artron energy activity, that’s Doctor Who’s name for it. Time has worn thin, and bad things start to happen, our group have to figure it out. But it’s sort of taking the Buffy vibe: funny, then it turns to be emotional, it turns to be scary. And that I so hard to do, but if you can try, if you can really aim for that, who knows what results you might get. So yeah, that’s what we’re doing. A funny, sexy, heartbreaking, moving, with lots of aliens.

That sounds so up my alley. Oh, and congrats on Chaos Walking. So exciting about Daisy Ridley.

NESS: I’m excited to see how that turns out.

A Monster Calls hits theaters in limited release December 23, 2016 and expands throughout the winter. Check out the exclusive new stills from the film, and of Ness and director Bayona below.


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