A Monster Calls Author Patrick Ness Evokes Great EmotionWhen Patrick Ness wrote his children’s book ‘A Monster Calls,” he had no idea the impact his fantastical world of monsters and fairytales would have on his readers.
The 2012 book about a troubled 12-year-old boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who is dealing with the pain of mother Lizzie’s dire illness, bullying at school, and spending time with his unsympathetic grandmother.
When Ness was chosen to adapt his best-selling book into a screenplay, he says he knew there would be some changes, but was thrilled he would be the one to make them.
“A Monster Calls,” from Focus Features opens nationwide on Friday, Jan.6, and also stars Felicity Jones as the boy’s mom, and Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother.
At the heart of the book, and the stunning film, is a rare relationship that gives way to many life lessons for Conor, his family members, as well as the rest of us.
Amid the anger, frustration and despair that this young boy is feeling, he unexpectedly summons a most unlikely ally, who bursts forth with terrifying grandeur from an ancient towering yew tree and the powerful earth below it: a 40-foot-high colossus of a creature performed in motion capture and voice over by the irrepressible Liam Neeson.
The Monster has stories to tell, and he insists that the boy hear them and powerfully visualize them. Conor’s fear gives way to feistiness and then to looking within because the Monster demands that once the tales are told, it will be time for Conor to tell his own story in return. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth.
The books of Patrick Ness have been translated into 37 languages. His novel for adults, “The Crane Wife,” was inspired by a Japanese fairy tale, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and won several major awards in 2013. His novels for young adults include, “More Than This,” and “The Rest of Us Just Live Here,” which was published in the fall in the U.S. A native of Virginia, with family in Seattle, he now makes his home in London.
PCM had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive chat with Ness, an award-winning novelist and screenwriter for a behind-the-scenes look at ‘A Monster Calls,’ his brilliant career and advice that he has for aspiring young writers who he meets at events.
PCM: When I went to see your movie, several friends of mine said that’s really not the genre that I normally enjoy, so they were kind of surprised that I came back and raved about it.
Patrick Ness: Excellent. No, we’ve just got to get people to see it.
PCM: Since you wrote the book, was it very important to you that you also wrote the screenplay for this film? Would you have let somebody else take over?
PN: It didn’t come quite as mercenary as that. I had written the book based on the original idea of the late novelist Siobhan Dowd. I feel protective of all my books but because she passed away, I’m particularly protective of this one. I had early meetings with producers and so on. This is not a story about how Hollywood gets everything wrong because I don’t believe that. I think most people want to make good stuff it’s just really hard. So lots of people engaged with the book.
PCM: How was that experience for you?
PN: A few people suggested some softening, which I sort of blanched at a little. I thought, ‘okay, I don’t know the right answer here but maybe if I write the screenplay, I can at least begin the conversation, and say here’s what I feel is important.’ It might not work. It might not be a good screenplay but I can at least say, ‘this is why I think it works and this is what I feel is important to make it work.’ I thought that maybe somebody will respond to that and I was extremely lucky that somebody did.
PCM: As somebody who has dealt with grave personal loss, you really struck a chord with me. Also, I found that the boy being able to let go obviously was so emotional, that it was difficult to watch at times, but I believe that you helped a little bit cathartically.
PN: That’s a good point. Kids have a really easy time with it because they see themselves as Connor and they see themselves as my concerns are being taken seriously. I feel it’s being taken seriously. So kids see it on that level, but I know that adults bring a history to it. Though, I think it ends hopefully.
PCM: Yes, I felt that way. Are you happy with how everything turned out? Is it how you envisioned it?
PN: It’s funny making something like a movie because it’s something that everybody has opinion on. With a book, it’s almost like raising a kid. You know all their flaws, but you know all the things you love about them, and you know what’s awesome about them, and so you send them out into the world and you love them whatever people say about them. I just wanted to make something I was really proud of, and I feel really proud of this movie, so I feel really lucky about it.
PCM: How important do you feel some of the leading characters like Liam Neeson… could there have been a movie without him?
PN: Probably, but he’s so exactly right. I mean he’s so perfect for the role that I thought we were never going to get him. That’s the fantasy one that you pick at the top of your list, but he really responded to the book and the movie. It’s not just his voice. He does motion capture so it’s also special expressions. It’s his body movements, which just so humanizes the monster and that marvelous voice. Now, I can’t imagine anybody else.
PCM: Did you have nightmares while you were writing this? What were your own dreams like?
PN: My own dreams are incomprehensible. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and so my nightmare monster is always Big Foot until Jurassic Park, and then those first CGI dinosaurs were so primal that they had taken over Big Foot. So whenever I dream about monsters it’s always a dinosaur. I’m 45, but my dreams are much more disordered than that. I think the dreams of most writers are because their heads are just stews of ideas that smoosh together so they make no sense. I just wake up going ‘What the hell is that?’ and then turnover and go back to bed.
PCM: I wonder, when you were growing up did you ever dream of being able to do any of this?
PN: The dream that I had was to be an author, and so the only thing I really wanted was to hold a book of mine in my hand that had been published, and. that happened. So everything else since has been kind of like a birthday cake party. I mean I’m so afraid of complacency. I’m so afraid of getting too comfortable that I keep wanting to push myself.
PCM: Please tell me more…
PN: I keep wanting to learn stuff, and so I didn’t really imagine this career. But looking back I can see the path that I set myself on. Whenever I talk to young writers I always say my philosophy is real writers don’t write solely to be published, they write for the love of writing. Early on, I didn’t think anybody would publish a book of mine. I wrote one anyway. I didn’t think anybody would film a screenplay of mine, but I wrote one anyway. There’s a kind of stubbornness on my part of wanting to grow, to stretch and to risk.
PCM: When you write something so transformative and so deep, does it change you emotionally? I mean that when I see a movie like ‘A Monster Calls,” I feel that I have to go home and hug my child.
PN: Yes, because I feel if I’m not feeling it then it’s arrogance to ask a reader to feel it. It’s the same principle of comedy. If you’re writing a comedy and you’re not laughing, it’s not funny. That seems like a simple thing. But whenever it felt too easy, or whenever it felt like something we’d seen before, I really wanted to push farther. I thought I could go back and do it again, and keep pushing until I hit that purity, and then I can feel the emotion of it. If I don’t feel it, then I cannot ask you to feel it. It’s false.
PCM: Did you spend time on the set?
PN: Yes. I went there probably 12 or 13 times, and was writing all along the way. Actors come up with ideas, and you get good ideas when you get a shot at working with them.
PCM: Was it a heavy emotional set or was everybody kind of chilling?
PN: I would say more delicate than heavy. The director J.A. Bayona plays music before the scene just to create a feeling. It was a really professional Spanish crew because everybody knew they had a job to do so we could relax. We were outside Barcelona so you would finish a scene, take a deep breath and you go into the sunshine.
PCM: What happened during the down time?
PN: We’d have delicious Spanish catering. That’s the best Spanish food I’ve ever had. We would have more than one course, and the prosciutto was so delicious my mouth is still watering.
PCM: When you meet children, teenagers and young adults at a book signing or author event what is that like? What are they asking you? What are they saying to you? What is that experience like for you?
PN: It’s great. I get to meet teenagers when I’m not their parent nor their teachers, so I get to see them relaxed and themselves, which is lovely, because I think teenagers are really quite lovely people. They volunteer more than most any other demographic does. They really care about things. They’re really curious about things. When it comes to books, they don’t have a ton of questions. They just want to tell you they loved it and they saw themselves in it and then take a selfie and off they run.
PCM: Do you enjoy these experiences?
PN: I think that’s great. I mean I never got the chance to meet a writer when I was growing up, so I’m very happy to meet young people and tell them, ‘if you write, don’t give up on your writing dream. After all, I was just a guy from a tiny town from a poor background. Nobody in my family and nobody in my town did anything like write a book, so if I can, why not you?’
PCM: Talk about sharing this experience with your family?
PN: Wonderful. My sister is sort of my number one cheerleader on Facebook. She taped Sigourney [Weaver] on “The Steven Colbert Show,” and put it on Facebook so that’s really nice. I get along with my sister extremely well. I brought her out to the screening in New York, and enjoyed sharing this with her.
PCM: What’s next for you?
PN: I just finished a spinoff series of Dr. Who set in a high school called “Class.” It just finished airing last week on the BBC in the UK and it’s coming to BBC America in the spring. I have a new book coming out in May in the UK and September in the US, called “Release.” I will be back in the US a few times for book tours.
PCM: I am curious, how many times have you seen the completed film, ‘A Monster Calls?’
PN: Probably 10 or 15.
PCM: Did you cry like the rest of us during the highly emotional parts?
PN: The last time I saw it was the first time I didn’t get teary-eyed, but I still got moved. When Conor asks the monster if he will stay, that to me is the whole thing. That’s the real moment that I feel because I think that’s all he wants. He knows what’s going to happen. He just wants someone to acknowledge that yes, he knows what’s going to happen, and that it’s going to be hard, but he doesn’t have to do it by himself. To me, that’s still the part that gets to me, thankfully.
PCM: Thank you for sharing your story.
PN: My pleasure. Thank you very much, indeed.