Colin Trevorrow on escapism, nostalgia and why The Book of Henry is a story he needed to tell now
Although it may not feature epic space battles or any killer dinosaurs, this Friday’s The Book of Henry nevertheless has a lot thematic crossover with other work by director Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow, who made his directorial debut with 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, then took the reins on 2015’s Jurassic World, ultimately turning it into one of the most successful films of all time. Next, Colin Trevorrow will conclude the new Star Wars trilogy, writing and directing 2019’s still-untitled Episode IX. Now, though, it’s time for Trevorrow to open The Book of Henry, based on a 20-year-old screenplay by novelist Gregg Hurwitz. Speaking with CS, the filmmaker explains why it was so important for him to tackle an original feature before heading to a galaxy far, far away.
Set in a small suburban town, The Book of Henry follows a single mom, Susan (Naomi Watts), who’s raising an eight-year old, Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and 12-year old, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher). Functioning on a different wavelength than most, Henry operates with a genius level intelligence and an unbridled sense of creativity that keep he and his family closely connected. At the house next door, however, 12-year old Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is not so fortunate. As Christina’s dark secret reveals itself, Henry begins to formulate a plan that could save her, even at the risk of tearing of his own family apart.
A Focus Features release, The Book of Henry opens in theaters on June 16.
CS: After making one of the biggest movies in the world and heading into making what is sure to be another of the biggest, where did “The Book of Henry” begin for you?
Colin Trevorrow: It started when I read a script that was 20 years old. I was actually kind of surprised that it wasn’t based on an actual book. It kind of broke all the rules that we’re taught in filmmaking school, including one of the main ones in chapter three, pretty aggressively. The perspective shifts from one character to another. I found it to be a narrative that was so bold and unpredictable in what it did as a screenwriting nerd and a storytelling nerd, I just had to do it. Whether it was a good idea or not.
CS: You’ve also assembled an impressive ensemble, which seems particularly important for a story like this. Who was the first to join the cast?
Colin Trevorrow: Well, I think there’s a lot of things that could make a story like this not work. It feels like you’re walking a tightrope the entire time. But choosing those actors is what made me feel safe. They were the net. The first to sign on was Jaeden [Lieberher]. I knew that if I had the right Henry, I would have the right foundation. That role can be played precociously. He could have been an obnoxious little know it all and nobody would have cared at all about him. He found such an elegant way into the role. He was so attuned to a young boy who has the mind of an adult. He can see things the way that adults do and still has that sense of righteousness and a black and white morality that kids have that I kind of miss having. Beyond that, there was Jacob Tremblay, who is not only forever adorable but who is a great actor in his own right. Maddie Ziegler, too, and Naomi Watts I think is one of the best actors we have.
CS: Speaking of finding exactly the right tone for Henry, is that something that’s accomplished immediately with the casting of Jaeden Lieberher, or does that performance then get workshopped between the two of you?
Colin Trevorrow: It’s all in his performance. This is a movie that went through some various iterations. Being a 20-year-old script, it had a different tone. It started as more of a dark comedy. I tried to strip all of that away and find the most grounded, elemental version. It required performances that felt completely real. You need to see these people as people that you know. If they’re not your neighbors, you’re not going to follow Naomi on the journey. You’re going to check out.
CS: There’s a theme in the film that I think shows up to different degrees in both “Jurassic World” and in “Safety Not Guaranteed” about how age doesn’t necessarily matter as far as who you are.
Colin Trevorrow: That’s interesting. That’s also probably linked to a sense that we all want to go back to our childhood. That’s what “Safety Not Guaranteed” is about and it’s also what “Jurassic World” is about in that we, as an audience, want to go back to our childhood. “Book of Henry,” then, is a story of a mother who has yet to fully embrace the responsibilities of adulthood. The ethical responsibilities of being a parent. It’s funny. You don’t plan out the kind of themes that you address in the story you want to tell but, over time, it seems like patterns start to form. I think you may certainly have found one. You’ve got me figured out.
CS: In some ways, Henry’s book is very much him directing the narrative. I’m curious to know if you found something specifically relatable there as far as planning out a film.
Colin Trevorrow: Oh, I agree. He orchestrates something. He produces something. He has a very clear goal. He wants to complete his family. To recomplete his family, without saying too much. I found that it deeply resonated. It almost felt like an old Bible story to me. It’s a very foundational kind of idea… That’s really what drew me to it. It makes for a hard movie to market, because the thing I love the most about it is something I try not to talk about. I want to maintain a sense of surprise for the audience. That’s one of the things that this movie does. It goes places that you never suspect it’s gonna go. Unpredictability in a movie is something of real value to an audience these days. We’re all so savvy that we can predict pretty much where every story is going to go.
CS: There’s a really great sequence in “Book of Henry” that I wanted to ask about where you cut together action against a school talent show.
Colin Trevorrow: It’s something that wasn’t in the original script, to have it done that way. It’s something that Gregg [Hurwitz] and I worked out together to be able to create that feeling of suspense that a summer movie gives you when they’re blowing things up or dinosaurs are eating people, but here it’s in the context of something that is happening between two houses and a school. And, yes, we watch the baptism sequence from “The Godfather.” We looked back into time. You’ve got to think of film school and the parallel action sequences you see that are so deftly done. My editor, Kevin Stitt, came up in the ’80s. He was on “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon.” All these movies that were sort of fundamental pieces of editing. I think it’s some of the best work he’s ever done. We worked on that sequence almost as long as we did the rest of the movie.
CS: What was it like going into production on “Book of Henry” with both “Star Wars” and the “Jurassic World” sequel being planned?
Colin Trevorrow: It was very careful timing and that’s why this movie was shot so quickly. I had to do it right after “Jurassic World” if it was going to get done. I shot it in November of 2015 after that film came out. I was able to work on it last summer and then finish it and set it aside a little bit so I could work on “Jurassic” simultaneously. That script had to be delivered for a February shoot and we had to think of “Star Wars” somewhat simultaneously. Your answer is “very carefully.” “Jurassic” ended up taking up more time and attention than I expected just because I care about it so much. I surprised myself by how much I wanted to be there for JA [Bayona] just as a writer. I remember directing a “Jurassic Park” movie and how much I would have loved to have a writer to think about the dailies and wonder what alterations we could make that would make it that much more effective. I was there with him every day to try and provide something for him that I didn’t have myself.
CS: If you could go back in time ten years and tell yourself something you’ve learned over the last decade, what would it be?
Colin Trevorrow: It’s probably something personal like “exercise more.” (laughs) I’ve done pretty well just following my instincts. I think that anyone who writes or anyone who directs, that’s where they’re going to land. They’re going to have to trust themselves. The art is the only reason why they’re there. There’s so much doubt and so much fear getting in the way of letting a story tell itself. I find that, if I just step out of the way of that story and trust it and trust my instincts as far as how to tell it, hopefully it’s something that will connect with other people as well.
CS: Do you think you’ll try to maintain the balance of bigger-scaled films interspersed with smaller ones?
Colin Trevorrow: I like to think of it as an original as opposed to something smaller. I always want to make original fits. I feel that that’s something that is my responsibility as a filmmaker, not to just make new versions of films we all love. It’s important to me. I have a sense of honor about all of this, that I make an original film between “Jurassic World” and “Star Wars.” I didn’t create those things. I’m a custodian of those things. Anyone who goes to see a movie that I make when I’m 50 is going to need for me to make the case for that now, or else they’re going to lose interest.
CS: “Book of Henry” is a contemporary film, but there’s certainly a degree of timelessness.
Colin Trevorrow: It’s a little bit from memory of my own childhood. At first glance, you see the trailer and you see that it’s going to be an Amblin kind of movie. But then when you see it, it’s not. It’s more about tapping into the feeling of being eight years old in 1984. Kids riding on bicycles and all that stuff that we associate with Spielberg. It really comes from the era I grew up in. In the end, it’s being able to find a tone that is going to create a slight sense of hyper-reality. The journey that Naomi goes on is somewhat hyper-real. I wanted the children’s bedroom to feel like a magical place and the treehouse to feel like a place where they’re able to realize their own dreams. As the movie gets more intense and more real, the reality comes crashing down on these kids. It was important to me that their safe space felt like a place we all could be.
CS: It’s interesting to hear you say that and to think about “Safety Not Guaranteed.” That was a very real world story but one that hinged on the idea of literally escaping into another time.
Colin Trevorrow: All three of those movies do have that connection of wanting to go back to childhood. The value of childhood and the way we experience fear and the dangers of it. The others may not feature that so literally, but it’s a natural result of growing up at that time. I don’t know how close you are to my age, but we value our childhood in a specific way and a way that I’m not sure any other generation ever has. The films that we saw and the toys that we played with and the comics that we read are deeply personal to us. I know that’s an easy generational quirk to make fun of, but I don’t. I think it’s very real because I am one of them.
CS: I imagine that heading into “Star Wars” is a daunting task in the best of circumstances, but the recent loss of Carrie Fisher presumably means heavy rewrites while you’re also so involved with “Jurassic World.” What goes into your day to day right now?
Colin Trevorrow: I live in England with my family. I moved about a year ago because we shot “Jurassic” there as well. While we were in the early stages of story on “Star Wars,” we shot “Jurassic” at Pinewood. Now, we’re wrapping in about a month and everyone is going to Hawaii. I’ll go there for a quick second. But once “The Book of Henry” comes out, I’m focusing 110% on “Star Wars,” arguably for the rest of my life. (laughs) It changes people, making these movies. We’ll see how I am after this. I kind of warned my family that I may just walk the Earth for a while.
CS: I’ve heard you say that you directed “Jurassic World” as a child. Did you approach “Book of Henry” through the same eyes?
Colin Trevorrow: I directed this film as a parent. This was very different. This film was a catharsis for me. I was able to take in all of my fears as a parent of two kids. It allowed me to approach story from a different perspective… I had to take to approach it from that angle because it was personal in a different way.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)