Apparently in the 48 hours between the time I interviewed director Colin Trevorrow and now, he’s become the most hated filmmaker in the world. I’m done examining why (I already attempted to do so in my review of his latest film, THE BOOK OF HENRY). Admittedly, I’m still attempting to figure out exactly how this happened. He made the critically well-received debut feature, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, that scored a 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (and the public followed suit in loving the film). It was a modest indie hit, so I’m pretty sure the hate didn’t start there.
Then he made one of the most financially successful films of all time, JURASSIC WORLD, which I was not a fan of, but you don’t pull those kind of number without having made something that the public clearly responded to. So he has one critical hit and one massive hit with the movie-going, ticket-buying public. Again, where did this loathing originate? Actually, it may have started with a film he hasn’t even made yet, his next outing, STAR WARS, EPISODE IX, a production that is already reeling from the death of one of its centerpiece actors and is likely scrambling to salvage and reconfigure its story and emotional core as a result.
Trevorrow is not in an enviable position as far as that is concerned, but anyone predicting that EPISODE IX is already doomed to be terrible because of his involvement probably was saying the same thing about ROGUE ONE when we heard about its reshoots. And Trevorrow would hardly be the first filmmaker to make a terrible STAR WARS movie, so let’s stop pretending like he’s on the verge of breaking some decades-old winning streak.
THE BOOK OF HENRY is something of a return to his first film—a weird, slightly schizo, deeply flawed family drama that most critics are ripping to shreds, and that’s fine. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But there are already think pieces about how Trevorrow is symptomatic of what’s wrong in Hollywood, and long-winded theorizing about how the STAR WARS creative team might replace him because of how bad HENRY is being received (that ain’t happening, if for no other reason than the financial stakes with HENRY are so low).
On to the interview. When I talked with Trevorrow on the phone two days ago, the reviews for HENRY had just started to come out. I tend not to read reviews of a film before I write my own, so I had no idea that the evisceration had already begun, but he had seen some of what had been written, and it was clearly on his mind. Even though I ultimately didn’t recommend the film in my review, I admired that it took chances in ways that most mainstream works simply don’t.
Writer Gregg Hurwitz has thrown the rule book out, sometimes for the better (the emotional pull of the film is its strongest element), sometimes for the worse (the third act is a free-falling disaster that still hasn’t hit the ground), but none of what does or doesn’t work is predicting fodder for whether Trevorrow is up for the task of a STAR WARS movie. He’s already got the job, so look at HENRY as a creative throat clearing for diving back into blockbuster filmmaker with a tremendous amount of oversight. I have no idea if EPISODE IX is going to be any good, and guest what? Neither do you. Please enjoy my talk with Colin Trevorrow…
Capone: Hey, Colin. How are you?
Colin Trevorrow: Hey, Steve. What’s going on, man?
Capone: Good. It’s been a while.
CT: It has. In Chicago, right?
Capone: Yeah. We did see each other in Austin at SXSW, but then we did a Q&A here in Chicago shortly thereafter. First of all, tell me how this screenplay came to you, and what do you remember responding to initially?
CT: I have kids. I’m a parent, and I think as a parent you get that much more attuned to the fears associated with childhood, and you remember some things that we tap into in a lot of movies. “What’s in the closet? What’s under the bed?” But then there’s darker stuff in that that you start worrying about as a parent. “Is my child going to be safe? Is someone going to take them? Are they going to fall ill?” And I felt like this story had very elemental, very classical, almost biblical ideas within it.
Now that the movie’s out, I probably can talk more openly about the idea of someone carrying on the deeds of one who has been lost in their absence. I feel like that’s an old story. Then I realized, I’ve actually seen that story, beyond one that we all are very familiar with—one I’m also involved in. But the idea that those people aren't always with us, and that sometimes adults need to remember that children are children, and we think that they’re smarter than us but they’re not. They may be smarter, but they haven’t lived as long, and I was really tapped into that too.
Capone: It was strange seeing Jaeden [Lieberher, who plays Henry] in this, because I flashed back to a conversation I had with Jeff Nichols about MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, where he said that story came out of his fear of not being able to protect his son—not from other people, but more from diseases and things that he had no control over, and that actually reminded me a great deal of this film. This does feel like a film made by a parent. I’m assuming you’re okay with that, and you might have made a different movie, or may not have made this movie at all, if you weren’t.
CT: Honestly, I might not have made this movie at all. I just don’t know if you would have that same instinct. I had a brother too, so that’s an element, but in the end because it really is about that absolute fear that you have as a parent that you’re going to screw up and make the mistakes that are just ready to be made at every turn in parenthood, those things are certainly in the forefront of my mind.
Capone: How do we even talk about this movie? I have to give credit to whoever it was that cut your trailer, because they have done a magnificent job of leaving out a huge part of this movie, and we don’t even notice it. I’ll do my best not to ruin the biggest surprises, but that may not be possible.
CT: Well, it was a very difficult movie to market. It’s something we thought about for a long time. It’s its own animal, so to figure out how to convince an audience that this is actually worth your time is a challenge. I think I do have an ability to step outside my body and see something completely removed from my knowledge of it. If I saw that trailer, I would think this movie is bananas, and arguably it is, but so is being a parent, so is life.
Life has no genre. Life has no consistent tone, and I think that what really grabbed me about it is, I feel like there’s this new feeling right now that the world is crazy, and we’re being thrust into these moments that happen that are completely unbelievable to us, and they feel like they’re almost out of a movie that is just overblown and completely ridiculous, but they’re happening, and I wanted to find a way to capture that in a smaller context in a tale between two houses.
Capone: As much as I sensed the parental aspects of this film—and it ultimately becomes Naomi’s journey to become a good mother—looking at it from Henry’s point of view, there’s a discussion early in the film about legacy, and I don’t think that’s accidental. This is about Henry wanting to leave a legacy of good behind. Tell me about that aspect of it, and how important is legacy to you?
CT: It’s very carefully designed. Everything is there for a reason. I think what the movie builds to is a moment where a child who thinks he’s leaving a legacy, which ultimately the result does occur. In that final shot, you realize “This is his legacy. He completed his family,” and yet the path to get there is through the eyes of a child. Violence and vengeance are the mindset of a child. “What are we going to do? Let’s go kill ’em.”
And as you get to be an adult, you realize we’ve been alive longer, we’ve seen a lot more, we don’t think the world is just black and white and good and evil anymore. We don’t have that sense of righteousness you have as a kid, or even as a teenager or as a college student. I think that sense of righteousness just rises and rises and rises, we get angrier and angrier about the world, and angry at other people who don’t recognize how awful the world is. I think there are a lot of adults out there who are just like “we’ve been here the whole time. We know.” But that trajectory of finally Naomi realizing, “No, you’re just a child. I was relying on you, and you are smarter than me, but this is wrong.”
Capone: I don’t even think I understood that’s where it was going, and then the minute she said it, I was like “Ah, that’s what this whole movie is about. It’s about this kid that resembles an adult in many ways, but he’s not.” When you get into the realm of having overly smart children as your lead, that can be dangerous.
Capone: How do you make sure you also see him as what he is, which is like a 12 year old.
CT: I think you don’t, really, until the very end. That’s one of the discoveries of the movie. Let’s remember, the kid was highly intelligent, and he was highly emotionally intelligent as well. We don’t spend a lot of time focusing on why he’s so smart and how smart he is. It’s mostly about the fact that he feels like he has the compassion and the empathy of an adult, which I think is the best kind of smart anyway. Those are the kinds of people I’m most interested in.
It’s great if you can also have a good conversation, but I feel like we’re certainly, at the moment, around a lot of parents right now. We build our kids up on this pedestal as if they’re the greatest thing that’s ever been created, and they very well may be, but let’s remember, it’s still our responsibility to be the lighthouse that guides them towards the shore. It can be forgotten if your kid knows exponentially more than you, which in the age of information is probably the case for a lot of parents.
Capone: I wanna talk about the unpredictability of it. You would know this now having been a part of this world where tentpole films tend to follow a tried-and-true formula, because they work, because they get the reaction from the audiences that you want. But this film is almost more like some of the great television shows of today that aren’t afraid to take crazy turns in the middle of a season. Did the unpredictability appeal to you, and moving forward in your bigger films, will you maybe look for moments when you can do something a little less predictable than a bigger film might afford some directors?
CT: Yes, and you’ll see that next summer with JURASSIC WORLD II [which Trevorrow co-wrote with his regular creative partner Derek Connolly], but not in a way that would be irresponsible. To me, I almost feel like I live a double life sometimes, and I have to recognize and respect the nature of these stories that existed before me, so I don’t feel like I can step in and say, “I’m going to blow this up from the inside.” [laughs] That’s not my job. But when it comes to the original films… look, man, you and I are talking on a morning where we know the critical reaction to this movie, and we know it’s a very, very polarizing movie, because I’ve seen audiences respond to this, I know how audiences respond to this. I’ve not sure if I’ve seen a movie that has as big of a gap between audiences as critics in my lifetime.
Capone: There was just one last week called IT COMES AT NIGHT, although that was a reverse situation with critics and audience.
CT: Yeah, that was a big one too. That’s right. That went the other way. Honestly, it’s weird, if you were to ask me which one I prefer [audiences or critics loving his movie], it’s a tough question. I don’t know.
Capone: I have to be honest, I haven’t read any reviews of the film, so I’m not aware of what the critical response has been. I saw it with an audience last night that was crying their eyes out in a couple of places. That’s the only reaction I’m aware of.
CT: That happens every time we show it. I know how audiences respond to this movie. You don’t have to read those. Let’s skip it [laughs]. But you know what’s interesting? What you said earlier is correct, in that our television shows that we love right now, which is arguably what is entertaining America right now in the most compelling ways, take risks with their story in ways that movies never have. I hope that this is a movie that upon re-watching with time will reveal its design a little bit more, and the fact that every choice was made very carefully, and that it was intended to give audiences the same kind of shocking emotional rollercoaster that a lot of TV shows are taking us on. I actually hesitate to call them TV shows anymore, because that sounds reductive compared to the level of entertainment we’re getting.
But it’s something that, yes, it grabbed me in a lot of emotional ways, but just as a storytelling nerd, look, man, I know the patterns. I know the structure. I can write you a flawless hero’s journey, because we know exactly how that works, I just feel like every audience member knows how that works, especially your readers. We could probably watch the first 15 minutes of anything and tell each other exactly what’s going to happen for most films. And whenever that isn’t what happens, I feel like it’s almost a gift.
Look, man, I will take the hits. I will allow it to be received however it’s going to be received, but I have seen when I talk to, not just audiences, but people who are real deep nerds for story, I think we see the value in taking these kinds of risks. If nobody does, I don’t know if movies are going to hold our attention the way that, like “Big Little Lies” is.
Capone: I always give extra points to any film that surprises me. You even take a risk in that, there are certain points in this film where people might hate you for things that happen, and more than once. Not to put to fine a point on it, but you have a character in this film who we’re supposed to like who is condoning murder.
CT: [laughs] A character is. A character. But you’re right, the audience would feel that the filmmakers intention. Well, yeah. It’s funny, I watched it last night for the first time in a while, and my experience watching it was, it feels like the movie itself…because I think we watch movies now, especially people like you and I, and we are just as focused on the intentions of the filmmakers as we are on the intention of the characters, and sometimes we can blend those things and misinterpret them for each other. And this movie is a dangerous movie to watch if you are applying the intention of the characters to the filmmakers. Dangerous. I can see if you do that you can hate it. You'd just feel like “We need to burn this in the street.”
But, if you recognize these are the choices the characters are making that are often wrong, especially the movie climaxes with the realization that our supposed hero was wrong in what he was telling his mother to do, and that only a true parent, a true adult, would recognize the violence in the mindset of the child. Taking it that far, I love characters that change. I love characters that start off potentially not even being that likable and then grow into a place where you love them. There are movies that have done that that are not popular movies but that I think are just extraordinary. CHUCK & BUCK was one of those movies where you’re like “That guy is the worst,” until that last shot where he just eats cake and smiles, and you’re like, “Aw, I love this guy.”
Capone: Let me ask about Naomi. There are few actors, male or female, right now that are willing to take risks the way she does and do whatever is necessary to make a performance work. Tell me what you learned from working with her.
CT: She is someone that’s attracted to material that is going to challenge the audience and challenge their perceptions of, often times, what a movie is. I feel like she’s taken so many risks that I want her to be rewarded for that, so in a situation like this where we have a polarizing movie, I wish for her an unequivocal win, because she’s so wonderful, but I think we wish that for ourselves as well.
You’ve got to know going in if you’re going to go make something that’s truly different. You’re laying yourself on the slab, you’re standing naked in front of everyone, and unfortunately I have some kind of need to do that as a person [laughs]. Perhaps because of the opportunities I’ve been given, I feel like I didn’t come here just to tell new versions of the stories we love. I love that I get to do that, and I go about it in a completely different way than I would go about something like this. But as my double life continues, I hope it will be accepted. Now I’m shifting gears back into, not even another persona—they’re both real—so now I need to make sure I focus on doing something that’s profoundly emotionally satisfying for a lot of people all at once.
Capone: I do not envy your position, and yet I envy it completely on what you’re about to embark on.
CT: You might be the first. I’ve spoken to some pretty established and well-loved filmmakers that say, “I wouldn’t trade places with you for world, buddy.”
Capone: Certainly things have changed where you’re about to go—about that, I do not envy you. But best of luck with this film, and I do hope people give it a shot. And obviously best of luck on the next film. We’re all counting on you.
CT: [laughs] Thank you. I will take that responsibility. Please count on me.
Capone: Do you know when you start shooting?
CT: I do, I do [laughs], and that’s all I can tell you.
Capone: I wasn’t even sure if that had been announced.
CT: It’s not because we’re trying to keep all kinds of secrets. Until we all see THE LAST JEDI, that’s the movie we’re going to focus on. Once we’ve seen, that we’ll move into the future.
Capone: Colin, it was great to talk to you again. Take care.