The cast and crew of The Book of Henry have lamented its critical spanking but none moreso than director Colin Trevorrow. It’s no easy task to usher a film into the world, much less-so when the day finally arrives and critical voices rally their pitchforks. Though The Book of Henry has its fair share of issues, my conversation with Trevorrow shed some much needed light on why the film turned out the way it did.
Noting the way that television culture works, what with George R.R. Martin slaying fan’s most beloved characters and many other popular series following suit, Trevorrow hoped to bring the shock-and-awe we celebrate on the small screen to an independent domestic thriller. And that he did. Understandably, response has been mixed, with many calling the feature out for its emotionally manipulative tactics (a fair assessment if not entirely accounting for some of the narrative complexity at work.)
I spoke with Colin regarding how he deals with negative response, being a “slave to the story”, balancing tone, his shuffle between massive blockbusters and small indie films and the pressures of making Star Wars IX. According to Colin, it’s no big shock that all audiences did not fawn over Henry and he’s made peace with that fact. “Not everyone has to love it,” he admitted, a touch forlorn. Read our full review of The Book of Henry here and get more of our interview below:
The Book of Henry is a really tricky balancing act because the way you tell the story is really upbeat but you mix in some really, really, really dark material. Can you talk about balancing that tone and keeping it consistent?
Colin Trevorrow: It was extremely challenging and something that took every bit of my focus and concentration in an exhaustive way over the course of making the movie. I underestimated how much it was going to take from me emotionally and intellectually for me to pull off something that grew more ambitious the more that I worked on constructing it and certainly through the editing process. Luckily, I surrounded myself with people who were inspired by what we were looking to do and who were engaged at their highest levels as well. My editor, Kevin Stitt, he and I cut this for many months in the middle of winter in Burlington, Vermont and we found something that we were able to be very proud of. But it was not easy
What about it about this particular story that you wanted to return to after stepping away in the middle of bringing it to life to direct Jurassic world. You could have pretty much directed anything you wanted and you choose this.
CT: I do have my next job so there was the knowledge that I was heading into a project that would require a certain part of me and yet there was another part of me that needed to do this. It really came from my feelings as a parent in this moment in the world. I feel like there are events around us that are shocking to us and seem completely unbelievable and we have to face them like adults even if we want to face them like children. Kids resort to violence in a very casual way and I think this movie’s journey is Naomi Watts’ character finding her compass as a parent and finding her ability to recognize that even though this child is highly intelligent, this child is a child. And that really spoke to me.
You’ve said that Book of Henry plays like a second feature if people were lining up your catalogue of films, it would precede Jurassic World in a way. After this you’re going onto direct Star Wars IX. Are you hoping to continue this trend – little indie, project and then huge blockbuster and then little indie? The old one for them, one for me policy?
CT: You know what’s interesting for me is to do original movies. Whether it has to be a small indie film like this or has more resources but is original, that we’ll find out. I don’t have the ability to see beyond what I’m about to do (Star Wars IX) both as a filmmaker and as a human. I just give it all that there is. You’ll have to ask me again in two years.
In a movie filled with huge twists and turns and a lot of tragedy, how do you navigate not overly toying with the audiences feelings and not alientating them?
CT: I have a feeling that that was always something I was conscious of – that this can’t feel like something that is emotionally manipulative while realizing that there are so many things in it that are traditionally known as emotionally manipulative. All of those elements are in service of the larger story, not just their parts. Being really conscious tonally at all moments was a factor all the way through. The actors lived with that and it’s something that in the end, here we are in a day where we can acknowledge that the response is extremely polarizing in terms of people’s response to it and I think you’re either on board or you’re really not. I’ve found that audiences respond extraordinarily well to this film and maybe it’s because they’re not as in tune with tonal shifts being an issue. And I think also audiences are getting used to some pretty shocking things happening in our television shows and I think we’re embracing them. And part of what interested me is trying to engage these surprises and plot turning that people can lean into in a two hour feature.
It’s interesting that you bring up the polarizing aspect because it feels like, increasingly, we live in this extremely polarized world where everything is either the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. Can you talk about how the critical backlash has effected you?
CT: Well, thoroughly. But it’s something that even before doing it, I had a feeling. I would have been ignorant to not – we’ve both seen the same movie. I certainly don’t blame anyone. What can I say? We are in a moment right now where we are very divided but I don’t think that those dividing lines are responsible for people’s response to this movie so I don’t think I can resort to that. All I can say is we have screened this movie for many audiences and it’s not just because I’m sitting there that they say that they like it. Audiences say that this movie is excellent and they are deeply moved by it. Of course I wish that I could have done the same thing in our movie watching community, especially those that write reviews, but in the end, the fact that the movie plays so well to audiences means a lot to me.
Talk about the casting of the film and finding the perfect Henry and assembling this really talented cast.
CT: Jaeden was the first. I knew I couldn’t make the movie without a Henry who was going to be a truly unique character and not solely a child genius who you inherently dislike for that very reason. Nobody likes a know it all. I found him to have an emotional earnest to him. He felt like someone who had been alive a lot longer than a child had and because of the journey that the main character takes, Naomi Watts’ character, the nature of intelligence versus experience is a very major theme. She realizes that her child is smart but still a child. There’s something that being alive for a number of years that allows you to make decisions that are probably more grounded in the real world than a child who lives in a fantasy world.
If you take the three films that you’ve made so far, I think it’s fair to say that they are pretty wildly different. Can you talk about what the key elements of your filmmaking toolbox that you take with you to direct and will be taking into Star Wars IX?
CT: I really observe patterns in my own choices. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at myself from far away and trying to figure out what exactly I am doing. The patterns that I can spot is I’m kind of a servant to the story. I’m a bit of a slave to the story. If I believe in a story and that it can move people, my sole purpose, with every choice that I make, will be to hold up that story. That’s what Safety Not Guaranteed and The Book of Henry were written by people with very different voices but both were voices that I was connected to and focused on serving throughout directing both those movies. Jurassic World and Star Wars, although I have a hand in writing both, are other voices as well and those films exist to satisfy a much broader range of people. This is a film, in its own little punk rock way, certain people are going to love and other people are not going to love. Not everyone has to love it.
Is that a big challenge? Having to juggle all the components that go into a big blockbuster? Does it feel like story by corporate design? What challenges does that present as a filmmaker?
CT: I haven’t had that experience on the movies that I’ve worked on. Jurassic World and Star Wars are such a collaborative environment and are so positive and I am given a tremendous amount of creative freedom. But I don’t want sole creative freedom on those movies. I want to be able to have creative conversations with Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy about the stories I’m telling. So I just haven’t had that experience that other filmmakers do where I feel like I’m under some Draconian corporate overlord. I’m at the point where Universal let me make a very anti-corporate film about dinosaurs and seemed to be pretty fine with it but they made out ok.
I would be remiss to not ask you – when you are handed the keys to Star Wars and there are massive expectations from fans all across the world, how do you compartmentalize and process that? How do you deal with the pressure?
CT: I live on a farm and I have rabbits. I go outside and I pet the rabbits slowly. It does a lot for me. Otherwise, we’re all about to see a movie called Last Jedi this September and that’s the movie of the moment. It’s Rian’s film and is something that I’m so excited for everyone to see and then once we’ve seen that we’ll be able to talk more about what’s next.