EXCLUSIVE: Colin Trevorrow on 'The Book of Henry' and What He Learned Directing 'Jurassic World'

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Photo: Getty Images
Colin Trevorrow got quite a promotion after releasing his first feature film, the sci-fi indie Safety Not Guaranteed. The director was plucked out of Sundance and dropped into the studio system, tasked with helming the reboot of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World. But how does he follow up directing one of the highest grossing films of all time? By stepping away from dinosaurs -- Trevorrow wrote but will not direct the sequel -- and returning to his roots with The Book of Henry, a $10 million movie about a single mom (Naomi Watts) parenting a genius son. After that? Trevorrow returns to the big leagues for Star Wars: Episode IX. For the moment, though, he's focusing on The Book of Henry, which is part coming-of-age, part family drama, part tearjerker, part thriller, part revenge fantasy...
"I'm fully aware this is going to be a polarizing movie," Trevorrow told ET by phone on the morning of the L.A. Film Festival screening of The Book of Henry. "The movie takes a lot of risks and it's wild...For me, to have it connect with people in the way it has been connecting, I would say is a giant relief. And also really rewarding and satisfying, because I believe in it very much."
Photo: Focus Features
ET: You responded to a tweet about The Book of Henry the other day that was asking, "What is this movie?" And this is a movie where you start off thinking you know what it's going to be, and then it takes a hard left turn in the middle and becomes something totally different, something at least I haven't seen before. Were you worried how viewers would react to the movie they were seeing, and not the movie maybe they thought they were seeing?
Colin Trevorrow: Sure! [Laughs] I try not to worry too much. Because the reaction that I had the very first time I read it and the way I felt as we were working on it-- it scared me. And I'm someone who was raised to face their fear and do the thing that is the most challenging, the thing that I am truly afraid of, and not take the easy path. And I've certainly done that! I delivered on that, mom and dad. Now is the moment that you really find out if people are willing to take this leap with you.
For me, as someone who's been given tremendous opportunities in making new versions of the things that we love, I do feel responsible in ways to deliver original stories, and -- just because of what interests me -- they're going to be very original stories. You know, Safety Not Guaranteed is its own beast, as well. Its own little duck. I feel like the audience has seen a lot of stories told in very familiar ways and that they're hungry to be challenged like this.
You read this script before Jurassic World, but shot it afterwards. How did the experience of working on Jurassic World affect how you went into this film?
I am kind of a time travel nerd, and I have the ability to actually time travel within myself. So, Jurassic World I actually directed as an older person, and this one I directed as younger. There's a little bit more of a punk rock attitude in [The Book of Henry], in that I'm trying to turn it all upside down and break it a bit. This really should have been the second movie. It was intended to be the movie after Safety Not Guaranteed, but it just didn't go that way. So, someday, if you have the Blu-rays, you can just put them in the proper order.
You seemingly could have gotten any project made based on how well Jurassic World performed. Was there temptation to take another blockbuster? Or were you aware that if you switched gears, you might not feel that same pressure to follow-up with a movie that's just as big?
My self-awareness is high enough to know that kind of scrutiny is going to exist no matter what I do. I think for me, the most honest thing I can say is my inspirations are more chefs than directors right now. The chefs that I love, when they have a successful restaurant, don't just keep it and rest on their laurels. They shut it down and try to attack a new way to think about food, and they re-open with something new. And if you love it and you're still on the ride, great. If not, maybe you'll like it next time. But they're constantly pushing themselves to the edge -- right to the edge -- and hopefully not falling off.
I've never heard that comparison before.
It happened right now! Like, René Redzepi, he closed Moma and goes to Mexico and opens this pop-up. I like to consider this a pop-up movie.
Photo: Focus Features
Safety Not Guaranteed was done on a smaller scale, but then you moved up to this massive thing. What was the hardest thing to lose again, strictly because of the budget of this?
You know, it was a humbling process, because you don't have the trailer and it's back to carrot sticks and turkey slices for lunch. I think it's important, instead of getting used to the amenities that come with a larger film, to remember, first of all, what it's like to make most films that are made, and why we do this. For me, I make films to tell different and new stories and ideally, to have a voice that is unique and not solely responsible for being a custodian for all of the things that we loved when we were kids. Even though I loved those things, too -- and I'm so fortunate to do them -- I didn't create them. I didn't invent Jurassic Park and I didn't invent Star Wars. And with these [movies], maybe it's just for me, but it helps me feel like I'm continuing to go to the edge.
There's that Hollywood saying of, "Never work with children or animals." But with Jurassic World and now this, you seem so comfortable working with child actors. Jacob Tremblay is only 10 years old. What was that like working with him on set? What approach do you take with your direction?
I meet him in the middle. I talk to my kids like they're adults -- only out of respect -- and I think I'm the same way with Jacob. I'm very straightforward with him. We had a lot of very straightforward conversations about Star Wars, so it's not that we're talking about current events. But I know I was a kid once, and it feels pretty recently. I know to look at me, it doesn't seem that way, but I remember what it was like.
And I made sure that those two [Tremblay and Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Henry] had the entire line of Jurassic World LEGOs, so they could build the whole park together and become brothers. Because building things bonds you to a sibling. And then just some simple, straightforward ideas every time we would do a scene: How did you feel in the last scene? How do you know what you're feeling in the next scene? How do you feel right now? If we can articulate those three things, usually we could find where we had to be.
Has Jacob been trying to sneak Star Wars spoilers out of you?
Every day. [Laughs] He has a very clear agenda, and he's not been shy about that.
Photo: Focus Features
How are you handling releasing The Book of Henry while still filming Jurassic World 2 and beginning work on Star Wars, all at the same time?
I think I'm all right? Like, if we were just friends, it might be a different conversation. But as far as your readers are concerned, everything's fine! [Laughs] No, I live out in the country in New England. We live on a farm, and my kids run around in the grass and we have rabbits and chickens. And sometimes I'll just quietly pet the rabbits for an hour and that calms me. We all have the things we need to do.
I'm sure this wasn't a decision you took lightly, but was it hard for you, at all, when filming began on Jurassic World 2 and you weren't the one directing it?
Maybe for a day or two. You know, the moment I was standing at the monitor and realized I could go get a muffin and nobody would notice. But after that, I was the on-set writer for the movie, so I was there every day making sure that J.A. [Bayona, who is directing Jurassic World 2] had everything that he needed. It was just such a rich, positive collaboration and by far my favorite [production] experience in my life so far. J.A. and I are pretty deeply connected when it comes to this franchise and what it needs and the kind of risks that we want to take. We're definitely making a bold, new movie. It's not going to be the same old thing you've seen before. I love that partnership, and I can't wait for people to see what we've done.
We don't know much about the sequel yet. Can you give us any hints as to what the story will be in this one?
No, but we're going to go to places the franchise hasn't gone before, both in environments and in emotions. It's a much more character-based film and it's just a deeper, richer movie. After Jurassic World, which really is intended to make you feel like a child for two hours and escape the rest of the world, which can be a pretty scary place right now, this movie is a little bit more about our world right now and all of those dangers. And so it is escapism -- there's a sequence in the middle of this movie that is just as spectacular of a dinosaur action sequence as you'll ever need or want to see and J.A. has executed it beautifully -- but in the end, it's about something a little more and I hope people are ready for that.
Photo: Universal Pictures
I personally lovedJurassic World, but any time you take a beloved franchise in a new direction, there will be a mixed reception. Did any of that constructive criticism affect how you wrote or approached the sequel?
Yeah. I don't know if all of it was constructive, necessarily, but-- [Laughs] Absolutely. I'm always listening. I feel like what it did do was make it clearer than ever before what people want out of these movies and what people want from these characters. It did inform our choices. It's like a giant, billion-person focus group, which doesn't hurt! I think it's important to listen to the audience.
You mentioned it earlier, but there is this dichotomy in your career, between directing projects with original characters and worlds and then working with established ones in mega franchises like Jurassic Park and Star Wars. What do you get from each of those experiences?
The fun thing about Jurassic World is that those were new characters that we did feel like we got to own. Even though that was based on an established franchise, we really did get to meet new people and create new people, that now we get to watch change and follow [in Jurassic World 2].
Of all the characters in all of the films that I've done, I think each of them represents a little part of me and what I'm identifying with at the time. Safety Not Guaranteed, I felt like I was Kenneth [Mark Duplass]. Like, I was the guy who needed to let his Star Wars figures stay inside the truck and kind of move forward. And that sense of like, we all want to go back to our childhood and that sense of regret. All of those things that we feel when we're in our early 30s, which I was, it really spoke to me. In Jurassic World, I was Claire [Bryce Dallas Howard]. She loved dinosaurs as a kid and now has been given this huge job, where she's holding up this massive franchise-slash-theme park. At first, she relies on technology, which fails her, and ultimately has to rely on her instincts in order to win. I was kind of going through the same thing as that character. And then in [The Book of Henry], I'm Naomi Watts. I'm a parent who's realizing that if I don't focus up and make sure to spend every second with these kids, it's going to pass me by. I'm going to miss it.
Have you found which character you identify with in Star Wars yet?
Yeah, but I feel like anything I say about Star Wars is going to create some kind of inference. [Laughs] But absolutely! Each of these movies has to be deeply personal.