Meet Director Colin Trevorrow, 'Jurassic World's New Alpha

by Valentina I. Valentini 9:30 AM PDT, June 11, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Most of us remember exactly where we were when Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park opened in 1993. For me, it was the day school got out and I was holding the sweaty hand of Johnny Parker in the sixth row of the Calvin Theater while Mom chaperoned a few rows behind.

Now, 22 years later, a new generation of kids will plant their own memories watching the genetically modified Indominous rex escape its confines on Isla Nublar, threatening human existence and making us question the very notion of scientific progress in Jurassic World. And they’ll be guided by a somewhat unlikely director -- Colin Trevorrow, who was previously best known among indie film lovers for his feature debut, the 2012 Sundance darling Safety Not Guaranteed.

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“[Jurassic Park] was different than the movies that I saw when I was a little kid,” director Colin Trevorrow tells ET. “I wasn't 7, 8, 9 -- I was 16. It informed me as somebody who wanted to be a filmmaker that a great movie can actually regress you to being a child and turn you into an 8-year-old, which is every bit as valuable.”

Trevorrow might not seem like the obvious pick for the next installment in a $150 million legendary franchise -- the budget for Safety Not Guaranteed was $750,000 and took three weeks to film. Indeed, he didn’t jump at the opportunity without some serious consideration into the gravity of taking on a project of this scope.

Photo: Universal

“I hesitated,” he admits from inside his trailer on the Universal lot, just outside the stage where a recreated jungle complete with Triumph motorcycle, incubated dino eggs and a virtual reality experience in which a Brontosaurus gets right in your face.

“Even before I read the script I hesitated, and certainly not out of disrespect to what the opportunity was. One of the first things I said to Steven [Spielberg] was, ‘Look, if this is a failure you continue on to be a legend, but I will disappear.’ I wanted to make sure I didn’t squander it by blowing it all on some dinosaur movie disaster. It became a real priority that I needed [to go] two-for-two, or I was done.”

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And then he read the script. Since Jurassic Park III, a number of takes had already been commissioned but never made. The latest original version, by writing team Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, reportedly focused on a character and the raptors hunting drug lords together in the jungle, according to Empire. “I couldn’t go there,” Trevorrow told the magazine. “But I could make a movie about the very tenuous relationship between a man and a vicious animal.”

While Trevorrow doesn’t specify what else in particular he didn’t like about the Silver/Jaffa script, he knew that he couldn’t direct it because, he says, he “didn’t understand it and didn’t know how [to] make it work.” But Trevorrow quickly qualifies that statement and insists he is in no way intending to insult the other writers or their talents. “I’m just realizing that I have a very specific way I want a story told.”

So Trevorrow brought in some familiar faces. First up was Derek Connolly, who won a Film Independent Spirit Award for writing Safety. The two wrote a new script in three weeks -- a movie that they both felt could be called Jurassic Park 4.

Photo: Universal

“It was a bit of a lesson to me,” he admits. “I took it on knowing no matter what it was we’d be able to figure it out. I think it was less about the actual quality of that [earlier] script than it was that I wanted to make an original film that I felt was my own. Maybe I overestimated my ability to direct just anything, someone else’s story.”

They put the new version in front of Spielberg and asked if they could make that movie, to which Spielberg said yes, though he pushed production a year out because of how massive it had become in scope.

If there’s one thing that made Trevorrow an obvious choice to take on a tent-pole film, it’s how quickly he adapted from indie-sized to blue-sky ambitions.

Eight days before pre-production was to begin on location in Hawaii, back in L.A. Trevorrow gave a pre-vis presentation -- outlining the entire story with storyboards and special effects renderings -- to a room full of Universal execs, financiers and Spielberg (via satellite). While this is a standard formality for the suits, a source tells ET wild clapping ensued, and some attendees even gave a standing ovation.

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“They were quite pleased,” Trevorrow says with a smile. “It felt really good, but I was very confident by then. I had pre-vis’ed a movie and designed it with excellent animators and by then we were going strong. I knew what we wanted to do. I knew the characters and believed in the actors who were going to play them.”

Despite the literally giant scale of the production, Trevorrow held tight to a theory that he’d formed back on the set ofSafety.

“Intimacy between humans need not be relegated to independent film,” he says. “Real characters can exist no matter what the scale of a movie is. That almost became a mandate for this movie. While I was presenting something that has large-scale, scary and exciting dinosaur action sequences, it still has characters who feel like real human beings and moments that are small. Small moments can coexist with big moments, and even back right up against each other.”

Photo: Universal Pictures

The moment in the film that best puts this theory to the test features another Safety alum, actor Jake Johnson (pictured above), best known for playing Nick, the lovable idiot opposite Zoe Deschanel on FOX’s New Girl.

When Johnson’s character, control room computer tech Lowery Cruthers, goes in for a kiss with his coworker Vivian (played by Orange Is the New Black’s Lauren Lapkus), it’s in the midst of a major, tense moment -- the park is being attacked by dinosaurs on the loose. But the real drama is inside that control room.

“To me it didn’t feel like we were shooting a big $150 million movie,” says Johnson, who’s worked with Trevorrow ever since they were making YouTube shorts together. “It felt like we were doing this little indie film about this geeky tech guy who’s in love with a girl who flirts with him but has a serious boyfriend. That’s the kind of stuff that makes Colin and I laugh, but I wasn’t sure if that would make people laugh in China.”

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As to whether Trevorrow will go back and shoot another six-figure-budget indie, that’s probably a no, but he says his goal as a director is to build an audience who will go with him from film to film.

“The filmmakers you love,” he says, “you’re going to go [to their next movie] whether you liked their previous film or not, because you know you want to find out what that person is thinking this year. If I can build a coalition of people who are interested in what I have to say and what I’m thinking, I hope they’ll come with me if I want to go tell a story that doesn’t have dinosaurs in it -- which I plan to do.”