North West

Magic and Blood

by Tim Grierson

After tackling a haunted house in The Orphanage and the aftermath of a devastating tsunami in The Impossible, Spanish filmmaker JA Bayona has set his sights on a new kind of horror in A Monster Calls. Based on the acclaimed 2011 children’s novel by Patrick Ness, the film stars Lewis MacDougall as Conor, a boy tormented by bullies at school while coping with a dying mother at home, who finds an unlikely friend in the form of a fearsome mythic creature (voiced by Liam Neeson).

But despite the film’s fantastical elements, Bayona and his team took to the north west of England to find the perfect settings for the story’s everyday anxieties. “The film needed to be grounded in a realistic and recognisable world,” says Location Manager Tom Howard, “something we could all relate to. We certainly chose the best bits, from using Marsden as the town the boy lives in, to the Blackpool Pleasure Beach for a day out.”

Drawing inspiration from Jim Kay’s gloriously evocative, minimalist black-and-white drawings, the filmmakers used the book’s illustrations as their guide for scouting specific locations. “We looked at [them] often when scouting or discussing the shortlisted locations,” says Howard. “The school exterior was one such location, and we searched for a while until we found it in Slaithwaite.”

Undiscovered country
Line Producer Sarah-Jane Wheale, who served in the same capacity for 2014’s Effie Gray, has worked extensively across Lancashire and Yorkshire, and felt confident that the north west could provide the emotional and tonal backdrop to Conor’s inner turmoil. “We were able to find all of the exteriors for the film, including the exterior of the house and landscapes,” she says. “There were many recces, and the sweeping landscapes behind each house and high street were an inspiration and add to the drama.”

According to Howard, Bayona’s initial Spanish scouts travelled across the UK looking for the right environment in which to set this small-town tale, but kept returning to the north west.

Beyond its striking locations, Howard says the region provided the necessary infrastructure required for a major film production. “We needed all the support [that] a major ‘media’ city can offer – from crew to equipment and first-class transport links,” he says. “We could have been in Leeds for this, but the director preferred the look of the north west. The other element we needed to find was a church on a hilltop” – one of the book’s pivotal settings – “and this was the hardest location to find. It was finally discovered, after a long scout, near to Manchester.”

The superb locales did come with their own challenges, however. “For any crew filming in October in the north, it is always the weather,” Wheale says of production obstacles. “All the films I have worked on recently have had difficult weather conditions, [but] the UK crews are incredible and we have adapted to filming in rain and cold for many hours. As a result, we get extraordinary landscapes and pictures.”

In fact, it is a fitting testament to the north west’s popularity that, Howard notes, “There was so much television work going on in the region [that] getting a crew member with the relevant experience [who’s] not about to sign up for a six-month production was difficult. But I used many crew members based in the local area to head up the second unit or to man the first unit.”

The team is quick to note the help received from local agencies. “We received a lot of assistance from Bobby Cochrane at Creative England,” Howard says. “Especially when filming in Manchester, as we did some big set-ups here – from taking over a few streets in Didsbury for four split-day shoots to a car speeding through a town to be held up by a train at a level crossing. This train sequence took over the centre of Ramsbottom for two nights with the full assistance of the local council, local businesses and the residents of this quiet market town.”

Now that the north west portion of A Monster Calls is finished, Howard, Wheale and the rest of the UK production will wait to see what wonders emerge once the Spanish team add their magic to the film.

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