Colin Trevorrow Interview: Jurassic World, Jaws and More

Ahead of Jurassic World, we talk to director Colin Trevorrow about Jaws, Spielberg, and the film's most horrifying scene.

The last time we caught up with director Colin Trevorrow, it was ahead of the UK release of his sci-fi rom-com, Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. And how times have changed since; within months of that interview, Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly (who wrote Safety) had agreed to take on a fourth Jurassic Park movie – a project stuck in a production quagmire for more than a decade.

Trevorrow and Connolly’s fresh perspective seemed to grease the gears on the project, and now, here it is: Jurassic World, the bigger, more evolved sequel to a series that hasn’t been seen on the silver screen since 2001. Its story could be seen as a reflection of the filmmaking duo’s journey from the east coast to the cutthroat landscape of Hollywood: in the movie, two kids (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) head from their family home to the dinosaur-eat-dinosaur landscape of Jurassic World – a new, improved theme park where glacial operations manager (and the kids’ aunt) Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is on the cusp of unveiling a new, more toothsome kind of creature.

In town to promote the UK release of the film, Trevorrow speaks to us about the process of writing and making Jurassic World, the risks and rewards of creative freedom in an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood, and best of all, audience reactions to what is likely to become the movie’s most talked-about scene…

Jurassic World‘s a proper summer thriller ride, which is as it should be. But at what point did the wheels get moving on it, because a sequel was in the works for years and years. It seems that when you came aboard, it finally started to move.

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Yeah, I was very determined to make it work. Partly because I didn’t seek out doing a large film – I’d made a very small film, which I was proud of. I wanted to make a slightly larger film, then a slightly larger one after that, and then Steven [Spielberg] and Frank [Marshall] came and asked if I’d consider doing this. That was in March of 2013.

It was about three and half months out of production – they were going to start shooting in June. They had a screenplay – I was hired before I was able to read it! And then I came to Los Angeles – I live on the east coast, over in Vermont – and I read the script, and I did not understand it. I didn’t know how I could direct it. So I went back and I said, “I’m sorry, if I direct this screenplay, it’s going to be a bad movie. I’m gonna do a bad job, because I just don’t get it.”

So Steven said to Derek [Connolly, writing partner] and I, “Oh really? Well then, you write a better one. We’ve been trying to do this for 14 years now! Show me what you can do!” [Laughs]

So Derek and I took the three key ideas that Steven had himself, that there’s a park that’s fully functional, there is a man who has a relationship with the raptors and he’s trying to train them, and then there’s a dinosaur that escapes and threatens everyone in the park. Using just those ideas, we built the film you see now. It was a screenplay that got him energized and we started to see it. We got it. Luckily, he has the power to say, “You know what, now that we finally have something that is working, let’s take another year. Let’s get it right.”

In retrospect, I don’t even know what movie we would have seen. It was very similar, but the last 10 percent of something is all of it, in a lot of ways. So that year’s what really made it work.

Was that last 10 percent maybe some of the character quirks you had in Safety Not Guaranteed? Because those quirks are what made that film so different, and they feature in Jurassic World, too.

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All of that comes in at different stages. A lot of the character stuff was in the first script, because that’s something we care a lot about, and other moments we found on set. What a lot of that time was spent doing was making it a movie that has a momentum and a cohesive style to its storytelling. Just being able to develop something – even over a shorter period, like six months, which is what we ended up spending – you get to know the characters better.

At first, the characters start as archetypes – at least with the stuff we do – and then we like to dismantle the archetypes over the course of the movie, until you feel at the end that you know these people. I would apply that to both Safety and to this movie. But in doing that, you have to take the time to get to know them and figure out who they are. There are moments we found on set that are some of my favourites. Like the moment with Jake [Johnson – mild spoiler redacted] – we found that right there. But that can be where the most real stuff comes from. 

I remember you saying Hal Ashby was an influence when you made the last film…

I have many. Specifically in relation to that film, Hal Ashby was definitely an inspiration. I feel like we all have so many inspirations, but whatever the tone of the movie is –  this is the Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis kind of film – is what drives me to have those kinds of moments. I love Woody Allen too. I feel like, whatever movie I was making, there would always be moments of human intimacy and insight into a little bit of what makes us tick as people.

The way you and the cinematographer shot this is interesting, the way you use doorways and windows to frame and silhouette characters. Quite John Ford, I thought.

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Yes. We have a big John Ford shot at the beginning, like The Searchers when he goes out through the window. Yeah, absolutely. I shot this 2:1, which people haven’t really seen on a big screen, really, ever. It’s a comfortable aspect ratio that I think I’ll continue to use, because it does give you the scope that 2.35 would give you, but it also allows you to have the really nice singles that 1.85 does in more intimate scenes. As far as framing multiple characters in windows, I did that a lot in Safety as well. It’s just a style I found. It’s all very instinct-based – I don’t know why.

There was a great interview with John Ford, where the interviewer says, “How did you shoot this scene?” And he goes, “With a camera.” [Laughs]

That’s fair enough! There’s a gleeful sense of anarchy in this, I thought. Almost Joe Dante, with the pteranodons and Star Bucks…

Absolutely. There’s a glee in building a world that is constructed on corporate synergy and all the luxuries of our modern life, and then just tearing it apart. I enjoy that! 

I liked that. And also the notion that we spend so much time looking at the world through mobile phones. They’re standing right in front of a dinosaur, but they’re cutting it down to size with their lenses. That’s interesting.

Some of that comes from my wife, actually. My wife is French, and so I get to see America through her eyes, which informs a lot of little moments. It means I can poke fun at very particular things about us. Another thing that’s a little bit from her as well – she gets a lot of credit for this movie – is the idea that we’re constantly in need of something bigger and better and louder and newer. Really, it’s both what the movie is about and why the movie exists in the first place. Three Jurassic Park movies isn’t enough! You want more! We’re going to make this one bigger!

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When Derek and I were writing it, it’s almost like we were writing about what was happening to us at that moment.

It reminded me as well that Spielberg was such a pioneer of family horror. From Jaws onwards [and thinking about it later, Duel as well]. So I wonder how you found your way into that, because it’s a difficult balance to strike: how much blood is too much? What’s best left suggested?

Again, I was instinct-based as I could be. The “how much blood” thing is something you usually figure out in the editing room. I’m not a big gore person, so it was just as much as I felt comfortable with, which is probably just enough for an eight-year-old, in the end. It’s also the way you do it – being able to see blood splatter on glass from off-screen, it’s actually a fairly benign form of horror compared to a Saw film, or these other things we’re confronted with these days.

I did know that I wanted to start it in a very mundane, familial environment. There’s something I love about that – like in Poltergeist, people showing up to a new house in a station wagon, with no sign that anything bad’s going to happen. At the beginning of this movie, the kids are just going on vacation, it’s snowing outside. We’re starting in a world that feels completely our own, and then very slowly you’re going to an island. We’re heading into sci-fi in a very subtle way. 

It’s the kind of thing that harks back to the earliest sci-fi literature. Frankenstein, maybe, but most of all The Island Of Dr Moreau. Splicing creatures together in a strange, remote place.

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

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When it comes to directing the action, creating a sense of geography is important when there’s so much going on. What was your approach to that? Did you storyboard extensively?

We did extensive storyboarding, and we had pre-viz, where we have pretty much an animated version of how the film will look. I had a very, very small second unit that shot some of the vehicle-based things, but I shot all the action sequences myself. Each of them had a visual hook to it. I feel like there’s a trend now to have two or three 15 minute-long set-pieces, and I decided to have nine or 10 two to three minute-long set-pieces, each of them based on an idea. I think the only one where you really lose the sense of geography is where it’s intended, with the pteranodon attack, where it’s like a Bosch painting. I can choose to look at any one thing. At first it may come off as chaotic, but on re-watch, you’ll find different things – all these little stories happening all over the place. I think it will be fun, especially when people get the Blu-ray, to take some time and see all these vignettes going on.

In the history of these movies, you have very slow, creeping suspense, you have chases, you have “There’s something in the house with you!”, there’s call-backs to various kinds of horror tropes that must be reinvented in one way or another. I brought the POV sequence with the cameras, which was a very claustrophobic, modern, uncomfortable approach, which I hadn’t seen in the other movies.

And then just trying to find ways to misdirect the audience, but based on the knowledge that the audience is really savvy and smart. That they’re always going to see something coming, so if you bank on it, like, when [mild spoiler redacted], I know everyone’s going to go, “I know what’s going to happen [next]!” Then [something unexpected happens], and it starts to subvert people’s expectations based on assuming their intelligence.

Yeah, about that sequence. Did you show it to a test audience? I assume you must have with a film this size.

Uh, we never tested this movie with anybody, no.

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Really?

Actually, your theatre might have been the first audience to ever see the movie here in the UK. [Chuckles] 

Wow.

Yeah. Three weeks ago, I showed it at Skywalker Ranch to employees of ILM, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Skywalker Sound. All internal. That was the only crowd that ever saw it. And then we locked it. I believe here in London was the first.

I just wondered if you’d seen that sequence with a crowd, and what you made of their reaction.

Um, pretty horrifying. By that time, there’s so much being thrown at you. But you know what I love about it? I’ve seen people’s faces while they’re watching movies, where there’s a lot of visual information being thrown at you, your reaction is just to go numb and take it in.

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But in this one, people are really, really minutely engaged in every little thing that happens. You can see their reactions. Because of the way the action is metered out, people are kind of shocked when that happens – there’s just kind of a “Jesus…” response that you get! [Laughs]

But man, I tell ya, when you think back to the moments in Steven’s films that we love the most… I mean, the beginning of Jaws is just horrifying, what happens to that poor girl.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw that.

Yeah, you never forget it! I think, for me, what sticks with us the longest is the stuff that, conceptually, you can imagine what happens. You can imagine it happening to you. It’s awful, what happens [in the Jurassic World scene] and yet, look – you’re the one that came to a dinosaur island. What did you expect?

And you spent too much time staring at your phone as well.

Yeah, exactly. 

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How supportive was the studio, given that you’d made the move from a relatively small project to one of this scale?

The producers I worked with on the day were Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley. And Steven was, especially in the writing process, closely involved, making sure we got all the way there. I think the more he liked it, he got more involved. By the time we got into the cutting room, he saw the film several times, and he got really engaged. Then he went off to do The BFG, and he was supposed to come back and watch it one last time, and he just said, “You know what? Colin’s got it.”

I had the final cut of this movie, like you’re seeing my director’s cut all over the world, and to give me that kind of trust is something I must have earned. He would never do it otherwise – he would have stepped in if things were going poorly. And the studio would be the same way – they were completely hands-off. I didn’t have a studio guy on set giving me notes. I was given far more creative freedom than I ever should have had.

Now I think about it – God, they really took a giant risk, didn’t they? [Laughs]

But the result is, man, that you get something that is a very pure vision from a couple of people – me, Derek, Steven, and the actors. I think we are responding, as moviegoers right now, after seeing Mad Max, especially, how great it is and how audiences responded to it, part of that is that you get to live inside the mind of this guy for two hours.

People, if they want to be inside that person’s mind, if they’re interested in what’s in there, they’d much rather have that than something that feels like a manufactured, corporate product. Hopefully, people will see that there’s actually a lot of money to be made in letting people create something that is pure.

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You’re doing Book Of Henry next. So is Flight Of The Navigator still happening? 

I think it’s moved on. Derek and I did a script of that, but I’m not sure where they are with that one. But The Book Of Henrys my next one. It’s a smaller film, but it’s something I’m really passionate about. I love it very much. It’s a brilliant, brilliant story. So I’m on a mission right now. There’s another film called Intelligent Life that I’m doing with Amblin. But I’m looking to tell original stories, potentially kind of quickly before I have to go and do something a bit larger!

Well, best of luck with everything. Colin Trevorrow, thank you very much.