Colin Trevorrow on Getting Sucked Into the “Jurassic World”; Feminism and Joss Whedon
Feminism, pressure and childhood memories, how Colin Trevorrow, a second-time director, coped with the insanity of the Jurassic Park franchise.
Corporate America’s race for profits, the militarization of science, and the feminist power of high-heeled shoes are among the themes bubbling throughout Universal’s $150 million sequel Jurassic World. It’s the fourth film in the dino franchise and the first to return to the island where it all began, 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park.
This time, Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg is behind the guy behind the camera. Relative newcomer Colin Trevorrow was directing his second film after the Indie Spirit-winning Safety Not Guaranteed. Hollywood rightly wondered how the untested independent filmmaker would handle writing and directing duties on one of 2016’s biggest summer blockbusters.
The answer? By writing his crisis into the screenplay.
“The reality of what was going on with us was we looked around and we had a corporation that needed a movie to hit a release date, in order to please its shareholders,” Trevorrow told The Daily Beast last weekend in Los Angeles, acknowledging the irony of writing a movie about corporate thinking spiraling out of control for companies like Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, and Legendary Pictures. “And whether that was a good idea or not, that was happening.”
On screen in the latest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, the dinosaur island, Isla Nublar, has become a corporately-owned destination megaresort for families looking to see the latest, biggest, scariest dinosaurs in the land. In the two decades since John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) learned the hard way not to play God with dino DNA, dinosaurs have gone so mainstream, they’re downright pedestrian.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, the no-nonsense park official who’s torn between helping evacuate the 20,000 visitors trapped on the island when a top secret experimental dino breaks loose and finding her two estranged nephews, who’ve been sent to Jurassic World for some brotherly bonding. Meanwhile, Chris Pratt channels Han Solo as Owen, the island’s beefy velociraptor trainer and the only one she can turn to for help when crisis hits. His prickly early interaction with the uptight Claire, glimpsed in an early clip, drew Twitter boos and cries of sexism from director Joss Whedon.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Trevorrow said he’s not mad at Whedon; talked Jurassic World-building, the controversial femininity of his heroine, and more.
What concerns you in the world right now? One journalist said they saw parallels between Jurassic World and Zero Dark Thirty, with Chris Pratt playing his Chris Pratt role and the new hybrid dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, as Osama bin Laden. How much of that subtext is there, if at all?
That one didn’t occur to me. But it’s a very political film in a lot of ways. You can probably understand a little bit of where I lean based on the themes in the movie. To me it’s very much about how much we repeat our mistakes if there’s money on the table, and I feel like the lesson of the last 20 years since the first movie is very much “If there’s profit to be made, then we’re going to do something whether it’s a good idea or not.”
This, coming from someone who’s directing the fourth movie in a giant franchise.
When Derek and I were trying to figure out what the movie was, that’s what we landed on. The reality of what was going on with us was we looked around and we had a corporation that need a movie to hit a release date, in order to please its shareholders, and whether that was a good idea or not, that was happening. So we wrote a whole dinosaur movie about that. I think also in the end where it led us was that, I don’t necessarily want to say the Indominus Rex represents anything, but its creation is a little bit about that thirst for profit, that need for profit being a dehumanizing and potentially negative force that can leave a lot of bodies in its wake. Hopefully that doesn’t make it more of a political film than it needs to be. It’s not a diatribe, it’s not a screed.
And yet it’s clearly an anti-corporate corporate product.
To me it’s a little bit less about corporations than what corporations are charged with doing, which is chasing profit at all costs and increasing profit regardless of who it hurts and who it damages. There’s a pretty clear narrative in our recent history that that element has been responsible for many mistakes and certainly many potential disasters on this planet. I don’t think that’s too far removed from what a dinosaur movie can be about.
The proverbial poop hits the fan when Vincent D’Onofrio’s villain, a war-mongering military man, tries to weaponize Chris Pratt’s Velociraptor squad. Why go there?
That came from history and a very real place, in that whenever there is a technology that is introduced, somebody’s going to immediately find out if we can use it to kill other people. When Vincent and I talked about that character, we found that he’s a private contractor and he’s somebody who deeply believes in what he’s saying. There’s the idea that “I’m saving lives because I’m providing these animals that can do something that humans don’t have to do.” That’s a kind of logic that’s applied, they’re essentially genetically created drones that don’t have any rights because they’re extinct creatures, and therefore we own them and we can control them. But there were a lot of interesting ideas in that and I hope we play it in a way that’s not too heavy-handed and too overt, but still exists.
How old were you when you saw the first Jurassic Park, and what kind of effect did it have on you?
Sixteen. It affected me, but not in the way that I was affected by movies I saw when I was a little kid. I was a teenager who wanted to be a filmmaker and thought I had it all figured out. Went in to dismantle it and break it apart and figure out how they did this, and realized, well, I don’t know how they did this, and it turned me into a little kid. The story, the dinosaurs, just the journey it took me on. It took me back to being an 8-year-old. That became the mission for this. We live in a very cynical world and one in which we charge ourselves with taking the mask off anything that’s meant to entertain us in any way, and I wanted to try to bring people so deep into the story that they would kind of just forfeit their right to take the mask off, and enjoy the experience.
In the film you drop several clues that let the audience know there’s a degree of self-awareness—that you know what you’re putting your characters through. The running joke, no pun intended, of keeping Claire in heels through the entire movie, for example, is jokingly acknowledged in one scene.
She never takes them off. Look, it’s what she wore to work that day. And believe me, running barefoot in those situations would be far more dangerous! I like to think that if I have any skills, my self-awareness levels are high and that allows me to make a movie where I can trust that the audience is highly intelligent, and is constantly three steps ahead of the story, and try to engage in that chess game a little bit.
Do you consider Claire to be a feminist character?
It certainly didn’t strike me as any kind of feminist storyline. I saw it as someone going from being a very corporatized person who’s focused on that need for profit, to someone who becomes very human. And is able to dig deep and channel the animal inside of her. I can see that because the character’s a woman, we’re going to get into a different set of conversations. But I welcome those conversations. I don’t believe that a female character needs to surrender her femininity in order to be an action hero.
The best of them don’t, actually.
Some do. I thought Charlize Theron was awesome in Mad Max, and that was a very masculine kind of hero. But I think Bryce is awesome in this and she’s a female who remains very feminine throughout the movie. I think it can exist both ways.
Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor—arguably the two best female action heroes in movie history—both embrace their maternal instincts to realize their full potential.
If Claire gets to be mentioned in the same sentence as those iconic women in film, then we will have won.
The discussion over whether Claire is a feminist character or not might depend on how closely audiences pick up on these clues you’ve written into the character.
And Bryce has some pretty thoughtful things to say. Hopefully it doesn’t have to be too much of a defense. Hopefully we present the character in a way that makes it clear that we really respect that character, and that she’s the lead of the movie, which the marketing doesn’t necessarily reveal.
Right—she’s not the one riding alongside Velociraptors on all the billboards.
But the story starts with her and it ends with her. We never actively thought about what we were saying with that, it’s just what felt right and natural. In a lot of ways she’s responsible for this place, and it’s on her. Yeah, on the day, I did say, “Let’s get a close-up of her heels running with the T-Rex right behind it”—just because I thought it would be awesome, not that I was trying to make a particular statement. But I embrace that conversation.
Avengers 2 director Joss Whedon publicly criticized that scene between Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt that some felt was sexist. Out of context it was difficult to understand if that was accurate criticism or not.
That is probably the reason why they put it out there in the first place. Everyone in marketing just knew the movie as the movie; it did not occur to them when taken out of context that it could be perceived in a very different way. When I was able to look at it through that prism… I went online myself and thought, “I’m just going to watch this as someone who has no idea what happens in the rest of the movie,” I thought, “Oh, I get it. Absolutely.” I could see that. So it certainly didn’t offend me because I completely understood where it was coming from. That said, I was immediately very relieved and happy that our movie is designed the way it is. That scene and that dynamic that I know Joss was talking about is part of its design.
That classic Han-Leia banter…
And that stuff came from way before then. We based this movie on It Happened One Night. If you want to talk about a movie that has some sexism, we can talk about that movie. And Steven [Spielberg] and Derek [Connolly] and I, when referencing it… there are moments in that movie that are shocking, the filmmakers wouldn’t be able to work again with some of the things that are said in it. But the idea that men and women don’t understand each other is a truth that I don’t think we need to shy away from. That kind of dynamic is not one that I think is going to go away because I don’t think they’re going to start understanding each other any time soon.
There’s some confusion over whether or not Jurassic World acknowledges the canonical legacy of the second and third movies. It certainly follows Jurassic Park, and refers to the first film often. What was the approach to the lesser-beloved sequels as you were writing this?
It wasn’t a conscious decision, because we were making a movie about a theme park that was fully functional and only Jurassic Park is about a theme park. The other two were about a different island where events happened that had nothing to do with that. So it was very natural. It’s more that it feels like a direct sequel to Jurassic Park than it intentionally is. We do have references to both of their other movies in the film so they are canon, they do exist. It’s funny how you say things, you do things and then realize how your thoughts and actions can be perceived—by smart people, and in thoughtful ways. I certainly never intended for that to be some kind of a knock on those films, that because of their perceived lack of quality we’re not going to acknowledge them. Not the point. We don’t bring any of the characters back in this movie except for Dr. Wu and the T-Rex from the first film. And I consider the T-Rex a lead.
This was a huge leap in budget and scope from your first and most recent film, Safety Not Guaranteed. And it was a leap of faith for Spielberg and Universal to hire a second-time filmmaker. What do you think it was that landed you the job?
I don’t entirely know, but I know what Steven told me. Which is that he felt the decision I made at the end of Safety Not Guaranteed, which wasn’t initially supposed to happen in the screenplay, that I answered a question that I’d posed in the movie: Is this man crazy? Or is magic possible? And he really liked that answer.
What was the bigger challenge for you going from a $700,000 movie to Jurassic World?
The public scrutiny thing is new. Any time somebody tells me they saw Safety Not Guaranteed in the theater, my answer is, “That was you?” But to me the leap in budget was the least of the differences, because it actually makes things easier. There’s a luxury to a budget this size. It allows you to imagine, and to not be limited by anything other than your own imagination and your own ability to tell a story. That was very liberating for me. I’d much rather have that than have to constantly run into walls of unaffordability, which you do every day on an independent film.
At least on your indie films, strangers and fans aren’t already so invested that they’re watching every step you make.
The public scrutiny element, they don’t teach you in film school. So few people are ever subjected to it. I feel lucky in that I wasn’t really subjected to the kind of personal scrutiny and attack that I feel other filmmakers have recently. I’m sure I will at some point—maybe next week.
Is it odd to have grown up a fan of properties like this, only to then have to defend yourself against your fellow Jurassic Park lover?
In the end a lot of that was people who deeply, genuinely care about this franchise. They love it so much that they want to protect it, and they don’t want you to hurt it. They use this term, “Don’t ruin my childhood.” I disagree with it, because you shouldn’t give anyone the power to ruin your childhood. That belongs to you and it’s special. Take ownership over your childhood back and don’t give that to me. All we can hope to do is supplement your love for your childhood with something that can return you to it, for a moment.
Your name had been thrown about; how close did you come to working on a Star Wars movie?
That was just a little thing that happened, early on when Brad Bird was talking with Kathleen [Kennedy] and that group about him maybe being involved, he had pulled me into that conversation and that’s where that came from.
You’ve had brushes with other sanctified properties of the 1980s, like your Flight of the Navigator remake. What do projects like that add to your filmography? How do you see yourself fitting into the indie and studio worlds after this point?
Derek and I did write a Flight of the Navigator draft for Disney. I think what that represents, a little bit, is my willingness to engage in continuing to tell these stories that we all loved when we were young, but also my acknowledgement that I can play that card maybe one more time. Because what I don’t want to do is have that be what defines me, that I’m just the guy who makes new versions of all the stuff that we love. What I’ll do to combat that is make original movies, even if they are woven in with continuing to tell these stories around the campfire, which I think they deserve to be.