Director's Chair: Colin Trevorrow - 'Jurassic World'
Issue: June 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Colin Trevorrow - 'Jurassic World'

It’s been 23 years since Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park wowed audiences worldwide (it was the highest-grossing film ever, until Titanic) and re-wrote the book on VFX, bringing to magical — and scary — life such dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures as Brachiosaurus, Triceratops and, most memorably of all, the rampaging female killer T. rex.
Now she’s back — older, nastier, and hungrier than ever. And joining the T. rex on Isla Nublar’s dinosaur theme park, now a luxury vacation destination complete with golf courses, five-star hotels and gourmet restaurants, is a brand new, genetically-engineered hybrid dinosaur called Indominus rex, created especially to boost park attendance. 

Of course, things go wrong — very wrong — when the creature, which can run at 30mph, escapes, threatens not just the resort’s visitors, but such stars as Chris Pratt (velociraptor trainer), Bryce Dallas Howard (operations manager) and Vincent D’Onofrio (head of security). With apologies to the cast, of course the real stars of the movie are not the humans but the blood-thirsty and terrifying creatures, now on the loose.

Orchestrating all the junehem in the franchise’s fourth installment is an unlikely figure, director Colin Trevorrow, who makes his studio film directorial debut with the reported $180 million production after Spielberg and co-producer Frank Marshall hand-picked the 38-year-old on the strength of his only other feature, the 2012 whimsical time-travel piece — and Sundance breakout — Safety Not Guaranteed.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Trevorrow, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed) and at press time was deep in the final stages of post production, talks about working with Spielberg and his invaluable input, the challenges involved in making the film, his love of post, the complex VFX, and why filmmakers and chefs have so much in common.

You went from a small indie to a massive studio production filled with tons of VFX and logistical hurdles. Just how big of a transition was it, going from Safety Not Guaranteed to this? 

“It wasn’t as big a leap as you’d think. In the end, it’s a small group of people trying to figure out how to make every moment feel real. The key difference is the number of concentric circles full of people spreading out around you. On a movie like Safety, which cost $750K, you have two circles. On Jurassic, you have about 20. Each department is 10 times as big. But they’re all working together in a similar way, so by the time you reach the center, it feels familiar. The key differences on this film were the things that weren’t there. Major characters never worked a day on-set. They were on computers at ILM. You had to imagine those performances. That takes a kind of belief system — we’d call it 'faith-based filmmaking.' You can’t see it in front of you, it’s just a promise. You make your decisions and trust that everything will be waiting for you on the other side.” 

How much input and advice did Steven Spielberg give you on handling it? After all, it’s been his baby for over two decades and he’s shepherded every sequel in the franchise.

“Steven was both extremely helpful and totally hands off. He showed me a level of professional respect that I hadn’t necessarily earned yet. This film is a very singular vision, and he trusted in that. The creative circle was very small — Derek Connolly and I were given a remarkable amount of freedom to make our film, both from the studio and Steven himself. But when I needed him, he was there. The three of us worked on that script together for a long time. His storytelling ability is unrivaled, and there’s just nobody who can do what he can do. But instead of holding that over your head and using it to assert some kind of producorial authority, he pushes you to be better. He challenged us to rethink and rebuild, both in the writing process and the editing room. He put us through the same gauntlet he puts himself through to this day. That’s why his movies continue to be great. There’s no complacency there. It’s a constant push toward something better.” 

What sort of film did you set out to make, and how did you put your own stamp on it, considering it’s the fourth in a famous franchise? 

“I never thought of it as a fourth installment. It was always meant to be an original movie, set in the same world as Jurassic Park. There are elements that connect it to the first film, so it’s technically a sequel, but the whole thing felt like my own stamp. If anything, the challenge was finding how we could work in the connections to the earlier films without being derivative of them, which is hard because a sequel is inherently derivative.” 

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together? 

“We had a villain we couldn’t see or touch. That’s not just a challenge of imagination, it’s an issue of scale. If you shoot a dinosaur on the wrong lens, especially with a human in the foreground, it can feel deceptively small. We had to not just imagine what was happening, we had to shoot something that wasn’t there. I’m a very instinctive filmmaker. I walk into a space, look around, and decide how to shoot it. I can’t storyboard an environment I’ve never seen, so it becomes an exercise in wishful thinking after awhile. No matter what you plan, once you get into the environment, everything will change. Add to it the fact that our dinosaur can be anywhere from 16 to 25 feet tall depending on how she’s standing, and it gets complicated very quickly.” 

How tough was the prep and shoot, considering you started filming in Hawaii on various islands and ended up in Louisiana swamps and New Orleans?

“This film went very smoothly. We finished ahead of schedule and under budget. We did not have reshoots. I know all of my films won’t be this way. But for one reason or another, likely the talent and dedication of everyone involved, this one went well. Ask me again on the next one. I’ll probably have a longer answer packed with nightmares!” 

How early did you have to integrate post and VFX into the shoot?

“Editor Kevin Stitt and his team were in a highrise in Honolulu cutting from day one. I shot film and I don’t shoot a lot of it, so our days were pretty efficient when it wasn’t pouring rain, so Kevin was able to keep up with production. Two weeks after wrap, we had an assembly. Our first VFX turnover to ILM was the Indominus escape sequence. That was in July last year, using footage we shot in Hawaii in June. It was an early challenge, to essentially lock a sequence four weeks before wrap. But we did it.” 

What about all the post work which was crucial on this film. Do you like the post process? 

"It’s a very creative time, and I love it. There’s nothing like the presentation, it’s so satisfying. Filmmakers and chefs have a lot in common. There are three stages in each — prep, execution and presentation. Post for me is like plating a dish. We have the ingredients, but if we don’t put them together right, it will just be a big pile of food. We’re a month out from release now, I’m walking out of the kitchen ready to set this plate down in front of a very hungry table. In this case, it needs to taste like a deconstructed version of something they loved when they were kids. I can cook that.”

Where did you do the post? Give us some sense of the process: How long was it? Where did you cut? Where did you do the sound mixing?

“We posted out of Tribeca West in Los Angeles. We showed the studio our first cut in late October, then honed it until February. Universal loved our cut and was very supportive the whole time. There weren’t many notes because I think they saw how hard we were being on ourselves. The first time we watched it, I followed up the screening with a laundry list of things I wanted to do, elements that could be better. We just worked it and worked it until it felt right. The sound mix, which I just finished, was done at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California (the team included sound designer and supervising sound editor Al Nelson and sound designer and re-recording mixer Peter Horner). ILM did all the VFX in San Francisco, so we spent most of our time in the final months up in the Bay Area. I grew up in Oakland, so it was great to be back home.” 

The film was edited by Kevin Stitt, whose credits include X-Men, Lethal Weapon 4 and Jack Reacher. How did that relationship work, as you didn’t really know each other before this?

“Kevin and I hadn’t worked together before, so we had this trial by fire, where we had to learn each other’s language in a high-stakes scenario. Now we finish each other’s sentences. It’s like a marriage that starts with two people trapped in a submarine. The relationship gets close quickly.” 

There are obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there? Who did them? Who was the VFX supervisor? How did that work?

“All our visual effects were done at Industrial Light and Magic. We had a thousand shots. It sounds like a lot, but compared to most effects-heavy films these days, it’s on the low end. Tim Alexander was our VFX supervisor, and he got a much-deserved Oscar nomination for The Lone Ranger. That film had some very complex work integrating practical effects with CGI. It was all designed to feel real and plausible in a period setting. His work here had to do something similar, as we not only had to believe the animals were real, but that this theme park existed. The story fails if you don’t believe the world. We built all our sets, and there was very little greenscreen. Tim and Glen McIntosh, our animation supervisors, worked together to make the audience accept that this was a real place you could actually go to. If they had failed, I don’t think the movie could work. Actually, if any of us had failed, the movie wouldn’t work. There are so many ways for something like this to go wrong, and only one way for it to go right. It’s not fishing with dynamite, it’s fishing with chopsticks.” 

What was the most difficult visual effects sequence/shot to do and why?

“Our final shot is over a minute long. It follows a dinosaur battle that tracks a group of people in and back out of a building, and then… well, I won’t spoil it, but it involved knitting together dolly work, Technocrane and a camera mounted on the back of a motorcycle. It took more computing power to render than any shot ILM had previously tried. I found out after the fact that they weren’t sure it was going to work. That might be one of the benefits of having only done this once before. I don’t know what you can’t do. My inexperience pushed them further than they thought was possible.” 

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

“Sound is the closer. Without it, all your hardest work goes to waste. We have an outstanding score for this film, Michael Giacchino (who won the Oscar for Up) really brought it. I mixed it forward, so the music is much more present than it is in modern mixes. It’s kind of an old-school way to do it, but I love the result. It makes you feel like a kid again, because this is how they treated movie music when I was a kid. It’s a fanfare for what you’re watching.”

The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 

“Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 did our DI. We shot film, so the goal was to keep those qualities and lean into them. It doesn’t look perfect all the time. Film has flaws and imperfections, and it’s part of what makes it beautiful. Stefan loves film and he knows how to bring out the best in the image. John Schwartzman, our DP, is an extraordinary cinematographer. I’m not sure what else I can say, as the evidence will be on-screen. That’s not one of the positions someone else can cover up for you if you do a bad job. It’s all right there.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would? 


So what’s next after this — pun-intended — monster production?

“There’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for awhile, a script I first read just after finishing Safety, called Book of Henry. I had to let it go to do Jurassic, but it became available again and I couldn’t let it get away twice. It’s challenging and a little intimidating. If all comes together, I’m going to do it later this year. After that, I’ll probably do something on a larger scale. I’m not someone who prefers smaller films and only does the larger ones to make money or maintain relevance in the business. I love them both. So long as I can keep exploring new worlds and people, I’ll be happy.”