How the director of Jurassic World jumped from Sundance to Spielberg

Director Colin Trevorrow on the making of his blockbuster debut

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Director Colin Trevorrow is admiring a bank of monitors on a soundstage at Universal Studios, as they play back footage of jungle foliage he shot last year in Hawaii. “All this stuff is from our real control room,” he says. The console is there to provide a pretty backdrop for the flood of video interviews he’ll be doing to promote his upcoming film Jurassic World, but right now he seems more excited about the memories it’s conjuring up. “In the film when you see the control room, everything on the screen is practical. There are no visual effects involved. So this is all stuff.”

If he sounds enthusiastic, that’s because the 38-year-old filmmaker has enjoyed a rapid ascent over the past couple years. Trevorrow made his feature debut in 2012 with the indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, a charming Sundance hit about a newspaper intern (Aubrey Plaza) who chases down an eccentric man (Mark Duplass) who may or may not have built a time machine. The film caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who picked Trevorrow to take on a new installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, a project that had been kicking around in development for over a decade but had yet to make it to the screen. The result is World, in which a fully functioning Disneyland of dinosaurs finds itself threatened when a new hybrid creature wreaks havoc.

I sat down with Trevorrow to talk about how he made the jump from a $750,000 indie to a $150 million blockbuster, how Steven Spielberg allowed him to make a personal film without compromise, and how the corporate pressure of making a gigantic sequel led to some of the movie’s most interesting themes.

Jurassic World promotional images (UNIVERSAL)

Bryan Bishop: Jurassic World is a more thoughtful film than your average blockbuster, but it’s a huge leap from your last film. Was doing a movie of this size and scale even on your radar after Safety Not Guaranteed?

Colin Trevorrow: Not right away. Not immediately after. You know, I love these kinds of films. They’re part of the kinds of movies that informed my love for film in the first place, and yet I felt that it was almost crucial, almost an imperative, to make a series of films that would allow me to build my voice and hone my craft. That’s why we have a farm system in sports, that’s why we have filmmakers make many movies before they reach this level. And so if I had any trepidation about doing it, it was because of that. And I almost had to be — you know how they have method actors? I had to be a method director. I had to almost play the role of myself 20 years from now, with far more experience and far more knowledge, and I went method the whole damn time.

This movie had been in development for a long time, and nobody could crack it. What intrigued you about this particular sandbox when [producer] Frank Marshall contacted you?

I didn’t know necessarily what the movie was about going in. I knew they wanted to make a Jurassic Park IV, and my question was Why? [Laughs.] And so we have that conversation right away, and once we came up with some answers as to why, then it got really interesting. And then we were able to build a story around those answers, and build a plot around them. I feel like it is a great privilege to write a screenplay based on a story by Steven Spielberg. These are his ideas; this idea of having a park that’s functional, and having a raptor trainer who is trying to communicate with those animals, and then having this genetically modified dinosaur that breaks loose. Those three pillars came from his mind, and they’re so rich and they have so much room to build something creatively around them that I couldn’t help myself. Yes, I had to go into that world; I had to do it.

Going back to that idea of being a method director—

We’ve coined that phrase now!

It worked! But I’m just wondering how you handled the logistics of such an enormous production, coming from this much smaller movie.

Like anything, you act like you’ve been there before. And I made sure if I didn’t know something, I would say, "I don’t know what that is," and someone would explain it to me. I did always know what I wanted, and I don’t know where that comes from, but I was very confident in what I wanted to see and how I wanted to see it and how these shots were designed and how these performances should be and what the story was. I think when you’re surrounded by technicians and craftspeople on the level of the ones that I very intently surrounded myself with, [you get the best results] as long as you are willing to not necessarily defer choices, but to empower people to be creative and to do what they do as best they can do it, and not feel like they have to sit back and just execute your vision. Everybody who’s making a movie has a vision of how their particular piece can fit in. And to me, that’s just good directing, and I’ll continue to do that even when I do have more experience. I do know how to do this now. I can direct a big blockbuster movie now; I learned that over and over the course [of production]. I slowly earned a master’s degree in making blockbuster movies.

Jurassic World promotional still (UNIVERSAL)

I was really impressed with your action sequences. They’re big, effects heavy, and they’re very confident. Was there anything you looked back to as a reference point beyond the first film for those?

No, and I shot them myself. I had a second unit that operated for a very specific sequence, which is when the vehicle was moving fast and the raptors were running. All that exterior vehicle stuff, we have a second unit do that. And also Pratt riding the motorcycle, those plates — we had a great second unit. And that was just [because] we shot the movie in 78 days.

That’s an insane schedule for something this size.

Yeah, that’s an insane schedule. So we did need to bring in a second unit of some pretty skilled people for that. But I shot the rest of it myself with John Schwartzman, my cinematographer. And I laid them out very carefully in previs [animated storyboards], and I storyboarded them. I love the previs process. I was very creatively invigorated by it, and I worked with that team — these guys at Halon — very, very closely for a long period of time. And I think we’re going to do it on the Blu-ray, we’re going to put the previs up with the sequence next to it, and it is just shot for shot what had been designed. So I directed the movie three times: in the previs, I directed it on set, and then when we put the animals in I had the chance to do it a third time. When you direct a movie that many times, you should probably get it right at some point.

"I was constantly pushing against any instinct I had to do an homage."

You shot this movie on film, and you often pushed for using animatronic dinosaurs instead of just going straight CG across the board. How much of that was about grounding this in the world of the first film, and how much was it just about making it feel as real as possible?

It was both. I had a very interesting relationship with Jurassic Park on this movie. I would say it on set: I want to hold Jurassic Park in our hands, but not too tight. I was constantly pushing against any instinct I had to do an homage to it, and then also sometimes embracing it and just doing it. I don’t know what made me decide now it’s okay to do a twisting shot away from a dinosaur bone being brushed away. But if I was going to do it, I wanted to then subvert into something else. So very, very rarely — if ever — do we do something that is just a straight homage. It always turns into something else.

Jurassic World promotional still (UNIVERSAL)

I have to imagine the awareness of the legacy you’re working within — even while you’re collaborating with Spielberg — had to be there, if only because you were clearly able to push against it and make the film your own at the same time.

And he really encouraged me to make it my own throughout the process. [My co-writer] Derek [Connolly] and I came in pretty hot, and we knew what we wanted to do, and we felt like if we didn’t do it then this whole thing wasn’t going to work. Because at the time we were pushing toward a release date that we ultimately didn’t have to do. Steven bought us another year, which was [the right call]. It was no way to make a movie, the way that it was being done.

And actually, the fact that we were pushing toward that release date informed what the movie ended up being about. You had this big corporation who had this product, and they had to deliver it to the people in order for the shareholders to feel like they were doing their jobs. And so we wrote a movie about it. And amazingly, they’re releasing it all over the world. But Steven was extremely supportive and encouraging, [and wanted me to] make a movie that was personal for me, and that I could feel was an original movie set in the context of Jurassic Park. And that’s a very specific idea, and it’s a different kind sequel, or reboot or remake. I don’t even know what it is. It’s its own thing. And this movie feels as original and personal to me as Safety Not Guaranteed, because we built it.

Jurassic Park is one of those just profoundly indelible ideas that Steven happened to be involved in during a period of time. There are four that come to mind. A kid who tries to help an alien get home. A teenager has to make sure his parents fall in love so he can exist. Then stopping the Nazis from getting the power of God, and dinosaurs being resurrected and walking the earth. These stories are as valuable as myths and legends and fairy tales to us, and I think that’s why they’re being retold.

You’re part of a class of filmmakers with specific voices and visions that are making the move to blockbusters while still maintaining your own unique perspective. I think of someone like Rian Johnson, or Duncan Jones; Gareth Edwards. It’s beginning to feel a little bit like the ’70s, in that we’re seeing studio movies with more personal voices than we have in the past. Do you think this will change the way the industry approaches summer movies?

I hope that it makes them good! All of the people you just named really love movies, and are very sincere in their want to make good movies. And are very creative; aggressively creative, all of those names. And I have other friends who I consider part of my generation — certainly my generation at Sundance. The three filmmakers that I identify with as being my generation are James Ponsoldt [The Spectacular Now], Ava DuVernay [Selma], and Benh Zeitlin [Beasts of the Southern Wild]. And each of those filmmakers has made very different choices. And I constantly urge Ava DuVernay to take on, not necessarily a franchise or one of these things, but to test the limits of what she’s capable of because I think she’s truly great. And I think James Ponsoldt is capable of anything, and we all know Benh Zeitlin’s capable of anything. I’m so proud to have been at Sundance that year with those three filmmakers, and I consider them friends. I hope they consider me friends, too.

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