J.A. Bayona on the Influence of Steven Spielberg and the Joy of Michael Crichton

Ja Bayona Directing Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom

The director of ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ tells us about his love for the franchise’s creators.

It’s probably a little misleading to suggest that the Jurassic World franchise needed a shot in the arm. After all, the first movie grossed somewhere north of $1.6 billion worldwide, reignited an entire series of dinosaur films, and even managed to keep its head above water with critics.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to suggest that the Jurassic World franchise needed a spark of visual flair to go alongside those rampaging dinos. Colin Trevorrow’s film may have served as the perfect franchise template, but even its most ardent fans would likely admit that it left something to be desired visually.

That’s where J.A. Bayona comes in. The Spanish filmmaker has spent his career crafting memorable imagery wherever he goes; from The Orphanage to Penny Dreadful to A Monster Calls, Bayona seems like exactly the sort of director you give a script, a blockbuster sequel, and $100+ million dollars to play with.

What’s so surprising about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom isn’t just that Bayona manages to create an impressive string of set pieces amidst the rampaging dinosaurs, it’s the ridiculous spectrum of action sequences he offers. Exploding lava, sinking ships, helicopter fights, and dinosaur gunfights are all part of Bayona’s palette, and the end result is one of the most bonkers summer movies to come our way in quite some time.

When it comes to conversations about his process, Bayona is quick to talk about his storyboards. Every moment in his film is drawn ahead of time; this allows the director to visualize certain elements of the film before he brings in the cameras. This also allows him to have some input into the script itself.

“As I am working with the writer, I’m drawing the scenes,” Bayona explains. “Drawing the scenes, I can go back to the writer and ask for some changes because once you’re drawing the scene you can tell what the story’s about, and what is the pace.”

This approach also helped Bayona articulate his vision for the dinosaurs themselves to Fallen Kingdom‘s visual effects artists. While the filmmaker enjoyed the effects in the first movie, he admits that he was “not convinced about those shots where the actors were touching the dinosaurs” and (rightly) felt he could improve upon those visuals in his movie.

This visual approach to Fallen Kingdom also helped shape it as part of the larger Jurassic Park universe. It’s not surprising to discover that Fallen Kingdom possesses its fair share of callbacks to Steven Spielberg‘s original film. What is a surprise is how effectively Bayona weaves these references into the film without resorting to repetition. For Bayona, many of the iconic moments from Jurassic Park put the emphasis on the dinosaurs; as a result, the director was inspired to invert those images and bring the humans into the scene.

“I thought it was interesting to reference the old movies by [exchanging] the dinosaurs for people,” Bayona explains. “In the shot of the mirror, in the Jurassic Park car, you have Owen this time instead of a T-Rex. I had this image in the diorama room, having humans inside of the diorama and the dinosaur outside of the diorama.”

Ja Bayona Directing A DinosaurThis proves to be an important element in the film; rather than revisiting story or character beats from Jurassic Park, Bayona positions his film as a mirror image of the original, making it recognizable and different at the same time.

Bayona doesn’t limit his callbacks to just Jurassic Park, though. In one memorable scene where an auction and an escape are occurring simultaneously, Bayona draws on the library sequence from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and cuts quickly between gavel and Pachycephalosaurus. In doing research for Fallen Kingdom, Bayona shares that he watched “all of the Jurassic movies” and “a lot of Indiana Jones” in a conscious effort to ingest Spielberg’s visual style.

“It made a lot of sense that I like being under the influence of Steven Spielberg because you’re trying to pay tribute to the legacy of these movies.” Spielberg’s influence also helped Bayona manage the elements of blockbuster and horror both contained in the film, what he describes as the combination of “fun and entertainment and interesting ideas.”

Of course, not everything in the film is lifted directly from Spielberg’s playbook. One visual element that Bayona keeps coming back to throughout Fallen Kingdom is the interplay of light and darkness. Shadows are everywhere in the film. From the final moments of destruction on Isla Nublar to the first glimpses of the engineered Indoraptor, Bayona is often finding ways to cast dinosaurs’ shadows on the wall.

“It’s fun when you play with shadows, you know?” Bayona admits, noting how shadows allowed him to create the horror-infused atmosphere he was looking for in the film’s second half. For Bayona, this was a throwback to his earliest days as a cinephile, where he was introduced to films like “Frankenstein, King Kong, German expression, the movies I loved when I was a kid.”

And while Spielberg’s original film might’ve set the template for a lot of what Bayona does in Fallen Kingdom, the director is just as effusive — if not more so — in his appreciation for the books and films of Michael Crichton. We’re not just talking about mainstream Michael Crichton adaptation. Bayona is quick to praise Crichton’s work as a filmmaker, including the 1984 Tom Selleck vehicle Runaway and Crichton’s adaptation of the Robin Cook novel “Coma,” which he calls a “masterpiece.”

For Bayona, Crichton is on par with someone like Richard Matheson, another writer who was able to balance entertainment and intelligence in equal measure. “[Fallen Kingdom is] a movie that talks about hybrids. And you can think about blockbusters these days as hybrids,” Bayona offers. “I like all this generation of writers that use science and science fiction and fantasy to talk about ourselves.”

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.