“Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow was having lunch on the Universal Pictures lot on a recent afternoon when the chairman of the studio, Donna Langley, came up to his table with a big smile on her face.
Langley’s 6-year-old son had just been visiting her office, she told Trevorrow, and he was buzzing about the idea of seeing dinosaurs running amok on the big screen. “He’s my focus group of one, but he’s so locked in,” she said. “I was just at his kindergarten graduation. All of the kids were talking about it.”
Not that there’s a lot of pressure or anything. At 38, with just one previous low-budget, little-seen independent film to his name, Trevorrow now finds himself the steward of one of the studio’s most important franchises, one that has spawned everything from toys to video games to theme park rides. Oh, and he was handpicked for the job by the series’ cinematic godfather, Steven Spielberg, and the film stars arguably Hollywood’s hottest leading man, Chris Pratt.
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But if Trevorrow is feeling the heat, you wouldn’t know it. He’s not prone to bragging, but the fact is, he clearly has the utmost faith in his filmmaking ability — and has had it ever since he himself was a young kid going to see Spielberg movies.
“I don’t know where it came from,” he said matter-of-factly. “I guess it came from where it does for a lot of filmmakers: watching films and maybe having a preternatural ability to speak that language. For whatever reason, from a young age I’ve always been able to shoot images and cut them together with sound in a way that was very engaging.”
Still, even as an increasing number of filmmakers are being plucked from the indie world and television to helm big-budget tentpole films, Trevorrow is well aware of how improbable the whole thing seems.
“I was joking with my mom that all Jewish mothers now will want their kids to be filmmakers instead of doctors,” he said dryly. “Because you can make one film and suddenly you’re directing a ‘Jurassic Park’ movie.”
Three and a half years ago, Trevorrow brought his first feature, a quirky dark comedy with a sci-fi element called “Safety Not Guaranteed,” to the Sundance Film Festival. Made for $750,000, the film, which centered on an eccentric supermarket clerk who thinks he’s solved the riddle of time travel, earned glowing reviews from critics. But when it was released that fall, it grossed just $4 million. (By way of comparison, Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” released the same year, earned more than 10 times that amount.)
Fortunately for Trevorrow, one of the people who did see “Safety Not Guaranteed” happened to be Spielberg — and the legendary director happened to be looking for someone to revive the “Jurassic” franchise, which had taken in $3 billion over three films but had lain dormant since 2001. Impressed with the confidence of Trevorrow’s filmmaking, Spielberg called him in for a meeting.
“I was told going in, ‘You’re one of one – and if the meeting is good, he’ll want you to do this,’ ” said Trevorrow, who lives in Vermont with his wife and two children. “Obviously I wanted it. I wanted it for my family, for the creative challenge. But I also made very clear that if I was going to do this, it had to be an original film. It had to be a movie that I could feel was personal and my own.”
Raised in Oakland by a photographer mother and a musician father, Trevorrow started writing and shooting his own films when he was just 12 years old, inspired by films like “Star Wars,” “Back to the Future” and the Indiana Jones movies. Even in these early works, his ambitions were already evident.
“There was one that I felt was my great masterpiece of childhood called ‘Look What the Cat Dragged In,’ ” he recalled. “It was basically a ‘Die Hard’ film about a guy who gets trapped in his house with a cat who’s intent on killing him.” The film climaxed with the man shooting a flaming arrow into a pool of gasoline to kill the homicidal cat. “I poured all this gasoline in the backyard, and we did it for real,” Trevorrow said. “On the video you could hear my mom screaming as we lit this thing up.”
When Trevorrow first met with Spielberg, the “Jurassic” franchise had been stuck in amber for years. Various writers, including John Sayles and William Monahan, had taken cracks at writing a fourth installment. When Trevorrow read the latest draft, he couldn’t make sense of it.
“It was just a different film,” he said. “There were two boys, but they were Chinese, and their mother was a Chinese paleontologist who had discovered a dinosaur, and she thought Jurassic Park had stolen the DNA. I said, ‘I can’t direct this screenplay. I can’t use a single word.’ ”
Trevorrow holed up in a Santa Monica hotel with his longtime writing partner, Derek Connolly, who had written “Safety Not Guaranteed” to write a new draft. Three weeks later they had a script that carried forward three basic elements that Spielberg had always insisted on — a park that’s open to tourists, a raptor trainer character and a new dinosaur that breaks free — and introduced the idea of genetic engineering and a love story. “We wrote it very quickly,” Trevorrow said. “I don’t know what we channeled.”
The prospect of going directly from a low-budget indie to a $150-million, CGI-heavy summer tentpole could easily be overwhelming — in taking such a radical leap, safety is most certainly not guaranteed. But Connolly, who first met Trevorrow when they were both studying film at NYU, said the director was totally undaunted.
“People ask, ‘Was he nervous? How did he hold up?’ And I just laugh,” Connolly said. “Colin’s attitude was, like, ‘Finally! This is what I deserve and what I’ve always wanted to do.’ He wasn’t intimidated at all.”
Pratt, who plays a park trainer who has developed a special rapport with velociraptors, was impressed by Trevorrow’s self-confidence from their very first meeting via Skype. “He has a strong point of view, and he’s not afraid to express that point of view,” the actor said. “He’s not delusional to believe in himself, because he’s talented. He’s got the goods.”
With Spielberg not on the set but offering notes and suggestions throughout the shoot, Trevorrow was intent on living up to the standard of the original 1993 “Jurassic Park” while also tweaking many moviegoers’ inherent skepticism about spectacle-drenched sequels. With droll, deadpan humor reminiscent of “Safety Not Guaranteed” — not to mention winkingly self-aware recent blockbusters like “22 Jump Street,” “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” — the film tries to beat audiences to the joke.
“Colin took this on knowing that some people were going to be cynical, and he was ready to meet them head-on,” Pratt said. “He was like, ‘Look, no matter what, there’s always that 5% on Rotten Tomatoes who doesn’t like something, even if 95% do. I am that person. That is me. And I’m making this movie for those people.’ ”
As the project went on, though, Trevorrow came to realize that what he’d been thinking of as simply a movie was, in reality, part of a much larger, Indominus Rex-sized branding and merchandising enterprise for Universal.
“In the beginning, it was just, we have to tell a great story,” he said. “Down the road, when I saw the fifth wave of Hasbro toys and the Dairy Queen commercial and the Mercedes tie-in and the Samsung thing at Best Buy, I started to realize, ‘Oh, this is a stock price issue, isn’t it?’ ”
With “Jurassic World” tracking for a massive $125-million-plus opening weekend and plenty of running room before the next big action tentpole comes along, Trevorrow’s own stock is very much on the rise. But while it would be tempting to strike while the iron is hot with a lucrative job helming another high-profile franchise film, he isn’t looking to jump straight into another tentpole and has already said he will not direct the next “Jurassic” installment.
Instead, Trevorrow is preparing to direct a smaller, independently produced passion project called “Book of Henry” — which he describes as “a beautiful tragicomedy about a mother and her two kids, one of whom is a genius” — which he then plans to follow with a larger-scale romantic sci-fi thriller called “Intelligent Life.”
“I’m a horrible business person. I guarantee I’m the least wealthy person to ever direct a movie at this budget,” he said with a laugh. “But our lifestyle in Vermont is not one that requires a great deal of money to support, and that gives me a lot of freedom to make strange and interesting choices.
“I had to travel into the future and direct ‘Jurassic World’ as myself in 20 years — and I did. But it’s hard to know out of two movies what my style of filmmaking is. I look forward to finding that out.”