jurassic world: dominion

Why Colin Trevorrow Won’t Let the T. Rex Die

Photo: Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment

It was a snowy day in Vermont in early 2013 when Colin Trevorrow told his wife that he’d been offered the chance to write and direct Jurassic World, the long-awaited fourth installment in the Jurassic franchise. That year, only two of the top ten highest-grossing films existed outside of some established cinematic universe or franchise. (One of those films, Frozen, would quickly become a franchise.) It was, you could argue, the beginning of peak franchise at the movies. When Jurassic World hit theaters in the summer of 2015, it was the season of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Pitch Perfect 2, Insidious: Chapter 3, Ted 2, Magic Mike XXL, Terminator: Genisys, Minions, Ant-Man, Mission: Impossible 5, and a remake of Poltergeist — perhaps the peakiest of peak franchise summers. And yet, instead of the cynical cash grab I’d feared, Jurassic’s return to cinemas felt to me like a meditation on art and what we’ve done to it. After all, this is a story about how maybe we shouldn’t make everything we possibly can, even if it sounds cool.

Trevorrow is a filmmaker focused on change, specifically of the redemptive variety. His heroes are usually people looking to correct something they’ve done wrong, a pattern Trevorrow himself only recently recognized. The last decade has been something of a rollercoaster for the San Francisco native. He was plucked from the indie circuit by Spielberg to direct Jurassic World, and then found himself briefly at the uncomfortable center of a conversation about the lack of female directors helming franchises in Hollywood after a bad tweet. The episode prompted some heavy self-reflection and ultimately brought him together with his Jurassic World: Dominion co-writer, Emily Carmichael.

Now, with his Jurassic trilogy complete, Trevorrow has built a series of successful summer blockbusters that don’t shy away from the original 1993 film’s didacticism. From environmentalism to the emptiness of the Hollywood franchise machine, Trevorrow has reflected many of society’s systemic ills on a gigantic, global stage, turning this series into something of an heirloom destined for the next filmmaker looking to tackle the state of humanity today.

After the first Jurassic World, you stepped away from the director’s chair for Fallen Kingdom. What brought you back?
I never felt like I went away. I was there the whole time when we were making Fallen Kingdom. I really embraced my role as a producer and a writer and I did know the story that we ultimately wanted to tell. I think when people see this film, Fallen Kingdom will make sense in ways that maybe it didn’t when they saw it, because it was a middle film. And yet it was really important for me to let J.A. Bayona make his movie. To be there and witness that, to see all of his dailies, to learn as much as I did from him during that time and then come back and apply everything I learned to a third film, I found that to be an amazing opportunity in its own right.

Your background in comedy, from your internship at SNL to Safety Not Guaranteed, shines through in some of casting for the Jurassic World movies. Is having comedians pop up every now and then something you seek out or is that a happy accident?
Oh, no, I definitely seek it out. I’m a giant comedy nerd. There’s actually some British comics in the film: Ben Ashenden, Alex Owen, Ahir Shah. There’s an amazing improv scene in London right now that I pulled a lot of really smart and brilliant people from. For me, it’s getting that out of my system. Like my deep desire to really just be a writer on SNL and live in that world. I’ve gone down another path, but I do get little moments of that energy into these movies.

I think you’re doing pretty well even for not being a writer on SNL
Well, just because we’re talking about something I’m interested in. I never like to be asked to talk about something more. Freya Parker, who’s also in the movie — she’s the one who’s manning the control tower — that little moment when Dodgson’s over her shoulder and she says, “It’s another Denise in accounts,” that was improv from her. Everything that Ben Ashton says as the barista: all from him, all improv, in a long, four-minute mag of film. Giving them that space is something that I, as a comedy nerd, get a lot of joy out of.

This trilogy approaches the dinosaurs more as animals, less as monsters. Why did that feel like an important decision?
It’s something that came from, not my own personal relationship with animals, but observing others’. My mother trains horses, and I’ve seen her connection with and the intelligence of those animals. I felt like it was a way to differentiate our trilogy and take it in a direction that was a little bit more humanist. The relationship between Owen and Blue is, on one side, somewhat preposterous. Other characters call it out in this movie, Jeff Goldblum comments on it. But on the other side, especially for kids, it’s something they deeply care about and it’s meaningful to them. That’s part of the balance that I need to strike when I’m making these movies: to recognize that there’s some things for the younger generation that are gonna really work, and some things that the older generation may side-eye a little bit. In this movie, we were able to kind of let those perspectives coexist.

The T. rex from Jurassic Park is like a symbol of our childhoods. And in this film, she really makes a comeback at the end when she defeats the Gigantosaurus against all odds. Why is it important that she still wins in the end? 
It didn’t get to be in the final movie, but in the prologue that’s online, another T. rex dies. Our favorite character dies at the beginning of the movie. That, to me, was such a horrifying loss for all of us who grew up with the T. rex. To build this into something that feels like a revenge picture that takes place over 65 million years was one of my favorite ideas that we had.

It’s so emotional, it’s so personal. We hold these characters that we loved as children very close and it’s really hard for us to let them go. Sometimes I feel like the deaths of these iconic characters are a good dry run for the deaths of our parents. It’s something that’s really real to us. When it comes to her, when it comes to Alan, Ellie, Ian Malcolm, all of these icons, I wanted people to leave this movie feeling like they were gonna be okay. I think that’s how we all need to feel right now.

Was it intimidating to direct the original cast?
Well, anyone directing Oscar winner Laura Dern is going to have to look themselves in the mirror before heading out there on the day. But we had been living together for six weeks or something before we actually shot, so I knew Laura pretty well. We were eating breakfast in the morning and were there on weekends. We literally couldn’t leave. So when we all stood on that sound stage together, even though they were characters pretending they had never met, there was this sense of camaraderie. Hopefully it doesn’t feel like characters who know they’re in a movie. It feels like real people who are meeting other real people and then have to power forward and survive.

Henry Wu’s arc in this movie also felt like justice done for a character who maybe got shortchanged in Jurassic Park. He was a major character in the book but in just one scene in the movie. 
He and I really saw eye to eye from the very beginning when I asked him to come back and be in Jurassic World. He never saw Henry as a villain and neither did I; he was someone who had tremendous ambition and was always reaching for something. We find out in this film that what he was reaching for is actually something that can cause tremendous good and save lives, and in this case, rebalance the planet ecologically. These are great achievements that I think are a redemption for him. And the thing that I find most powerful in the film when it comes to his character is that last moment when it’s revealed that he gave credit to Charlotte Lockwood for the discovery. For his whole career and especially in the book, he had been seeking credit for what he’d done and had felt so unappreciated. “Everything that you see here is because of me,” he says in our first film. And so for him to finally give credit to someone else, I found that to be the greatest sign of his evolution and his redemption.

I spoke to BD Wong himself a few months ago, and he talked about how our love and hate of the dinosaurs can also be a metaphor for the entertainment industry. He specifically drew a comparison to the Kardashians. He said we demand the Kardashians exist, and then we get mad that they exist. Does this franchise feel like commentary on the culture of franchises we now live in?
The first one was a bit about itself in a way that I think would be a little too navel gazing if I were to continue it for the whole trilogy. There’s that great moment with Jake Johnson, where he is talking about them naming the dinosaurs “Tostidodon” and “Pepsisaurus,” and it’s a very cynical way to enter a movie. But by the end of that movie, Claire strips away and rejects the machine and embraces nature. That was me kind of stripping away all my cynicism and embracing that dinosaurs are awesome. It was a very childlike way to end the film.

But the second film is about moving animals from one continent to another and the dangers of displacing them. And this movie is definitely about genetic power and not being humble in the face of nature. And I think we’ve seen that there were choices made 30, 40 years ago, that we’re all facing the consequences for now, just like the dinosaurs in this film. And we end on a note of hope: if we can find a way to work together and coexist, we can find our way out of this mess that we’ve created for ourselves. I don’t mind kids hearing that right now.

What was it about Dodgson, a character from the original Jurassic Park, that made him the perfect villain for this film?
I was always really interested in that character as somebody who was so mercenary. Like, who was this guy, a low-level dude at the company, who was willing to go to Costa Rica to give a shaving cream can to this other dude? It was such a nefarious thing for a climber to do. And then imagining a climber finally getting to the top job and the kind of things he would keep hidden from his own employees. What Campbell Scott really dialed into with me and Mamoudou Athie is that relationship of someone who is a mentor to others and yet is betraying all of them by betraying their values. The Mamoudou story is my favorite in the movie. It’s a great character for young people to look to as we realize that our mentors and our bosses aren’t necessarily the ones who are going to create change. It’s gonna take us doing it.

Were there any real-world touchstones that informed the eccentricities of that character? I immediately drew parallels to Elon Musk and the tech CEOs in scam documentaries like WeCrashed and The Dropout.
Well, we wrote it back in 2018, but Emily Carmichael and I — as I’m sure you can tell — we’re pretty progressive people. And yet we also recognize that we’re not solely making these movies for people who think like us or believe like we do. I felt like the most relatable idea is that — Ian Malcolm says it in that one scene — they give you so many promotions so fast and take such good care of you that you’re not gonna look behind this door, and you’re not gonna question some of these choices. But I think all of us recognize that we got here maybe because of some of the decisions made behind those closed doors that we kept quiet about. I think we’re in a moment right now where people have a shared morality and realize that things need to really change, and the younger generation is really stepping up to create that change.

Your work is often about characters who want to right wrongs they’ve done — in Safety Not Guaranteed, they literally go back in time to do this. What draws you to that as a story?
We had this conversation at dinner the other night and DeWanda and Bryce pointed this out to me. In each of the films that I’ve made — Bryce’s character in Jurassic World, even The Book of Henry, my third film, and this — there’s always people who are sitting out the fight and need to join the fight, or people who are making the wrong choices and need to look at their life in a different way and make the right choices. It’s only a pattern that I just saw very recently. I grew up in the Bay Area in San Francisco and that’s a very activist-based community, and film is an opportunity to encourage all of us to be our best selves without lecturing. I like that movies can be a Trojan horse for ideas.

Your collaboration with Emily was born out of a similar situation for you personally, when you found yourself in a system that’s not necessarily your fault, but you wanted to do something about it. What have you learned from that collaboration?
Well, I think there’s two sides to that. There’s how the movie benefited from a storytelling standpoint in being able to have her perspective on a bunch of different elements that I know I saw in a different way because of the way she thought about it. That was an opportunity for me. And over the past five or six years since Emily and I met, to see her go from someone whose short film I loved to a writer who was a working writer on her own, to my co-writer and my collaborator, and now I know she’s got an incredible career ahead of her. To me, it spoke a lot to the value of creative people helping each other out. Helping others see the mistakes that you’ve made, and learn from those mistakes so they don’t make the same ones. Just like putting traffic cones around all the potholes in this industry, so they can kind of weave around and hopefully get to where you are with a little bit less pain. I think we can do that for each other.

The ending of this film leaves some doors open with the addition of new characters. Do you think a more definite ending might have been too depressing?
In a lot of ways, this is the first Jurassic movie that isn’t about a bunch of people who go to an island that turns out not to be safe. It creates a totally different status quo. And to me, with the amount of change from start to finish here, it feels like the right place to end that story. But when that much change happens, a new world exists and there’s opportunities in that world. So I didn’t wanna completely shut it down. I wanted to create new characters who I think are icons in their own right. The minute the DeWanda Wise walks on screen, you realize you’re looking at a new hero who’s gonna be with us for a long time. Just because I don’t think I should necessarily be the one to continue telling the story doesn’t mean that there’s not another filmmaker out there who’s gonna have the same kind of passion for it that I had in 2013. And he, or she, is out there listening.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Why Colin Trevorrow Won’t Let the T. Rex Die