Gareth Edwards is not what you probably picture when you think of a special effects artist turned science fiction director: he’s personable and energetic, as charming to look at as he is to listen to, and utterly enthusiastic about his new movie, Monsters. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a near-future in which a NASA probe brought back life from one of Jupiter’s moons, and the creatures have taken over half of Mexico.
The U.S. and Mexican militaries cannot eradicate them, so they just blocked off the “Infected Zone.” The story follows two people who have to travel through the zone to get home. I attended Edwards’ (solo) NY Comic Con panel about making a special effects movie on a tiny budget and had the delightful opportunity to sit down for a chat with him afterwards. If you love science fiction movies or truly independent movies, then make a point to see this one. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Neither does Gareth Edwards. When asked by one of the attendees at his panel whether he was nervous about his film now that it was getting seen, he blandly replied, “No.”
And with good reason; he is a self-proclaimed fan of science fiction, and he has been planning to make a movie in the genre for what sounded like half his life. He’s had a lot of time to consider what other productions got wrong so that he could get it right, and he is confident that his film did. What he wanted, he went on to say to explain his confidence in his movie, was to create a reality where the monsters felt real and believable, and to tell a story that was driven not by special effects and not by the action, but by the characters.
Part of how he ensured that was by getting the best performances possible from all his cast, which, other than the two leads, was made up of extras. Several times he referred to his approach to film-making as “guerilla,” and when you understand how he went about creating the footage for this movie, you’ll probably agree.
They worked without a formal script, and without too many pre-scouted locations. Once they were on the ground in Central America, he explained, someone would go out and find something really cool to use as a location for a particular scene. And while they were going to that location, if they passed something else interesting, they’d hop out and pick a scene to film there, something within a few scenes in either direction in the script. They had them coded based on whether they were event scenes or emotion/character development scenes, and if the script called for people other than the two leads, they would just ask anyone who happened to be around if they wanted to join in.
“Everyone is a great actor,” Edwards boldly claimed, and then paused to let that sink in. “No one can play you as well as you can. So that’s what we asked everybody to do. We gave them the basic scene, pointed to a few things that had to happen in the course of the scene, in the conversation, and let them get there their own way. And it worked brilliantly.”
He talked specifically about the man who sells them their passage, who was apparently a restaurant owner and one of the two people in town who spoke English. They told him what they wanted, and they filmed about two hours with him for the (in my opinion) iconic scenes in which he explains the state of travel affairs and is at once both affable and implacable in laying out their options. “It is $5000.” “That’s a lot of money.” “I know. But that is the price.” “Well, how about $3000? I have $3000.” “It is $5000. I wish I could help, but this is the last ferry. It is $5000.”
The two lead actors were also not exempted from this authenticity. Edwards said he deliberately cast Whitney Port because she already knew Scoot McNairy, because he wanted them to be comfortable together. Even though he thought initially she was too pretty for the part, their chemistry together was more important. “They’ve since gotten married, since we finished filming,” he added. “So the chemistry you see on screen—that’s real. That’s happening.”
Edwards seemed pleased but not altogether surprised by that development, probably because he said during the panel that he thinks “Any movie about a man and a woman is a love story. Even if it’s about what doesn’t happen. Even if it’s just about moments, about possibilities.”
No doubt this was why he chose to cast a male and female lead for the story of two people trying to get home.
As to why that was the basic idea for his movie: one woman at the panel Q&A asked why he had chosen Mexico as a location for the monsters to live and the people to travel through. Left unsaid in her question, but something she had probably angled for, was whether the movie is making a statement on U.S. immigration policy and the path of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Certainly there is an implicit parallel between two U.S. citizens sneaking home via the same path that undocumented immigrants trod, while the literal wall that had been built to keep the creatures out of the U.S. could be viewed as analogous to the proposed wall to keep out illegal immigrants. Certainly that subtext is present, if you want to see it (although I’m not sure what conclusions you might draw from the story and setting of the film, even if you examine it through that socio-political lens).
I, however, prefer to take Edwards at his word that the decision was motivated solely by storytelling concerns. “I wanted,” he said in response to the question, “to tell a story everyone could relate to. And we can all relate to going home. So I was telling a story about two people trying to get home. Once we cast Scoot and Whitney, who are both American, we knew where they were trying to go home to. And there were only two options for them to travel through, Mexico or Canada, and we immediately thought Mexico. I ran into trouble with that at the Toronto Film Festival…what’s wrong with Canada? But Mexico of course has all that beautiful scenery, and there is an added element of—of adventure to have them traveling there.”
The one other big question that came out of the panel was what Monsters actually cost to make. Edwards nixed the internet rumors of $15,000-$20,000, saying they were based on a cost analysis of the equipment only. “I had a salary, Scoot and Whitney had salaries, and there was the rest of the crew…and we all had expenses. So it wasn’t that low. I honestly don’t know what it cost. Under a hundred thousand, I think, but the bottom line is: I don’t know.”
Still, given that $5 million is considered a nothing budget these days, that answer makes Monsters an even more impressive achievement, even if it cost every dollar under that hundred thousand.
During the panel, the main projector for running clips had a coloration issue (and seriously? How is it that an event the size and technologically-mindedness of Comic Con didn’t have better equipment handling?), so Edwards popped a DVD of the film into his laptop and screened clips from there. He joked several times about keeping the DVD, as he did not yet have one, so the first thing I told him as we sat down for an interview was that I knew where he could find one.
I explained that we’d had a street hustler approach us in a bar and offer us the movie. “You know you’ve got good buzz if the street hustlers are pushing it,” I said.
He laughed. “Yeah, the worst review for a film ever in the history of cinema? I was at a comic convention, and this guy was selling pirated DVDs, and I kind of looked at them, to see what was going on here, and I spotted M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s The Happening. And I was like, Oh, that looks—in my mind I was like, That trailer looked awesome, I wanted to see that. So I asked the guy, ‘Is that The Happening, is it any good?’ and he was like, ‘To be honest, mate, don’t waste your money.’ And I was thinking he’s, like, a criminal for a living but he feels guilty selling me this movie. That’s got to be the worst review, ever, for a film.”
“I think that counts,” I agreed, and we talked about the Shyamalan movie for a bit. We both liked it, though Edwards admitted he didn’t like the ending. He suggested an alternate twist might have been that the people were killing themselves. I pointed him to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Kairo is the Japanese title), about that very phenomenon.
I asked him next whether he thought he’d stick with science fiction movies, or at least come back to the genre sometimes.
“If I was stuck and I had to make the same genre film every time, I would race to science fiction and happily be stuck there,” he told me. “But I also don’t like the idea of that’s the only films I do.” He broke off and laughed. “I talk like this, like I’m going to make loads of films. It’s a really privileged position to be able to make a film, so I’m just having a hypothetical conversation about it. But, yeah, I’d look to do different genres. I believe for the next one, it will be science fiction, because I want to play to my strengths right now, and because I have this slight understanding of visual effects. If you go out of the visual effects world for more than a few years, when you come back, it will be completely changed. Like the software, right now, is different from what you used two years ago. So I kind of don’t want to lose that knowledge right now, and there are other things to do. Like you could make an epic-looking movie, an insanely epic-looking movie, with a budget that is low by Hollywood standards, so I’m hoping for the next one we can have a crack at doing that. I mean, I’m sure it will be a nightmare, I’m sure I’ll be killing myself, but I think when you’re still young-ish you’ve got to do those crazy things, take those risks. I’m not sure how much you can stay up till 4 a.m. nights when you’re fifty-odd. So I think you’ve got to get those films out of your system now.”
“Along the line of science fiction movies,” I wondered, “what are some of your favorite science fiction movies?”
“Well, obviously—the obvious ones, first stop is Star Wars, and Spielberg movies, and James Cameron, and all those people. But the non-obvious ones would be…” He paused to think. “B-movies, like…actually, they’re really not B-movies, they were A-movies back then. But War of the Worlds, and Forbidden Planet, and A Thing from Another World, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Anything around from that era I love. And in terms of obscure science fiction….Well, with Monsters, I always forget to mention this when we talk about it, and I’ve got to start remembering, a big inspiration—and I love the movie—is Quiet Earth. It’s a New Zealand film. Have you seen it?”
I was forced to lose some of my SF cred and admit that I have not.
He happily explained it to me. “It’s about a guy who wakes up, and there’s no one else there. Like, he’s the only man in the world. They’re not dead, they’re just not anywhere, and he’s trying to figure out what the hell’s happening. Every house is empty, empty streets…it’s that kind of I Am Legend type scenario, but it was done in the 80s, and it’s quite good. It has that problem that it doesn’t know how to end, and it does something quite strange, but I still love it, I love the atmosphere.”
My last question is what he would do if he had the budget of Avatar, which I used as an example in part because it had the most extreme budget in the opposite direction of Monsters that I could think of, and in part because I was curious whether a special effects guy would want to make a movie that was all effects.
“Um,” he started, hesitating a moment. “See, the thing is, if I had to do Avatar, I don’t think I’d have done it all in CG. The forests…I would have tried to have done that with real trees and stuff. You know, technically it’s amazing what they’ve done on that film, but stylistically, it feels constrained by the fact that it was CG, that it has the cameras floating perfectly everywhere. I mean, put it this way: forget they’re aliens, right? Stylistically it’s not exactly Apocalypse Now, is it?”
“No,” I agreed easily, pleased at his answer.
“And I think stylistically Apocalypse Now is one of the greatest films ever made—that’s from a directing point of view. So, like, you can have all the resources in the world but you still don’t make a Palme d’Or-winning movie. If you did, that would be really impressive, that would sort of say you had all these resources, but you also made an incredibly artistic film.”
“And instead,” I helpfully pointed out what Edwards was careful not to say, “you have that and you make Avatar. I’m not a fan; you don’t have to comment, but I’m not a fan.”
“I love James Cameron,” he told me, “but I love his early stuff. His early stuff was phenomenal. He was a genius back then. And he’s still a genius, but now he’s making films that I’m not as into as his early stuff.”
I wondered whether the lack of constraints makes a difference. “I think sometimes constraints make you creative,” I clarified, “whether it’s a budget constraint or a physical constraint, like you just can’t film that scene on Earth with the gravity we have and the equipment that we have, so you have to figure out a way to do it through camera angles or editing, versus Avatar—any scene you can imagine, you just computer generate it. That’s a big difference.”
“Yeah, it’s not a good thing,” Edwards agreed. “I think limitations are very important. We were very limited, and I think if we’d had less limitations we’d have made a worse film, so I’ve got to remember that. I think you get lazy as you get older, or more easily tired and jaded and cynical, so I think it’d be very easy to get comfortable, to not have those limitations, because it forces you to think harder. I worry about that. Why do so many filmmakers—and we all know it happens—just sort of lose it? I mean, is it just old age? Or is it more to do with they have more power, more resources?”
“Maybe they get complaisant?”
“Yeah, or they just fall back on what they know works. It’d be very interesting, I think, no matter how well things went, if at some point in your career you just destroy your career on purpose to force yourself back to the bottom. Like, I love the idea of James Cameron making a movie for under a million….They should commission that.”
It is that last answer that gives me so much enthusiasm for Gareth Edwards’ next project, whatever it turns out to be. I prefer my science fiction movies grounded in reality, with effects that are just that—smoke and mirrors, not the bedrock of a film—and a director who worries that more resources might deliver a lesser film is probably going to find a way to keep that from happening.
If you want to see just what can be done with a five-figure budget, make sure you check out Monsters. The film hit theaters in extremely limited release last weekend (LA, New York, Austin) but has expanded now to about 10 cities and will hopefully be moving out from there. It was also available on demand from iTunes last month and might still be. That’s how I watched it—you can read my review here.
- editors note – fans of Gareth Edwards and/or Monsters might want to read Hal Duncan’s long and always interesting take on Monsters.
– originally published 11/0/2010
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.