Nacho Vigalondo wishes he had a heroic story about how he convinced Anne Hathaway to sign onto Colossal. As a kooky little indie film about the woman who controls a monster attacking downtown Seoul, it’s a concept of such wild imagination that the young writer-director dreams of a creation myth of equal eccentricity. One where he is standing in front of her door dressed as King Kong, a guitar and original song in hand, all to woo the Oscar winning actress into making a titanic kaiju do the funky chicken.
Yet the reality seems to be much more true to the nature of how this gung ho picture came to be. Her agent, having read his out-there screenplay, convinced Vigalondo to let him pass it along to his client. The Spanish filmmaker agreed, expecting it’d make a great cocktail story one day—particularly if he ever had the chance to meet Hathaway at one of those swanky shindigs.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll live in a world where Anne Hathaway has read the script.’ I’m okay with that,” Vigalondo muses more than a year later and now a week out from his film’s U.S. premiere. “When she showed interest I was totally blown away.”
But such is the serendipitous journey of Colossal, a shrewdly ambitious genre mash-up that quickly got its first casting choices in an ensemble that also includes Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, and Tim Blake Nelson. And a giant dancing monster. You can never forget that.
As he discusses with me his unexpected blending of archetypes, audience expectations, and narrative scope, Vigalondo still appears eager thinking about the scale of what he’s made. Pivoting in his chair and occasionally lightly tapping the corner table next to us for emphasis, he seems as surprised as anyone that something so bizarre has been willed into existence.
“It’s like an indie, an old film, dreaming about being a blockbuster,” Vigalondo says with tangible pride about his film festival darling. “Or the opposite. A blockbuster trying to be an indie film. It came from a lot of places.” Indeed, the 39-year-old filmmaker who hails from Madrid estimates that 50 percent of the movie, the human comedy and the drama within, is drawn from his own real-life experiences of being an adult thirtysomething coming to terms with expectations from life (and its anxieties). Yet the picture has the kind of magical realism of Woody Allen on a nostalgia trip (or Charlie Kaufman by Vigalondo’s own admission), and a love for the kind of big scaled monster destruction that Vigalondo enjoys from a wholly different corner of moviemaking.
“In Spain when you’re a child, you don’t have a big access to kaiju films,” the helmer reflects about his experience with Toho’s famous monster movies, Godzilla and otherwise. He then adds with a laugh, “You’re familiar with TV stuff, like the Power Rangers stuff. When you’re young, you’re not sure where that’s coming from.”
Still, Vigalondo does fondly recall the anime Mazinger Z, in which giant kaiju monsters existed, albeit only for a robot to physically manhandle them. An idea that still finds echoes in Colossal. However, the giant monster movie that most affected his youth is one that is fairly universal.
“King Kong is part of our language; it’s a common expression,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it’s part of pop culture. It’s culture. That’s a movie I learned to appreciate in different ways as I grew older, because monster films, even if the monster is at the center, the movie is treated as a natural disaster. Like something that goes on and destroys everything in its path. You have to destroy it… but King Kong has a true nature as a character. All his motivations are dramatic motivations.”
This too may be touchstone for his own giant creature who looks entirely unique from the Toho canon of creatures, be they the Big G, Mothra, Rodan, or any other. And yet, it intentionally reaches for that cinematic DNA with a certain innocence and sweetness—as well as dramatic purpose since Hathaway’s Gloria learns to channel her monster avatar to be a force for good, and an extension of herself, as opposed to emerging from her worst habits. Like drinking too much and then getting a far flung city similarly wrecked.
“We needed to make a monster that didn’t feel like a comment on the other monsters,” Vigalondo explains. “We just wanted to make a monster that felt as part of the tradition. We didn’t want it to be a post-modern kaiju.” Like the earlier interpretations of Godzilla, he hopes his creature could be a hero and villain. A toy that children would root for. “We wanted to make something that had all the absurd and charm of the real creatures from the classic tradition.”
Nevertheless, the creativity of the filmmaker’s conceit is that any humanity in the creature is placed there by Hathaway, in terms of narrative storytelling as well as in her performance always reacting to the fact that she remotely controls a beast from the sea.
“The script that you see on the screen is the script that we shared. It’s the same one that I wrote,” the filmmaker states. After all, it is the off-the-wall concept that captured Hollywood actors like Hathaway and Sudeikis’ attention. But Vigalondo can only repeatedly credit the layers of Gloria—a struggling thirtysomething who both owns her decisions, yet finds herself running to an empty childhood home after life gets hard—to what Hathaway brought aboard.
“We tend to think in a shooting, the dominant figure, the leader, is a director. Why?” he rhetorically chuckles. “Because he knows more than anybody else? But the real thing is of all the people in the room, the people with less experience is the director. From the time it takes me to make a movie to be on-set in like weeks, everybody else makes 40 or 400 movies. So when I’m working with someone like an Anne Hathaway, I have to be aware of the fact I’ve made four films with [Colossal]. She’s made a ton of those. So she knows so many things about how to make the character develop onscreen, and I have to to acknowledge a big a chunk of what Gloria is, is coming from her. It’s coming from Anne Hathaway.”
Gloria could be conceived as a wreck or a flake by the more cynical viewer—she is certainly draped in such fashion by the men in her life—but for her creator, it was the collaboration with his star that allowed the protagonist to breakaway and stand apart from such judgments.
It is also those flaws in Gloria, which Vigalondo points to as inspired from his own life, that give this kaiju monster bite. Right down to the character’s alcoholism. Then again, the director winces when I mention that word.
“To me alcoholism is a really serious word and I never use that in the film,” he demurs. “Most of that is [about] a person who is not able to control themselves. She’s not driving the car she’s into—apparently nobody’s driving the car, and you’re still in the backseat.”
The helmer then further explains, “Let’s say that I felt like that in a time in my life. The best about fiction is that it is the only way of working, it is the only way that you can turn a traumatic experience and traumatic feelings into something that can [enlighten] people.
“[Like] the main character, I’m from a small town in the north but I live in Madrid, and at some point in my life, if I had to go back to my town, that would mean failure. If I had to go back to my parents’ place. Yes, I’m going back to the place that I was raised and that has a lot of charming elements, but on the other hand, in my case it would mean failure. It would be like I was unable to make a career out of this. So those kind of fears are always there.”
They’re also onscreen, whether inside of a bar or 40-stories above the rooftops of Seoul, when Colossal opens in theaters on April 7.