One of last year’s very best sci-fi movies, Monsters gained a great deal of attention, thanks to its stunning acting, direction and special effects. On a shoestring budget, filmmaker Gareth Edwards acted as writer, director and effects creator, with actors Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy largely improvising their dialogue on location in Guatemala.
The result was a low key, tender sci-fi drama, a touching journey through a near-future Central America that has become a war zone, with the US army engaged in a perpetual war against vast, octopus-like creatures from outer space.
Monsters‘ critical acclaim has propelled Edwards into the movie industry’s attention, and over the past few months, he’s been developing a sci-fi project with Russian filmmaker, Timur Bekmambetov, and most excitingly, developing a new adaptation of the biggest monster of them all, Godzilla.
Ahead of Monsters‘ DVD and Blu-ray release next week, we caught up with Edwards to talk about his inspiration for the film, his influences, and what he’s up to next.
Certain scenes in Monsters reminded me very much of the work of Werner Herzog. Was he an influence?
I would love to say he was. I’ve got more into him since, because everyone’s brought this up. I’ve seen a few more of his films than I should have since. The sort of influences, one that isn’t mentioned very much, is a guy called Peter Watkins.
I came through the ranks of the BBC documentary department. I was lucky working during this drama doc era, where they did reconstructions, basically like cheap drama made by the factual department.
Because of that, people who wouldn’t normally be allowed to do drama were given the opportunity to work with actors. A lot of it’s rubbish, including my stuff, but there was this guy who I aspired to be, Peter Watkins. He did things like Punishment Park and The War Game in the 60s. He was brilliant at getting performances out of people, where you couldn’t figure out whether they were actors or real people.
The way he got that was basically by being very open and not scripting things. He shot things like a documentary. So, that was a massive influence. It was so reassuring to see such great performances in his stuff, and finding out some of them weren’t actors.
The same with Michael Winterbottom’s work. In This World was a big influence, because we were struggling at the start to- We aspired to make something that didn’t already exist, but the problem was explaining [Monsters] to people, because before they’ve seen it, they couldn’t get a handle on what it would be like.
So, we pointed at In This World a lot, and said to our producers, “Watch this. This is that mix between something you can’t control and a story. It’s an epic journey. It’s blatantly non-acted, and uses real locations, but it’s somehow manipulated.” I’m not sure of the ins and outs of that, but In This World was a big influence.
I was struck by how good some of the non-actors were in Monsters. What direction did you give them? Imagine we were filming this now. The scene’s a journalist interviewing a director about a film. You’d be giving a spot-on performance, up there with…
Yeah! Because all the little nuances, all the little things you’re doing are perfect, because it’s just what you do. And so, it really sounds simple, but you don’t go in and mess with that. Whatever that person’s doing, you let them do it.
I’ll be honest, if you sat and watched the rushes, a lot of these people, if they had a big scene, like the family or the ticket seller- We shot hours of stuff. Off and on, about an hour [in the case of the ticket seller]. The family, we were with them for half a day at least.
There’s loads more stuff that never made the film, because it felt we were staying in the house to long. But both those people, you watch the rushes for the first ten minutes, it’s bad. They’ve never had this before. There’s a camera in their face. I get it, when I’ve had to do interviews for the film. You’re nervous. You’re not yourself. It takes five or ten minutes to relax.
One of the things that’s a great ice breaker, is someone like Scoot [McNairy]. You could never tell whether he was in character or not. He’d spark up a conversation that was nothing to do with the film whatsoever. I’d be filming it, thinking, “Scoot, what are you doing? We’re doing a scene!” And to this day, I’m not sure whether he was trying to relax them, or just going off on a tangent, but it would work wonders.
Not saying “cut” and “action” really helped. Out of all the takes in the film, we probably said those words about five percent of the time. We didn’t like this idea of, ‘now we’re acting, now we’re not acting” We’re just going to be these people, and go on this journey, and shoot the crap out of it.
The lines were blurred, then, all the time. Because you had a real-life couple [Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy] in the central roles, too.
Yeah. I wanted it to be like that. I really didn’t want it to feel like acting. In a weird way, we get some negativity about the film. And I’m always really shocked when someone’s negative about their performances. I don’t mind people saying the graphics are rubbish, but when they criticise their performances, I kind of get upset, because I really think what they did was amazing.
What I think people are getting at, is that their performances are so subtle, so normal, that it looks as though they’re not acting. Like they haven’t bothered. It’s not what people would expect when they come to a monster movie. They expect over-the-top pointing and screaming, and instead they get this intimate relationship that’s brooding.
In a way, it’s a massive compliment to them, because they think they haven’t done anything. And surely that’s what great acting is.
What was the thinking behind the title? Did you worry that title suggested a big B-movie, which, of course, it isn’t.
I’d love to go back in time, and in an alternate dimension, play out every possible title. I’d love there to be a competition, where everyone who has a problem with the title puts forward their suggestion, and we go back and relaunch the film, and see how it works.
I honestly think, in this dimension, when we picked Monsters, we had the best outcome. What people don’t understand, is that when the film was in South By Southwest. It was among hundreds of films, or felt that way, and there are hundreds of other film festivals. How do you get anyone to come and watch your movie, especially when you’re in the midnight slot?
It wasn’t that carefully worked out. It was called Monsters by default, because it was ‘That monster movie’. If you were doing a war movie, you might call it, “War.” So, everything was labelled “Monsters”, which became our word for the film. We all had very different suggestions [for a title], and Monsters was at the top of the pile, and you had to knock it off with a better one.
The title we went out with while filming was Far From Home. Another was used to not scare off people who were signing forms, because Monsters sounds like a horrific slasher movie, was Another World, or Worlds Apart, or Tomorrow. The only one that worked for me was Tomorrow, as an alternate, because the film’s about what you’re going to do tomorrow, and it’s about things happening in the future.
But I’m not sure that, if people saw Tomorrow as a word somewhere. I know what I’m like when I’m scanning film titles. You just scan and words grab you. Monsters always makes you go, “Is that good or shit?” So, you read the synopsis.
I think the problem you come to, is that people come along with an expectation. There’s enough spectacle in the film so you can cram it into a trailer to make it look like Cloverfield 2, and then people go in thinking that’s what they’re going to get.
When you say Jaws, it’s a shit title. It’s a really shit title. It really is. But, the film’s so goddamn good, that when you say Jaws to people, no one thinks of the bone in your mouth. They just think of that great movie Spielberg made. It’s worse than Shark. Or imagine Jaws was called Great White and someone ran into a room one day and said, “Guys, guys. It’s no longer called Great White. It’s called Jaws.” You’d think, “You idiot. You’ve just ruined our movie.”
A movie should live beyond that. You do get teeth in jaws, you know, and you get monsters in Monsters, but it goes off on this love story tangent. I feel like, if you type in Monsters in Google now, the first thing that comes up is our film. So, I feel like we’ve claimed that word a bit.
I assumed the monsters of the title were the people in the jets, not the aliens. That’s what I took from it.
Exactly. There was a very, very early document titled When Monsters Attack! With the exclamation mark, right, and it was called that because – and this was ages ago – one of my concepts was to not film anything, and take archive footage from news and interviews or Discovery Channel-type stuff, and cut people out, and add creatures to genuine interviews about hurricanes and war, and make a fake documentary.
It was going to be like channel hopping. This wasn’t properly thought out. I had about six ways to make this film and this was one of them. It was like watching a Michael Moore documentary or something.
When Monsters Attack! was supposed to be a shit title on purpose. It was going to be a really cheesy Discovery Channel-type show, like When Sharks Attack, or When Things Go Bad, you know? [laughs] It was going to be a really crappy thing.
I was branching out in that direction. The other was on camcorder, like a found footage. That was before Cloverfield. Another one was that it’d be a drama, but then I thought that would be like a poor man’s Hollywood movie. Another one was more like a Michael Winterbottom, Peter Watkins-type approach.
My biggest fear was that, at the end of the process, even if it was brilliant, and you sat in a cinema and thought, “That’s the best mockumentary I’ve ever seen,” producers would come up to you and say, “What other mockumentaries do you want to do?” I thought the whole point of the exercise was to get into making movies.
I ended up getting loads of mockumentaries, including the one that Werner Herzog made [Incident At Loch Ness]. The idea is, Herzog’s gone out to make a film set in Loch Ness, and there’s a documentary being made about the making of his film. And while they’re making it, they see the real creature and it all goes wrong. Herzog walks off the project.
It threw me, watching it, because, if this is real, we’d have all heard about this. So, I did some research on the Internet, and there are some really great mockumentaries like this one. I’m guessing Herzog did this film with someone else. It was all planned. The creature’s well done.
It’s a little upsetting, watching all these mockumentaries you’ve bought on DVD, and they all feel like films that never made the cinema. You watch them, and it’s quite sad, because they’re quite clever, but for some reason they didn’t catch a wave, and you can only get them on Amazon now.
If you watch documentaries on TV, there’ll be crane shots as someone walks into a building, and no one’s looking at the crane. And you’re thinking, “There’s a giant crane in the street, and yet all these people have blatantly been told not to look at the camera.” So, it’s all fake.
There are documentaries that are trying to look like drama, and drama trying to look like documentaries.
In a drama, the camera doesn’t exist. In a documentary, it does. That was the line for me. Let’s do it as much like a documentary as we can, in terms of the process, with just me and a soundman and a small crew. But let’s not have anyone talk to the camera, because my biggest fear was that, when you’ve got just the two characters, and there’s a cameraman there, they’ll ask him, “Have you got a mobile phone?”
Recently, I went on holiday to Turkey and went for a walk with my girlfriend. We took a wrong turn, and realised about an hour into this that we’d gone completely the wrong way and that the sun was setting. By the time we went back the other way, it’d be pitch black. We didn’t have a torch or anything, and we were in the woods. There was this sense of, “Shit. We’re going to have to spend a night in here.” We wouldn’t even be able to see the path.
It was funny, because our conversations weren’t “Maybe we can head down here.” We were just in a mood with each other, and I was trying to make light-hearted jokes about things to keep things cool. I think that’s what people do, in those situations. It doesn’t turn into a brainstorm session about survival. It shows the cracks in your relationship with each other.
That’s what I like in the film, the long periods of silence. Another influence, on the plane, that I watched, was a film called Gerry by Gus Van Sant. It’s got Matt Damon. Do you know it?
I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.
You think, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon, that’s going to be a hit. It’s about Matt Damon stuck in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like 127 Hours, but you could argue it’s similar. Most people haven’t even heard of it, which is shocking, how things can go under the radar.
It’s so bold. Gus Van Sant is so, ‘I’m making my movie. Go away. This is my movie.’ Which is great.
It’s just walking. An hour and a half of walking. No one says a word, but the slightest look becomes important, because you think they might kill each other if they make a wrong turn or something.
I actually met Van Sant at a festival in Sweden. And my normal comeback for people when they say, “Why’s your film called Monsters?”, my crappy joke is, I have the same problem with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. [laughs] I love elephants, and there are no elephants in that movie!
So, I said that to Van Sant, expecting him to laugh. And he said, “There is an elephant. There’s a shot in there with an elephant.” And I was like, “Damn it!”
Monsters appears to have opened all kinds of doors for you. There’s been talk of you making a Godzilla movie. Is that definite?
Yeah, I’m developing it with Legendary Pictures at the moment. But it’s at such early stages. I look on the Internet and read about everything, and hopefully, it’ll all go well and work out. My biggest problem is that I can’t talk about it much…
So will Godzilla come after your project with Timur Bekmambetov?
There’s no order at the moment, in theory. They’re both in development. What happens is that you have different periods. Development is the first phase. People write a script, you get concept art. You get to a point where you get a green light, which is basically a production company saying they’re going to put the money up to make the movie. Then you go into production.
I think some people get confused between development and pre-production. In pre-production, you know all your dates.You know when you’re aiming to release the film. You’ve got your script. You’ve got everything sorted.
When you’re in development, it’s still being born, in a way. So, for both of those films, that’s where we’re at. We’ll see what happens.
I’m told it’s very normal to have more than one film in development. I was actually advised to do it, strangely. I’m brand new to this game, and as I was trying to explain earlier, I look on the Internet at my hero filmmakers, and it looks like they’re making a movie, but for some reason that’s out of their control, it doesn’t happen.
And everyone warns you that you should have a couple of things going, because you never can know what will work. But everyone’s excited about Godzilla. There’s no reason why that won’t happen.
I think the prospect of it’s so interesting, when compared with the last attempt at a western Godzilla, because we have a director who’s interested in characters and stories as well as special effects. It seems like a perfect fit.
Cheers. Monsters is its own film. If I was going to repeat myself, I wouldn’t want to do it. Godzilla‘s a very different beast, if you’ll excuse the pun. I’ll probably end up saying that a lot over the next couple of years, but Godzilla has to be a spectacle. There’s no way it can’t be.
But I think there’s a way of doing that where you really do care about what’s going on. It’s not just effects for the sake of it. That’s what I’m very, very keen on. That’s the holy grail, for me, in terms of filmmaking, in creating films that have spectacle that have the commercial, blockbuster sensibilities, but it doesn’t mean they have to sacrifice their artistic integrity as well.
If you look at the people who’ve achieved that, you’re looking at people like Christopher Nolan, who’s made his films through Legendary and Warner Bros, so it feels like a safe place for me. It makes a lot of sense. We all know it’s because Christopher Nolan’s brilliant, but it’s reassuring that they’ve got a good track record with those kinds of movies.
There’s been some talk of Monsters 2, whether it be a TV series or a movie. Are you likely to be involved in that?
I’m not sure how much I can say, but I’m pretty sure it’s out there that they’re working on a feature film, a sequel. Something’s happening, and I don’t want to scupper what they want to give out. But I can say that there’s a feature film being planned, and it’s a sequel.
I won’t be directing it, but it’ll happen with my full support, because Vertigo, I’m forever in debt to them for what they did. I totally support what they want to do with the franchise.
It’s very strange being in a meeting when they use the phrase, “In the first film…” It’s a bit like saying, “My first wife…” It feels like two words that shouldn’t go together. But I’m very interested in what happens.
Gareth Edwards, thank you very much!
Monsters is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 11th April.
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