Irrespective of budget, Monsters is most definitely one of the most unusual, thought-provoking science fiction movies we’ve seen this year. That Monsters, a film shot, directed and written by Gareth Edwards, was made with the kind of money that buys a family car makes it all the more remarkable.
We caught up with Mr. Edwards on a chilly Friday afternoon to talk about his film, starting with the genesis of the idea while watching fishermen on holiday in the Maldives…
I gather you’re indebted to some fishermen for the idea of Monsters…
Allegedly. They’re not getting any of the back end profits, though! It’s funny, you say something in an interview, and you don’t want to contradict yourself, so you end up saying the same thing in the next one. And after a while I was like, “Was that really the first time I’d ever thought about it?”
I was having this exact same conversation with my girlfriend last night. She remembers that moment. It’s basically the first time I can put a date on it, because I remember saying it out loud: “Watch these fishermen. Imagine there was a creature on their boat. Watch how they behave. It would be totally realistic.” And she said, “Yeah, it would.”
That was the first time I could definitely put a date on it. But my graduation film, which was in 1996, was a monster movie, so I wanted to do monster movies back then.
And I saw Jurassic Park, like everybody, and my only disappointment was that I was hoping [the dinosaurs] would get on the mainland. I was hoping they’d affect suburbia, homes and towns and stuff. Obviously, it stays on the tropical island, and so I was thinking to myself that I wanted to do a monster movie that took place in our back yard, like it’s in the place I live in and you live in.
That’s what I did in my graduation film. It’s terrible. You wouldn’t ever want to watch it. I’d burn every copy of it if I could. But it was a monster movie set in suburbia. And what happens is, movies come along like War Of The Worlds, and you think, “That’s not going to be special anymore.”
My biggest problem was, if I shoot a low-budget film, it’s going to look low-budget and shoot it on video. So, I thought, why don’t I embrace that, like Blair Witch. So I went ahead and wrote up a document about this, and even wrote on the front “Blair Witch meets War Of The Worlds“, and I was about to go and try and do it, and the Cloverfield trailer hit the Internet.
So, I had to forget about that, and move on. The next thing was, if Cloverfield was like September the 11th, the logical progression from there is Afghanistan, so let’s do a film that’s set a few years later, where it’s a war going on somewhere on the other side of the world, and no one cares.
In the middle of filming, while we’re in Mexico, District 9‘s announced, and the vague text that we read on the Internet felt like it could be similar, but we weren’t sure. But it gets to the point where, if you worry about every other film everyone else is making, you’d never make anything.
All you can do is make the film you think you’d enjoy watching, and just cross your fingers that other people are like you.
What I found interesting about Monsters was the science fiction elements of it are in the background rather than the foreground, which is unusual in cinema but common in sci-fi literature. Were you influenced as much by books as film?
I don’t read as much as I should. I need pictures and colouring-in sections in my books. But I’ve read a lot of John Wyndham. And what I like about him is that he doesn’t explain the world. He takes it for granted that you understand the crazy situation you’re in.
That makes it more realistic than if he said, “What happened here was this.” He just starts talking about a situation, with two characters and something, and you have to figure out as you go what the hell’s happened.
There’s a particular book, called The Chrysalids, where you think that it’s set in medieval times or something, and it’s only about a third of the way in that it’s post-apocalyptic, and that there’s been a nuclear war. But he never says it out loud. It’s only through the way he describes the ruins of Big Ben, or something, that you know.
And I love that. I love that assumption. When I worked at the BBC, one of the projects I worked on was this series of fake documentaries set in Victorian London. The producers would always want big establishing vistas of London. As a character walks in, they’d want the camera to turn around and show everything.
But watch any TV programme set in London in the modern day, and they’re not showing big shots of Big Ben. They’re just following the characters because they exist in that world, and they’re bored of all that stuff because they see it every day.
It feels like the more you throw that away, and act as though the filmmaker’s bored of it, like, “Yes, yes, we’ve seen that a thousand times,” the more valuable it becomes.
I love the parts [in Monsters] say, where they’re on the boat, and there are post-apocalyptic ruins behind them, but they’re not looking around going, “Oh my God, look at that.”
It gives it more scope. I feel like less is more, and more is less.
In the original Star Wars films, I thought Tatooine, Endor and Coruscant, I thought in our world, they were like Newcastle, some town in Morocco, and some city in New Zealand. But when they did the special edition, and they had all those celebration shots at the end of Jedi, and they went to Tatooine, Endor and Coruscant. I thought, “Oh, right. So they went to Paris, New York, and London.”
It felt like a bigger world, to me, when these characters occupied a tiny part of a city we never saw.
So, you could fill in the blanks for yourself…
The more you show off, the more the world gets smaller, if that makes sense.
You’ve been talking of the way you approached the filming, and the way you walked into situations with your characters. Does that make you feel more alive as a director, rather than having it all planned out and scripted?
Yeah, for sure. Because if you were trying to write a scene with an interview situation with some journalists, I’d be thinking, “How does a journalist sit? Does he hold his book like this? Does he take notes?” It’s all these ideas you wouldn’t normally get.
I mean, no offence to anyone, but no matter how imaginative you are, but it’s all these ideas you get that you could never think of. When you’re in a real situation, they happen for free that add to the realism.
The idea that there’s this golden moment, while you’re sitting at home writing three months before you go to a location, and you think, “That’s it. That’s golden. That’s perfect. If we get this, we’re going to get the greatest film ever made.” I think that’s bollocks, really.
Why can’t that golden moment be consistent throughout the entire process, like when I’m stood there with the camera on my shoulder, I can say, “You know what? I thought that was a good idea, but let’s do this.”
And previously, the problem with that is that you need a contractual document because there’s a lot of money at stake, so you need to somehow convince everyone that it’s all agreed and that everyone that’s investing is happy. But because the budget was so low on this film, they weren’t so precious about it.
They were really good about that here. They weren’t nervous at all. “Just get something, and we’ll figure it out in the edit.”
I think what happens is, you write the film, then on the plane over to Mexico, the film dies, and is reborn when you’re on location, a brand new thing. And on the plane back it dies again, and is reborn in the edit.
Even in a Hollywood film, the script is gold and sacred, but how many Hollywood films do they scramble in the edit and change things. It’s like, “Hang on. I thought this script was perfection? Why are we having to change it? Shall we all admit to each other that the script isn’t perfect? Maybe we should adapt when things don’t work.”
It’s so frustrating, the way Hollywood works. Only when an idea doesn’t work do you address how to fix it. Whereas you can see it’s not working right then and there on set, and you’re going, “This line’s clunky, or this isn’t looking as sexy as I thought it would look. Stand there instead, and maybe don’t say anything.”
We were free to do that, because there wasn’t a contract as such. It does worry me now, that if I’m lucky enough to make a bigger film, and there’s a contract in place, how I’ll maintain that freedom, without people saying, “Woah, woah. He’s taken over the plane and he’s going to crash it.”
Does that make you more choosy about what you’ll do next?
There are so many carrots that are dangled, that all my life I’ve wanted to be in this position, of maybe doing a big film, and it’s hard. There are certain projects that are just so tempting. I sometimes think, if I don’t do that, or it doesn’t work out, I’ll end up regretting never trying.
It’s like being a footballer, and everyone has that dream of playing in the World Cup final, and if possible scoring the winning goal. That’s what everyone wants to do. If someone invites you to be in the World Cup, it’s like, what else am I going to do with my career?
One review of Monsters said that it could imagine you at the helm of a huge special effects laden blockbuster. Is that something that would interest you, then, if it were offered?
I tell you what I’ve learned on this film: you can make a movie for nothing. You can make a film for 10 grand, 10 million, whatever you want. We’re very lucky in the UK, the film’s getting a big push from Vertigo, but in the US, unless you spend 20 million on advertising, no one will have heard of your film outside the industry.
I was there at the weekend, and there are Skyline posters everywhere. Skyline, Skyline, Skyline. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I may be wrong, but on its opening weekend it made 15 million, because it was everywhere.
That’s the thing that would be heartbreaking. If you tried to make a really good film that’s popular and artistic, and all those things you’re trying to balance, and no one’s heard of it. That’s not what I’d want. I want everyone to like it, and everyone to see it.
Only studios can afford to do that kind of crazy marketing campaign. So, if you want that career where you make movies, then you’ve got to have a 20, 30 million dollar PR campaign behind you, and if you do that, then no matter how much you spent making your film, that’s a big risk.
So, then you get into that realm of, “We’re spending a lot of money here, Gareth, should you really have your character doing that?” or, “We think you should have an ending more like this?”
That’s the problem: do you perpetually want to be this filmmaker who makes films nobody really sees, or do you want to be on this big stage, but with all that pressure of compromise because you’ve got to reach a wider demographic. It’s the ultimate dilemma for any first time filmmaker.
At the same time, the reassuring thing is that the films I like most are the ones that achieve commercial success and are artistic, are made in the Hollywood system. So, someone achieves it. Is it because of the filmmaker? Is it luck? I don’t know, but it’s at least possible.
The reaction to Monsters has been incredibly positive. What’s been your favourite reaction to it so far?
I’ve managed to get it in front of a couple of my heroes. There was a screening in LA, and they said, “Oh, you may as well come down and introduce it.” So I went in, and I was really nervous because I knew a few important people would be there. And I was like, “Hi, I’m Gareth and thanks for coming because I know you’re really busy.”
And as I was saying it, I noticed, Quentin Tarantino. And I got really nervous. Later, I was looking through the projection booth, kind of spotting his head, “Does he look like he’s interested? Does he hate it?”
And we went for drinks, because I knew we had to shake people’s hands afterwards, and thought I’d better have a drink first. When we came back, there was this high-up Hollywood producer talking to me, and Quentin was standing there waiting to say hi or goodbye or whatever.
I kept looking at him, because I was worried he was going to leave before I had a chance to say hello. And this producer looked around, because he could tell I was distracted, and he was really nice and said, “Don’t worry about me, we’ll talk some other time,” and left.
Tarantino came along, and in my mind I pressed all the record buttons I could on everything to memorise it all so I can tell guys like you. And when I go to play that tape, I didn’t record any of it. He was just shaking my hand, going and talking, but all I heard was, “I’m Quentin Tarantino. I’m Quentin Tarantino, and I’m talking to you right now. You saw Reservoir Dogs seven times at the cinema because you liked it so much, and now I’m talking to you having seen your film.”
I don’t know what he said. And when he left, everyone came up and said, “What did he say? What did he say?” and I said, “I’ve no idea!”
So, things like that are really freaky. I really did see Reservoir Dogs seven times, and it changed my world. There’s even a bit in the behind-the-scenes we’re doing for the DVD, and I’m on the set and I’m going into an explanation of how you don’t see the cops in Reservoir Dogs. And there’s a bit at the end of Monsters where you don’t really see the soldiers, because they’re out of focus. I was trying to use Reservoir Dogs as the example.
If I knew, as I was standing there, that Quentin Tarantino was going to see this one day, I think it would throw you. It’s good sometimes to think, “No one’s going to see this. It’s going into the bin,” because then you can be a bit braver about it and a bit less self-conscious.
We’ve been very lucky in that Peter Jackson’s seen it, and Ridley Scott saw it the other day, and I’ve had very nice emails. If I knew that while making it, I’d be saying to everyone in the van, “No one panic! It’s all going to be okay! Ridley Scott’s going to see it! Quentin Tarantino’s going to see it!”
When we were filming it, we thought it was going to go straight into the bin. Is this even going to get a release on DVD? Will it even edit together? We didn’t know back then. Were we just wasting two years of our lives?
I think if we had known, we’d have been more relaxed, and maybe we wouldn’t have made the film we made.
Gareth Edwards, thank you very much.
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