Tom Green Interview: Monsters: Dark Continent and Misfits

Monsters: Dark Continent director Tom Green talks to us about filming in the desert, Misfits and more.

In 2010, British director Gareth Edwards made a huge splash with his feature debut Monsters, a road trip drama with giant monsters stalking around in the background. It was an atmospheric movie that made ingenious use of its low budget; Monsters‘ success led to Edwards departing for Hollywood, where coveted franchises like Godzilla and Star Wars awaited.

Five years later, and director Tom Green brings us Monsters: Dark Continent, an entirely new story set in the same world as the first movie. A decade after a NASA probe crashed in Mexico, bringing the giant monsters to Earth, their lumbering threat has spread to the Middle East. The US Airforce is dispatched to bomb the creatures to prevent their spread, while on the ground, American troops try in vain to win the hearts and minds of locals caught in the crossfire.

It’s a harsh and violent film at times, but also superbly shot; on a similar budget to Monsters, Green and cinematographer Christopher Ross manage to craft a distinctive-looking war drama with sci-fi overtones. It was with Dark Continents visuals still in our minds that we went off to chat to Green, who talks to us here about making an ambitious film on a small budget, with a small crew in the deserts of Jordan. We also squeezed in a question about Misfits, the cult TV series that Green worked on extensively after he left film school.

I was really struck by the way this film looked. It looked great.

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It’s Christopher Ross, who I’ve worked with since I left film school. We did the first two series of Misfits together and Blackout. I think we’re in tune. To be honest, we couldn’t have made it without him, because it was all made on one handheld camera – we didn’t have any gear with us at all. It was very lo-fi. I think being able to create such cinematic images with just a box of lenses and one camera – no grip, no dollies, no cranes, no steadicams – I think we had one tripod, that was about it. Some of the more documentary style moments, we had a second camera body, and we’d stick a lens on one of those and the loader would come along and be my focus-puller.

But he’s an amazing innovator, Chris, and an amazing cineaste as well. So yeah, I think he’s done an amazing job. We wanted it to be raw and beautiful and cinematic – we tried to make it as ambitious a film as we could with the limited resources we had, I guess.

So was your approach similar to Gareth Edwards’? He shot it on the hoof, really, didn’t he? He found it afterwards in the edit.

It was very similar. The misconception is that we had more money on it, so let’s cash in on a sequel, kind of thing. That’s really not the case at all. The producer said to me, would I like to do something similar, and we had a similar resource – maybe a little bit more money, but not anything to speak of really, in terms of bigger-budget movie making. So we faced the same challenges. Gareth shot for a much longer time, and my shoot was more compressed because we had more genre elements and pyrotechnics. The whole film was shot in four-and-a-half weeks, so we did four weeks in Jordan and about four days in Detroit at the end.

The first two weeks were a little bit more structured, I suppose, because we were shooting the more genre element sequences, and then the second half very much reflected Gareth’s shoot as well, where it was just a handful of us on a road trip. We traveled from the north of Jordan from Oman down to the southern deserts, and then that became more of a reportage, documentary style, where we worked with the Bedouin nomadic tribes and all that sort of stuff. We put the actors in those sequences, just existing with them and trying to find narrative out of those moments. I wanted it to be really authentic.

Similarly, when we patrolled through the Palestinian refugee town, that started as a camp in the 70s, it was an organic process, really. In that way, very much reflected Gareth’s process. Visual effects, too – no green screen, very much finding towns or areas that had a war-torn feeling, and then building the visual effects into that. We couldn’t afford to build any sets, so it was thinking about how we create a world for this film and paint the creatures in.

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Even the sequences on the helicopter, it’s just myself and Chris, the cinematographer, hanging out of a Black Hawk with the actors, which was just an unbelievably terrifying experience.

Obviously, they were storyboarded out much more precisely than the human sequences in the film, so we were pointing to which shot we were onto next. Again, it was very grabbed, in a way. I think, in some ways, that helped the authenticity and organic quality of the way the creatures sit in the film, for me, because you wouldn’t ever choose to capture the image that way if you had more money and more time. That was a long answer! 

How much of it was scripted, and how much was found, if you like, in the shoot?

I’d say the majority from a scripted process, but it was very dynamic, the writing. There’s usually the development process, then the financing process, and then you go and make it. Whereas with this, it was, here’s some money, we’re committing some money to make this film, go write the script. It was reverse-engineering: here’s the budget, where do you want to do it? Initially it was going to be in South America, but I wanted to make it in the Middle East, so it was exploring something different to Gareth’s film.

So Jay [Basu, co-writer] came out to Jordan with me, and was working with me and the actors, writing and improvising right up to the week we started principal photography. So it was always going to be leaping into it. Me and Jay worked incredibly hard to create a certain structure, but we were aware that it was going to be fairly simple so we could go on an a more exploratory process.

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To answer your question… [a trolley full of rattling water bottles and glass tumblers is wheeled past] a fair amount was found in the filmmaking process, and exploring that with the actors. Having an actor like Johnny Harris, for example. I was trying to create an environment for him to explore the psychology of his character and improvise. I think it’s quite experimental, I think, what we did. A lot of the atmosphere and the interaction with a local, non-actor cast isn’t written, it’s found. But again, you have to have actors who are prepared to work in that way. Johnny [Harris] completely embraced that.

He’s good for this, Johnny Harris, because he has that volatile air about him. He’s unpredictable.

He stayed in character for the whole film. Obviously, he’s not American. We bought the guys out for a week-long boot camp, which was invaluable, really. It was one of the things I tried to protect in the list you have, the battles over what’s important to you. That was one thing I wanted. We worked closely with US Marines out there, who are based there still. One guy in particular. He put all the actors through a weapons training process. He was there on set with us a lot. I went out to the location and blocked out all the action sequences with them, broke down all the gun battle scenes and made sure it was as authentic as I could possibly make it.

That week, the actors went into character, and Johnny started speaking in the dialect, whether it was dinner in the evening when we weren’t shooting, and he stayed there. I tried to structure it as sequentially as I could, so as we went deeper into the film, him and Sam went deeper into their characters. I think, by the end of it, it took them quite a while to pull themselves out of it. It was incredible commitment. We had a couple of outside visitors from, you know, the normal world, while we were filming, and they were like, “This is not a normal level of commitment!” [Laughs] “You guys have gone deep here!”

That was quite frightening for them, I think. I was quite concerned sometimes – well, not concerned, but I could see how deeply they were into it. That was an amazing privilege, but I wanted to make sure they preserved their energy and psychological state as well. It was a lot of commitment and method acting for what is perceived outwardly as a genre-driven sci-fi monster movie. I don’t think it is that. And that’s not the conversation we had with the actors. 

It’s the same with the first Monsters: it’s not driven by the genre elements, which is relatively unusual.

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Absolutely. That’s what I responded to in the first one – I was hugely impressed by it. It was like any good idea – it’s quite simple, and I was amazed nobody had thought of it before. I thought it was the most innovative things I’d seen in years, because I just thought, it makes sense if you don’t have the money, but if you have the knowhow in the post-production process, the only limitation is your imagination. Assuming you’ve got one of those, you can go anywhere with it. And I thought it was really smart. At that point, I didn’t think I’d be making a sequel [to Monsters]. I don’t think it’s a sequel in the sense of a continuing narrative, nor did I want it to be.

I thought it should stand alone, and all the producers were supportive of that, too. The only thing I was asked was that it sat more squarely in genre, perhaps, and that’s where the war element came from. It’s a sequel in terms of the ethos of its filmmaking, and what you can do at that budget range. That forces you back into exploring character and something a bit more interesting. Partly, it was necessity – we can’t achieve the spectacle of a blockbuster movie. When I met up with Gareth, I was showing him the film and he’s been really supportive and he seems to be very proud of the legacy of his film, which is really important to me. He was saying that [the budget on] his film was one day’s shooting on Godzilla.

The whole of his film, you know? And my film’s in the same budget range, really. It puts it into perspective. Really, we pulled the visual effects off by having people give me a year of their lives, or more – working seven days a week and doing it for the love of it. Trying to find crew members who are on an upward trajectory, where they’d been smaller cogs in a big machine on something like a Godzilla, and they became our lead animators, lead creature designers, lead compositors. That was a very tight, committed little team. So that’s the way the whole film was made; I hope that’s what people recognise with it – it is different, it isn’t an all-out action movie, and it isn’t intended to be one. Nor could it be in the way it’s made. In many ways, we had no right to pull off what we did, so I’m very proud of that on a production level. 

It reminded me a bit of Apocalypse Now in some ways. Some of the allusions to it felt quite conscious.

It really wasn’t. It’s impossible, isn’t it, to go to places other films have gone before in that category. So if you make a war film, you’re inevitably going to cross over with themes that have been explored before. I was actually keen we didn’t go anywhere near something like Apocalypse Now, because why would you? It’s one of the greatest films ever made in my opinion. Certainly one of the greatest war films ever made. 

Come And See was a reference point for me, as much as anything. Again, as soon as you have soldiers in Humvees in the Middle East, and we were shooting in the same military bases as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, so there’s inevitably crossover, but I think you just have to accept that, and accept that you’re going to get compared. Which is unfortunate in a way, because it wasn’t our intention to emulate a film like that. You know, the film needed to reduce the terms of its production, so we could only afford a small little hit of high production value, and then everyone had to go home. Then it was me, a couple of actors, and my cinematographer, and a fantastic makeup artist and costume designer, and a production designer who was doing everything himself. It was a small team of us travelling through the desert. It became a road trip movie, so I guess that’s where you could compare it to Apocalypse Now, in the psychological descent of the character. 

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That’s what I meant. Their journey is like Apocalypse Now’s journey down the river, and the further they go, the more darkness they see and the more they learn about themselves. Looking into the darkness changes them, you know?

Again, it wasn’t a conscious thing. It really wasn’t. People may not believe that when they see the film. But I guess if you put a road trip kind of film in a war scenario, it’s, it’s…

What you end up with.

Yeah, it’s what you end up with. It’s hard to make a film that… I wanted to have that road trip quality, partly because of the production restrictions. Yeah, by saying “What can we do with this? How can we have an interesting journey with these characters and not make it static?” Not relying on action set-pieces all the time, keep it feeling like the film’s opening out all the time and becoming wider. For me, the film is very noisy and aggressive and violent at the start, and becomes quieter and widens out into something a little bit more spiritual, a little bit more poetic, I hope. And the landscapes become more epic, but you become more drawn into the minds of the characters. That’s what was interesting to me when Jay was writing it.

That’s how we could make a film with real scale, while also exploring something psychologically interesting. So I guess that is similar to Apocalypse Now. But I think we were just trying to write our own film. You can’t ever tell, can you? You’re influenced by so many films and things you’ve seen, it’s hard to not to have that crossover, like I say. You have to make your own, unique film. And I think this is a unique film. Certainly in this budget range, and what we’ve tried to do in the British film industry in this budget range, this film is quite unique. The visuals and the combination of those with the science fiction make it stand out as something quite different.

What are your memories of making Misfits, because you got to direct the first few episodes. So you got to establish the look and feel of it.

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Well, I set the first and second series up, so I did episodes one, two and four of series one, and one, two and three of series two. Happy memories. It was just an amazing show to work on – I was only six weeks out of film school when I got the job, so to set the series up was huge, really. They were just brilliant scripts.

What was fantastic was that it was originally set in a more parochial world, and I went to the producers at Channel Four and said we need to have a slightly dystopian but much more over-arching atmosphere for the show, to let all the subversions and shifts in tone and genre work episodically. There needs to be a tone and feel to the show, and they need a metropolis. It’s playing with the superhero genre and subverting it so cleverly that they need a visual atmosphere to make that happen. They said, “Yeah, go for it. Create it.”

So we changed the script quite a lot, visually, in that respect. It was the same as Monsters, in  effect – Simon’s got to go invisible, but we can’t make him invisible because we can’t afford to. So go figure it out! In a way, it was a similar thing – how can we be really ambitious, tell really interesting stories and create interesting backdrops and worlds for our story to take place in? All within a limited budget and resource. But again, the cast was amazing – it was a confluence of things, Misfits. We found a brilliant cast, and the scripts were really funny, really great stories. Again, my relationship with Chris, the DOP, was fantastic. It’s sort of my baby, Misfits – it’s something I will always be proud of. 

Tom Green, thank you very much.