Allegories, Expectations and Effects: Round 1 with MONSTERS director Gareth Edwards
It is certainly the hope of this writer that you do yourself a favour and trek to the local cinema if it is screening Monsters. For a micro-budgeted film, it looks gorgeous on the big screen, and more importantly, the story and execution is a fair a bit different than the usual way things are done, making for a truly fresh take on inter species war and conflict. Edwards has been touring with the film as it progresses along the festival circuit, where it has been getting a fair bit of attention. Follow a recent Video-On-Demand release from Magnolia, this weekend Monsters makes its North American theatrical debut. The director and screenwriter was kind enough to sit down for nearly an hour and talk about the ins and outs of making a character and story based monster film in a world of ubiquitous special effects, Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay.
[There are some mild spoilers in the middle of the interview, look for the ***SPOILER WARNING*** and proceed with caution if you wish to go into the film cold.]
Kurt Halfyard: Hi, How are you doing today?
Gareth Edwards: I'm good, how are you, are you doing OK?
KH: Fine. I am glad we finally got a chance to sit down and talk, because I missed you in Toronto and then I just missed you again in Spain. How was your Sitges experience?
GE: It was great! I think that out of all the festivals they have it down the most, everything run so well in one location!
KH: I guess you are quite a ways into the publicity tour and festival circuit for this film. It's been how many months? Since May? How has it been going?
GE: You're my first interviewer!
KH: Wow! (laughs)
GE: It's the part of filmmaking that nobody prepares you for, there should be a film course offered somewhere that teaches you how to answer the same questions over and over again with a smile, or something because it has been relentless to be honest, it can get... this is the first time someone has asked me how it has been. Which is great. The honest answer is it is nearly as hard, if not equally as hard work as making the film, but it has been worth it because there is one thing worse than loads of people asking about your film, and that would be having nobody ask about your film!
KH: One thing that I find fascinating is that sometimes talking with a director really early on in the festival process, you get sense that they have not quite figured out how to talk about their movie yet, and then there is this case, where things are a little further along in the process where you probably have a sense in how to talk about the film.
GE: Well what happens is that the film critics say little things, that are really clever, and then you have six months of all these film interviewers giving clever observations about your film that you can borrow from them to make yourself look clever!
KH: You put me on the spot then, I'll have to come up with some questions that you do not have the answers for. First off, the one sense that I got from the film (and later read something similar in the tag lines of the film) is how people take a disaster of any kind and 5 months, 5 years, 50 years later it becomes the "new normal" and that is sort of the striking thing about Monsters - that it is set in a world that is unfamiliar to us, but to the characters is more or less normal. How did that particular idea factor into the original conception and writing of the film?
GE: I actually...OK, this is a new answer, I actually thought about this last night! I am six years into a career in Visual Effects, that is not literal, I am probably about 12 years in, but it is a sense that I'm not excited about computer graphics because I've spent every day of the last decade doing them. I don't get fascinated or think that this is something special. And in a way, the monsters in my film are literal and metaphorical equivalent of visual effects for me. Everyone else may say "Wow, look at that, isn't that amazing? That's great!" and I'm now thinking, "Whatever, whatever, what is the story about?" And it feels like the first chance I got to make a film that I wanted to create a film where something really spectacular is really mundane and normal. That is the way it connects to me a lot in the first place. If you look at cities. If you took a walk down the street in September 12, 2001 in New York, as long as it is not near ground zero - just a general street - I think it would be difficult to guess that that was the day after that event. I think people don't cry and scream even after a short period of time in that people have to cope with it and have to move on. Or if you take Jurassic Park (for real) in that if we actually could genetically engineer dinosaurs it would be an incredible thing. Really amazing! But only for one generation. Then the next generation would be born into a world that always had dinosaurs and people would take their kids to the zoo. And children would be like, "Daddy, let's see the elephant, Daddy let's see the T-Rex." Alright, cool. If I told you Rhinoceroses never existed before you were born, it wouldn't be any more special to you because you start with a clean slate. So I feel that, the idea of Invasion films, and the day the aliens land and how scary that is that kind of film has been done so much more than films that move on from that event. I guess we have many films about World War II while a fraction of them may be about Pearl Harbour or D-Day, the majority of the are just living in or during the war. The war is going on and people are getting on with their lives because they have to and I felt in Monsters that was a fresh take. A story in that world, the idea that our film doesn't begin with an invasion and it doesn't end with them killing off all the creatures, it is in the middle and it is just one story one journey set in that world. I feel that there are lots of characters and stories in that world that we could have told...
KH: There seems to be a new breed of genre film coming out that is less about making the characters the central influence of what is going on, and just having the characters exist in that world. Sure you can have a Children of Men, where it is the story that the world hinges on, but can be far more interesting to look at normal people and how they relate to extreme circumstances. When someone watches the movie they spend a fair amount of time, not so much following the hero, but considering, "what would I do in those circumstances?" Which is a different type of engagement than say, pure spectacle.
GE: Even War of the Worlds, the newer one with Tom Cruise, felt like everything began at Tom Cruise's house and ended where he ended up [When he got to Boston]. Even though it was written as a normal persons journey, you couldn't help but feel that Cruise's character was the first person to realize there was a problem, and the first person who realizes how to solve it. And I feel that the reality is that that is only one person in millions of people in the world, and what about everyone else, it is like they did not have any impact on this thing. I feel like there is new ground to be explored that is a little more subtle and a little more realistic. It is really interesting, and I kind of agree that there will probably be a lot more filmmakers that are not seduced by graphics, because they've grown up with it, so they want to find different uses for the tool. Like a camera or a editing suite. OK, we can do this, now how do we make a story out of it.
KH: The way Monsters plays out, for me anyway, is far more common in something a bit more like the Zombie sub-genre, right back to Romero's Night of the Living Dead where the characters are just normal people in the middle of a situation where they do not know the big picture of what is going on. It makes for an interesting...
GE: I love the ending of that movie, and I hope I'm not ruining it for anyone who has not seen it, but I love how insignificant the main character is, and when he is killed, and that is how it would be. Not that big of a deal. And in that film it was probably done out of necessity, and our film much was done out of necessity, we couldn't do the Tom Cruise film even if we wanted to, so yea, I guess we are like a Zombie film because that type of film is usually done without loads of money, and maybe up until recently you could not do an alien invasion film in this way, but now you can and things will go in that route. It seems like there are a lot of alien movies coming out at the moment, like Skyline.
KH: I think your biggest special effect in the movie is Central America and Mexico. Besides the obvious, that it is gorgeous, and perhaps even politically loaded, why there instead of some other part of Europe, Asia or elsewhere in the world?
GE: I actually pictured it in my mind when I was thinking about it a lot, in Thailand or Cambodia, because I had been there on holiday and I keep picturing arriving there, and that is where I instinctively wanted to set it. The problem was that the more I got into it, the more I wanted it to be a journey movie, a road trip, never stopping in the same location more than once, and the characters are discovering this land for the first time and the audience does as well. It was always Thailand in my mind. But then as we started to figure out the goal of our characters was - You have to pick something that everyone can appreciate and understand. Obviously surviving death is something everyone gets. But the next one down would be to get back home. How can you visually represent, "now we've got back home?" And arriving somewhere like Thailand unless it was something like a US warship, or something like this, it didn't quite figure like "Hooray, we're home!" No that would be more like "Hooray we're on a warship." And I wanted to get back somewhere you began in your mind. And so, mainly it came from the casting of an American couple, Scoot [McNairy] and Whitney [Able], once we had those two actors to start the film, it became a journey back to America. And so it had to be walking back to the 'States - either by walking down through Canada or walking up through Mexico. My first time in Canada was Toronto and so I kinda looked around, and probably made the right decision. As peaceful as Canada is, it is probably too developed for what I wanted to do. You would get much more location value out of Central America.
KH: That is highly flattering to your actors that their casting influenced your location!
GE: Yea. They came first and then we picked where we would shoot.
KH: You've mentioned in the past that the primary goal of Monsters was to make as realistic of a monster movie as possible, and that allegory, politics, et cetera came second. But these types of movies tend to become a metaphor quite quickly. Now that the movie is set south of the border, it starts to become this gigantic Immigration 'elephant in the room.' I am not really so much after your intent in making the movie an allegory, but your reaction to how so many people (audience members, critics) have picked up on that sort of thing now.
GE: There was a point right in the middle of shooting, when we had to go back and get some pick-ups, and one of the shots we needed to get was outside of a hospital with people with gas masks, you know, a bit of a military presence because the characters were in the middle of the infected zone and everything. The day we went to fly on the plane, we got a phone call saying, "You can't come." And we were like "Why not?" "Because there is thing called Swine Flu and it is going to be everywhere and it will end the world and one out of 3 people are going to die." This is the way it was said to us at the time, and we stepped back for a moment and thought, "Fuck, that is the end of our movie for sure!" Just imagine if that scenario played itself out as bad as everyone predicted. Everyone, absolutely everybody, who saw the film, say if we finished and released it somehow, would be saying, "Oh my god, how can you make a film that is about an infected zone in Mexico, and what are you trying to say about the way we are treating the Mexicans and blaming them for not washing their hands with disinfectant, and it could have very easily gone that way! When you create a very fantastic situation, like a monster movie, or a zombie film or anything like that, if you leave it open enough, if you leave it vague enough, it becomes this sexy blank canvas that you can hang anything you want on it, metaphorically. And there are obvious things in our film, and to me the obvious one where that there are monsters in this world that kill people and how far is it worth going to get rid of them. If you kill more people getting rid of them then they would ever kill, is it still worth doing? And that obviously has connotations with the War on Terror and things like that. And going into this, those were the ones that would be the most asked at Q&As and that would be the first thing we would hear when the film ended. And the fact that everyone reacted differently, and were saying, "What are you trying to say about Immigration?!" Well it was kind of like a pleasant surprise. And I do feel like, "Yes of course, it was on our minds." But when we were filming, if you talk to many South Americans, trying to explain what the film was about and the giant wall that was built, and you get chuckles, and comments like "kind of like the real wall being built." (laughs) I can totally see it, and I'm not in any way trying to defend that from the film, but it was not...well it was more like a happy accident...not part of what we set out to do. If we set it in Australia, for instance, people might say it was a reference to the indigenous people, if it were in Thailand, well they have internal problems there too, and they would have said is that a comment on that. And the film is not so much a film about Monsters sent down to kill people, or a literal Alien invasion, and people ask, "What is it really about?" and turn to the most obvious thing, and it is not necessarily what the filmmaking was trying to put in there, but it might be the most obvious thing that the place we went to puts in there. And I totally get it, and I think it is a worthy debate, and I am amazed that people are crediting the film for bringing it up, I think it should be brought up and if a monster movie can add anything, then fantastic!
KH: Well you are in the fine tradition of the monster movie, Gareth. Godzilla with atomic weapons; The Host, the foreign polluted Han River and all sorts of allegory with the family unit in Korea; or Cloverfield with its 9/11 imagery captured by citizens on the street, et cetera. These are classic (or soon to be classic) monster movies in their own unique way.
GE: Yea, it is like one of my favourite films, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers which allegedly is all about Communism in the 1950s and the McCarthy witch-hunts. I think it is the role of science fiction to take something to such an extreme that you can see it more clearly as either stupid or true. We are not trying to say that anything is stupid or true, but to elevate it to such an insane level that it might be a little easier to criticize or justify. What ever people want to look at through that strange window that is a monster movie or a science fiction movie is great. It lets people talk, and that is fine by me.
KH: It is interesting that you bring up Invasion of the Body Snatchers because it has been remade several times, and each time it is remade it tends to have a different allegory or metaphor or what it seemingly commenting on. When you set a movie within a world and the characters are somewhat powerless against the big picture, do you ever envision, not necessarily a remake or a sequel, but simply another story within the environment you've created? You build a great alternate present (or future). Is there another situation you might be interesting in looking at.
GE: The first premise of the film, once we had the world, was three different characters, one was a soldier who gets posted in Mexico, the other was an orphan that was made in that way in the destruction, either Mexican or from the United States, and the others were three backpackers that happened to be in the area. And the backpackers slowly evolved into Andrew Kaulder, the main character in the movie, who is now a war photographer. But I still feel like there were these other characters that were just as interesting. I wanted them to all interact. But then Babel came out. Three different stories that you cannot quite predict or you don't realize how they are connected until it happens. So you have sequels and prequels, but this is more like an 'Equal.' You could even set it in the same time frame and pick different characters, and have the characters from the first film in the background of the second film, and then the second film may have the characters from the first film in the background. But I don't know, I really enjoyed the world we created, and there is many different things we could have done, but I don't want to do something like that for my next film, because then I become the guy who does monster movies. But I'd happily return to this sort of scenario at some point in the future, because I do feel there is a lot more to be done. And people will hang onto different things, further on down the line, more strange events will be happening in the world, and different politics...
KH: Shifting gears a bit, I wanted to talk about the one series of images that struck me while watching the film: the sheer volume of military hardware cluttering the film. It is not just one tank or one helicopter, but rather many, many vehicles like discarded childrens toys dropped all over the environment. Could you comment on that?
GE: Well a lot of them are of course, CG, the idea was how do we stop this from being Guatemala? I really wanted the feeling that it was a war torn country, but I couldn't show the creatures. If you give away too much, it looks a little bit silly when you see them in daylight, dead, so it was what the hell can I show that is not quite the norm. There are helicopters in the sky and tanks driving on the street, but what else could we do? The option of burned out tanks, and boats in trees and wrecks became a theme that kept occurring to remind people that this is a war zone that people go about their lives and that people do not really care that it is there anymore.
KH: It just becomes something to hang your laundry off of.
GE: In areas that were empty, like the back of a wagon, or a gap in the trees, we'd figure out what exactly to put there when we get home, but in a sense it all became abandoned military hardware.
KH: The infected zone almost functions as the fog of war, when nobody knows what is going on in so to speak, the heart of darkness.
GE: We debated for a while on whether or not people would be living within the infected zone, and in the end we did, they are not really living there, but there is the guy with the boat, I like the idea that this is not like Area 51, but it is more like a no-fly zone. More the attitude of, "don't bother yourself with what is going on in here, because you won't like it. And you won't like what we are doing as much as you don't like they're doing, and no one needs to see this. We are dealing with the problem. Just stay away." And so it felt like, how I imagine some parts of Iraq might be at the moment, in that a lot of the information does not come out because nobody is there to witness it. And the problem nowadays is that there are so many people there to witness it, with cell phones and 24 hour news cycle, and having a place where there is none of that stuff, makes a bit more mystery. And also the characters are like, "What the hell are we getting into here? What is it going to be like in here? Is it going to be horrific or actually going to be doable? Can we get through this? I like that.
KH: Lets talk about the actual relationship between the characters. I think it might have been at one of the audience Q&As at TIFF that you mentioned the film Lost in Translation in the context of Monsters. And now I am thinking on a moment late into the film where getting out of the Infected Zone seems possible for the couple, yet both of them almost want to, in a way, see the difficult journey continue because the foundation, the solid base, of their current relationship is their travel woes - the bonding from being from in the middle of extreme circumstance, rather than the typical organic way you form a friendship under 'normal' circumstances. How much was it the intent of the film, or the way the actors improvised their character and dialogue as the shoot went on.
GE: I love the idea of "careful what you wish for." You make a wish but when you finally get it, you have grown into a point that what you originally wished for is the polar opposite of what you wished for at the beginning of the journey. ***SPOILER WARNING*** At the beginning of the film, I wanted Sam to be like, "I don't care, I want to go home!" but eventually evolve into, "I don't want to go home." The one thing an audience is rooting for the whole movie is for the army people to please come, to please rescue them. They just need to get out of this shit. Someone get them home. And then there is this kind of turn where the second this situation is over, these two will not be together, and this is it. This is their moment. And that is kind of heartbreaking. And sitting there waiting for the army to arrive finally going, Hooray, that is what we wanted, but then have the army come and pull them apart. It is the same with the opening of the film, with the night vision stuff. I wanted the audience to be going, yea, blow them up, just fire a missile and get rid of them which they do, but by the end of the film the audience has the opposite opinion of what they saw at the beginning. Not everyone makes the connection that the end of the movie is in fact the scene shown at the beginning and you realize at a certain point that Sam and Kaulder are about to be blown up, thus nullifying everything you wished for at the beginning: Destroy the Monster. At the end, you are like, "Oh Shit, I just want the opposite to happen!"
KH: Getting back to the point where the response to the problem is worse to the problem...
GE: And when you do not fully understand the situation, the snap solution may be the polar opposite to what is actually needed! The journey of the film is about, in a way, learning enough to properly assess the situation. But we've already set the course of the movie in motion, you will get there, there are army people, you will get to go home in a sense, but after the journey you really regret that and realize how that might have been the wrong way to go about things. And I think that is what films should do, take you on a journey that by the end you have a different perspective, and if it is a bit simple like our story, but that is what I think our film is trying to do, take an instinctive reaction, then fill it out with a different perspective.***END SPOILERS***
KH: And this challenges audience expectations not only within the movie, but also outside of the film. A lot of people hear of a film called, "Monsters" and have an idea of what that will be, and some of the marketing underscores that pre-conception. I see that as a good thing, this attracts me to 'smart genre movies' in general - don't give me what I want, but give me something I totally did not expect, what you want to give me! But I am sure not everyone feels that way. What are your thoughts on the 'split' reception of the film? In talking to people at various festivals about the film I got a sense that there was a 'that film blew my mind, I didn't expect that type of movie' crowd, and a 'I totally didn't get what I wanted based on the title,' crowd.
GE: One of our producers said something as we were making the film, and I believe it to be true, He said, "There are two types of movies, Gareth, there are films that are simultaneously 1-Star and 5-Star movies, and then there are films that are 3-Stars. Do you want to make a film many people love and many people hate? Or do you want to make a film that everyone thinks is fine." And I was like, "I'll take the one people love and hate." The middle ground, why would you want to go there? If you are not trying to do something a little bit different, then just hand it over to someone else, because if all you are trying to do is make a film that people can get everything from a poster and a trailer, then why bother making a movie at all? I feel like, I am sorry if people go to this film and expect it to be back-to-back monsters and things exploding and stuff, but it is kind of a fake false apology, because ultimately we made the movie we wanted to make. All I can say that if you are reading this interview and you want a massive monster movie with loads massive monsters then don't come see the film (Laughs).
KH: (Laughs) There is always Michael Bay! My last question is the inevitable, what are you working on now? I've heard that it is another science fiction project described as "A human story set in a world without humanity." How far along are you?
GE: It's in my head. I've pitched it to people, and I am slowly working on writing it. I've been amazed at how few gaps I've got prior to the release of Monsters. When that is released, I can take a break and sit down and start writing it. Basically it is science fiction, a film I've wanted to do for a long time, way before Monsters. A film I could not possibly do as a first film, the visual effects I couldn't do by myself. And thankfully Timur Bekmambetov is financing the development. And hopefully we can go make it after it is written. We'll see how it all pans out. I'm very excited about it. It is weird in a way. I am really excited about Monsters being released, but it is more like I need closure on that one. Like a parent whose child is never found, I just need them to find the body and then we can start thinking about where our next child can go to school! It feels like this baby we made has been handed over, and they tell it what it likes and what it dislikes, and I say, please look after it, and I kind of see it occasionally, but it is not ours anymore. It is a very strange feeling, because I feel probably more connected to the film than anybody, but I don't own it any more, the world owns it now. And so, you just have to pick yourself up and do the next one.
KH: Perhaps once you are finished with it, completely finished with it that is, you become just another viewer of the film? Sure you have tonnes of information and a different perspective on how each shot came to be and the challenges and some decisions therein, but given enough time, once you are finished with it, you are just another viewer?
GE: Yea, going around to many festivals, and I do often sit and watch the film. I spend the whole time thinking, "that looks like an amazing adventure making that film," and then I remember, Oh, yea, I did do that. But my memory of that is not the experience of just watching the film, but an intense, quite stressful filmmaking process. Watching it looks like an intense, special situation, but much more of a experience I want to have, you tend to delete all the bad memories!