Director Gareth Edwards on his low-budget monster mash
What is Monsters?
Someone saw it the other day and asked me if I tried to make a love story for boys or a monster movie for girls? I said I actually tried to make a road movie for aliens, so I guess we screwed up. I always wanted to make films, ever since my parents pointed out that I couldn't join the Rebel Alliance and blow up the Death Star, so I figured this was the best thing. My roommate in college was doing computer animation, and it took a lot longer than I wanted to plug into your brain and get a movie out. I was on holiday and I saw two fishermen pulling in a net, and I wondered what it would be like if they were trying to pull in a giant sea creature. In my mind there was a massive dead monster being pulled into the boat as if it was normal. That would be a great idea, to do a monster movie where most monster movies end. If most monster movies are 9/11, this movie is Afghanistan, where it's just become a state of attrition.
In our story, there are these two characters called Sam and Calda. His boss is caught in this area, because these creatures go on a migration pattern every year, and you don't know where they're going to hit and she gets stuck. So the first scene is them trying to get a ticket; the second is where they're on their journey.
It was really hard to pick two scenes to show. Except for one, there's no scene in the movie where we go back to the same place. Apart from the two actors, everyone else was just people we met along the way. I found you could get really good performances out of non-actors as long as you didn't tell them what not to do too much. We shot with the ferry guard for about an hour, and the actors would improvise and he'd throw things back. Everyone they come across is just real people. Most of them didn't know they were going to be in a monster movie. The translator in Mexico had this set spiel she'd go through. As soon as she said extraterrestrial they all wanted to be in it. It was really low-budget.
Basically, it was all put together from home. The monsters in Mexcio in smaller; you have to go to Costa Rica for ones that size!
What major technical obstacles did you have, and how did you overcome them?
It was just done on a normal PC with After Effects and Photoshop and 3D S-Max. I guess all that software cost a few thousand, a five grand set-up. But creatively... I think things have changed a lot. You can tell I like Jurassic Park, but that was done a long time ago, and computers get more powerful every 18 months, so you can go into a shop and buy laptops more powerful than what they built the T-Rex on. So the only thing stopping people now is just going off and doing it. It's all within the price of an overdraft or a credit card.
What are your favourite monster movies?
There was, in the edit suite, a load of retro posters. There was basically Day of the Triffids, Brief Encounter, It Came From Outer Space, Casablanca, War of the Worlds and The African Queen. I kept saying to my editor that somewhere in that mess is our film. I love B-movies and stuff. In terms of modern ones, our producer, Alan...It's a really privileged position to get the chance to make a film, and why bother unless you try to do something different? But that makes it hard to let people know what you're trying to do. It was going to be like the journey of Michael Winterbottom's In This World, about Afghan refugees trying to get to England, and Lost in Translation, for the relationship. I'm a guy, I don't like romantic movies, and that was one of the few I could latch on to because it was subtle. And visually, I really like Babel. You don't see much of that in this film, but that's what I was going for.
And the actors are a couple?
The two actors got married about two months ago, on the same day as the film's European premiere, and I had to choose between going to their wedding and the premiere, and I chose the wedding, because I'm a nice guy.
What are you going to be working on next?
Yeah, it happens to everybody who makes a film that gets some attention. You do this couch tour in LA and everyone talks to you like they've never met a director before, but they talk to everyone like that. I'm trying to write something at the moment, but what they don't tell you is that it's really hard to write a film, it's even busier when you're making a film, and then you don't even have a life when you're promoting a film. A really good course in film school would be how to answer the same question 500 times. I get paranoid that I'm being false. So yes, I'm writing a science fiction thing, hopefully it's an emotional thing too like this film, so we'll see what happens.
So where do the monsters in the film come from? And you were talking about hauling in the net: was it fear of seafood that inspired this?
In the film there's a tiny little hint, if you're ever sad enough to buy the blu ray, at the bottom there's a tiny little strap about where they come from. If you ask any scientist where there's most likely to be life in the solar system, they'd say Europa, the moon of Jupiter, which has liquid oceans. Nasa were planning on collecting a sample. They don't know this yet, but they're going to do a mission bringing it back to Earth, and that's going to crash in Mexico. So I was looking at things like crabs, and octopi, and bioluminescence and so on. Although there are monsters in this movie, that's not what it's about; the characters are very much the forefront. But you do get a good look at them.
You said that this is what you don't see in War of the Worlds.
Imagine Steven Spielberg's version of this film is happening just over the hill, but you're too smart to go over that brow. So that's either five minutes ahead or five minutes behind, and occasionally we're caught in the middle of it. Someone asked me why we called it Monsters, and I said I'm a big Gus Van Sant fan and I went to see Elephant and was disappointed. At least there were monsters in this!
So non-actors, improvised script and digital video, all tenets of mumblecore movies. Have you spoken to any mumblecore creators?
Well, the film premiered at SXSW and I'd never heard of that genre at all. We were getting reviews the next day, and I went, What's mumblecore? with Scoot next to me, and he went, Oh, don't! It's a name for shit films where they ad-lib. They're not saying that, are they? So I wasn't aware of it, it wasn't an influence. But for me, I didn't want to write a script. No offence to any films with great scripts, but when you write a script you have so long to think about the dialogue, you can make it witty. But I wanted people struggling for words and acting like an idiot. It was really important to me that the actors didn't constantly have all this great dialogue to be talking about and stuff.
What are your opinions on the end of the Film Council?
My producer is here. Alan, what do I think? [Receives answer from producer]. It's a time for opportunity, that's what I think!