This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #257 (November 2010).
Made on a shoestring, shot on the hoof in Central America, VFX done on a bedroom computer: giant-alien, road-movie love story Monsters is 2010's guerrilla filmmaking success story. Director Gareth Edwards writes us his personal guide through the madness, while below Empire meets stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able...
I always wanted to make a monster movie. I just didn't know when or how. I felt like I'd wasted the last ten years doing visual effects for a living when really I should have been trying to use these skills to make my own film. But when you do computer graphics all the time, it's very hard to switch off, even during the rare occasions you get a holiday.
I remember being abroad on the beach and watching these guys really struggling to pull a fishing net in from the ocean. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but you could tell they were all teasing each other about it and I thought it would be funny if, when they finally pulled it out, it had a giant sea creature on the end or something. I started observing their hands and arm movements to see how hard it would be to cut around them in the computer and replace the real net with a CGI version wrapped around a sea creature, when suddenly a really interesting image hit me. Obviously these guys weren't reacting at all to the sight of this thing, because it wasn't even there. In my mind there was a giant sea monster in front of them, yet they were carrying on as if this was part of their everyday life.
This began to fascinate me: what kind of world is this where a giant, dead sea monster is considered completely normal? What if someone made a monster movie set years after most other monster movies end? When people aren't running and screaming, but life is just going on. It would be really cheap to film, as you wouldn't need background extras – you could just film real people, and the fact that they weren't reacting to these crazy things would just add to the realism of it all. Suddenly I felt like I had my monster movie!
Now all I needed were the small details. Like story, actors, locations...
I pitched the concept to Vertigo Films and they went for it straightaway. They were distributing a film called In Search Of A Midnight Kiss, starring Scoot McNairy, and producer James Richardson asked me to watch it as an example of low-budget filmmaking; apparently, it was made for $15,000. Scoot stood out as an amazing actor, but the chemistry between the characters I was writing – a jaded photojournalist escorting his boss' daughter through an alien war zone – was so important that I really wanted a 'real' couple. Then it turned out that Scoot's girlfriend was also an actress. He sent through her picture thinking, "This will nail it," (she's gorgeous) but instead it had the opposite effect. I really felt she was too good-looking. This was supposed to be a 'realistic' monster movie. But then I flew out to LA and met both of them, and they were both so down-to-earth, such genuine people, that I felt if I could capture just a fraction of that in our film, then the hardest part of the film would be solved.
Or at least, that's what I thought.
*Belize: The producers insisted we carry a spare camera and tripod; this is our attempt to look like we were using it - but the scene got cut...*
Monsters was shot in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Texas. We shot with a tiny crew. For 90 per cent of the film we drove around in just one van that fitted about seven people. Myself on camera, Ian (sound operator) on boom, Jim (line producer) on his mobile, Verity (Mexican Fixer) on her mobile and various drivers at the wheel – plus Scoot and Whitney, obviously. That was it. Back at the hotel, Colin (editor) and Justin (his assistant) would download the footage we'd shot each day so we could delete the memory sticks to film again the next day.
With the exception of Scoot and Whitney, virtually everyone on screen is a 'real' person we managed to convince to be in our film. I found you could get really good performances out of non-actors as long as you didn't tell them what to do. Everyone in the world can do an Oscar-winning performance of themselves without even trying.
The downside of this is that Scoot and Whitney had to dance around all this random behaviour. As a result, the idea of scripting the film went out of the window. Instead I had a loose paragraph describing each scene with just the main points that had to be hit; how the actors carried this out was left up to them. Thank God I was lucky enough to find Scoot and Whitney – I'm still amazed at how seamless both they and my editor (Colin Goudie) make this all look. But it really wasn't. Both Scoot and I describe this shoot as the hardest, most stressful thing we've ever done in our lives. But it's also the best.
All kinds of crazy things happened while we were filming. I think my brain has deleted most of them in a kind of self-defence mechanism. But I do remember arriving on the first day of filming and noticing armed police everywhere. I thought, "Brilliant! This will really help the militarised look of the film," and started trying to secretly get them into shot. Later at another location I noticed more armed guards, then slowly it occurred to me that these were the same guys as before. I told my line producer (Jim Spencer) and he said, "Yeah, the government's providing them for free so we don't get kidnapped." Weirdly, my reaction wasn't, "Shit, this means we're in trouble," but, "Great, that means they'll be in every scene!" To be honest, I spent every day shitting myself – but it wasn't about getting shot or kidnapped, it was about whether or not I had filmed a scene in focus, or whether or not the story was making any sense.
There is an amazing contradiction at the heart of Central America: potential trouble right alongside beauty and friendship. Many bad things happened while we were there. There were shootings outside the hotel; we got caught in the middle of a street-market attack on a thief; a local prison had a riot and decapitated some of the inmates and displayed their heads by the fence; some gang machine-gunned down everyone in a village cafe a week before we arrived; swine flu broke...
But while all this was going on, we were in some of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen, being helped by the most generous people in the world. This strange contrast started to infect the film. Even in the most beautiful place, danger could be just around the corner, or during an intimidating situation there are the friendliest people ready to help you.
*Guatamala: Sam's look of, "How's long 'til our ride gets here?" is similar to Whitney's, "How long before Gareth lets me go pee?" look.*
When we got back to England we had over 100 hours of unique footage. Not the same takes again and again, like a normal drama, but ad-libbed moments that never repeat. We cut the film and I did all the effects using off-the-shelf Adobe software. Our first assembly was over four hours long, so Colin printed out a giant sign that read "90 minutes" as a constant reminder of the duration we were aiming for. I also bought a bunch of old '50s posters, including The War Of The Worlds and The African Queen, to keep us in the right frame of mind as slowly, over eight months, we trimmed the four hours down.
Once we had picture lock, I found myself with just five months in which to create all 250 visual-effects shots 'from my bedroom' (admittedly, it's a nice bedroom). This meant churning out about two shots a day, which was fine until I got to the first creature shot. Then suddenly two months went by and I still hadn't finished a single creature shot; it turned out to be the hardest part of the whole process. The whole film hangs on the look of these things and I had to get it right.
THE MONSTERS OF MONSTERS
A gallery of the many creature designs. The final was tweaked beyond recognition in the computer. Translating this image on to the big screen was not always an easy job for the youthful director.
If you ask any scientist where the highest chance of alien life in the solar system is, they'll tell you a moon outside Jupiter called Europa has exactly the same conditions under its icy ocean that started life on Earth. NASA was planning a mission to investigate this possibility. They don't know this yet, but when they finally bring a sample back, the probe will crash-land in Central America, and... well, I don't want to ruin the movie for you. But with this as a basis I looked to the bottom of the ocean for inspiration for what the creatures should look like. Every spare minute during the whole year we filmed and edited I would doodle monsters on bits of paper and collect any that I thought looked interesting. In the end I had hundreds. I got them down to my favourite 140, and I couldn't see the wood for the trees, so I took all 140 designs and put them on the wall in the Vertigo office, making a very surreal beauty pageant for the producers to choose from. But ten minutes went by and they were as stuck as me. So in the end I went for my favourite all along.
Normally when you finish all the visual effects, you then go and do all the sound effects to match the animation. But I was so against it, they had to create a lot of the sounds before I'd even started some of the shots. They did an incredible job. When you watch the film in the edit, you just have a small monitor to look at and it feels like you're watching TV. But sitting in the cinema theatre listening to the 5.1 Dolby mix was the first time it really hit me... We'd made a movie... not just that, but a monster movie!
*Texas: We spotted this broken road post-hurricane. God is now suing us for full credit as Art Director.*
The last six months have been insane. I've been on more flights this year than my whole life previously. When we had time to kill in the edit, Colin would ask me, "What has to happen at the end of all this to make it all worthwhile?" and I said, "For it to be screened in a cinema somewhere... That, and I get to make another film." Well, it looks like I'm lucky enough to say both those things might happen now.
Recently I had to choose between going to the European premiere of Monsters (Robert De Niro was in the audience... at least for five minutes) or attend Scoot and Whitney's wedding. Being the nice guy I am, I went to the wedding. The weird thing was, it was full of close family and friends who made speeches trying to explain why this couple is so talented and special. I couldn't help thinking, "I've got all of you beat: Monsters is the perfect love letter to these two." I know that sounds strange for a monster picture, but at the heart of this bizarre road movie is a relationship that really grabs you, and by the end I feel I've known these two all my life, when really it was just one trip across Central America.
Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able: lovers, survivors, stars in the making This film was like trying to strangle a snake – if that makes any sense," says Scoot McNairy. "It was incredibly demanding as an actor. Incredibly difficult." Considering he and his real-life partner, Whitney Able, were running around in Central America shooting an improvised low-budget movie with a first-time director while in the midst of a drug war, this is hardly surprising. Yet it wasn't the rough conditions which mainly concerned them. "We felt the story was riding on our shoulders the whole time, and if the movie flopped, it was because of our characters and our dialogue."
When Empire meets the couple – now married – they're safely back in California, though we have just made them sprawl about in a giant, alien footprint for our photo shoot. ("In the film, they're like sea creatures that don't really have a footprint," comments McNairy, "but the bottom line is my wife looked hot as shit, and that's what's important to me!") The warm chemistry which must have so appealed to director Gareth Edwards (who was initially put off by Able's 'unrealistic' shock-blonde good looks) is in evidence when we meet, yet Able does confess to having been a bit bemused by Edwards' insistence that the characters – a seemingly cynical photo-journalist and his boss' troubled daughter, who at the film's start have only just met – be played by a real couple. "Then I realised that when you're in such extreme conditions, you get to know each other very well very quickly," she says. "You just kind of slam into each other, so it did make a lot of sense that they had two actors who already had a dynamic set-up between them."
So off the couple marched, into a very high-pressure shoot; a test of nerve – and their new relationship – if ever there was one. It was on McNairy's mind, even then: "I said to myself, 'I'll either hate this person after we get done with this film, or it'll be the best thing that ever happened to us.'" Astonishingly, when we probe for meltdown stories, we get nothing. "The funny thing is, we never had tempers flare – I mean, there was never an argument," says McNairy.
"It was always a curious experience, and we were constantly in awe of this environment we were in," explains Able. "There was the danger element as well – we were in the middle of the drug war, which was awful, but we always had our eyes open. There was too much to process to think about ourselves."
Not only did they come out of it unscathed, it brought them even closer. "We were making a movie, but it was also one of the greatest travelling trips we've ever taken together, and probably ever will," says McNairy, who already has new projects set up, including Angry White Man with The IT Crowd's Matt Berry. "I absolutely would be interested in doing something like Monsters again," says Able. "My goal isn't to be a flash in the pan, I'm not looking for a quick cheque. I honestly want to spend the rest of my life learning as much as I can. Life is short, and to really get good at your craft you need to jump off the ledge and take risks." SAM TOY
This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #257 (November 2010).