Space Invaders on a Shoestring Budget
The sneak attack of 'Monsters'
Let's come right out and say it upfront: Gareth Edwards' Monsters is the best monster movie of the millennium (thus far). Seriously. Don't believe it? Still rolling over that four-leaf-Cloverfield? Stuck in District 9? We loved those, too, but for our money, the Brit-helmed Monsters trounces Matt Reeves' New York escapade and Neill Blomkamp's South African bug-fuck by sheer virtue of directorial pluck (it's Edwards' first film out of the gate) and producerial luck (rumored budget: $15,000!). Add to that the fact that it's not just a monster movie but also a road movie/love story starring former Austinite Scoot McNairy alongside his now-wife Whitney Able and a smart, instinctual nonscript, and you've got something wholly unique yet strangely, strikingly akin to The African Queen meets Yog, Monster From Space.
McNairy plays a jaded photojournalist saddled with the unexpected and unwanted responsibility of getting his boss' daughter (Able) back home where she belongs. Unfortunately, they're both in "the infected zone" in Mexico, a no-man's-land so named because it's where, six years prior to the start of the action, a NASA probe returned to Earth with its own unexpected cargo: four-story-tall, bioluminescent squid-aliens who have, in the interim, spawned themselves across a huge swath of Mexico and, appropriately enough, Texas (where everything except the budget is, you know, bigger).
We spoke to Edwards about his own backstory, how he conceived this expertly nuanced exercise in cephalopod terror/pathos, and, most importantly, his original childhood dream job and why lies are, at least sometimes, good things indeed.
Austin Chronicle: Monsters was picked up for distribution almost overnight, during South by Southwest 2010, right?
Gareth Edwards: Right, it all happened that first night. From now on I'll divide my life into two parts: life before Austin and life after Austin. It all changed for me at that Festival, and it's been crazy ever since.
AC: And Monsters was your first film.
AC: Was that the master plan? Make a monster movie, take it to Austin, and become a lauded director in one fell swoop?
GE: Actually what I wanted to do when I was a kid was join the Rebel Alliance and blow up the Death Star. And then my mom explained to me that it was a lie created by people called "filmmakers," and so I thought the second best option would be to be one of those "filmmakers," and I'll tell lies as well. So I grew up since I was tiny wanting to be a film director. I went to film school, made short films, all those sort of things, and I found that I was so used to playing around with my dad's video camera and making stupid little films in a day that when I learned how to do filmmaking properly I got very frustrated with it. It was all about budgets and bureaucracy and not so much about storytelling. At the time, around 1993, my flatmate was studying this brand-new thing called computer animation, and I thought that, you know, this is going to be a really powerful tool, like a camera, for filmmakers, and I had better learn how to use it. The rationale was that in the event that nobody ever gave me a chance to make a movie, it looked like with this stuff you could almost possibly go and make a film on your own and then add all the production value in on the computer. So I ended up with a career in visual effects after having learned all that stuff, but with the intention always of learning it so that I could make a movie.
AC: Focus is key. And here it is 17 years later, and you've got one hell of a sci-fi, road-trip romance on your hands. Brilliant!
GE: Yeah, well, I just kept putting it off and putting it off and making excuses as to why I wasn't going to make a movie until next year.
AC: What was the deciding factor? Were you pushed, or did you leap?
GE: I think you reach a point where you're going to be more depressed having never tried to do it than having done it and completely failed. I must've hit that point a couple of years ago, because I abandoned my career, spent all the money I had trying to get it off the ground, and ... here we are. It was worth it, but it was quite scary for a while.
AC: Scary how?
GE: Just abandoning my visual-effects career. I built up a load of clients, kind of working from my bedroom for the BBC, Discovery Channel, people like that. It was going on really well, and I was pretty comfortable, earning good money, but it became a situation where clients would ring me up and I'd keep taking the jobs, because you worry the day you say no is the day they go and find someone else, and you never work again. It's that freelance fear. I was scared to turn work down. Once you turn work down, people stop calling. I used to get about a call a week to do graphics, and I haven't had a call now in about a year. But I think that part of my life is over now.
AC: Monsters was largely improvised, correct?
GE: The film got green-lit without any script or story at all. It was literally, "I want to set a monster movie years after it normally ends, when everything's normal, and I think you could do it very cheaply if we add the visual effects in the background." That was the pitch. I showed [the producers] some shorts and television work I had done, and I think they thought, "Well, even if this goes horribly wrong, it's so little money that it's worth the risk."
The story, in my mind, was always going to be about some sort of journey, a road movie, and it would be one of the characters who we were following. I suggested quite a few different options to the producers and eventually they were most keen on having a male and female lead. I'm not a big fan of love stories in films because I find them a bit cheesy, but whether you like it or not, if you have a male and a female as the leads, then it becomes a love story. There's no way around it. Lost in Translation is a great example of that.
So I had that rough premise, and I was thinking about actors when the production company, Vertigo Films, suggested Scoot McNairy, who was in another one of their films, In Search of a Midnight Kiss. I talked to Scoot and explained that what I really wanted was a genuine, real-life couple at the heart of the film, because the chemistry is so important between the two characters. And he said, "Well, my girlfriend's an actress" and sent me some pictures. She looked stunning, so much so that it actually put me off a bit because, you know, I wanted the film to have a very gritty, very real look to it. And then I met Whitney, and she was so down-to-earth that I knew it could work.
AC: Did you at least have a script or outline for Scoot and Whitney to work from?
GE: What I did was print the physical things that happen to these two characters on their journey in black ink, and then in blue ink I printed the emotions and things that they reveal or that we learn about them. Whenever we were at a location, we'd have a little paragraph describing what the scene was, in terms of what had to happen, but then we would pick a blue page and try and figure out what we could get into the scene emotionally or what we could reveal. It was very ad-libbed. Everybody in the film apart from [McNairy and Able] were pretty much nonactors. I think you can get great performances out of them so long as you don't tell them how to behave, so that their characters react the way they personally would react. It was so random what these nonactors were doing and saying that Scoot and Whitney were constantly having to dance around them to compensate. It was very obvious early on that the idea of having a script script was not going to happen.
AC: That's pretty amazing in light of the fact that there's not a missed beat in the entire film.
GE: I think it's very hard to fake those moments where someone is trying to think what to say next and they're not articulating it very well. That's how real life is to me. That's how I talk. Scripts often can be so polished and perfect that it might be great dialogue but it's not how people speak in real life. I was really keen to capture that because the real and normal world is brought into direct contrast with this insane fact that there's these big aliens in the background. It just makes it all that much more believable.
Monsters opens in Austin on Oct. 29. See Film Listings for review. It's currently available on Magnolia Pictures on Demand, and it will be available on iTunes Oct. 29.