After spending the last decade creating digital effects for a variety of television series, documentaries and fiction films, Gareth Edwards felt like he'd seen everything possible in the world of computer-generated images. So when he undertook his own feature-length directorial debut, Monsters, Edwards decided to create an movie about aliens unlike virtually any other—namely, one where characters and storytelling supersede spectacle.
Boxoffice spoke to Edwards in late 2010 via telephone to discuss Monsters, which is being released by Magnolia Home Entertainment this week, and is currently available on iTunes, VOD, Amazon, Xbox Marketplace, and the Playstation Network. The director offered some insights into his creative process, and highlighted just a few of the reasons that Monsters is anything but your average alien-invasion movie.
Although Edwards definitely wanted to make a movie about aliens, he wanted to make sure that the human characters were as compelling as their extraterrestrial counterparts.
Edwards explained that the idea came to him in multiple parts. "I wanted to do a monster film really, and the second level of that was that I wanted to do a journey, a road movie," he said. "I didn't ever picture doing a monster movie where we stayed in the same location. I always wanted it to travel from one place to another, and possibly every scene be kind of a different place. So in that sense it was a lot more like something like War of the Worlds or Day of the Triffids or something, and then once that was kind of the thing, I just kept going back to, okay, who are the characters and what are they doing? And I bounced around and suggested lots of different scenarios to the producers because they committed to doing this film, before I even had the story, just on the premise of doing a film the way we wanted to do it. The film would be a monster movie but you wouldn't have people running and screaming, so you could just film it cheaply anywhere, and they were really cool about that."
Before he arrived at a story between a wartime photographer shepherding his boss' daughter through an "infected zone," Edwards says he came up with several alternate ideas that ultimately didn't seem either feasible, or more importantly, emotionally rich. "Initially there was going to be a soldier that was in the Reserves who gets called up to fight in Mexico, and he loses his platoon," he remembered. "He gets separated from them in battle, and it was going to be about his journey back home. [The producers] thought that was going to be too expensive, with everyone wearing military outfits all of the time, so then we changed it to an orphan kid whose parents are killed, and his next of kin was from America coming to get him. But it was the same journey pretty much in the film. And then finally it was, okay, well, what about if it was two backpackers? Once I tried to explore that, I realized that really, if they were tourists who were caught out by this, you would just stay put, or go in a different direction. So I made one of them a photojournalist, a war photographer, and then made the girl his boss' daughter so that he had to look after her."
Edwards indicated that figuring out the characters made it easier for him to know what sort of story he was telling against this massive, science-fiction backdrop. "It became a love story—it was like, right, if that's what we're doing here, I'm just going to have to make it the best love story I possibly can. So my inspirations for the film was things more like ‘Lost in Translation' and ‘Brief Encounter,' which are very subtle and quite poignant, sort of slightly tragic love stories. I wanted to do that sort of thing; I didn't want it to be schmaltzy, so that's what we were going for. So it's funny, because it was conceived as a monster movie first, road movie second, love story third, but it plays as love story first, road movie second, monster movie third," he said with a laugh.
Without the same resources as the Roland Emmerichs of the moviemaking world, Edwards borrowed inspiration from blockbusters that successfully used the "less is more" credo.
"I think you've got to kind of play to your strengths in a way," Edwards explained. "I knew we couldn't compete with the Hollywood version of this film, and to be honest, it was a choice where we wouldn't want to make that movie anyway. There are going to be plenty of alien invasion movies, and there's going to be even more, aren't there? They give you the spectacle—every ten minutes you have a big action fight scene - and we felt like sort of as an indie version of that, it was kind of our job in a sense to do the film that Hollywood wouldn't want to do, and make it more of a character piece - to try and make that the strength of the film, not the weakness. But what's weird is if you harken back to the films that I loved when I grew up, like in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they're actually very similar in terms of the amount of effects you see and stuff. You don't get as much as you think you get, and it's a lot more about atmosphere and the characters and stuff."
In order to get a sense of how one of his favorite films used its little-seen monster, he actually clocked the screen time it sees opposite the film's stars. "I would never compare our film to any of these great movies, but out of curiosity, I looked at Jaws with a stopwatch," he revealed. "I timed it, and it's a really interesting thing, which is that it's just under and hour into Monsters, I think you see the creatures for about three minutes of screen time. In Jaws, in just under an hour, how many minutes do you think you see the shark? Three seconds—and yet that film is amazing."
Edwards also said that having explored just about everything that's possible with CGI effects, he wanted to focus on the storytelling, and make the aliens and the action secondary. "The fear is that because we can now do things with computer graphics, it just becomes a default setting—which is we show it all of the time, we just show it," he observed. "But the overall experience of watching these films that show it is not as powerful for me as watching a film like Jaws, where you hardly see it. So I feel like in this race to do everything digitally and show everything we can do, we've kind of lost the point of storytelling in a way. And as a visual effects person whose honeymoon is truly over with visual effects - there's no part of me that gets excited about computer graphics any more—I was very happy to help try and pull things in the other direction, and for better or worse, that's kind of what we tried to do."
Despite his decision not to rely on alien action to drive the story, Edwards was painstaking in his efforts to create creatures that would be believable and interesting to the audience.
"The design was pretty much based on deep-sea creatures, because in the film, they're supposed to be from a moon called Europa, next to Jupiter, which scientists believe has life at the bottom of an ocean possibly there that could support life," he revealed. "That's where they're from, so I looked at cetaceans, like crabs and octopus, and bioluminescent creatures, and tried to combine them." Edwards said he realized that the creatures would need to be at least vaguely identifiable to viewers, so that consideration figured directly into their design. "Basically, you have to have a slightly emotional empathy at one point for the creatures, and it's nearly impossible to empathize with something that doesn't have eyes," he pointed out. "You have to be able to relate to it and imagine you are it, and so if you have a tree, it would be really hard to make people upset about a tree being cut down, and so for me you can't stray too far from nature. Like, we're built to have an emotional reaction to things, whether we're afraid of them or we want to help them - it's hard-wired into us. And you have to abuse that when you design a creature, because something that is truly alien would be so abstract that it just wouldn't mean anything to anybody."
Although it was important to make monsters that were both unusual and familiar, Edwards said he wanted to make sure that their look didn't distract viewers from the meat of the story. "I know it sounds silly, but our film isn't really about the monsters," he insisted. "We didn't want to get into the problem Cloverfield got into, which was that everyone was so desperate to see what's the monster going to look like that that's all the film started to become about for everyone - what's the creature look like? I didn't want to get into that pickle because it puts pressure on the creature design to be the most monumental, groundbreaking thing ever, and so I went for a kind of [a classic design]. Like if you look at something like ‘The Simpsons' and they have an alien invasion, it's usually some sort of tentacled thing, so I just went for like the classic tentacled-type of alien where I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel. Our film's not about that. They're kind of a device for the journey that the characters go on, so I was just trying to make them beautiful - and scary, at times."
Even though the film wears its iconoclastic streak on its sleeve, Edwards knew that Monsters would actually need some alien-centric set pieces to keep things entertaining.
"I feel like it's like a ride at a theme park, and it starts off slow and it builds up, and I feel like whatever characters we ended up with, like, let's say we ended up with the soldier or a relative of someone or something, I think would have gone on the same journey because I think it would have been the same. You start in the city, you start off in civilization, and then bit by bit we start to lose it all, and the mode of transport gets more simplified, until they end up literally finally getting home and getting their reward, and then the reward is not what they thought it was. That was always the case, so in terms of set pieces, I think it would have always built up the way it did, and we could probably have afforded to throw in a few more, I'm sure."
Edwards said that he actually cut out one sequence that built more anticipation for alien carnage, but confessed that as a whole he didn't want to completely deny audiences the conventions of the genre. "There was actually one that we had cut out, and I didn't do the effects for it, but the original premise was that when they got on the train, they were going to a city to get a plane, and as they go, the train doesn't stop in the city and no one can understand why. But as we go through on the train, we see in the city that it's like [a war zone] and they pass through and the train never stops, and the first place that it does stop, they get out at the family home that they knock on the door of. That's the way it was written and that was what it was supposed to be, but when we were in the edit, there was just such this keenness to get to the infected zone as fast as possible," he said.
"But it would have always had those set pieces, and it probably would have always been those things [that happen in the movie]," he continued. "And I think you do need them, if you're going to do some sort of monster movie, because I think if you don't have anything like that, that's a braver filmmaker than we were."