Filmmaker Gareth Edwards used realism as a motivating force for his debut feature, Monsters. The film was shot with a micro crew of four and a local fixer, traveling guerilla-style through Central America, Mexico and Texas for three months.
Set six years after a battle against aliens on Earth, Monsters follows war photographer, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and his employer's daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) as they try and return to the United States through Mexico, which has been 'infected' by a new life form. Edwards deems this, “A realistic premise for the aliens.” Says the director, “I don't believe aliens would come to earth and attack and kill everyone if they were that smart to build spaceships!” Edwards imagines that realism in the genre would be “one minute of seeing a monster with loads of people killed and 90 minutes of having therapy getting over that one minute. Because that's really how it would be. It was important to me that whatever happened to the characters on their journey it was a slow progression. At no point would they stop. It had to slowly and incrementally, become more and more nuts. It's a slow burn film, it really does take its time, but it's worth it.”
The first-time feature director was originally plucked from film school by the BBC to work in its visual effects department. During his tenure, he won a BAFTA award (Hiroshima, 2006) and was nominated for an Emmy (Perfect Disaster, 2006). Wanting to shift gears to independent directing, he entered the Sci-Fi Channel's 48-hour film contest, hoping, he says, during a presentation of his film in New York, “To prove that you could make a cinematic film with no crew and just one actor in only two days.” The film won first prize and became a starting point for Monsters.
The short garnered the interest of Vertigo Films, which was interested in working with Edwards on a feature project. “I knew I wanted to make a monster movie,” he says, “but I didn't have a story. I didn't have anything!” What he did know was that he could deliver a monster movie “for a fraction of the costs” of the company's regular slate and that it would be commercial. “There's so much production value in exotic locations. You can shoot what happens and then manipulate the story to fit once you get back to the computer.” The company, he says, “bought it off concept.” It was then up to him to deliver a script.
Edward's script is unconventional. No dialogue was written; instead, he wrote a paragraph for each scene and then divided it into two sections. Says the director, “Because we didn't know exactly where we would be for each location I broke the scenes into two. Black pages were physical things that happen to the characters and blue pages were emotional things that we learn about them or they reveal”. The team would arrive at a location and first decipher what physical element was going to happen to the characters. They then decided on the emotional component of the scene. “The actors were very free,” Edwards says. “It was kind of out of control.”
Kaulder and Sam's journey home is fraught with danger as they face ever-increasing obstacles and fear of 'the creatures'. Yet, when asked to describe the film, Edwards calls it a love story crossed with a road movie. The realism of Kaulder and Sam's relationship is seminal to how the director constructed his film.
The production of the film mimics the journey of the two characters, which Edwards calls, “opportunistic.” As he tells it, the team would “literally stand by the road and flag down a truck. If we needed anything in the film we'd just stop people and ask them.” Non-actors participated along the way, with Edwards modifying their surroundings in post-production to create the thoroughly believable 'infected' world of the film.
The shooting of Monsters echoes that of a documentary, with similar issues to the form in the edit. “In the edit we had the headache of logic,” says Edwards. “We'd have shot about two hours that we then had to get down to under two minutes in the edit.” He admits, “At one point we were struggling with a scene and the producer said, 'What is this film about?' I ended up saying, 'You can't fight nature.' The more you try and fight nature the worse you make the problem. In a way, the story of fighting the creatures in the movie is paralleled with this story of these two characters who also have issues in their lives that they are fighting.
“It's about the emotional journey of these two characters and how their journey parallels the creatures,” he says. At the same time, the special effects don't disappoint. “I spent nearly a year working out what the monsters would be, and have hundreds of drawings and sketches to that effect. I finally settled on the design and the flickering light idea to make them more visually interesting and almost beautiful to look at.”
Edwards eventually created more than 250 special effects on his laptop during post-production.
Monsters releases nationally on November 25th.