Interview: Gareth Edwards

We sit down with the director of Monsters.

The film has been widely publicised as being relatively low budget. What were you working with, exactly?

I don’t know the exact figure, if you ask the guys downstairs [at the Vertigo offices] they’ll be able to answer that better than I can. But essentially, it was in the low six figures. There’s a figure floating around the internet of £15,000 but that’s a misunderstanding. It comes from a website – Best Buy, the US equivalent of Curries, that’s them tallying up the price of all the equipment that we used. But that’s not the budget, I mean we all got paid a wage, although the budget was low.

And you were responsible for all of the effects as well?

Yeah, they were all just done on a regular – well, a fast – PC. My background is computer graphics. I got frustrated with filmmaking at film school. There’s just a huge sense of compromise when you try to make a film properly. It just felt like, at the time, that computers were going to be the solution to this, that when you go to make a film, the biggest shock is that it’s not about story and being creative. It’s a lot about scheduling, budgets, equipment, crews, it kind of sucks the fun out of it. And it’s kind of like, you have to know… whatever you’re going to do in the next ten minutes, you have to have decided yesterday. So it just feels completely uncreative when you’re there, like a production line. So for me there’s a fundamental limit when you approach something like that, of how good or bad it can be. It’s not going to be shit, because you’ve got all of these people helping you, but it’s very hard to be great. Obviously there are all kinds of great movies that have been made like this, but I’m not built that way, to do things that way. Computers promised for a long time that you could go off and make a movie on your own, so I just sort of learned how to use a computer and how to do it in the hope that in six months I could go and make a movie. It actually took me about a decade to work it out, to figure out how to use everything properly.

So what software did you use?

It was mainly all Adobe. So it was edited on Premiere, the visual effects were all composited on After Effects, and most of it was painted using Photoshop. But for the 3D, which is mainly the creature stuff, I mainly used 3DS Max.

Speaking of the Monsters – they’re squids, or cephalopods of a sort, is there any Lovecraft in there?

I’ve heard this a lot. What’s the name?

Cthulhu?

Yeah, Cthulhu. I know very little about it, I’m not that familiar. Where’s that from?

From his short stories, mainly The Call Of Cthulhu, At The Mountains Of Madness…

Well, maybe it influenced someone who influenced me. There was a lot of comic book covers that I looked at. I did see Cthulhu ones actually.

I think it’s public domain now, actually.

Right.

So what was the process for the design, how long did it take you?

It took me a lot longer than I’d hoped. It started basically with sketches – when I was working on the project I’d draw little doodles, and depending on the shapes and such I’d keep them. And in the end I had this pile, this massive pile of sketches, and I scanned my favourites into the computer. Then I’d shade them, draw them, and in the end I created about 140 of my favourite designs. I brought them into the offices [at Vertigo Films] and showed them to the producers. I wanted someone else to pick it because I couldn’t see the woods for the trees. They had stickers, little red and green ones – green for what’s good and red for what’s shit – and they sat and looked at it for about 20 minutes without saying a word. I was sort of embarrassed, because I thought ‘Oh no, they’re all rubbish’. They’re based on this theory – there’s a moon called Europa, and it’s kind of the best premise for alien life. There’s an ocean, and volcanic vents and all that. So for a starting point it was squid and crabs, and I think the final thing that we’ve got is actually half squid and half crab with a few other elements, like bioluminescence. I actually think it’s got more of an elephant head. It’s funny how animals that have evolved completely separately can end up looking like each other. Squids look a bit like elephants, in terms of their eyes on the top. Basically, on the computer I started trying to do – I had about 250 shots to do, and I was trying to go at a pace of two shots per day, but with my first creature shot about two months went by without me doing a single thing, because it took that long to figure it out – I’d never really done proper creature animation. So I had to get my head around trying to animate this thing and how to do the tentacles. Actually with the tentacles, the breakthrough moment was… in the computer there’s this thing called rope simulation, well it’s a simulator, you can do cloth and the like, and one of them is ropes. Basically, what I figured out is that you can simulate a rope but tell them computer that there’s no gravity, so then the rope would float as if it’s in water and it has this really hypnotic movement. That’s basically how the tentacles were done – it’s very easy to do, but it looks complicated.

You shot parts of the film in Guatemala, right?

Yeah, and in Belize, Costa Rica.

With such a low budget, was it a case of letting the environment do a lot of the heavy lifting for you?

Yeah definitely. I mean, at one point we did joke about having the art direction credit as ‘God’. It did feel like He did all the hard work, we just turned up and shot it. That’s the thing though, my biggest inspiration is going on holiday and travelling – or one of the biggest at least. You’ll stand in some amazing place in the world, and as well as there being something in front of you that’s stunning, there’ll be some random details, like dogs just fighting each other in the corner, or some monkeys, or kids playing in the street, and they’re all things that if you wrote it down in the script, a producer would look at it and tot up the price, and get some trained dogs, and kids, and now you need a teacher that has to instruct the kid, it adds up to thousands. And you’re thinking ‘No no no no no, I don’t specifically want those things, that just happened to be there when I was inspired.’ So it felt more appropriate that instead of demanding certain things you should just turn up, and whatever’s interesting, all these random elements that you get for free when you’re in an exotic or developing country, just incorporate them. Obviously, we got really lucky with loads of little things. There’s so much that isn’t in the film – the first cut was four-and-a-half hours, and we got it down to 90 minutes. But for me it’s things like the amazing looking little girl – there’s one bit where Whitney [Able] looks at this girl, and she looks back at her, and it’s a great scene.

So you used a lot of the local people in the film?

Yeah, we had this fixer – a sort of part-producer, part local who had to go up and explain the film to them. They were all really nervous – we’d turn up in a location with a camera and the people in the village would watch us, thinking what were we going to do? She would come over to them and explain the movie, and they would look really nervous until she hit the word ‘extra-terrestres’, and as soon as she said that, everyone would smile and nod. They were all cool with a monster movie, and there wasn’t anyone – or at least, I didn’t see anyone – who refused to let us film. Everybody signed a release, pretty much. There was never any sense of… if you were in London, you’d be getting told to move on, or to leave, whereas there we could stay all day, all over the place.

So there were never any problems with the police?

No – everyone in the film with guns are the police. They were there to protect us, and because we were getting this for free, obviously I tried to get them into the shot. Guys with guns in our film helps with the whole environment. I didn’t realise this at the time, I just thought that there were a lot of police in Central America, but slowly realised that actually, they were there for us.

It’s quite a dangerous place – you had no problems with militia or anything like that?

We didn’t have any problems, there were things that happened. Like, a week before we got to this one town, someone to do with the drugs war went into a café and machine-gunned everybody in there and killed them. It was a small little town in the mountains, and we were trying to keep that from the actors, because we didn’t want to freak them out. Then on the way out of the town we had to drive past the police station, and all the people who were protesting had put coffins, seven or nine coffins, all in front of the station. So our actors were like ‘What’s all that?’ And we had to tell them, but there was loads of little things like that. In the same town we pulled into the hotel really late, and the woman who ran it, her English wasn’t great, and she said ‘Who are you, what are you doing?’ You say that you’re the director, and she was like ‘I’ll give you the best room’, and I said not to do that, to give it to the actors, but she insisted. So she said ‘Yeah, just go down there, next to the tigers.’ And I just thought, oh poor lady, her English is so bad she’s obviously mad a mistranslation. So we get down there and she wasn’t kidding. There was a tiger enclosure, and it was chicken wire type stuff, no bars. My room was part of it, their wall was my wall, there was a window and I felt like at any time you could push that through. And apparently in the drugs cartel world, exotic pets are kind of like having a Lamborghini. So I started to worry about all these people, like what her husband did for a living, that sort of thing. And I also had a bad back from the camera, which I was carrying the whole time, so I limped everywhere. But when I walked past this tiger enclosure I’d make a miraculous recovery, because they can see weakness. I made sure Whitney looked like she was the weakest.

Were the actors good sports about all of this?

Sure. They were nervous before we left. I think us, as Europeans, we travel a lot more and we don’t worry about things as much. I’ve been to – not crazy places, but I’ve been to a few places that are supposed to be a little… well we’ve all done things where in retrospect, when you tell people it sounds a bit crazy, but it was fun because of the adventure, and you didn’t feel threatened. I think when you watch the news you can get the wrong impression about an area. You just get the bad news, and no one tells you… you never hear the headline ‘Lady in a shop helps guy to bus station’, that’s never going to make it. It’s always going to be someone’s shot and killed. So these places end up looking terrible, but when we go there on holiday it’s beautiful, and the people are friendly, and you kind of think ‘This place is given a really bad reputation’. And I think when we were filming it was great, in a way the film is a bit about the journey that these characters go on, that you have a perception at the start of the film that there’s a problem, and as they go through it they realise that the problem’s not the same as they thought, it pans out a different way. There was always something round the corner apparently that was life-threatening, but you never see it, and we were blissfully unaware of these problems, it was always as we were leaving a town or as we were arriving we’d hear of something. Very much like the film – all the death and destruction is just ahead or behind them. Never quite happening in front of them, and you start to wonder how scared you should actually be, are you going to see a monster or not?

Did you have to get official permits, or did you film without them sometimes?

It depends on the place. I always tried to for sure. For every location, particularly a public location or something, we would have a signed form saying that we were allowed to form. I think the biggest stretch of that was a scene where they go into the infected zone. They have to go through this big barrier, and I wanted it to be as real as we could make it, so I kept asking where the biggest barrier that we were going to go through was. They said the crossing from Belize into Guatemala, they have a big checkpoint. So it was like okay, great, we’ll film it. So as we went through, we were told by the fixer that he’d set it all up no worries, and to stay in character, everyone knows about it and we’ve got permission, it’s all fine. We’ll just shoot it and see what happens. So we did, there’s a scene where they’re saying that they’ve lost their passports and they need to get through, and they’re arguing with the immigration people. It feels like a real environment. We had this big argument about not having passports and we filmed it, and they let them through eventually. And then as we’re leaving, the driver’s laughing his head off. We’re like, what’s so funny? And he said that they had no idea what we were doing. He said ‘I didn’t tell them, because I wanted it to look real. They think you’re making a documentary. They thought you guys had really lost your passports.’ So we were like ‘Oh shit, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to go back and tell them so they can stamp it.’ So we had to turn round and go back to these people and say that we’re actually making a movie, we have our passports, and can you stamp them? They were just really confused, like, what the hell is going on here? I think everyone was just like ‘You kids with your crazy monster movie.’ I think it’ll be really interesting – I’m not sure how big a release this film will have in Guatemala – but there’s this guy there who sells them the ferry ticket, and everyone’s non-actors, and he works in a café, never acted before. He puts in this great performance, and I really want someone to recognise him and say ‘Were you in Monsters?’ I’m not sure if he even remembers it, I mean we were only in his life for about three hours, so it’s not going to be a big, significant thing for him, he might have forgotten it. I don’t know how much we even talked to him about it all, someone will come up to him and ask him if he’s in that movie and he’ll be like ‘What are you on about?’