Gareth Edwards talks about the unique guerrilla style of filmmaking he used on his highly acclaimed debut feature Monsters, and about his next sci-fi film in the works.
UK director Gareth Edwards worked in visual effects before directing his first feature, Monsters, for Vertigo Films. The film has been a huge hit since its debut at SXSW, selling widely and also earning raves from both critics and fanboys. It opens in the UK on Friday, also through Vertigo.
The low-budget love story/sci-fi drama stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able as two people travelling through a dangerous “infected zone” in the years following an alien invasion.
The project shot in late October 2008 with a crew of just five and the two actors, plus extras they met on locations across Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Texas. Edwards never wrote a full script, only an outline of scenes. He of course did the visual effects himself.
Edwards also talks about his next film, which will be produced by Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted).
Working in effects, did you have other ideas for your first feature or did you always want to do this story?
I had other ideas. They were all using effects. I had done a short film that Vertigo saw, and I went in to our first meeting and I threw out about three ideas. I thought they would think the monster movie was too ambitious, but James [Richardson] really went for it. I left that first meeting and he said, ‘Yeah let’s do it.’
I didn’t have a script. I started to have this paranoia that maybe it wasn’t really that easy. So I went back in for another meeting and James said, ‘Okay write down on this piece of paper the day you want to start shooting.’ And I picked a date three months away.
It’s ballsy to set out to make a film with a low budget, with improv dialogue, on the road in foreign countries. Did you enjoy working like this?
Our best stuff was when we didn’t plan it, we just reacted to stuff.
I had the opposite attitude to most directors, I was concerned the budget was too big. I was trying to spend less money and [Vertigo] was trying to get me to spend more. They wanted to protect their investment and I wanted less pressure. I felt like I was going to offer to pay them back. They said this was the first time that’s happened.
Did you enjoy the way of working without overly prepping?
I’d say ‘I’m going to point the camera here, you can go where you want, you can do what you want, go for it, I might not stop filming for an hour but don’t step out of character.’ It would all go wrong, and off course, but in going off course something really interesting could start to happen.
The great thing about visual effects is that I can fix things in the background, put in warning signs, put things in TV sets, and make it connect to the story. We could manipulate everything to bring it back to the story.
That must have made the edit daunting.
We had about 100 hours of footage, which is not so bad considering. What was scary is that when you watched the raw footage you couldn’t really tell if we had a film at all. My paranoia was that we’d have a film that was half an hour long…but our editor did the first assembly of the film and it came in at four and a half hours.
After that, it was like playing a game of Jenga. When you start taking out your favourite shots from the film you know you are doing okay. We had to picture lock with text on the screen to submit it to festivals. So it was hard to know what you’d be seeing in the final version. We had to send that text version to SXSW and they accepted it.
What were the effects? It’s more than just the creatures so what were the less obvious things done in post?
All the signs in the film are Photoshopped, and the military hardware, like jets, helicopters and tanks, and anything on the TV sets.
And for instance, we went past a boat with a window, and I thought I’d put in a bloodstained handprint on the window. So I got fake blood from a shop, put it on my hands onto a piece of paper, then photographed it, and in the computer I put it onto the boat. You could’ve put the blood onto the boat, but like this I just shot whatever I got when we passed it and could figure it out in the edit.
It wasn’t working the wrong way around, it was shooting a lot of stuff and then just figuring out how to get it to look like we’d been very clever and thought about it ahead of time.
How did you design the creatures?
You can’t stray too far from nature, nature’s had five million years of trial and error with design, I had two weeks. They are meant to be from the bottom of the ocean, they’re from Europa, which is a moon next to Jupiter, and NASA believes there might be life there, and they go to have a look and obviously in our film it all goes a bit wrong. So I looked at crabs and octopus. And the final creature when its walking across, it can look more like an elephant. It’s a sort of crab-elephant-octopus.
What’s next for you?
I’m so lucky I’ve got a development deal for the next film. And [Vertigo] is pursuing some sort of scenario [to follow-up Monsters] and if they do that, I’m sure we’d collaborate.
You’re working with Timur Bekmambetov instead of a studio for your next film.
When I got invited to Hollywood meetings, I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s amazing.’ And then you realise the seat is still warm from the last director. And you realise how ‘important’ you really are.
Timur really loved [Monsters] and I told him the idea for a film I want to do, and he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it outside the studio system. We’ll finance it and develop it.’
I don’t know where it will shoot, it could be anywhere. The tagline is: ‘an epic human story set in a futuristic world without humanity.’ It’s science fiction.
I won’t do all the effects on my own, but it would be very hard for me to NOT be the visual effects supervisor. We could shoot it next year, so now I’ve got to lay it all down on paper.
Are you looking forward to getting started on that script?
For me the film is in my head, but nobody else can see that, so to make them happy you write the script. It’s a process of making the film, but it’s not the experience of sitting in a cinema watching a movie.
My goal would be to one day make enough money that I don’t have to write the script, you just make the movie in your head.