For a first-time filmmaker, there are worse things that could happen than the fear of getting kidnapped. At least, this is what I surmised when Gareth Edwards gave me a roll of the eyes when he thought I was about to ask about the budget of “Monsters,” the micro-budget sci-fi film that has become one of the year’s most talked-about debuts after premiering in March at SXSW amidst rumors that it cost a mere $15,000.
Not that Edwards would be reluctant to talk about it. Right now, he appears ready to talk about nearly anything, brimming with an enthusiasm that’s hard to come by — even by the standards of those who know they’ve pulled off their first magic trick — but money was hardly what was on Edwards’ mind as he backpacked across Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and Texas with actors Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy, a boom operator and a camera.
While there are roughly 250 special effects shots in “Monsters,” of downed helicopters, of trees infected with fluorescent pods, and of the octopus-like creatures that threaten the lives of Americans Samantha and Andrew (Able and McNairy) as they try to find safe passage through Central America after an alien invasion, the most special effect of Edwards’ film has nothing to do with computer graphics or camera trickery. Instead, it is the vitality of shooting in areas rarely seen outside of National Geographic back issues as a springboard for a tale that feeds on both the joy of the region’s indigenous cultures and the dread that as societies they’ve been left behind.
In a genre that’s known for subtext, the fact that Edwards brings these things to the surface is only one of the refreshing things about his debut, which doesn’t shy away from showing its “Monsters,” whether it’s the full glory of his CG creations or the random ferry operator who exploits the Americans out of a higher fare for their travel.
Fortunately, Edwards knows what scares an audience more than what to be afraid of himself, asking complete strangers from the area to interact with McNairy and Able on their journey and dealing with the harsh terrain of the jungle, only to come home to the daunting task of waking up every morning to do every CG shot for the film. (“Computers are like dogs – they can smell fear,” says Edwards.) On the eve of facing an even more intimidating task — walking the red carpet for “Monsters”‘ premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival — Edwards talked about the evolution of special effects, how he turned nearby gunmen into production value and the cheap version of “Avatar.”
With the limitless potential of CG special effects, it seems like we keep getting the same movie. How did you make yours different?
I think the background being in computer graphics is you just become bored with it and I love computer graphics — there are some things that are so much easier to do in the computer than they are to create in front of the camera, so it is an important tool and you do need them, but I think also people rely on them for its own sake. They don’t sit there and picture okay, what would be a good film. Okay, how the hell do we do that? A lot of people sit down and go, okay, we can do anything we want in the computer. What’s not been done? Let’s try and do that instead and it’s not necessarily a good idea to do that because it’s not using computers in the right way.
It seems it took awhile for computers to catch up with your ambitions. When did you know this would be possible?
I kept trying to pull this off since 1997, not this film, but I bought a computer after I graduated film school and tried to learn CGI because I just figured it would be the future of filmmaking. Every year, I’d have a little pet project, not necessarily a movie, but something and it just was never good enough or never quite how I imagined it. It was like those embarrassing short films and experiments that you want to hide and delete and never have anyone see. I just kept trying and trying and I kind of get back to a point where I think why didn’t I do this earlier? You look back and think well, I actually couldn’t have done this five years ago for a few reasons.
The main one was a camcorder that you can run around with in your hand only recently have these special adapters that allow it to look like 35mm film, so you can have that narrow depth of field and look beautiful and cinematic, but still like very cheap and you can film for hours on end without it being expensive. And before that, computer graphics were really slow.
It’s very easy to think computers were always the way they are today, but you forget how slow and rubbish they were five years ago. I remember how long it took the software took — a day [for] every time you moved a frame forward and it would like slowly update after a few seconds — whereas now with high definition, I can play around with it in real time. It’s very fluid, and thank God, the technology’s at a point now where I don’t look like such an idiot as I did before when I used to try these things.
It’s equally ambitious to set your first film in Central America and Mexico when you’re not familiar with the region and I’ve heard stories of bigger film shoots that have shied away from the area for fear of kidnapping. Had you been warned?
Everybody in the film in the daylight that’s got a gun is a real policeman and what happened was I was filming and I noticed the guys with guns, I was thinking this is great. This really helps our film — brilliant, get them in shot. And in another scene, I’d realize it was the same guy and I’d be like “Hang on, why is this guy also here? He was also at the other place.” The producer said, “No, no, no, they’re our bodyguards. The government has supplied them for free, so we don’t get kidnapped.” So you think oh shit, okay, that’s how dangerous it is here.
It’s funny because whilst we were there, all kinds of crazy stuff happened — there was a shooting outside the hotel, there was a prison break and they decapitated some prisoners, there was a week before we arrived into town, they machine-gunned everyone in this café. So when we arrived, there was these coffin protests in the street and all this stuff was going on and I was constantly shitting myself the whole film, but it was never about these things. I was constantly shitting myself that maybe I hadn’t got enough shots. Maybe something was out of focus. Maybe the film is rubbish, you know what I mean? That’s what was worrying me.