Gareth Edwards' directorial debut is a unique combination of monster-movie and road-trip romance.
Few would argue that these are not bleak times. With a world economy that is tottering, global warming seeming unstoppable and overpopulation issues yet to be controlled, the film industry has understandably responded with plenty of post-apocalyptic visions. The latest entry into the mix, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, hews to a decidedly less fatalistic approach: rather than the end-of-the-world, last-people-alive drumbeats of 2012, Zombieland or The Road, the film portrays a world in which vast swaths of life have been wiped out, yet human life persists, undaunted, in the face of disaster.
The cause for The Bad Stuff in Monsters is not famine or disease, but rather, aliens. Built upon a what-if premise regarding real NASA probes that were in fact never sent out, Monsters is set in a world where space probes returned to earth with alien spores from Jupiter, which grow into the fearsome titular creatures. Monsters running amok have turned much of Mexico into a nightmare, and have been confined to the no-go area known as the Infected Zone. Early in the film, Mexico-based photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is instructed by the owner of his newspaper to shepherd said owner’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) to a ferry that will take her back to the U.S. However, things get tricky when Samantha’s passport is stolen and she misses the last ferry; with no other options and a fiancé to return home to, Samantha decides to try to make it back through the Infected Zone, with Andrew going as her guide. From there, things get sticky.
Also impressive is the film's budget—despite featuring larger-than-life aliens that lay considerable waste to the Mexican countryside, Edwards made it on the extremely relatively-cheap, for a mere $500,000. Much of this was due to the fact that Edwards, whose career has been as a visual effects artist thus far, did the VFX himself, on his computer. Tribeca had the chance to chat with Edwards over the phone recently.
Tribeca: How did the idea for the film initially crop up for you? Apparently you were in the Maldives watching fishermen when it first hit you?
Gareth Edwards: Well, I had been working in computer graphics, that was my background, and I was looking to do a low-budget sort of thing that I could do with my own money, graphics done by me, and so I was thinking about monster movies. I was in the Maldives watching these fishermen trying to haul something out of the water, and at the time I was inserting monsters everywhere, visually. I thought to myself, what if there were monsters in the water, and they were just ignoring them, going about their daily lives? I liked the metaphor of this thing going on in the other side of the world, and people watch it on the news, no one cares, everyone’s used to it. If you look at the news footage of places like that, you look at the people in the background—they’re just getting on with their lives. I think that’s the thing—humans are very good at adapting. Things are only strange for a short period of time, and then they get used to it. I think about Jurassic Park—you know, I think that would only be amazing for one generation. Then you take your kids to the zoo, and they ask, “Daddy, is the elephant genetically engineered?” “No son, just the T-Rex.” So I like having something fantastic that you treat as if it’s normal.
Tribeca: The film raised some interesting questions about the role of the photojournalist in a war zone, the ethical role a photojournalist plays. Why did you choose to make Andrew a photojournalist?
Gareth Edwards: Initially, when he was just a guy, it seemed that he would avoid the problem. The most sensible thing the characters would do would be to avoid the danger and wait for it to pass. I needed something that would pull him into the danger. Making him a photographer, obsessed with using his camera, was sort of closer to me as a person, so I could get into his head. There’s a lot of conversation in the film about the ethics of photojournalism. I don’t know where it all came from—I kind of thought Sam’s character would look down on him. It kind of seemed like what we were doing in the film, to a certain extent, was exploiting people, turning up in their homes and filming them. This western guilt you have of benefitting from other people’s lesser circumstances. We wanted to raise that and talk about it in the film a bit. I think there’s a line in the film where she says, “Doesn’t it bother you that you have to wait for something bad to happen for you to profit from it?” and he responds, “Like a doctor?” It kind of feels like throughout the whole film we’re trying not to judge anything. I didn’t want anyone to feel like the creatures in the film were good or evil, the military were good or evil. I just want to show both sides of every argument—everyone’s kind of right, everyone’s kind of wrong. I don’t believe that if there were aliens from outer space, they would want to destroy our world. They’re just animals trying to survive like the rest of us.
Tribeca: The sequence toward the end where the two monsters have some kind of intimate or sexual encounter was actually quite moving, and original.
Gareth Edwards: Make love, not war. I think a film should take you on a journey. The idea is that you walk into the film expecting that you’re gonna get one thing, and then by the time you leave you haven’t had that film at all, but the one you did get you are pleasantly surprised with.
Tribeca: So you were aware of trying to subvert genre expectations?
Gareth Edwards: Yeah. If you’re in the privileged position of getting to make a movie and you’re not trying to do something different, you should step aside and let someone else have a go at it. It feels like it’s part of your job to do something a little different from what people have done before. If you do make something different, you make life a little hard for yourself because you come in and explain to people what you’ve done, and they have expectations that they’re gonna get Cloverfield or District 9, and it’s not that film at all. It’s kind of a hybrid of those films, but also Lost in Translation or The Motorcycle Diaries. Those are all great films, I don’t think our film is as good as those—but we were trying to do something different. The irony is that when you do, the marketing people look at you like, what the hell have you done? Which box does this fit in? It’s a hard one to sell correctly to everybody. I hope that people just go in open-mindedly and enjoy the movie.
Tribeca: That must play out in an interesting way when you’re looking for financing—I’m guessing you pitch it as a genre film, then they read the script, and they realize there’s a lot more to it than that. How do you go about pitching this to investors to get them behind it without them wanting you to make it more of a genre piece?
Gareth Edwards: I actually had the opposite problem—my producers were trying to turn it into a subtle, artistic relationship sort of road movie, and not a big stomping war movie. You always play devil’s advocate, so I ended up trying to put a lot of more action stuff back in. You try to do what’s best for the film. I think the trick we had, which was a complete fluke, was that they greenlit the film without a script. Nobody knew what they were gonna get—they just knew that it was going to have monsters in it and be emotionally engaging and have a journey through Central America. That’s what we all knew as we set off. But it was so low budget that they felt that whatever we came back with, as long as it worked in some form, they’d be able to make their money back. We were given a lot of freedom, really. A lot of creative control.