Cloverfield - Matt Reeves interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MATT Reeves, the director of monster smash Coverfield, talks about the inspirations behind the film, its unique hand-held technique and any post-9/11 concerns that it might provoke.
He also talks about the inspiration behind the monster in the film, why it draws from past classics such as Jaws and Alien, and whether or not he feels the film’s distinct style will lead to a lot of copycat movies.
Q. What was it about your work on TV show Felicity that suggested you were right for Cloverfield?
Matt Reeves: [Laughs] Well, Felicity was really a character piece, it was very intimate and had a lot of people in rooms talking to each other about relationships and stuff, but the thing that was important to me and JJ Abrams – who co-created it – was that we were always trying to go for a kind of naturalism. This was a college fantasy but there was a level of naturalism with the actors and the situations we tried to create. So, the idea with Cloverfield was to take something that was completely outrageous and enormous but do it from a very intimate and naturalistic point of view. So, even though it was a visual effects movie and had a 350ft tall monster that was going to destroy New York it was also going to be from the point of view of one of the people that’s going to be running down the street in a Godzilla movie. This isn’t about the President who puts in a call to the military and says: “We’re going to take the strike.” It’s about people and the experience of it.
What was cool for me was I’d never done visual effects, but when I started collaborating with [effects company] Double Negative they’d never done visual effects in this style so it wasn’t only new for me, it was new for them and we’d all be on the set together trying to figure out how to realise things in that particular style. It was also that way for the crew because they’re normally used to shooting things a certain way. When we have a focus puller, if somebody walks in and they hit their mark and the focus puller doesn’t capture them sharp, then they lose their job – but not on this movie. On this I’d say it was too sharp and that it had to be out of focus, to which they’d look at me like: “What? Isn’t that going to get me fired?”
But that was the whole point. It had to feel like it was on auto focus, and it had to be messy. It was the same thing with our operators – we had experts who knew how to get just what you wanted on camera and I’d say: “Good, but next time don’t get it on camera, you have to come in later because anybody on the set who’d really be there would never know that’s going to happen over there. You know because you’re an expert camera operator and you’re used to capturing everything perfectly!” It was kind of like a grand experiment for everyone involved.
Q. How did you get the balance between the blockbuster elements and the hand-held camera footage just right?
Matt Reeves: Well, what attracted me to the project was the idea of doing a movie that was, in a sense, a traditional monster movie except that it would have this ultra-realistic point of view. I mean to take something as ridiculous as a 350ft monster attack on New York and try to depict it with this level of realism was sort of strange but that was the fun of it. That, to me, was the real challenge.
I looked at a lot of YouTube footage and some documentaries, such as The War Tapes by Deborah Scranton where she gave handicams to a bunch of troops that were going to Iraq. They literally took those cameras into battle and she ended up editing together a film from that. I was interested to see the way that someone in an absolutely terrifying situation would film and how that would look. There’s so much stuff on the internet featuring amateur footage of people going through a crisis, whether it’s 9/11 footage or anytime anything happens people are there with their cellphones, camera phones and camcorders to document it. It’s from a very interesting point of view because it’s from a place of no knowledge, of just being a witness and being there, and not being able to anticipate anything. So, I watched that as a visual reference.
My first thought was then, well, how much of this movie can we actually shoot on handicam and when I went to the visual effects people they said they’d prefer it if we didn’t shoot on handicam [laughs]. We had fantastic effects people. But I told them: “Here’s the problem. This movie is made for an audience that does this daily.” When people carry their mobile phone with them they have a camera phone with them 24 hours a day, so they know what it looks like when their lives are documented and put up on the internet because that’s what they do.
So, if we’re shooting a movie with steadicam and then we add shake later they’re immediately going to say: “This is completely fraudulent…” even though it is a giant monster movie. So I said: “Let’s find a way to at least shoot the movie hand-held.” The teaser trailer that appeared on Transformers was a kind of think tank workshop to figure out how to shoot in this style with hand-held effects.
Q. What cameras did you use?
Matt Reeves: We shot on the Thomson Viper that David Fincher shot Zodiac on, and we shot on the F23 that’s a very high-resolution camera that’s also very sensitive to light. Miami Vice was shot on those types of cameras because they can see deep into the night and they get high resolutions for visual effects. They also way about 50 to 60lbs which a handicam that fits in the palm of your hand does not! So, I said: “Well, we have to shoot as much of the remainder of the film as possible then with those cameras because it’s going to be hard to create the illusion of a light camera if we’re using those kind of [heavier] cameras.” So we actually shot on two handicams for the rest of the film.
With one of those two cameras I was able to shoot a lot of the footage myself because I am an amateur, and I was able to give it to the actors because they were amateurs. I remember there was a scene where Mike Vogel – who plays Jason, Rob’s brother – is given the camera for the first time and talks about how he doesn’t know how to use it. In the scene, I said to Mike that I wanted him to film some material. When he told me that he didn’t know how to use it I said: “That’s perfect!” So, he was fiddling around with it and had no idea of how to shoot it and that’s the footage that’s in the movie.
I also wanted TJ Miller, who plays Hud, to be able to shoot as much as possible because I wanted the actors to be able to relate to him right on camera because it had a particular feeling in that it helped to create a greater authenticity. Usually in movies, you’d shoot a scene between characters from several different angles, and you’d be able to edit together later, but here because I wanted it to feel real there’s no edit, so that meant that instead of shooting for one hour and doing multiple angles I’d shoot one hour and I’d do 50-60 takes and let stuff evolve over the course of the shooting. Basically, it was all just one kind of giant experiment, including for the visual effects people because they hadn’t shot in this style before.
Q. Was there ever a concern that some of the shots of New York being destroyed might sit uncomfortably with post 9/11 audiences, especially in America?
Matt Reeves: Sure. But the thing is that Cloverfield was really inspired by Godzilla. It’s meant to be a horror movie of its time in the same way that Godzilla was definitely a reaction to the anxieties of that time – you know, post Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it was very much a movie about the anxiety during the atomic age. We felt that in doing a monster movie for our country and of our time that it would definitely be reflective of the anxieties we all feel since 9/11. So that was definitely something we were aware of from the beginning although at the end of the day we were also aware that what we were making was a fantasy. That [9/11 anxiety] was an entry point for the film, a way in, but ultimately what we made was a giant monster movie. I think that all the really interesting genre films, to me, tend to reflect the anxiety of the time in which they were made. The ’50s Red scare films, and the way that Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead was said to be a reaction to Vietnam. So there’s no question that we were aware of that and that it’s part of the environment in which we made the film.
Q. Is the fact that [main character] Rob is off to Japan a movie buff nod to Godzilla?
Matt Reeves: [Laughs] There’s no question that that’s a kind of oblique reference to Godzilla.
Q. Can you talk a little about the marketing and online viral campaign that seemed very complex?
Matt Reeves: Well, we made the trailer [first] and the idea behind that was that we knew we had a no name cast and that we didn’t have a lot of marketable elements, but what we did have was the element of surprise and the fact that they were willing to put our trailer on Transformers. It sounded like that movie was going to be a hit – but we didn’t know it was going to be a gigantic hit. So we thought it would be a great way to sneak in under the radar and surprise people because today when we go to the movies and see a trailer it almost always gives you every scene in the movie and you know everything about it once you’ve seen it.
On top of that, you’ve also probably heard about it from magazines, leaks and the internet. So, we had this opportunity because we were making the film in such a short time with unknowns to surprise people kind of in the spirit of Close Encounters of The Third Kind. What we didn’t know, however, was that Transformers would be a monster hit and that people would be so intrigued by this.
Initially, we thought we’d release the trailer and then a month or so later we’ll do something else and so on, so that by the time our little no-name monster movie came out people would know about it. But that didn’t happen. What happened was that immediately people were asking: “What is this? I don’t understand!” And actually Rob Moore, one of the heads of Paramount, said it would be great if we didn’t even put a title on it. So we went to the MPAA – who rate trailers and determine whether or not it’s suitable for an audience – and said: “We want to talk to you about not putting a title on this. What are your regulations on that?” They said: “Regulations? No one’s ever done a teaser trailer or a trailer without a title. It’s like a commercial without saying what the thing is!” We never guessed there would be this level of response so early. In fact, we all turned to each other and said: “This is building so fast that we’d better shut up. I don’t think we should say anything for a while because if we do people will be incredibly sick of us by the time we come out!”
This was July 4, when we were only a week and a half into shooting – this movie didn’t even exist yet. We knew we were coming out in January in the States and we felt that if we said too much too soon, people were going to have had enough by the time we got to January. So we actually held back. Then some of the viral stuff was coming from us, we had people at Bad Robot working on some of the creative side stories that do connect in, but a lot of the stuff didn’t have anything to do with us. It was just that people were so keen to make any connection that were making connections to various things that had nothing to do with us. So, the thing started to take on a life of its own.
Q. Did the fact that the movie took on a life of its own after the release of the trailer become intimidating?
Matt Reeves: Yeah, that’s why we suddenly turned to ourselves and said: “We’d better shut up!” The flames were already so high. It was interesting thing because on the one hand we were very excited that this thing that had a no-name cast and that nobody knew about just a week ago was suddenly getting all this attention. On the other hand, the attention was all about speculation and people were coming up with imaginative ideas for what it might be. Obviously, there’s no way to please everybody because what they’re doing was making a fantasy movie in their head. I remember coming home one night after we’d made the teaser trailer and in doing that we wanted to let people know that it was a creature of some sort. So, we put in some references with people on the roof saying: “What kind of animal sounds like that?” And I jumped up to the microphone to put one last line in where I said: “I saw it, it’s alive, it’s huge!”
But I came home one night from filming and somebody had done spectral analysis – an audio special analysis – and they were freezing it and playing it forward, so the part where I said, “it’s alive,” must have sounded to some people like I said: “It’s a lion!” So, there was all this speculation that we were making a giant lion movie [laughs]. I thought there was no way that people could think that until I realised that what they were talking about was this thing called Voltron, which was a giant robot lion, and that people who wanted to see the Voltron movie were going to be disappointed! So, there was something really exciting about it but also very frightening. There was such anticipation for all these different movies that you never knew whether you’d be able to compete with people’s imaginations.
But I also knew that because the trailer had this sort of Blair Witch vibe and had the head of the Statue of Liberty – some people thought that would be the one moment where you saw anything in the movie because they can’t afford to do visual effects. But the one thing that I felt we had in our back pocket was that I knew we were using that style just to create a level of reality and anticipation but at the end of the day you were going to see everything. So, I felt that at least we could surprise them with that and maybe surprise them with the idea that this point of view was not just a scene but the whole movie and hope that people would be into that.
Q. What kind of inspiration did you use in creating the monster?
Matt Reeves: The monster was designed by Neville Page, a creature designer. I would go into his office and he’d have on his wall all of these little photographs which looked from afar as though it would be interesting, but as you got closer you’d suddenly want to turn away because they were actually photographs of intestines and eyeballs or body parts. I referred to it affectionately as his wall of terror. But the idea was that the creature would have a kind of evolutionary, biological basis. It wouldn’t be random like things coming out of its arms but they’re actually things that he designed that were a part of the monster that we never got to use. He had these feeding tubes that were just wild and he’d come up with these ideas that were amazing and very creepy. But within the course of the movie, we could only reveal certain aspects of it and so that part never got released.
What was important to me was to try and keep it based in reality. In the movie, for instance, we’ll never know where this creature comes from because we have a limited point of view. We’re going to go through this experience with these people who don’t have the knowledge that somebody from another perspective would have: they’re just trying to survive. So, the secret that we had was that the creature was a baby and that having just been born it was going through separation anxiety. It had no idea where its mother was and was freaking out in a completely foreign place. It didn’t understand a thing. This would, in turn, be sending it into a kind of infantile rage, which was very frightening.
And what was also very frightening to me was that not only was it going through this infantile rage but because it had separation anxiety it was also spooked. I started thinking that if you were being attacked by a swarm of bees for the first time, they wouldn’t necessarily kill you but you’d be terrified. To me, there’s nothing scarier than thinking about something that big that’s spooked. If you’re at the circus and suddenly the elephants get spooked, you don’t want to be anywhere near them. So that, again, became an approach to giving an emotional or grounded point of view to something that was completely outrageous. When we were talking about doing that with Neville I said to him: “Well, can’t we communicate something in the eyes?” So, he started showing us the look that horses have when they have that spooked look.
Q. Were you also conscious of films like Curse of the Cat People where they didn’t have the budget to show anything so they built the terror in other ways?
Matt Reeves: Absolutely. Again, a lot of people have compared the movie – because of the handicam style – to The Blair Witch Project. The thing about Blair Witch was that they used that style very smartly to create suspense that would never be paid off because they couldn’t afford to pay for it. The fun of this movie was knowing that we’d be able to use that style to create suspense but that we were also doing tremendous visual effects so that it would pay off and you would get to see all this stuff.
At the end of the day in the movie, you get to see everything. You see the monster, you actually have intimate contact with the monster, and you see grand scale destruction – none of which would have been possible if we had no budget. Another couple of movies that I’d say affected that kind of thing were Jaws and Alien, where you don’t see the shark or the creature right away. What that ends up doing is creating an engagement with the viewer’s imagination. We also had a terrific soundtrack that the guys from Skywalker Sound did for us. The idea from the beginning was to try and come up with sounds that would conjure up images and a kind of anticipation that would get into your primal fear. All of that is about withholding. You don’t immediately show people in a concrete way what something is because then it becomes containable. So, the idea is to hold off on that kind of stuff so that the viewer’s mind can start to do the work.
Q. Are you happy that it’s called Cloverfield?
Matt Reeves: Very happy. To be honest, when we first started we didn’t ever think they’d really ever let us call it Cloverfield. I mean, the idea of Cloverfield is such a fun thing. It’s the whole idea of the military coming up with these names or files for projects that are so deceptive. I mean the Manhattan Project was the A Bomb. The idea that you would have a project called Cloverfield, or a file, and that it would be referring to a crazy, violent monster attack was very funny to us. It’s so incongruous. It’s almost pretty.
Q. Do you think this concept will get copied?
Matt Reeves: I don’t know if it’ll get copied per se but from what I hear there are already some movies out there… the new Romero movie is also apparently a handicam movie. The thing about it is when an idea comes along that’s so simple, you think: “Well, why aren’t there hundreds of them already?” And the truth is apparently there are some already. But the main thing is that it’s very much of the time. We’re in an era when people document their lives so thoroughly and this movie is very much of this time. So, one of the reasons that it comes out now is because it’s very relevant to the way our society is right now.