Monsters - Gareth Edwards interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
GARETH Edwards talks about the long, tricky path to getting his acclaimed debut feature Monsters made and the exhilaration of abandoning the more traditional script-driven approach, in order to utilise the characters and situations he found himself in while on location in Mexico.
He also talks about getting to meet Quentin Tarantino after an early screening.
Q. So I gather you were indebted to a group of fishermen for the origins of Monsters?
Gareth Edwards: Allegedly. They’re not going to get any of the back end profits, though! It’s funny because what happens is you say something in one interview, and then you don’t want to contradict yourself, so you end up saying the same thing in the next one. And after a while I was like: “Was that really the first time I’d ever thought about it?” Funnily enough, I was having this exact same conversation with my girlfriend last night. She remembers that moment. It’s basically the first time I can put a date on it, because I remember saying it out loud, like: “Watch these fishermen… Imagine there was a creature on their boat and watch how they behave. It would be totally realistic.” And she said, “Yeah, it would.” So, that was the first time I can definitely put a date on it. But my graduation film, which was in 1996, was a monster movie, so I wanted to do monster movies back then.
Q. So why the fascination with creatures back then?
Gareth Edwards: Well initially, I saw Jurassic Park, like everybody, and my only disappointment… what I thought Jurassic Park was going to do when I was reading the book was that I was hoping they [the dinosaurs] would get on to the mainland. I was hoping they’d affect suburbia, and your homes and towns and stuff. Obviously, it stays on the tropical island, and so I was thinking to myself that I wanted to do a monster movie that took place in our back yard… like it’s in the place I live in and you live in. And so that’s what I did in my graduation film. It’s terrible. You wouldn’t ever want to watch it. I’d burn every copy of it if I could. But it was a monster movie set in suburbia.
Q. But it’s taken a long time to get Monsters realised?
Gareth Edwards: Well, then what happened is, movies come along like War Of The Worlds and you think: “Well, that’s not going to be special anymore.” So then my biggest problem was, if I shoot a low-budget film, it was going to look low-budget as I’d have to shoot on video, so, I thought: “Why don’t I embrace that like [The] Blair Witch [Project] did?” So I went ahead and wrote up a document about this, and even wrote on the front “Blair Witch meets War Of The Worlds“, and I was about to go and try and do it and the Cloverfield trailer hit the Internet and I was like: “OK, so let’s forget that, I can’t do that, let’s move it on!” [Laughs]
Q. And then what happened?
Gareth Edwards: Well, the next thing I thought to myself was… if Cloverfield was like September 11, the logical progression from there is Afghanistan, so let’s do a film – a monster movie – where it’s years later, where it’s a war going on somewhere on the other side of the world, and no one cares. But in the middle of filming, while we’re in Mexico, District 9‘s announced, and the vague text that we read on the Internet felt like it could be similar, but we weren’t sure. But it gets to the point where if you worry about every other film everyone else is making, you’d never make anything. And so, all you can really do is make the film that’s in your head that you think you’d enjoy watching, and just cross your fingers that other people are like you.
Q. One of the interesting things about Monsters is that the science fiction elements of it are in the background rather than the foreground, which is unusual in cinema but common in sci-fi literature. Were you influenced as much by books as film?
Gareth Edwards: In terms of books, I don’t read as much as I should. I need pictures and colouring-in sections in my books [laughs]. But I’ve read a lot of John Wyndham. And what I love about him is that he doesn’t explain the world. He takes it for granted that you understand the crazy situation you’re in… and as a result that makes it more realistic than if he said: “What happened here was this.” He just starts talking about a situation, with two characters or something, and you have to figure out as you go what the hell’s happened.
There’s one book, in particular, called The Chrysalids, where you’re about a third of the way in and you think that it’s set in medieval times or something, and then you realise that it’s post-apocalyptic and that there’s been a nuclear war. But he never says it out loud. It’s only through the way he describes the ruins of Big Ben, or something, that you go: Oh my God!”. And I love that… that assumption. When I worked at the BBC, one of the projects I worked on was this series of fake documentaries set in Victorian London and stuff. The producers would always want big establishing vistas of London. As a character walked in, they’d want the camera to turn around and show off everything. But watch any TV programme set in London in the modern day, and they’re not showing big shots of Big Ben, they’re just following these characters… they don’t care about all that because they exist in that world, and they’re bored of all that stuff because they see it every day.
So, it feels like the more you throw that away, the background, and the more you treat it like the filmmaker is bored with it… like: “Yes, yes, yes, we’ve seen that a thousand times…” the more valuable it becomes.
I love the parts [in Monsters] say, where they’re on the boat, and there are post-apocalyptic ruins behind them, but they’re not looking around going, “Oh my God, look at that.” They do in one or two shots. But it comes to a point where he looks like: “Oh, those again. I’ve already seen another 20 of these.” And I think it gives it more scope. I feel like when you show off and you point it give it less. I do believe that less is more, and more is less.
In the original Star Wars films, I thought Tatooine, Endor and Coruscant, I thought in our world, they were like Newcastle, some town in Morocco, and some obscure city in New Zealand. But when they re-did the special edition, and they had all those celebration shots at the end of Jedi, and they went to Tatooine, Endor and Coruscant, or whatever they did. I thought: “Oh, right. So, they went to Paris, New York, and London.” It reduced the world to me. I felt like it was a bigger world when these characters occupied a tiny part of a city we never saw. So, the more you show off, the more the world gets smaller if that makes sense.
Q. You’ve talked in the past about the way you approached the filming, and the way you walked into situations with your characters and adapted to the challenges as they revealed themselves. Does that make you feel more alive as a director, rather than having it meticulously all planned out and scripted?
Gareth Edwards: Yeah, for sure, because if you were trying to write a scene with an interview situation with some journalists, I’d be thinking: “How does a journalist sit? Does he hold his book like this? Does he take notes?” [The door of the interview room threatens to open]. I mean, I wouldn’t have written that [he says motioning towards the sound]. But that implies a world beyond these walls and it gives you all these ideas that you wouldn’t normally get. I mean no offence to anyone, but no matter how imaginative you are, you can never think of them all, but when you’re in a real situation, they happen for free and add to the realism.
For me, the idea that there’s this magic golden moment that you write while you’re sitting at home three months before you go to a location, and you think, “That’s it. That’s golden. That’s perfect. If we get this, we’re going to make the greatest movie ever made.” I think that’s bollocks, really. I mean, why can’t that golden moment be consistent throughout the entire process? When I’m stood there with the camera on my shoulder, I can say: “You know what? I thought that was a good idea, but that’s better so let’s do this.”
Q. Does that not bring any problems of its own?
Gareth Edwards: Well, previously, the problem with that is that you need a contractual document because there’s a lot of money at stake, so you need to somehow convince everyone that we all agreed that I was going to get this and that everyone that’s investing is happy. But because the budget was so low on this film, they weren’t so precious about it. They were like: “Just go and do what you need to do.” They were really good about that here [at Vertigo Films]. They weren’t nervous at all. “Just get something, and we’ll figure it out in the edit.” I think what happens is that you write the film, then on the plane over to Mexico, the film dies and is reborn when you’re on location… a brand new thing. And on the plane back home it dies again, and is reborn in the edit like a brand new thing again.
It’s funny, even in a Hollywood film, the script is gold and sacred, but my God, how many Hollywood films do they scramble in the edit, do re-shoots and change things. It’s like: “Hang on. I thought this script was perfection? Why are we having to change it? OK, shall we all admit to each other that the script isn’t perfect? Maybe there are better ideas on set and maybe we should adapt when things don’t quite work.”
It’s so frustrating, the way Hollywood works. Only when an idea doesn’t work do you address how to fix it. Whereas you can see it’s not working right then and there on set, and you’re going: “This line’s clunky…” Or: “This isn’t looking as sexy as I thought it would look, so stand there instead, and maybe don’t say anything.” We were free to do that, because there wasn’t a contract as such. But it does worry me now, that if I’m lucky enough to get to make a bigger film, and there’s a contract in place, how I’ll maintain that freedom, without people saying: “Woah, woah. He’s taken over the plane and he’s going to crash it.”
Q. Will that make you more choosy about who you’ll work with next?
Gareth Edwards: It’s so difficult because there are so many carrots that are dangled… all my life I’ve dreamt of being in this position, of being able to do a big film, so it’s hard. I’d love to be able to say that I’m going to keep doing my own thing and I don’t care, but there are certain projects that are just so tempting. I sometimes think, if I don’t do that, and my career doesn’t work out, I’ll end up regretting never trying. It’s like being a footballer, and everyone has that dream of playing in the World Cup Final and, if possible, scoring the winning goal. So, if someone invites you to be in the World Cup, it’s like, what else am I going to do with my career? You want to at least have a crack at it.
Q. One review of Monsters said that they could imagine you at the helm of a huge special effects laden blockbuster. Is that something that would interest you, then, if it were offered?
Gareth Edwards: I tell you what I’ve learned on this film… you can make a film for nothing, or you can make a film for 10 grand, 10 million, whatever you want. We’re very lucky in the UK that Monsters is getting a big push from Vertigo, but in the US, unless you spend 20 million on advertising, no one will have heard of your film outside the industry. I was there at the weekend, and there were Skyline posters everywhere it was Skyline, Skyline, Skyline… And it became like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I may be wrong, but on its opening weekend, Skyline made $15 million, because it was everywhere. So, that’s the thing that would be heartbreaking.
If you tried to make a really good film that’s popular and artistic, and all those things you wanted to balance, and no one’s heard of it… I’ll be honest, that’s not what I’d want. A lot of people will say: “I don’t care if no one likes it…” But I really do care! I want everyone to like it, and I want everyone to see it. That’s got to be what your goal is if you make films. But only studios can afford to do that kind of crazy marketing campaign. So, at some point, if you want that career where you make movies, then you’ve got to have a 20, 30 million dollar PR campaign behind you, and if you have that, then no matter how much you spent making your film, that’s a big risk. So, then you get into that realm of: “Woah, we’re spending a lot of money here, Gareth, should you really have your character doing that?” Or: “We think you should have an ending more like this?”
So, that’s the problem: do you perpetually want to be this filmmaker who makes films that no one really sees, or do you want to be on this bigger stage, but then have all that pressure of compromise because you’ve got to reach a wider demographic. I think it’s the ultimate dilemma for any first time filmmaker: what do you do next? But at the same time, the reassuring thing is that the films I like most are the ones that achieve commercial success and are artistic, that are made under the Hollywood system. So, someone achieves it. Is it because of the filmmaker? Is it luck? I don’t know, but it’s obviously possible at some level or somehow.
Q. The reaction to Monsters has been incredibly positive. So, what’s been your favourite reaction to it so far?
Gareth Edwards: I think what makes my day is that I’ve managed to get it in front of a couple of my heroes. There’s a few things that have happened but in terms of the people I’ve met, my favourite one was a screening in LA, and they said, “Oh, you may as well come down and introduce it.” So I went in, and I was really nervous because I knew a few important people would be there. And I was like: “Hi, I’m Gareth and thanks for coming because I know you’re really busy.” But as I was saying this, I noticed Quentin Tarantino in the middle of the cinema and I was like: “Oh f**king hell!” I got really nervous and left but then I was looking through the projection booth, kind of spotting his head: “Does he look like he’s interested? Does he hate it?”
We went for drinks afterwards, because I knew we had to shake people’s hands, so I thought I’d better have a drink first. So, when we came back, there was this high-up Hollywood producer talking to me, and Quentin was standing there next to him waiting to say hi, or goodbye, or whatever. I just kept looking at him, because I was worried he was going to leave before I had a chance to say hello, and this producer guy looked around, because he could tell I was distracted, and he was really nice and said: “Don’t worry about me, we’ll talk some other time,” and he left.
So, then Tarantino came along and I was like, you have to remember this for the rest of your life, and in my mind I pressed all the record buttons I could on everything to memorise it all so I could tell guys like you. But when I go to play back that tape, I didn’t record any of it [laughs]. I don’t know what the hell he said to me! He was just shaking my hand, going and talking, but all I heard was: “I’m Quentin Tarantino. I’m Quentin Tarantino, and I’m talking to you right now. You saw Reservoir Dogs seven times at the cinema because you loved it so much, and now I’m talking to you having seen your film.” When he left, everyone came up and asked: “What did he say? What did he say?” And I had to admit: “I have no idea! I don’t remember any of it!” So, things like that are really freaky.
I really did see Reservoir Dogs seven times in the cinema… it changed my world. There’s even a bit in the behind-the-scenes we’re doing for the DVD, and I’m on the set and I’m going into an explanation of how you don’t see the cops at the end of Reservoir Dogs. And there’s a bit at the end of Monsters where you don’t really see the soldiers, because they’re out of focus. I was trying to justify this by using Reservoir Dogs as the example. If I knew, as I was standing there, that Quentin Tarantino was going to see this one day, I think it would throw you. It’s good sometimes to think: “No one’s going to see this. It’s going into the bin…” Because then you can be a bit braver about it and a bit less self-conscious.
We’ve been very lucky in that Peter Jackson’s seen it, and Ridley Scott saw it the other day, and I’ve had very nice little emails. If I knew that while making it, I’d be saying to everyone in the van: “Hey, no one panic! It’s all going to be okay! Ridley Scott’s going to see it! Quentin Tarantino’s going to see it!” We’d all be excited and noting would be a problem. But when we were filming it, we thought it was going to go straight into the bin. Is this even going to get a release on DVD? Will it even edit together? We didn’t know back then. Were we just wasting two years of our lives? I think if we had known, we’d have been more relaxed, and maybe we wouldn’t have made the film we made.