Q & A with Writer-Director-Cinematographer Gareth Edwards

Writer–Director–Cinematographer Gareth Edwards

Writer–Director–Cinematographer Gareth Edwards

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer–director–cinematographer Gareth Edwards about his sci–fi thriller “Monsters”, opening Oct. 29 in New York and Los Angeles via Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing label.

“Monsters“ was an official selection of the 2010 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas and the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. The Protagonist Pictures, Vertigo Films and Magnet Releasing presentation was produced by Allan Niblo and James Richardson and executive produced by Nigel Williams, Nick Love and Rupert Preston. Starring are Scoot McNairy (“In Search Of A Midnight Kiss”) and Whitney Able (“All The Boys Love Mandy Lane“).

The Story (official synopsis – no spoilers): Six years ago NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A probe was launched to collect samples, but crashed upon re–entry over Central America. Soon after, new life forms began to appear and grow. In an effort to stem the destruction that resulted, half of Mexico was quarantined as an “infected zone.” Today, the American and Mexican military still struggle to contain the massive creatures. The story begins when a jaded American journalist (McNairy) begrudgingly agrees to find his boss’s daughter, a shaken American tourist (Able), and escort her through the “infected zone” to the safety of the U.S. border.

Gareth Edwards has always pushed the boundaries of filmmaking. His film school movie in England was one of the first ever student films to combine live–action with digital effects. As a result, he soon got sidetracked in a career creating BAFTA award–winning and EMMY nominated visual effects for the BBC.

Edwards broke new ground directing the BBC’s epic drama “Attila the Hun,“ creating all of its 250 visual effects by himself. Frustrated by the prevailing “factory approach” to filmmaking, he entered a 48 hour film contest held by SciFi London, hoping to prove it was possible to make a cinematic film with no crew and just one actor in only two days. That film won first prize, leading to Edwards’ feature debut with “Monsters.”

Q: How did you come to make “Monsters?”
A: The very first moment I can remember having the idea of any kind like this was when I was on holiday. My background was computer graphics. The only reason I got into computer graphics was to be able to make my own films and not wait for Hollywood to come along and give me the money, which was never going to happen. I spent the time trying to figure out how I could make a film for very little money on my own. I was on holiday and I was watching these fishermen pulling a net in from the ocean. They were struggling with it and teasing each other and I was thinking, “It would be funny if when they finally pull this net in it had a giant sea creature in it that attacked them or something like that.”

Because my background was computer graphics, I started trying to picture in my mind how hard this would be to do. I was imagining this image as they were pulling in this net. The people on the boat couldn’t see what I was seeing so they carried on like it was normal. And it suddenly occurred to me, “Hang on, this is really interesting. What kind of world is it where a giant dead sea creature would be part of everyday life to the point where fishermen wouldn’t even react to it? They would just carry on like, ‘Yeah, we get these all the time.’”

I started thinking this could be a really easy low budget first film where I could shoot on my own. So I spent the rest of the holiday picturing other things. When there was a roadblock in the road I pictured a destroyed tank or something. I started to realize that this could be quite achievable for virtually no money because all the background people, the fact that they’re not running and screaming and they’re just going about their daily lives would actually make the world more interesting not less believable.

The irony is when you come up with an idea that has commercial potential and it’s really, really cheap you’ll easily find someone willing to give you money to go make it. The first company I spoke to about it was Vertigo in the U.K. and they pretty much greenlighted the projected in their first meeting.
Q: What happened then?
A: It was a case of what is the story because I had the world and the approach to filming it more than I had any story. I came up initially with this quite complicated story where there were three different characters and their journeys would inter–relate and affect each other. It just became too ambitious for this and the producers in the end said, “Just pick one of these characters and tell their story.” So we ended up with this boy and girl who were initially backpackers trying to get home through this area.

What I found when I was trying to write it was that anybody with any sense would just completely avoid these aliens or creatures. So I made the main character into a photo journalist so that he would be attracted to the danger. But then I also thought, “He wouldn’t want anything to do with this girl. All he cares about is his career, really.” And so I made the girl into his boss’s daughter. Once that was in place it kind of in a weird way sort of wrote itself after that.
Q: When was this?
A: The first meeting where they greenlit it would have been about two years ago.
Q: How would you describe the story?
A: Someone who watched it the other day said to me, “Did you try and make a love story for boys or a monster movie for girls?” I said, “Well, actually I tried to make a road movie for aliens.”
Q: So we have aliens who are here on earth in Mexico.
A: Yeah. I wanted to make a monster movie that begins where all of the monster movies normally end. To me what’s interesting is after King Kong has died or Godzilla has killed a giant creature, who are the guys who have to pick up those pieces in the morning? Like where do they put that carcass when they clear up the rubble? So the premise was to begin the story the day after the Hollywood movie ended. That’s what we did. The story is set years down the line when people aren’t running and screaming any more. It’s just completely considered a normal part of everyday life.

Essentially, it’s a war photographer. He’s covering these events and he has to get his boss’s daughter back to America. The migration happens earlier in a different place to normal and they get caught out. It’s basically their journey back to America through the Infected Zone where these creatures are and obviously it’s a road movie essentially, but there’s a relationship at the heart of it. It’s a bit of a hybrid of different genres. I think that’s half the problem people are having with explaining it.
Q: Some articles have compared your film to last year’s hit sci–fi movie “District 9” about aliens living in camps in South Africa, but it sounds like your story is different from that.
A: I don’t know how you describe “District 9,” but I guess it’s more of an action movie (about aliens trying to go home). In ours it’s the humans who are trying to get home — a road movie with a love story at the heart of it.
Q: I read somewhere on the Internet that you made “Monsters” for only about $15,000. Is that possibly true?
A:A: I don’t know where that number comes from. I’ve never ever said that because I actually don’t know how much it cost because they never told me. They let me control the camera, the actors and the CGI but not the credit cards. I kept asking, “Can we have this?” and they’d say, “Yeah.” “Can we do that?” and they’d go “Yeah.”
Stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able in “Monsters”

Stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able in “Monsters”

Q: If you had to guess, what would you put the budget at?
A: I don’t know. When (other filmmakers) ask that question I think what they’re really asking is, “Can I afford to do that? Is that within my price range that I have access to?” And my answer is that the way we made this film is we were in the back of a van. We essentially did what you’d do if you went on holiday through Central America. We just drove around, jumped out, filmed a scene, jumped back in and shot it all on a camera that cost us a few thousand Pounds and with some lenses that cost a few thousand (Pounds). There’s no way it could have cost more than sort of figure. But it was definitely what you’d call a low budget movie for sure.
Q: Not only did you write and direct the film, but you also are the DP, the production designer and the visual effects expert. Wearing all those hats must have saved money.
A: Yeah. It’s funny because when you say that I kind of think, “God, he (Edwards) sounds like a real control freak” and in reality this film couldn’t have been more out of control. We didn’t have a script. The actors adlibbed. We didn’t really ‘rekkie’ locations. Everyone in it was a non–actor that never acted in their lives apart from the two main characters.

We were shooting in quite dangerous countries where we had armed guards protecting us. We shot through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica. When you’re trying to make a movie for the first time no one’s going to give you that chance really so you have to learn how to do all the different roles so that you can do it on your own. For me, I learned how to film and do visual effects mainly because I couldn’t rely on ever being given a crew.
Q: What was it like working with non–actors?
A: They’re people we met on the journey and we just talked them into being in the film. I found that you can get a really good performance out of non–actors as long as you don’t tell them what to do. If there was a movie of your life, you would be do an Oscar winning performance because you are the best person at playing you in the entire world. So the trick was to get everybody that we met to play themselves. The way you do that is you don’t tell them what to do. You just let them do whatever they would do, but you tell them things like, “Don’t let him leave this room.”

As long as you give them a lot of freedom, they usually give you really good performances. With the actors playing off them and provoking them we got some really good stuff. I would have to shoot it more like a documentary trying to cover all the different angles. Now and again I’d ask them to repeat something, but pretty much we just let them do whatever they felt like they wanted to do.
Q: What about their dialogue? Did you write lines for them?
A: It depends on the scene, but you might say, “Could you ask the actors if they’re married or not because they look like they’re married?“ And she would just say, “Are you guys married?” and she would do it in a really naturalistic way. And then she would go, “Yeah, yeah. I was thinking that” and then the actors would start a conversation with that. If I tried to tell them words to use it would be rubbish. I actually found it easier to work that way than to have a script because all a script is doing is using dialogue to convey a story and making it seem realistic.

When you don’t have a script and you have real people the dialogue is real anyway. The only issue you ever have is does the story come through? We said, “As long as we hit the following points then that story for this scene will happen.” It was filming for an hour or two until we got those little moments by accident or by repetition, but we always seemed to get them.
Q: When you were wearing your writer’s hat, what did you put on paper for yourself to use in directing?
A: It wasn’t a script. It was a scene by scene outline. Basically, there was about a paragraph for each scene in the movie. I printed them out in different colors so there were black scenes and blue scenes and they were all in a Filofax because in the jungle we couldn’t rely on power for a laptop or anything. What happened is the black scenes would be physical things that happened to the characters and the blue scenes would be emotional things we learn or the characters learn about themselves. I completely separated the physical journey from intimate emotional moments. So every time we turned up to a location we’d say, “Okay, we’ve got to film this black scene where this physical stuff happens“ and then we would go through the treatment and look for blue scenes — emotional scenes — that could work in the environment we were in. And we’d say, “Okay, so maybe this is a place where you talk about your finance or you talk about your friends back home or something or we learn that you’ve got a kid or whatever it is.”

I stopped storyboarding it, as well, because you just can’t predict how it’s going to happen when you have everyone sort of adlibbing. All I’d have is a shot list like these are the story points I need to convey in terms of a look between someone or a piece of information on the TV or a warning sign or whatever it was. I’d just make sure that at some point I got those shots. It was really a case of just going with the flow and looking through the viewfinder and imagining I was the audience in the cinema and what was interesting me and what wasn’t. It seemed to work even though it sounds like we didn’t have a plan at all.
Q: Did you shoot in sequence?
A: We tried to. It became impossible because like there are scenes in hospital and we couldn’t get permission in a hospital until we were somewhere else. There were scenes where we’d climb a giant wall and the only place that looked like a giant wall was in a part of the country that we weren’t getting to for a few weeks. We tried (to shoot in sequence) for the actors’ sake because when you’re adlibbing it’s impossible to adlib not knowing what the scene prior was if we haven’t filmed it yet.

We would pretend we knew even if we didn’t know. We’d kind of invent what they might say. There was a lot of putting down the camera and having long conversations about motivation and back story and things like this and that was find because there was only a handful of us. It didn’t cost much money to do that so we could just always stop if we needed to and just have a long chat about things.
Whitney Able as Samantha Wynden in “Monsters”

Whitney Able as Samantha Wynden in “Monsters”

Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot it in two sections. The first section was six weeks. I wanted to be brave about it and not really worry if we didn’t get it perfectly. So I asked the producers to keep some money so that we could go back. So basically the idea was to shoot the whole movie, be as opportunistic as we could and let all kinds of random things happen, then go back to the edit suite and edit it all together, get it down to 90 minutes, see what we were missing or if there was anything or if there was anything to get back to and then go back out for a week or 10 days and shoot all the little bits we needed. So that’s what we did. The first six weeks was Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Texas. And then when we went back we just went to Costa Rica.
Q: It’s the same approach Woody Allen has taken for years, allowing for reshooting in his budgets.
A: I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s not a sign of failure. It’s kind of a sign of open mindedness and being realistic. I think making a film is an organic process. (It’s wrong) to say that everything ends once you come back from the shoot. A film’s a lot like a child. Like you want it to be a lawyer, but the child will turn around to you and say it wants to be a train driver. In the edit suite the film starts to tell you what it wants to be. And if you ignore it, if you fight it, I don’t think you have as good a film. What we tried to do is listen to the film and that’s what the pick–ups were.

It’s easy to do a double back flip when you know you’ve got a crash mat underneath you and if you fell you wouldn’t hurt yourself. So when we were on the first part of the shoot, knowing that we could go back if we had to do and film anything that didn’t work we were just a lot braver about it. We just knew that it didn’t matter if we screwed up. And the reality is that you screw up a lot less when you know it doesn’t matter because you’re more confident and everyone’s a lot less self conscious about things and braver. And it’s typically those things that come out the best.
Q: What kind of camera did you use?
A: It was a Sony DX3 — semi–professional, but not a full on professional camera. It was all shot digitally so there were no tapes or anything like that.
Q: Why did you feel that was a good way to shoot?
A: I wanted the smallest camera possible that was good. We did a few tests with smaller cameras and blew them up to 35mm, but this one looked by far the best. I’ve actually still got a bad back now from carrying it everywhere. With this special adapter on the front and 35mm lenses on the front of that, it became so front heavy I got some serious pain in my back when we were filming. I had to take painkillers all the time. But it was worth it. I’ll take a bad back for having made a film.
Q: Is it more convenient to edit from digitally shot material?
A: My editor would argue that. He used to work in the era when people shot on film and his argument is that when you shoot on film because you can’t shoot much you’re a lot more careful and considerate about what you do film. If I’m shooting digitally, I can just film and film and film. We ended up with hours and hours of footage. I would often just not press stop. I’d just keep recording because there were so many random things that would happen. If I stopped recording I wouldn’t capture that moment. So we ended up with hours of stuff. The fact it was so easy to shoot so much stuff probably made it a lot harder in the edit.
Q: How did you manage to get distribution? It’s harder than ever these days, especially for first time filmmakers.
A: We basically took it to South by Southwest. We finished editing it, took the tape out of the tape deck and got on a plane. The first time anyone in the world really saw it was at South by Southwest. We did a Midnight Madness premiere. It got fantastic press. We were really lucky. Magnolia were in the audience. They saw it and bought it within 24 hours. That was in March 2010. That was for America. Everything else got into place at Cannes. We went to the Cannes Film Market and sold most of the territories there.