Recently, CineVue sat down with Monsters (2010) director Gareth Edwards to discuss his explosion onto the UK film scene and the challenges he faced in bringing his superb debut feature to life. He takes us through the process, discussing production, politics and even Doctor Who – though he’s not a fan. Shortly after winning the Sci-fi 48hr Film Challenge in 2008, Edwards had the pitch for his first feature, Monsters, green-lit by Vertigo Films. However, it wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind: “When you’re pitching a film, it’s best to pretend you’ve got three ideas – you have the one you want to pitch, then you purposely invent two really shit ones, so that your real idea looks better. Or that’s what I thought, then they picked the one I wasn’t really prepared to do.”
Edwards shot the entire film on location in Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Setting off with just a camera and a small road crew, he used locations as he found them, and borrowed locals to act as extras. To allow for this, the entire film’s dialogue was improvised by the actors in response to their surroundings. This meant that Gareth was mostly working from a treatment alone – no storyboards, no script. How exactly did that go down with the studio, though? “They were not scared about it at all and I think what helped was that short [Factory Farmed (2008), Gareth Edwards’ impressive five-minute short which won him the 48hr Film Challenge] ; I was like: ‘Hey look, here’s an experiment in kind of ‘winging it’, with having very little time and just figuring it out as we went and not really having a plan.'”
Anybody who’s ever tried filming anything on location will probably know what a hassle it can be. Edwards’ team had a few cunning plans along the way to make things look seamless. In one funny incident he explains “I kept saying: if there’s anything that we ever get near like ‘this’, you’ve got to tell us, and one of things that I kept asking about was massive barriers – like a crossing point – because I felt like there should be this Jurassic Park moment going into the infected zone; sort of like, “here’s the entrance to the scary place”. Everyone’s thinking about it and we’re like ‘surely, the border crossing from Mexico to somewhere is going to look like that, so that would be great. We looked at all the different crossings and the only one that looked half okay was between Belize and Guatemala – so, we went through Belize pretty much just to go through the barrier; it’s the scene in the film where they go into the infected zone and they’re spraying the truck. I was adamant that it was a one take deal, that we should really go through with our passports. They [the border police] didn’t really mind – they’ve got bigger fish to fry – and we shot it.”
There’s been a lot of speculation about the political themes and motivations underpinning Monsters and whether the narrative was actually an allegory for American immigration policy. However, this was never something that Edwards intended: “My most inspiring experiences are probably travelling. When I go off to some remote part of the world, I always get a million ideas for films and things. There was one holiday that I did in Thailand and Cambodia when I was thinking a lot about doing a monster movie. And I was just looking around me constantly for ideas for scenes and I got so locked into Thailand and Cambodia I was thinking, I’m going to set it here. But I couldn’t do it in Thailand. When I started writing the story, it ended up that we’d cast these two Americans and I wanted this idea of a journey home.”
Monsters has a received a great critical reception, so much so that the rumours suggest he may get to do that other monster movie he so desperately wants, with a revamp of Godzilla in 2014. Did he ever expect this kind of reception though, what were his hopes going in? “You can do a lot of crap when you’re clawing your way up the ladder. But, if you’re lucky enough to get into a cinema, then it starts counting. So I didn’t want to screw up at all, I thought ‘I’ve gotta go for broke on it’. I honestly felt like, the chances are, it will die of death – it might end up on DVD and I’ll be able to show it to some friends. Maybe I could get some TV work out of it, get to direct an episode of Doctor Who or something.” We’re guessing Gareth’s not a Doctor Who fan, then? “No, I’m not. I’m sorry, no. The Tom Baker era, I get that, because it freaks me out, it’s got that thing I love. My favourite TV show is The Twilight Zone and the reason I love it is because it looks like it’s from another world. The new stuff just has that ‘house style’ that’s kind of overly lit – I’ve got to be careful what I say now – I’m not a fan of a lot of modern science fiction.”
Monsters has also attracted some of criticism for its ending, with some finding it too abrupt. Edwards explained to us how he arrived at that final edit and why. “The way it was written was that the ending happens at the beginning and then is repeated at the end. The first cut of the film had that, and everyone watched it, having gone on this massive emotional journey with these two people and then suddenly there was this ending that just knocked them for six. And they were just like ‘you can’t do that to people’. So I showed it to a handful of people that were in the office and everyone came back with the same feedback. For me it was the whole point of the movie and I was like ‘I’m not losing this battle’ and the producers were like ‘we’re not losing this battle either’. It wasn’t a fall out, it was ‘how the hell can we make this work for everyone’? And it just occurred to me at one point that if we cut it after they kiss, we kind of get our cake and eat it.”
Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 11 April, courtesy of Vertigo Films.