Interview: ‘Monsters’ Director Gareth Edwards On Pushing His Actors, Delays Caused By Prison Riots, and Stretching a Micro Budget
Gareth Edwards is a funny man. You might not know that just from seeing his feature film debut Monsters. You also might not know it from the things he had to do to get the film made.
Edwards speaks with the casual tone of a seasoned pro, and after seeing heads on spikes, making his actors eat ants, and making a CGI-heavy film with almost no money, he might just be a few years ahead of his own resume.
I got the chance to speak with Edwards, whose film comes out Friday October 29th, and we spoke about the advice he has for aspiring filmmakers, the challenges of shooting in South America and why the worst day of his life happened during production.
[Editor’s Note: As usual, I’m in bold.]
I imagine you’re calling from Los Angeles.
I’m actually right outside where you are. I can see in through the window. I just think it’s cooler to do this over the phone.
I should have the shades drawn, then.
You shouldn’t sit in the office naked. It’s not good.
Hey, I work from home. You gotta take what freedoms you can get.
Damn. You saw through my scam.
Yes I did. But how are you doing?
I’m good. I’m good.
Congratulations on seeing the release of Monsters.
Yeah, I think the theatrical is October 29th.
When you started out, did you ever think you’d be seeing a release as large as this? The indie world is difficult these days.
It was a favorite question of me and editor when we were editing the film, because you have a lot of time to kill [laughs]. There were random conversations, and one of them was, “What is the minimum that has to happen with this film so that you feel it was worth the effort?”
I would say that in one cinema in England, you can go in and pay money in the cinema so that it’s by definition a theatrical film ‐ that would make it worthwhile. So the idea that it’s going to be in quite a few cinemas is quite insane.
You had a humble goal then.
I guess so. The other goal was that it would make enough money back so that I was allowed to make another film.
That’s gotta be a common goal for most indie filmmakers.
For the producers it was.
Well, while it seems like a humble goal, it also seems like an impossible dream. There’s a lot of people out there that talk about making movies. What made you grab the camera and make this happen?
I think it comes down to a moment where the fear of failure is not as much as the fear of regret. Because you always put things off because subconsciously, deep down you have this sneaky feeling that it ain’t gonna work. You’re actually kidding yourself. You can never make a movie.
You hide behind a load of excuses like, “Yeah, when I get some money” or “When I finish this job…” and they’re all excuses. “When that new camera comes out I’ll buy it, and I’ll go do that movie.”
Really the only thing stopping you is just making a decision yourself. My background was computer graphics, so I always viewed myself in my head as a filmmaker who was pretending to be a visual effects artist, and after a while, everyone perceives you as a visual effects artist who talks a lot about wanting to make a film, and who’s just kidding themselves. So there was a bit of, “Oh, I’ll show them.”
A lot of my friends talk about making films, we went to film school, and all that sort of thing. But it’s just, like, do it. That’s the best film school in the world.
This is a question I get asked a lot: What advice would you give to someone who wants to make films? And it sounds facetious, but it really is ‐ Pick up a camera. Go make a film. That’s it.
I know your lead actor Scoot McNairy is a big fan of grabbing your balls, grabbing a camera and making it happen, so to speak. Was he a help on that front for you?
Yeah, I think as soon as we got out there to start filming. It’s hard to imagine because they, him and Whitney [Able] put up with so much crap. There was no red carpet treatment for them. It was literally sweating in the back of a van, hopping out, and doing scenes. There was no one there to get us coffee and stuff like that. It was totally obvious that [dedicated] attitude with him and Whitney all the time.
It became a little experiment of “What wouldn’t they do?”
There are scenes in the film that are cut out…like eating an ant’s nest. They eat some of the ants at some point to survive, and it’s not even in the movie. So many weird things happened. We filmed until it was pitch black, and we had to trek back to the road to get a ride home, and we couldn’t see anything. So, the person in front had to hold the night vision camera so they could see the path through the jungle, and everyone else was just following the noise of the person in front. Things like that.
There was like, all sorts of shit. There were prison riots where we were, and they decapitated some of the prisoners and put their heads on the fence, and things like that.
Wait, where was this?
This was in Guatemala. There were gun fights outside the hotel. The week before we arrived, they had machine gunned everyone in this cafe, and as a protest, there were all these coffins in the street. So there was a lot, a lot, a lot of crap all the time. But [Scoot and Whitney] saw it as an adventure, which it was in a weird way.
Obviously you never packed it in, but how often did you look around you and think you should quit?
There was a point in the middle of filming that if you had given me a button that I could have pressed, and it would have gotten me out of there and gotten me out of the project [laughs], I would have pressed it.
Was it the heads on spikes or the gun fights?
No. It was none of that. I got my phone and wallet stolen, and the camera was so heavy ‐ I still have real bad back problems from it. I was wearing all these straps to keep my back together and taking four or five pain killers a day just to keep filming. Then one day in the middle of the shoot, we had a day off, so I chose to go off the pain killers and it was like crashing ‐ how a drug addict must feel when they go cold turkey. Mentally, I just crashed.
That day, I would rate that day as the worst day of my life. Mainly because of the pain killers, but I just lost the plot a little bit, and I was fine the day after. I just think, yeah, it was hard.
This is inspiring stuff for all our readers looking to say Yes to themselves and make the movie they’ve been talking about.
It sounds like the Werner Herzog school of indie filmmaking.
Yeah. What surprises me is that people are surprised by the way we made this film. I assume everybody, especially the people reading this, are so aware of the technology. Like you can have something like 35mm now, and stick up in front of a hi-def camera and it’s cinema resolution, and computers can track things and can put the things in afterward. I really felt like I was racing another ten thousand people around the world to make a film like this, the way we made it. And if I didn’t get my act together soon, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.
I felt that way five or ten years ago. I was amazed at how long it took me to make it and how long it took the technology, I mean this is me making excuses again, but with the cameras it’s only been in the last few years that you can have the 35mm look on a digital camera ‐ which was a missing link in terms of doing a low budget film that didn’t look low budget.
I imagine your television work gave you a head start on all the other would-be indie filmmakers trying to do this.
Yeah, I think. I don’t know. Maybe because different people are different, but I always had stupidly high aspirations. My ideas were always way too ambitious as far as films I wanted to make. But I would still try to make them anyway, and they’d turn out shit.
I think over the years, I’ve never changed my ambition, and I think the films have gotten less and less shit over time. Hopefully, it’s not shitty enough that it’ll do okay, but it’s like other people start off low. They have low aspirations. They get more ambitious as their ability grows, but I just always had this stupidly ambitious idea to do science fiction. It’s just that all my early stuff was total crap. I just couldn’t do it. The equipment I had and the ability I had.
Well, you’re right, though. It does sound like the technology caught up with your ambition.
Which makes me sound like James Cameron, but it’s…[Laughs]
You’re the James Cameron of indie filmmakers.
Cameron started in B-movies. If you feel like you made a couple of crap films, that’s how you learn as you go, but Cameron started with Piranha 2.
Again, that’s like in the edit suite. You’d sit there, and there would be moments of paranoia where you think, you know, “Are we making a piece of shit? What are we doing here? Are we the only people that like this film?”
We’d sit there, and initially have high aspirations, like you wanna do Jaws. After a while you go down a notch, and down a notch, and by the end of it, the editor and I are looking at each other going, “Hey, it’s better than Piranha 2.”
You at least beat James Cameron’s debut.
[Laughs] See those are bold words right there. So, in 23 years we’ll be seeing something on the scale of Avatar from you?
I don’t think it works that way. There are a lot of people that make better films than Piranha 2 and don’t go on to do what James Cameron did. It just makes me feel better. [Laughs]
Have you had big studios knocking at your door?
They don’t knock at your door, but what happens is you get sent to them.
You get summoned?
Yeah, you have to go. It’s the law. They do what they call a couch tour, where you get to meet everyone. Basically, I met loads of people, but it’s weird because the reason we made the film the way we made it is because we never thought Hollywood would come knocking. So, you have to figure out how to do it on your own. When you’ve done it, they come knocking, and it feels a bit like the love of your life proposing to you after you’ve gotten married to someone else.
You start to wonder if you really need it. Maybe we can go make films on our own. There’s plenty of people like Peter Jackson and George Lucas who went off to make films without Hollywood and they did well with it.
The landscape is changing so much, and I don’t mean it quite like this, but in ten years, things will be so different than how they are now or how they were when I went to film school that it’s like, well, maybe the cleverest thing to do is not to run off and make Transformers 5. Not that anyone was offering that out. But maybe, the people reading your site, it’s going to be in their hands more than it is in Hollywood’s.
That’s me and my wishful thinking. I’m standing here on the phone looking right at the Hollywood sign, being flown over here by Hollywood money to slag them off on the phone.
The great thing about slagging Hollywood off is that no one considers themselves Hollywood. Anyone you meet, they’ll all slag off Hollywood. You can’t really offend anyone by slagging off on it.
It’s an ethereal entity not housed or owned by anyone.
Everyone’s fighting the machine. No one actually is the machine.
That raises a great question. Do you want to join the studio system or would you rather head out into the jungle again?
That’s a tricky one. The honest answer really or the pretentious answer is…I want to make a good film. So you picture a good film if you can, and you work out the best way to make that. My best guess is that it would involve a more down and dirty guerrilla approach than it would a high end, multi-million dollar approach, but never say never.
I just think, the more money you have, the more you have to appeal to a broader audience to get that money back, and the more compromise you have to make, and the less unique the film will be. I was just saying something earlier to someone that there are a lot of examples of people who made unique films that made a lot of money, but it’s far less common than the people who made films with very little money because there wasn’t so much at risk to jump off the cliff.
So I’d like to jump off the cliff again.
Well, what was the budget of Monsters?
I honestly can’t tell you. The main reason being that I don’t know, and if I did know, I still wouldn’t tell you.
[Laughs] It’s like low, low, low, low budget. Micro-budget.
The key is to get the studio to give you that budget and $50,000 more so you can get people on set to bring you coffee.
Yeah! Maybe I can make a movie in…well, I was in Costa Rica so I should have had good coffee all the time. It just didn’t work that way. Apparently they export their best coffee. The best coffee is over here.
So now you have to make a guerrilla film over here to get Costa Rican coffee.
That’s like all stories isn’t it? If you go away to find something better, you find out that there’s no place like home.
It sounds like your situation with Hollywood, but it’s also heartwarming.
Yes, the moral to the story is that the best Costa Rican coffee is not in Costa Rica. It’s right in your house.
Monsters hits theaters Friday, October 29th.