“If you’d asked me when I was 16, or even 18, how my life was going to pan out, I would have said that I was going to have made my first feature film by the age of 23. I was very naive about the whole thing. The reality of the film industry hit me like a ton of bricks; you haven’t got a hope in hell of being given a chance to direct unless you’ve already directed something. It’s a Catch-22 that you can’t really break out of.”
I’m talking to Gareth Edwards, who finally made his first feature film, the 2010 hit disaster movie Monsters, at the age of 35. It was worth the wait: the stripped-back, effects-heavy disaster movie was met with wide acclaim, winning three British Independent Film awards and nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding Début by a British Writer, Director or Producer.
The route to making Monsters has been a circuitous one for Edwards. After leaving film school and relinquishing his dream of being a twentysomething feature film director, he threw himself into the world of visual effects. “I was lucky because computer graphics were just starting to take off,” he says. “Software was being released on home computers; it was pretty crap but allowed you to create robots and dinosaurs, so you could make very crude versions of Hollywood movies at home. In every job I was going for, everyone was more excited about the fact that I could put a robot or a monster in a back garden than any short film I’d ever made. As a filmmaker it was very frustrating but you think, ‘Well whatever pays the bills.’”
Estimating that he’d give it a year before making another film, 12 months turned into more of a decade, as Gareth built a career as a special effects wizard, whilst working as a freelancer on BBC documentaries about space, the end of the world and other epic themes. It turned out to be an influential time that would pay dividends later in his career. “I’m actually pleased that it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. The best lesson I ever had in composition or cinematography, or could ever give someone else, was getting sidetracked in computer graphics for 10 years. I see it as the ‘wax off’ of filmmaking, like in The Karate Kid, where he has to do that tedious task every day. If you are a cameraman and you pick a bad composition it takes about 10 seconds to change it for a better one, but if you’re working in Photoshop you can waste a whole day on a bad composition. You learn very painfully what it takes to make one thing look better than something else, and you learn those lessons so hard.
Then, when you suddenly pick up a camera… I used to joke that it had a sticker on it that said ‘real time rendering’, because as soon as you move that camera the scene changes.” He accepts that typecasting is inevitable in the industry, but for him it hasn’t been a problem. “I think you should do what you enjoy because you’ll get typecast, so if you stick to subjects and styles you like then at least when you are typecast you’re not going to be stuck in something you hate.” Although he was perfectly happy, he knew that eventually he had to move on to pursue his end goal of directing. “It was a very comfortable life and I could have ended up just doing that and never really moved on,” he admits. While working in visual effects he did go for directing jobs. “When I say directing jobs, I mean for really cheap digital TV channels, on really low-budget shows,” says the self-effacing Edwards.
Eventually, however, he reached a stage where he could use his visual effects expertise as leverage. “Every client I worked with, every BBC producer, I’d tell them I wanted to direct and that that was the only reason I was doing visual effects. I’d tell them that if they let me direct, I’d do their visual effects for next to nothing. Mostly they would laugh and pat me on the head.” But one day an opportunity surfaced; the time had come to make his move. “I worked on this big BBC series and did the visual effects very cheaply. Everyone wondered how they’d won this series, which looked really massive for so little money; they got another series off the back of it. They hadn’t actually asked me if I wanted to do the second series, but assumed I would. I thought, ‘This is my chance.’ When the phone call came through I told them I wouldn’t do it unless I got a chance to direct. They offered me a lot of money but I had to be firm and not worry about the money; just insist that I wanted to be the director. Then it went really quiet for a couple of weeks.
Eventually they called back and said, ‘Okay, you can direct a show on BBC3.’ I got this documentary about the end of the world, which had no budget whatsoever. But I had learnt that if you can do the visual effects you can double the look and make a £100,000 show look like £200,000. So very quickly I was able to grow my budgets and become trusted as a director, as well as doing the visual effects.” Leaving the editing suite to sit in the director’s chair for the first time was a huge learning curve. “I think what I did was rubbish, but I also believe that it was because I wasn’t prepared to compromise. In my mind I wanted a big, epic, Hollywood-style show, but we just didn’t have the budget. Instead of accepting my limits and embracing them, I just pushed through and ended up with a cheap version of a Hollywood production.”
Accepting his limits shaped the way Gareth approached Monsters; not only in the filming – where dolly shots and cranes were out of the question – but also in the fact that he lacked that staple of disaster movies; an army of extras. Instead he had to make use of the locals they met along the way on location in South and Central America. “At the beginning of my directing career I wasn’t doing that; the work was too ambitious for the resources I had,” he says. Stories swirl around Monsters; mainly concerning how little it cost to make, how there was no script and how Edwards got picked up by Vertigo Films who financed the movie.
I’ve read that Vertigo financed Monsters on the back of Edwards’ short film Factory Farmed, which won the Sci-Fi-London (The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film) 48hr Film Challenge in 2008, but he says the story has been simplified over time. “I went to see Vertigo before I’d made Factory Farmed because I wanted to make films and I’d heard they were a low-budget production company with a real get-up-and-go attitude, who trusted first-time filmmakers. We had a meeting and it went really well. I showed them all my TV work, said I wanted to do a monster movie and James [Richardson, producer and Vertigo co-founder] was like, ‘Great, let’s do it!’ So I went home and told my other producer friends that I’d been given this green light and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, everyone says that.
Everyone gives you the green light, but no one actually does it.’” Having been talked out of it, the BBC came along with an opportunity Edwards says he couldn’t pass up; a £1 million show for BBC1. “It felt like progression, so I accepted it and that took about a year.” More than a year after their first meeting, Edwards met up with Vertigo again. “James was like, ‘What happened? Why didn’t we make a movie?’” In the meantime Cloverfield had been made, which Edwards felt was too much like his original idea, so he had to revise his story. At the same time, he was considering a more stripped-back approach to filmmaking. “Doing the BBC thing, I’d become so frustrated with having this massive crew on set and how limiting that is. It’s not a Hollywood-level budget, it’s a TV budget and that can be quite restrictive. Out of frustration I bought an adapter to screw onto my HD camera. There weren’t HDSLR cameras back then; this was a Letus and it had that beautiful depth of field. I was looking for an excuse to make a short film, so when the 48hr Film Challenge came along that was it.”
It was Factory Farmed – filmed and edited in two days and the winning film of the competition – that fully convinced Vertigo to get on board with Monsters. Unsurprisingly, Edwards is held up by the sci-fi competition as a success story. Perhaps another reason why Monsters is such an inspiration for budding filmmakers is Edwards’ ability to work with a stripped-down cast and crew: two actors, one sound man and Edwards, acting as cameraman, DoP, director, script editor and everything in between, on location in South and Central America for a just a few weeks. Edwards genuinely enjoyed the set-up; a relief after his TV experiences. “It was very creative; probably the most creative scenario I’ve been in,” he says. “It was also incredibly stressful though. It was probably the most stressful time in my life, being on that film.”
In the ‘making-of’, on the Monsters DVD, Edwards comes across as the most laid-back man in the world; always smiling, even when things aren’t going to plan. “I purposely didn’t watch the behind-the-scenes footage when we were making it,” he admits. “Afterwards I got a call to come and see it. I thought, ‘Oh, here we go, I’m about to watch myself having a nervous breakdown.’ I sat there and what came across to me was that I am good at hiding how I feel! I’m quite calm, I don’t get outwardly stressed but internally I do. I overthink things and become a perfectionist, but outwardly it all comes across as very laid-back.” The dialogue was improvised, with the actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able working from a story written by Edwards. “It was my choice to improvise. It was a lot more comfortable for me,” he says. “You’re telling a story and that story can be told in many ways. The dialogue doesn’t have to contain this word or that word, it can still tell the same story, so I don’t get precious about those details.
In a way I want to be surprised. I think that if you write every single line yourself, my fear is that it could become so stale and rigid. With this film I wanted more than anything for it to feel as real as possible.” It was important to Edwards to make the viewer believe in the story he wanted to tell, so before shooting he experimented with techniques that would give Monsters more of a documentary feel. “I would talk to people about subjects like bird flu or 9/11 and listen to their conversations as if they were talking about an alien invasion. They would give totally convincing reactions and talk about how shocked they were. Only about five per cent of the conversation would give it away. I thought, ‘I could probably construct a film out of these conversations.’
Originally I had considered doing Monsters as a documentary, talking to real people about these things and doing it like some sort of strange Michael Moore film; a bit like TrollHunter. It works really well in that film.” Edwards frequently used local people (non-actors) as extras and employed these techniques in several scenes to show the reactions of the locals in the aftermath of the attacks by the aliens. Working in this way allowed the micro-details of the film to develop naturally within the wider, planned story. “There would be a conversation and Scoot would say something and I’d think, ‘Oh that was brilliant. He must have planned to say that in his hotel room last night.’ We’d stop and I’d ask him to say it again, so that I could shoot it from a different angle, and he wouldn’t even remember what he’d said. I think when we told people we didn’t have a script that they thought there was no structure. However, before each scene began, we’d talk about what the point of it was. Sometimes there would be no point to the scene; it was there to provide texture as we travelled. Other times it would be a case of, ‘This is where we learn the following facts.’”
What is impressive is Edwards’ talent for turning situations to his advantage; a result of luck and, I imagine, his calm disposition and easygoing nature. With a background in the world of visual effects, where every outcome is controlled, he embraced the freefall experience of filming Monsters. “I loved the fact that we didn’t know how each day was going to turn out,” he says. “The problem with using computers all the time is you only ever get out what you put in; you never get a happy accident. You can chase them by flipping images or changing the screen mode in Photoshop, otherwise you get stuck in the same thought process; everything is in the same style. So when you turn up somewhere and everything’s in chaos, suddenly you see the film in new clothes. And that’s the reaction that potentially the audience might have when they see it.”
As happy accidents go, one of the bigger scenes played out particularly well on location. “It was supposed to be the aftermath of a disaster, when a creature had been attacked by the military. I’d written it as a big Hollywood number, with people being pulled out of the rubble and fire engines everywhere. We thought, ‘How are we going to do that? We’ve got no money.’ So we went to the fire station when we were in Cancun in Mexico and asked if we could film the fire station. They said, ‘Oh, okay’ and we started filming. Although initially, most of the people they asked were a bit shy about being extras, after a while they started enjoying it, which Edwards played to his advantage. “So then we asked them [the firefighters] to drive out in the fire engine and they were fine with that. So we asked if we could get on a fire engine and they agreed. Eventually we asked them if we could drive out to somewhere where there had been a disaster, and they took us. Then we asked them to go into the rubble. In the end we had two fire engines and about three police cars because we’d been pulled over by the police, and when they learned we were making a film they wanted to be in it. The sun started setting and it was this beautiful, magic hour. It was one of those moments when I thought, ‘This is how you should make a movie. It costs nothing and looks beautiful.’” Things didn’t always come together so easily. “We had tried to film a fire department about three times during the trip and this was the first time they’d said yes.” But if they weren’t lucky they’d just try again somewhere else. “It was relentless, trying to get lucky,” he laughs. “Once we got lucky on something we’d cross it off the list and try and get lucky with something else.”
Did he miss out on shooting some of the things he’d planned then? “Loads and loads, but that’s half the point. I didn’t want to get everything. If you get everything exactly as you want it, it just looks like it came directly from someone’s brain and isn’t a real situation. In a real documentary there will always be bits missed out, so I wanted it to feel real. I was quite happy if we missed things, as long as we got good moments.” Trying not to miss any moments meant the cameras just kept on rolling. “We shot a lot of footage, but probably about the same as when you shoot a documentary,” he says. “During a scene I never wanted to stop shooting because I thought if I stopped, that that’s when the magic would start, so I just left it rolling a lot of the time. It’s cheap to do but the problem is you have to go through it all when you’re back in the edit.”
Edwards’ editor, Colin Goudie, came on to the shoot with a £700 laptop and spent days holed up in hotel rooms. He would fashion an editing suite out of the cheap furniture at his disposal, often employing a suitcase or a chair for his purposes. “I love Colin to death but we got so little editing done,” says Edwards. “That’s the thing about having tapeless camera; all those digital files. Everyone thinks having digital is great, but the down side is that it’s so scary deleting a digital chip when you’re not 100 per cent sure that it’s all backed up. We’d put the footage on three drives and FedEx one back to the UK, so Colin’s job became more about doing that. They’ve probably dropped in price now, but at the time a card was £700. To spend £70,000 on the number of cards necessary to cover the whole movie would have been pointless.”
Monsters was shot on Edwards’ Sony PMW-EX3 using a Letus adapter and three Nikon prime lenses. Out of curiosity he has bought a Canon EOS 5D MkII, but as a filmmaker does have some issues with it. “It’s very hard to see if it’s in focus or not,” he says. “On the EX3 you’ve got focus peaking in the viewfinder, so it’s very obvious whether something’s in focus or not. With the 5D, even with a firmware update, it’s not as easy to tell.” He also finds the HDSLR shaky, due to its lightweight nature. “On a giant screen that can get distracting. You can smooth it out but then you get random frames that have motion blur. There are all kinds of workarounds.” He says that if he were a film student he would use an HDSLR, no question about it. “I wouldn’t think about using anything else. They are great for going off and making a movie. If you’re going off and gambling your own cash and you don’t know whether or not it’ll be in the cinema they totally make sense. If your film’s definitely going to be in the cinema for sure, I’m not certain it’s the way to go.”
I broach the question of the film’s budget which, depending on what you read, ranges from $15,000 to half a million dollars. “I didn’t know at the time, but I’ve been told by the producers that it cost about £250,000 to shoot and edit the film and around another £250,000 to grade it, do the Dolby surround sound and have the 35mm print done.” I wonder if there’s a danger of him becoming renowned as someone who can make a hit film on a shoestring when it comes to getting adequate funding next time round. If so, Edwards hasn’t experienced it. “Strangely, if anything, everyone wants to spend too much money. It’s hard to go back to your guerilla roots once you’ve moved on. Once you’ve got into bed at a certain level, everyone wants to make movies the way they always have; very expensively.”
He believes there are ‘sweet spots’ on different parts of the budget spectrum. “For me it’s about having a small enough budget so that there’s no creative interference, because it’s not too much of a financial gamble for everyone. Then much higher up the budget scale it becomes okay again, because you’ve got enough money to do anything you want.” It’s in that middle ground that he believes the limitations lie; too much interference and a big crew to deal with. As far as the future goes, Edwards is working on a science fiction project, as well as a Godzilla remake with Legendary Pictures; both of which are in development.
Budget-wise he describes these films as being “a whole different ball game” to his previous work. After the micro-production that was Monsters, which saw him writing, directing, filming, editing and providing the visual effects, will he cope with relinquishing some of his control? “I think that as long you are working with people who are the best in the world at what they do, then that’s fine. In a way a director’s job is – even if you’re not doing every little thing – potentially to do everything. You’re the filter at the end of the pipeline. If anything doesn’t quite make the grade you’re correcting it; whether that be performances, composition, storytelling… but I’m quite happy to hand things over to people who excel at what they do. My main goal, at the end of it all, is to make the best film possible. Something would be very wrong if, to make the best film possible, meant that I had to get the hell out of the way. That would mean that I’m not cut out for this job. “There’s always this whole dilemma when you work with people who are very good.
You want to allow them to do what they do, but you also don’t want to be inefficient and waste everyone’s time working on things that aren’t ever going to make the film. It’s a collaborative process, but if it’s design by committee it’s not going to work either. There’s a fine line between the two. “It’s a great time to be an independent filmmaker,” he continues. “You can make films cheaply that don’t look like they are cheap. Getting distribution is more straightforward. If you take a film to a festival and it’s good enough, distributors will buy it, so it’s a much clearer path than when I was a film student. There were so many barriers then; even making a film was such a big barrier because it cost so much money. Now you can do it on a credit card if you really want to. “I can’t help thinking there are a lot of people making films, or wanting to now; it’s a very common aspiration.
People have compared it to the digital revolution in music; just because you could suddenly make an album in your bedroom, doesn’t mean there was much better music made in the 1990s than previously. It’s the same with film.” Much as he loves the freedom and creativity of tiny teams and free-flowing shoots, Edwards’ career is moving away from its guerilla filmmaking roots. Is there, I ask, one more person you would have wanted to take along on the Monsters shoot? He slowly considers the question: “Maybe my girlfriend for a hug at night. The thing you have least on a shoot is a hug. There was one point on a particular morning, about three weeks into the Monsters shoot, when I said, ‘I’ll pay £1,000 for a hug right now.’ And the Mexican fixer, Verity, very kindly gave me a hug. I never paid her for that.”
© Eleanor O’Kane 2012