Alone in his room, Edwards creates Monsters

October 14, 2010

There’s nothing new about a young filmmaker venturing out on his own and making an independent pet project. Most of the time, these are low-budget affairs that shuck special effects in favor of small-scale stories and clever writing. Some are brilliant, but budgetary restraints and production limitations guarantee that most are just film festival fodder.
Clearly, Gareth Edwards never got this message. Edwards is the British writer-director behind Monsters, the independent science fiction flick that’s as slick as any blockbuster you’ll see. And it was all made for a few thousandths of the cost.

Edwards is part of a burgeoning group of filmmakers who have embraced digital technology to circumvent the obstacles that traditionally made filmmaking so prohibitively expensive for unknowns. Monsters, for example, features dozens of effects shots—from hundred-meter creatures to bombed-out cityscapes to exploding tanks—which were all created digitally by Edwards himself on his home computer. While this does require a very specific set of skills, it also allows a huge amount of creative control. It also means he will have an intimate understanding of his limitations and, ideally, an urge to exceed them.

“I’m honest, I did it because I felt that no one had made a film that they shot very guerrilla, in a very digital, lo-fi way but added large production values and computer graphics on their own,” Edwards explained. “I felt like we had to try and make that movie, because I felt we could.”

Edwards talks about making Monsters like sportsmen talk about climbing Everest. It’s an obstacle to be overcome, and not for the glory but simply for the sake of the accomplishment. But you can’t mount an Everest expedition overnight, and you can’t succeed in low-budget filmmaking without a careful plan of attack.

“There’s a fundamental limit to the number of effects shots you can do [by yourself]. You can’t do War of the Worlds,” Edwards said. “It was then like, ‘Let’s play to our strengths. Let’s make the kind of movie Hollywood wouldn’t make.’”

For Monsters, that meant keeping the focus of the film intimate. While it is visually defined by destruction and death in an alien-ravaged Mexico, these are more setting than plot. The heart of the film is the relationship that develops between the two leads, a man and woman thrown together by circumstance who have to trek across the ‘infected zone.’ It’s a sort of romantic road movie, with subtle performances that draw more on Broken Flowers than Close Encounters—though Edwards admits that both movies influence the film strongly.

One of the greatest successes of Monsters has nothing to do with the creatures. It is the way the subdued performances work together. The relationships the characters build feel tentative and fragile and very, very real … despite the fact that there is constantly the threat of a giant, looming tentacle.

Edwards achieves this sense of reality in a few ways. First, he filmed in a renegade style, showing up at locations in the production van, hopping out, and capturing whatever he could. A number of secondary actors were simply bystanders who agreed to participate. Second, he shot hundreds of hours of footage (another benefit of the digital age: no buying film), which allowed him great freedom to construct an ambience during editing.

If the benefit of renegade, independent filmmaking is the freedom it allows, one of the biggest drawbacks is being overtaken by bigger studios. When Edwards initially planned his film, his idea was simple: “Blair Witch meets War of the Worlds.” Then Cloverfield happened.

He rallied, adjusting his idea to a world where the aliens have been around for a while and are a part of day-to-day life.  When they arrived in Mexico to begin shooting, the Internet started to buzz about District 9. But Edwards persisted, and the result is a film that is not just unique in both style and substance, but inspiring evidence that low-budget filmmaking doesn’t need to limit its scope.

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