Monster Porn: Thoughts on Gareth Edwards (non-fiction)

Harold Gronenthal opened the Victoria Film Festival Springboard lectures with a fascinating interview of Gareth Edwards. Edwards is known for his thin budget but big-on-the-screen Monsters and for famously having skipped several rungs on the Hollywood directorial ladder to be appointed the latest custodian of the Godzilla franchise.

            Gronenthal is a powerful man in film and television (Senior Vice President & General Manager, AMC/Sundance Channel Global). He’s well known, well placed, and a good fellow to shoulder up to, but he’s no Brian Linehan. In his opening comments, he described Edwards as a fanatic of “disaster porn” and “the next James Cameron. Edwards appeared to be making an effort to endure the references without emoting a reply, but eeked out a smile at disaster porn, and cringed at the reference to Cameron. An hour later, I’d conclude that the Cameron tell was indeed present, Edwards being more comfortable in his own skin than in that of another, no matter how famous or wealthy the occupier of that skin.

            Edwards was clearly disappointed by the turnout (a dozen or so people showed up, mostly students and mostly on complimentary passes). While Gronenthal tried to politely explain this away (“Friday afternoon in our little town”), it was not difficult to imagine that Edwards is already living in a post Godzilla world. This is perhaps the inevitable result of success, but it’s also reasonable to wonder if we’ve lost another one. Edwards is known for making powerful films, notably with a strong CGI component, on virtually non-existent budgets. And that’s what he was here to discuss. Godzilla was in fact off the table due to the strict non-disclosure policy of its puppet-masters. For many film buffs and students, making movies is about the creative process rather than big budget, big business. And the creative process of Gareth Edwards was something to behold.

            Edwards spoke about his life in terms of blockbuster films (“Star Wars was already around when I showed up.” “I enrolled in university the year Jurassic park came out”) and his formative years in terms of chronicling the family trip to the U.S. with a Sony Camcorder when he was eleven. For fun while in college he digitized Bullitt and inserted cool cars into The Graduate. He didn’t say what exactly could have been cooler than Dustin Hoffman’s Alfa Spyder. I got the impression he isn’t a car guy. Or perhaps he’s a dyed in the wool anglophile. Edwards grew up in rural Britain, in Nuneaton, a town of about 60,000 people and likely among a lot of MGs and Jaguars. And few Alfa Romeos. Out of school and infatuated with movies, he applied for a job at the BBC (“to do anything”). He prepared his best films as a show reel for interviews and “just for fun, [he] tacked a short animated bit on the end” (and because it justified his earlier computer purchase). The BBC hated his films but loved his animation. Or so he says. Though one must wonder if his self-effacing humour is fair comment. I got the impression that Edwards has a knack for getting things right the first time. On the strength of the animation, the BBC hired him to do title sequences on various television network projects. Before long, Edwards noticed that his time was being billed out at about ten times what he was being paid for his services.  “It was me and a keyboard and a monitor. Maybe a chair. I had that at home. So I quit and started cold-calling [the BBC’s customers] and offering the services they were paying for at a tenth of the price.” For his first few contracts performed from his “bedroom” Edwards thought himself on a short fast road. He fully expected the competition to catch up with his aggressive pricing model. To his surprise (and pleasure) he was left alone in the marketplace “for some years.”

            As a working “titles man” and technician, Edwards was making a living in the industry but he wanted to direct. He entered the 2009 Sci-fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge. His bleak futuristic Factory Farmed won first place. Though the storyline is forced through signage (try to make sense of it without the title or road and door signs in the film) Factory Farmed displays Edwards’ touch for conveying mood and empathy and it is beautifully shot. His SFX no doubt stood out against the other entries as particularly seamless. Indeed, considering the rudimentary digital tools at his disposal (a basic PC and software available inexpensively or free online) it is almost miraculous.

            Films are derivative: derivative of life experience, of literary scene construction, and of complete films that have gone before. Edwards speaks freely of his cinematic experiences as a child, of his favourite movies (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Apocalypse Now) and of the books and literary experiences that influenced him as a young boy (“a pop up picture book of H.G. Well’s stories that my grandfather had”). Indeed it could be argued that his breakout film Monsters is made up of scenes from these previous works “held together with sticky tape.”  Despite the giant octopus-clone creatures, Monsters is about a journey home. A journey including the T-Rex/car scene of Jurassic Park, the river through the endless jungle of Apocalypse Now (as well as a boat in a tree and heavily borrowed imagery from Warner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and the preeminent shot of War of the Worlds at the abandoned service station that makes up the final scene of Monsters. Edwards seems surprised but not hurt by direct references to those lifted ideas. He’s not shot those scenes as homage to the great filmmakers before him as has Quentin Tarantino (Tarantino says that Pulp Fiction steals every scene from one), but rather he has allowed the imagery and sensibility of those iconic movies under his own personal skin. Edwards has absorbed these scenes into his persona and presents them as repurposed rather than reproduced.

            Monsters was made on a shoestring. Two actors and a crew of five shared the responsibility for bringing the epic journey to life. A photojournalist escorts his boss’s daughter from central Mexico through the “infected zone” where the U.S. military airdrops toxins onto trees hosting alien spore and larvae, before reaching relative safety north of the border. It’s set in Mexico “because Canada didn’t seem exotic enough” and it was a cheap place to get a hotel room. The monsters have free reign in the infected zone and they’re not human-friendly. And the photojournalist and his charge make a damn fine couple. Edwards paints the creatures on the backdrop and gives us an effective if predictable human interest story of the oldest kind.  “The film conveys a nice sense of dread,” Gronenthal says of Monsters, “but it’s a love story.”

            Edwards described the voluntary assistance he solicited from the locals (including a full fire crew with a ladder truck). The actors were “real people,” he says in a manner that is appreciative and complimentary. “The ticket seller knew the role because that’s what he does in real life.” It was a convincing performance, I must say.  “For Monsters, I wrote a physical journey and a parallel emotional one and then bolted them together.” It was a good insight to how Gareth Edwards, filmmaker, works. He needs a monster, he retreats to his bedroom and makes one. A couple of fighter jets? No problem. Crumbling buildings? Warships? Whip them up and stitch them in. Indeed it’s his comfort with special effects, his ability to whip up whatever he needs from a parallel digital world that makes Edwards exceptional. He doesn’t seem the kind of guy to ask his producers for more cash.

            In the final scene at the abandoned gas station, lit as is a War of the Worlds billboard, Edwards throws in some gratuitous sex between monsters. The scene showcases an eerie sensitivity that belies the clumsy rendition of the CGI creatures. And I am forced to the conclusion that he is more storyteller than his reputation for improvised special effects would suggest. After all, it’s not about the monsters. It’s about the journey, pure and simple. Joseph Campbell would be proud.

            Edwards is currently directing the latest reboot of Godzilla (in preproduction in Vancouver). Though Legendary Films/Warner Bros. has sworn him to secrecy, it’s widely known to be a two hundred million dollar project. Of course Edwards didn’t say that. But I’m guessing that budget-wise, Godzilla is to Monsters as ET was to Plan 9 From Outer Space. Go Gareth. But remember how you got here. We probably need Monsters to be really big more than we need really big monsters.

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Conclave

Snoop and his entourage were on the Vatican tour when he broke off for a smoke. In small mobs his people dropped back to run interference. His publicist and the statuesque Sicilian woman he met at I Giganti were enraptured by the powerful biblical imagery and didn’t notice Snoop was gone.

            Snoop took a hard drag and leaned on an ancient paneled wall. It gave way just a bit. He turned and prodded at the wall, gripped a seam with his fingernails that opened up along some burnished trim, and leaned into it. A section of paneling slid back and pivoted inward. Snoop ducked his head into the musty darkness. He stepped in and flashed up a Bic but it didn’t throw enough light to illuminate the walls. Several of his group followed suit.

            Before long, Snoop’s manager sacrificed his Rastafari scarf for the cause and lit it ablaze on the marble floor. The walls pulsated with yellow images of gods and angels and naked muscular white men with large knees and small penises inhabiting an azure sky. Even the arched ceiling, seemingly twenty stories high, was completely covered with religious dogma in gilt and bold colour.

            “Yah,” Snoop said as he fell back. He extended his long legs, leaned on his elbows, and threw his chin up.  “Pass Uncle Snoop some o dat good stuff.” He reached out his arm. The wardrobe man pulled some superfluous costuming out of his backpack and added to the fire. Snoop’s personal assistant dove into his shoulder bag for a Marley #1.

            Snoop’s manager, assistant manager, wardrobe man, personal assistant, communications guru, food taster, an’ tree of the ooman from the freaky Vampira show, lit up and began to party.

            While the assemblage pulled hard on their ganja and watched the creamy smoke swirl in the otherwise still air, Snoop noticed a long iron fire escape zigzagging up a wall. In the haze of the Vatican hotbox he decided to get up close to some of the pimped-out portraits. He took some preparatory herb for the road and headed across the chamber toward the rickety stairs. The huge figures grew ominous and powerful as he reached the staircase. Snoop climbed for what seemed like an eternity. He slid his fingers along the engorged giants. As the spliff shrunk, so did his courage to continue. His pride seemed insignificant on the distant floor in the curling light. Snoop lit up a second joint to the wails and prodding of the congress below and with new resolve bounded to the summit two steps at a time. There he rested, considered the delicate features of the tiny arched door and blazed on as he wondered what lay beyond. 

            A trickle of yellow light found it’s way around one of the iron hinges. “Pull on it strong, mon. It be all cloudy in here!” the wardrobe man shouted.

            The latch was cold to the touch and stiff. It creaked as it gave way but the door itself was well oiled. With a rush of fresh air Snoop thrust the door open releasing a billow of thick smoke. He ducked out onto the balcony and leaned forward on the railing. Three hundred thousand people cheered.

C47: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the shoot

 

 

“Move the moon three feet that-a-way,” the director shouts from an upstairs window. I have no trouble with moving the moon, having days ago discovered that I do a moon better than god.  I mean his moon is always too dim, too far camera left, and partially obscured by cloud or leafless branches that cast undesired shadows. And the man in the moon? A joke. I can put a man, woman, or child, on mine, have them dance a tango and be off-set within union timelines. My concern was the three feet. Isn’t this a metric shoot? I consult my contract. Yep. Metric.

            Of course, being the Key Grip, I don’t have the ear of the director so although he can make demands of me, I can’t answer back. I have to go through the DP. He’s up there in the window. I’m sitting on an apple box holding a fully extended C-stand with a 1K tungsten Fresnel 1/8 diffused 20 lb. pendulum and two ¼ purple gels ten metres in the air against gale force winds.

            I text the DP on my iphone. “D says 3’ cam rt 4 CUslomo. U ok w/ 1m (3.28’)?”

            The window opens and the DP sticks out his head. “What?”

            “Director wants the moon over there.” I point.

            “Ignore him. Key Grip answers to DP. Get your Gaffer to get the dolly and rails, pick up the top hat and see if the wrangler has found the eight-year-old talent yet.”

             A voice calls out from inside. “2nd AD runs the wrangler. #5 is on set but I can’t talk to him without a directive from the 1st AD. Lock it up. Grab the bounce and get your ass inside.”

            “Excuse me?” I holler up the side of the house. “You talking to me? Are you talking to me?”

            “Yes, you. Key Grip. The DP needs you inside with the bounce. Do you understand?”

            “Lighting has no opinion on that,” I answer. I’m going to wait for the DP to tell me himself. Otherwise the fucking moon is going nowhere fast, the Director is going to get his shorts in a knot, the talent’s going to throw a shit fit, my Gaffer’s going to complain to the union, the 1st AD’s going to fire the 2nd AD, my Fresnel’s going to come crashing down in the bushes start a brush fire and burn down the casting director’s landlord’s house, causing the location manager to have a stroke, an unscheduled company move, and the producer to go ape. And besides, crafty looks pretty good from here. I see pizza.

My Life in Movies

 

 

I recently opened a Linkedin account to do some online bragging. It was a requirement of a film course in which I am enrolled. The prof called it obtaining a professional online presence. All I’d have to do is go online and fill in the blanks in the form of my choice. I picked a fairly plain form, one of the free ones. And so the easy questions:

 

SUMMARY

Of what? Me? My life? 50 years summed up in just a few lines. Or if I want to be concise, in just a few words. Hmmm. Old? Complex? Distraught? Focus now. A professional presence. Right. My new profession? Writer. Good. Student? No, too unfocussed. Yes, Writer. I’m a writer.

 

EXPERIENCE

I have some. Hit an in-the-park triple once. I was fast. Hit a rock in a sailing race. Raced a car on a track. Bought and sold cars to put myself through law school. Studied Negotiation at Harvard Law School. My grandfather flew a Harvard trainer in the war. I trained several dogs for utility trials. I won many trials by judge and neither of the two I ran with juries. I ran a half marathon once when I was thin. I’m half way through this life (assuming 100 years total). My life flashed before my eyes when I crashed a motorcycle. My eyes are sometimes more green than brown. The colour of my eyes is not experience. Be professional. My new profession. I’ve written some stuff.

 

HONORS AND AWARDS

I should win an award for the number of times I allow the American spelling of honor to linger on the page, taunting me. I’m not listing my honors and awards. That’s just braggardly.

 

PUBLICATIONS

Hundreds, if you count my old profession. Precious few if you rely on the new one. I might get published more if I sent stuff out. But I’m an artist, not a salesman. I’ve got a damn good novel sitting under my desk. If they want it, they’ll just have to come and ask.

 

PROJECTS

I did a thing on the Whale Shark once. Used Bristol board and everything. Maxed out my sister’s Laurentian coloured pencils. Or colored, if I’m going for consistency. Got a B+. I should’ve got an A. Marky Minto got an A for his growing lima bean experiment that showed lima beans won’t germinate on rocks. Duh.

 

SKILLS AND EXPERTISE

I quite like this one. I have lots of skills and expertise but I’m not sure the world is ready for me to reveal exactly what my wife loves, how I put up with my twenty-something boomerang kids or tolerate my friends from the coffee shop, what it takes to slip an inverted CV boot onto the inboard side of a vintage Porsche 911 half shaft, or how to tile a shower. And did you know that Tide laundry detergent is great for fertilizing your lawn? I can also kickstart a virtually unstartable 1970 Ducati. It’s red and I restored it myself.

 

EDUCATION

I go to school. I used to teach it. Before that I was a student too. What goes around, comes around. I might teach again. Maybe I can teach how to fill out online forms?

 

ORGANIZATIONS

Not so much. I used to be of the Winston Churchill clean desk school of thought, but now I’m more of a hoarder of hard copies of ideas.

 

And Finally, PERSONAL DETAILS

Well, obviously, those are personal. If anything is personal to a novelist who’s written some fiction, a couple of plays and some bad poetry, had some of the stuff published despite repeated attempts to thwart that process, gained some recognition and a few university degrees along the way, been involved in some movies, sold a car to David Cronenberg, met Anthony Hopkins and grew up with Geddy Lee, Michael Eisner, Howie Mandel, and Mark Breslin, personally handed my screenplay to David E. Kelly when he asked for it, briefly dated one of the girls from MeatBalls, recorded the prototype of the song that became the Guns and Roses hit Patience, lived across the street from an unnamed (by agreement) movie producer, know intimate details about at least two of the 200+ Shapiros listed on IMDB, shared a box of popcorn with Harvey Weinstein, and have been continuously shunned by Oscar due no doubt to my strong views on decentralization of the Hollywood movie industry. I’m not related in any way to Woody Allen, and Michelle Pfeiffer once told me I was so very handsome and fluffy while she petted my dog. I thought that was a bit weird. I’m not really fluffy.

So I’m forgoing the online professional presence. Instead I’m going to retreat to my study and write. My heirs will appreciate it.