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.