This interview was originally published online in November 2010.
Cult Projections: Firstly, fantastic film, one of my films of the year actually.
Gareth: Oh wow, thank you.
CP: Yeah. I’ve seen it twice and I’ll probably go back a third time.
G: Oh, wow! So did you make connections and all that with the end …?
CP: I was gonna come to that! But I went in on my first screening not knowing anything, apart from the fact that this was your first feature and you had a background in special effects. I was really, really impressed.
G: Thank you.
CP: How old are you and what age did you become involved in the movie industry?
G: I’m actually immortal; I’ve been living on earth since the Roman times.
G: I’d love that to be true. No, actually it would be a curse.
G: Thirty-five. What was the second part, sorry?
CP: What age did you become involved in the movie industry?
G: I think when I was two and I saw Star Wars. I was involved from that point on.
CP: So was I. I was nine. When did you first start working with digital visual effects? Did you ever work with traditional optical effects, or did you by-pass that altogether?
G: I was always interested in effects. Like anyone who likes the kinds of films that I like and you buy all those magazines like Starlog. There was very few growing up. There was Starlog, and there was Fangoria. There was very, very few behind the scenes stuff. Cinefx. And ‘cos of the love of film, you just learn about effects, but it was never something I wanted to do for a living, but I was really fascinated by them, and it was more going to film school and living with my flatmate who was doing computer animation and just seeing how powerful … just quizzing him so much, getting my head around; what is computer animation? What is the difference between 3D and 2D? And by the end I felt like I had a quite a good handle on it. And I couldn’t get a job after graduation, just so I just learned computers as a Plan B, so if no one came along and gave me the money to go make a movie I could, if I learned this stuff, then possibly I could go and make one myself, and it just took a lot longer than I wanted it to, and I ended up getting side-tracked doing computer graphics. I was never ever into computer graphics for the sake of it. I always just wanted to make films, and it was just a tool, and so I felt like I was completely going off course. Like I did one of those things where, you know when you’re in traffic and you think, “Oh my God, this is not moving at all, I’ll take a short cut, I know, maybe this road connects to the other one, and you start going, and it’s a one-way system and suddenly you’re like, oh my God, I’ve made a really bad decision, it’s going to take me longer than if I just stayed in the traffic,” and then suddenly, luckily I ended up on this slip road that went straight into the exact path I wanted. It all worked out really well by the end. But for awhile I was thinking I’d wasted, like, a decade.
CP: I know you’re a fan of Spielberg’s films, what other science fiction films have inspired you?
G: Loads … Obviously Star Wars. All the usual suspects, like James Cameron, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, all those sort of people, but I’m really into B-movies -
G: - and 1950s, and 60s. I call them B-movies, they’re really A-movies. Forbidden Planet’s not a B-movie, it’s an A-movie, but if I showed it someone who didn’t know anything, they’d go, “Oh that’s just some silly B-movie.”
CP: So would The Id be one of your favourite cinema monsters then?
G: I guess … I guess so. It’s a great example of not showing anything. The best monster movies tend to try and hide everything. I love that movie. I love the cosiness of it. I quite like Star Trek, the original series. I’m not a big fan of all the new stuff, but I like the original series, ‘cos it makes me feel cosy, and it makes me feel like a kid. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I like Lost in Space, the original. I just have this fantasy about being marooned on a planet. I just can’t think of anything better. It would be the ultimate way to live your life, to crash land on the planet and have to survive. I don’t know what it is about that? [pause] Is it a weird thing?
CP: No, no, no. [pause] You’ve probably heard this a lot; comparisons to District 9, but I find it curious in District 9 the aliens are called “prawns” and you’ve got a monster I’m calling an octo-crab. What brought you to that kind of look for the monster?
G: It was all based on the science behind that there could be aliens on Europa, which is Jupiter’s moon. And they’d be at the bottom of the ocean there and there’d be a sample taken. So for me they were from Europa, at the bottom of the ocean. So I looked at loads and loads of stuff. This is a cop-out thing to say, but I wasn’t trying to re-invent the wheel when it came to the creature design. Like Giger. H.R. Giger did Alien. It’s just phenomenal, that design. But it’s still a human in a suit. And it’s based on nature, it’s based on a penis, it’s based on teeth, and it’s based on insects. They reason it freaks you out is because it’s tapping into things in nature that freak you out; mixing things that warp your head a bit. Everything’s based on nature. For me the creature I wanted to be quite “classic”, to use a cop-out phrase. If you look at an episode of The Simpsons, if a giant monster turns up from space it’ll look like a tentacled thing, ‘cos that’s what everyone expects to see. Like a modern version of that. And also in my film they have to reach around inside closed spaces so it kinda felt like the way to go, that they’re from deep sea. [pause] The creatures in District 9 remind me more of insects.
CP: Yeah … I certainly agree that the deep sea thing taps into a primal “what’s in the abyss coming up.”
G: The Abyss was a bit of an influence, actually. The bio-luminescence. How to make something slightly scary, but also slightly beautiful, which is a contradiction really.
CP: But a nice one.
G: Yeah. The more contradictions there are, the more interesting things are. Everything’s about contrast, the greater the contrast, the more attracted you are to look.
CP: Primarily your film is a relationship film. Dare I ask it, but have there been any romance films that you’ve liked?
G: Sure. Lost in Translation is one that definitely influenced this film. Brief Encounter, which is David Lean, a British Film, is very much like Lost in Translation, but back in the past. My editor and I were trying to find what’s the best way to describe this film and with Brief Encounter being such an influence in a way, he said - and I agreed - if you weren’t gonna call it Monsters you should call it Brief Encounter of the Third Kind.
CP: [chuckles] Nice.
G: And he was like, “Damn it, that’s what it is, isn’t it?”
CP: Great acting aside, which your film has, on-screen chemistry is really important, and the one between Whitney and Scoot is very convincing and I believe they were a real-life couple during the shoot. Was that one of the reasons why you cast them?
G: Yeah, initially it was the only reason in terms of that being part of the deal. I wanted a real couple, first and foremost, and in retrospect, to give them credit, I think I was wrong, and I think they would’ve done a brilliant job if they were a couple or not. I get worried, ‘cos they are a real couple and they’re married now, people feel like what they’re witnessing is real chemistry, and it’s kinda not ‘cos all those little moments were happening in such strange situations, like the little looks were happening, like when he’s got the boxer shorts on in the middle of a crowded harbour or around a camp fire with a load of strangers with guns; all that was acting, all the poignant bits were acting. So they would’ve pulled it off a treat. But at the time, I was too nervous about leaving it to chance, I wanted some genuine chemistry. The way we shot it was a bit like a documentary, we shot the hell out of it and really went on that journey, and I didn’t want people to have to be switching it on and off, I wanted it to be always on, so we could shoot all the time, so if there was some random moment I could just capture it. That’s why I wanted a real couple. And they had a little pact that if they made it through the film without falling out, then they’d get married, so …
CP: How much of the dialogue was improvised?
G: A hell of a lot. We had all the points of each scene that they had to hit, and to just say it how you want, except for the scenes where they chat, and so the chats were very free. And in terms of those there would be pointers; talk about your friends back home, talk about what you’re gonna do tomorrow, and there would be these little hints, but they weren’t rigid guide lines and the actors could do what they wanted, and they’d just come up with stuff. They’d pull anecdotes from real life and we’d just shoot an hour and then we’d condense that in the edit, and cherry pick our favourite moments, and get it down to like a minute.
CP: You got wonderful performances from all the featured extras, especially the ferry ticket seller. How difficult was it working with the locals in regards to performance? Did any of them have any film experience prior to that?
G: Most of them didn’t. He didn’t. He hadn’t acted in his life, as far as I know. We met him just before filming. I found it really easy. The trick is, you’ve got to let go, and not tell them what to do. All you want is something that feels really real, it’s not that I want specifically this. Put it this way; if I said “Can you put your piece of paper down on the table, get angry with me and tell me you need more time for the interview.” If I got you to do that it would look really fake. That’s not you. It would look false. So instead I just gotta make sure that the publicist comes over and says “Two more minutes.” And what you did was, which I would have never though of was, “Did she say ‘Two’ or ‘Ten’” -
G: How you specifically arrive at telling the audience that, about how you feel, I don’t care, I just need you to tell the audience in a way that feels real. And so it was a case of going, “Look, this is what you need to do, I don’t care how you do it, so don’t sell that ticket for less than five grand, that’s five grand that will feed your family, and if he doesn’t pay for it, that guy there will, so screw him, and that’s all he needed to know,” and Scoot played with him and got some great stuff.
CP: What was the camera you used, the make and model?
G: Sony EX3 with a Letus Ultimate Adapter on the front and a Nikon SLR 50mm lens.
CP: How many crew were involved in the principal shoot?
G: For the main core part of the shoot there was four people in the van; that’s me on camera, sound man, line producer, and Spanish-speaking equivalent. Obviously we had a driver, Scoot and Whitney, the actors. Back at the motel there was Colin, the editor, Justin, his assistant. And that’s how we did most of it. And on a few days we would increase the numbers, if we needed help, like around the camp fire, we had to build a camp fire, and things like that.
CP: What was the real cost at the end?
G: I honestly don’t know, you’d have to speak to the producers, but it was more than $US15, 000 which was put on the internet. But it was micro-budget. I think if there was a pie-chart, the biggest chunk by a long way would be wages because I got paid a wage, the editor got paid a wage, Scoot and Whitney got paid a wage, but I don’t know what their wages were. But they cost way more than a camera, especially when you’re working on something for a good year or more, that’s gonna add up more than a flight and a motel. I mean, that was small fry to just staying alive for however long it took to finish the film. We weren’t on crazy money.
WARNING! CONTAINS ENDING SPOILER!
CP: So …. Is Sam dead? Or is she just unconscious?
CP: It gives the title a tragic irony. It brings a resonance.
G: I like that when people come the first time they’ve come for a monster movie, so they’re just looking at the creature, because, oh my God, they’re gonna show it, oh my God, we’re gonna see it, they’re kinda looking at that, and they’re not looking at the people, like they’ve sacrificed the people for the monster, which is funny ‘cos it’s kinda what happens in the film and I like the fact that we managed to play that trick and it’s good that the title has that meaning to you ‘cos it’s what we wanted and that’s why we kept the word “monsters” but if it gets marketed simplistically and everyone just sees the action scenes, they expect District 9 and Cloverfield, instead they get this strange hybrid of love story meets road movie meets alien invasion thing.
CP: Which I love, it’s great. [pause] It’s polarising audiences which is a shame ‘cos the younger generation are not getting it.
G: They just need to get laid –
G: - and then it’ll make sense.
CP: Yeah. [pause] I really look forward to what you do next.
G: Yeah, cheers, thank you.
NB: Gareth went on to direct Godzilla, and will be directing the sequel, as well as helming the Star Wars spin-off rebel movie Rogue One.