Monsters director interview


Written by James Read
28 Monday 28th March 2011

So, Monsters premiered at SXSW last year. Did you enjoy the festival?

To be honest with you, it was the first time I'd ever gone to a film festival, a proper one. And my producers kept trying to explain to me how it worked. I don't know what I expected. So Ken Lee was the guy who ran the film festival there (Fantastic Fest). And they had it at The Alamo Drafthouse, which has been voted the best cinema in America. It's like joining a fraternity when you arrive. I had to do all these drinking games. They gave me a samurai sword and I had to smash a bottle of champagne with the sword before they decided whether the film would be played or not.

Tim (League, found of The Drafthouse) is such a great character and I owe my career to him because we had been turned down by so many film festivals because we had to show the film to them before it had monsters in it – before I’d done the CGI. Instead, for those scenes we just had text placeholders on the screen. And Tim was the only person who took it.

Who had the imagination to go beyond 'insert monsters here'?

It was like that, yeah. When we arrived, he said “Oh have you managed to replace the text?” and we were like “Yeah we've got a much better font now”.

So, SXSW – good fun?

Yeah – and there's a bunch of girls there, because it’s Spring Break as well. When you first arrive, the director guys have a two day window with these girls before the film people arrived, and then we get two days, then the music people arrive. So it is a window of opportunity for all of us, and all the girls you're talking to the night before, are like talking to the music guys and the rock stars with the hair. So my advice to anyone who goes is get in early. Obviously I've got a girlfriend – so this is advice for other people.

Looking out for other guys. Very noble. So on to the film: you work with a lot of actors and extras on a partly improvised script. How does that affect the final cut of the film and do you think you would work like that in the future?

It affected the final cut in that the first cut was four and a half hours. I wanted to kill myself after watching it. Just far too long. But, what was reassuring is that by the end of it, we all felt like there was a film in there, it's just going to be really painful for Colin my editor. Stories have been told about the film that some guy did the whole thing, but I didn't do any of the editing at all. That was all Colin. It is a bit like a general in a war having to be the first into battle and fight on the front line otherwise. If you're worried about dying all the time you don't make the right decisions. You've got to be a bit ruthless in the whole scheme of things, kill your baby type stuff. So by not editing it, the pain of doing an edit or redoing it is not something you have to worry about. So I put Colin through hell by trying a lot of different things, but, bless him, he never complained once to me. So I loved the editing side of it. That's the bit I enjoyed.

Would I do it again? Yeah, sure, but I would be less naïve. For Monsters we had a story but not a script. And I would probably go in with more scripted dialogue. Then as soon as we've got it, I'd throw the script away and say, “Now we're going to shoot for an hour and do something completely different”. Then everyone would know what the scene is about, even though I'd mess around with it. So I'd know we'd have the version that should work.

Regarding reports that you're a one man show - there's also been a lot of talk online about the reported production budget being $15,000. To have the quality of the footage and amount of props and effects that went into the film and just having shot in four or five countries - basically people have been kind of incredulous about the number. So let’s clear it up - was it $15,000 for the whole budget, or for the gear? And if it was $15,000, how did you do it?

I woke up one day and someone was like “Did you see twitter?”, and I said no, and I looked and there was loads and loads of tweets about this $15,000 number. So I forwarded it on to some people and none of us had any idea where it came from. The best thing we came up with is that I did an interview, and someone asked what the budget was, and I said I didn't know. And they said, “If you had to do this on your own, what would you need to buy?” So I listed the equipment. They added that up to $15,000. So their story was 'you can make your own film for $15,000’.

I believe you probably can make a film like Monsters for $15,000, if you want to, but we didn't. On top of that figure the obvious thing to add is that we all got paid a wage. If you look at a pie chart of the budget the big Pac Man wedge would be wages. Because I was working on it for a year and a half, and the producers, we all have to survive, so that is where the money really got spent. So the point we made about the camera, the tiny crew – the very guerrilla budget, that's all true, but because of the wages we ended up probably in six figures, not fifteen grand.


So that was more the figure for the gear that you would have had to purchase to make it.

Yeah. Now you could do it with a Canon 5D, which would be cheaper. But, loosely speaking, I think the sound would be difficult, in that we had a sound man. That was the most professional element to our shoot was having a proper sound guy record all the sound properly. It is the sort of dialogue you couldn't replace afterwards. We couldn't get the Costa Rican ferry ticket seller flying over to the UK to ADR it. So it was really important that we got the sound the best we could.

I think I remember you said in another interview that you thought it was really important that you got the sound right for the film, because the eye will suspend disbelief for what the ear hears, and so much of the monsters is in the sounds, and the reactions, supporting maybe a glimpse.

I do think you create a world, you can show a shot of a guy against a wall and put in the sound effects of an airport terminal, you know he's in an airport. He's not – he's against the wall, but if you put him against a wall and you hear the sound of a pub, he's in a pub. You can do so much so cheaply to tell you where you are and paint in people's imaginations, and sometimes it is stronger when you that than to show everything. It personalises things for the viewer. They picture their own pub. The less specific you are about film and the characters the more appeal it has.

But you did do the visual effects yourself – there's an abandoned tanker, and a jet fighter, which look like very expensive props - were they CGI?

Yes, anything military – any of the tanks, the helicopters, the wrecked planes and things like that was CGI.

Impressive. Did you enjoy the process of doing all those visual effects as much as you did the directing, or in the future would you happily hand that over to someone else?

On this one, I really enjoyed the visual effects. Often when you used to do these effects is you were compensating, you were animating a spectacle to compensate for the fact that the show was not that good. Adding production value and trying to distract the audience with eye candy. So that can feel like you're polishing a turd.

With Monsters, I was quite happy with it when it didn't have any CGI in it. So it was a really nice feeling for me sitting there doing the effects and feeling like the film was working and all the effects were going to do is knock it up another level. If you'd asked me before what the hardest bit would be, I would have said the visual effects. But the nightmare was the shoot, because when you do a film it is a bit like supermarket sweep. You have a limited amount of time and you have to grab every shot you might need off the shelves, so you're grabbing everything and you haven't got time to see what you have and haven't got, so it can be quite scary.

Compared to that, sitting down and doing CGI is quite a controlled process. You know you're on schedule, you know how it’s going, and also being a director of the film if something was technically a nightmare, then I would just change the shot. For instance, that shot where there was a helicopter wreck – the shot was supposed to be a drag right past it, and as I tried to track that in 3D, it was really hard and it sort of wobbled. I spent a few hours trying to get it right and eventually I gave up, and used the part of the shot approaching from a distance.

Moving on from Monsters,I hear you're now working on a remake of Godzilla.

The term they'd prefer is 'reboot'.

Oh yes, of course. What do you think of the 1998 film, and how do you feel about making another monster movie?

Yeah, no disrespect to Roland Emmerich's film – but it is completely separate to that. We're all fans of the original, it is based on that. So, that's what we're inspired by.
If I got trapped in a genre closet, I'd happily be trapped in the sci-fi closet, and if I was trapped in a drawer in the closet, and I was trapped in the monster movie drawer, I'd be quite happy in there. There are plenty of different types of monster movies to be made. The only thing Monsters and the Godzilla movie have in common is this giant thing that isn’t real. My hypothesis is that for me, it’s important that you really care about what's going on. It has a spectacle, but you are emotionally engaged in what's happening, which is why it's not just a spectacle for its own sake.

So in general, how do you feel about the future?

I think the future, well – [pauses]

Sorry it is a big one.

I know. Um. Well I feel like if we make it past the next few millennia, we're going to be ok. The big question is ‘Are we going to get there?’ Put it this way, if someone went crazy 1000 years ago, the worst they could do is maybe burn down a house, maybe burn down a field. Today, if someone goes crazy, they can push someone out of the way in the cockpit, and fly a plane into a building, kill thousands of people and start a war. In thousands of years, the technology might be so vast, that a crazy person might be able to do something so bad that it could wipe us all out.

And do you believe in aliens?

I am a believer that there is alien life out there, and my pretentious quote would be, “Anything that is alive and sentient like a human that doesn't believe in the possibility of life on other planets is like an apple that doesn't believe in trees”. The reason we exist is because of the possibility of life, and so to think that it hasn't happened somewhere else – I think there's a hundred billion stars in the galaxy, and a hundred billion galaxies in the universe, and we only have a sample of one right now, and that sample says, 'there is life.'

If we're all alone in the universe, then I think, then that is so uniquely profound, and insane, that I feel that we should just protect life and be really careful about what we do. I'm kind of erring on the side that there is lots of life out there, but if you really think about it, it can freak you out. I feel like everyone should pack up from work, and all go down the pub and just sit and think this out, and get to the bottom of it. It's the most important thing in the world: what the hell are we doing, and why we're doing it here, and it's the sort of thing we never think about apart from when you're promoting a DVD. Everyone should promote their DVD by thinking of profound questions like this and then go back to the mundane pointless stuff that we spend our whole lives doing.


Thanks Gareth. Better tell people that they can buy your DVD (or Blu-Ray) from 11 April at all the usual places. For more info, visit

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