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Andrew Osmond charts the director’s path from Sci-Fi London to Hollywood

We doubt anyone reading this blog doesn’t know that on May 15, the Big G with the double bass roar returns to cinemas in a new Hollywood film, directed by a modest chap from Nuneaton called Gareth Edwards. In recent interviews, Edwards has been admirably respectful of Godzilla, especially the original 1954 Japanese film (and if you need a reminder of how important that was, read our in-depth retrospective). Edwards has also jokily acknowledged that, like many British viewers of his generation – he was born in 1975 – he grew up with an imposter Godzilla, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon version with the Scrappy Doo of kaiju-dom, Godzooky. Anyone want to bet he gets some kind of look-in in the new film?

Edwards has also paid tribute to some anime or other, in which Neo-Tokyo is about to explode. “I think one of the most visually breathtaking films ever made is Akira,” Edwards told Popular Mechanics. His concept designer on Godzilla loved the manga strip. “We pulled all our favourite moments from Akira and had this library of reference, so whenever we got stuck, or we ever felt like a sequence wasn’t inspired enough, or we didn’t know exactly how to give it that edge to made it feel as epic as we could, we would always thumb through the Akira imagery and suddenly get a wave of excitement or a new direction.” So if the new Godzilla ends in a Tokyo Olympic stadium, we’ll know why.

This writer didn’t get to any of the Godzilla press junkets (bah!). However, I interviewed Edwards back when he visited Sci-Fi London in 2010, when he had just made his first film, Monsters. The quotes below are taken from my interview, and also from Edwards’ comments at a Q&A at the event.

“I loved science-fiction films, it was my favourite genre,” Edwards said then. “The films that affected me were Star Wars, Spielberg movies, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis… But I got massively into ‘50s and ‘60s sci-fi films. I loved things like Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Day the Earth Stood Still, those kinds of movies.” Edwards also devoured the books of British author John Wyndham. “He’s very good at creating a world when humans have become used to a (fantastical) problem, as in The Kraken Wakes and The Day of the Triffids.”

Does Edwards have a favourite alien monster? “In terms of disturbing, I like the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers because of the way they would develop to look just like you. They’re just lying there on a table, and every hour they look a little bit different, and the characters suddenly realise that it looks like them. In terms of creatures, I liked the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet, where you can’t see it… I think there’s a theme here in that it’s the monsters that you can’t see. Your imagination is always more interesting than anything you can literally show. It’s like when you look at a girl from behind, you always picture her as more beautiful than she is when she turns round. It’s the same with monsters – when they’re in the shadows and you don’t really see them, your mind is always imagining something far worse than what you’re actually going to see. With the exception of HR Giger’s Alien, which is even worse that what you’re imagining!” Let’s see how that bears out for Godzilla…

Back when he made Monsters, one of Edwards’ prime inspirations was a British master of “docudrama,” Peter Watkins, famed for his controversial nuclear war mockumentary The War Game. (A later Watkins films, Punishment Park, foreshadows the likes of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, but with far more political bite.) “Watkins is a genius, and was a definite influence,” said Edwards with enthusiasm. “He’s a great example of someone who got stunning performances with ad-libbed dialogue, and often non-actors, and it’s the better for it. I’ve got all those movies… He was so ahead of the game. I think if you made those films the same way now, people would think you’d created a new genre, and he did it forty, fifty years ago.”

Edwards’ professional background was in special effects. “I was clawing my way up through television, trying to get directing jobs by bribing producers with the promise of doing the effects for next to nothing. A few of them were stupid enough to let me direct, but I was still really frustrated with having fifty crewmembers, so that when I needed to turn the camera slightly to the right, I had to wait for half an hour for all the trucks to reverse. So I was frustrated with all the machinery that comes when you make a film.”

What happened next, though, was improved machinery. “The thing that was stopping low-budget films from looking cinematic, one of the main missing ingredients, is that when you shoot on video (when you have to when you’ve got no money), it looks clinical, because everything is in focus. But suddenly you could have the look of 35mm film for the price of a consumer camera. I wanted an excuse to try this, so I entered a 48-hour film competition that was part of Sci-Fi London.”

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You can judge the result yourself above. Edwards’ five-and-a-half minute film, called Factory Farmed, is available online. If you watch it (it’s thematically comparable to Mamoru Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers), remember Edwards wrote, directed, shot and edited it in two days flat. “I’m a perfectionist, which is not to say that everything I do is perfect, but that I never do anything!” said Edwards. “I think what’s good about something like a 48-hour competition is that it puts a gun to your head and forces you to f– up.” Factory Farmed became a vital part of the package that Edwards would show to Britain’s Vertigo Films when he pitched Monsters.

“I always wanted to make a monster movie and I was trying to think of a different spin on it from normal,” explained Edwards. “The first idea I had was to shoot it all with a camcorder. It was going to be set on the day of an alien invasion, shot very lo-fi, with all the CGI done by myself. I was in the middle of working on the proposal when I heard about Cloverfield. So I thought, Oh, f–, I can’t do that!”

Faced with this irksome setback, Edwards took a break and vacation. “I was on holiday, and watching fishermen on the ocean. They were pulling a catch into their boats, and I wondered, what if they were pulling in a giant dead sea-monster or something? Then I started picturing how hard would it be to cut the image round their hands and add CGI… and then I realised, the fishermen are not seeing what I’m picturing, so of course they’re carrying on like normal. That thought was really interesting… The idea of a world where the sight of giant monsters dead in the street is part of everyday life.”

Edwards was ready to finance Monsters himself. “It was very low-budget, and I’d saved some money doing effects,” he says. “But when you have an idea that is slightly commercial and really cheap, then it’s very easy to find someone to give you money to make it. I showed Factory Farmed to Vertigo, along with my monster-movie premise. I didn’t have a story or anything; it was literally that I wanted to make a film set in the kind of world where monsters are treated as part of everyday life. The attitude of Vertigo was, well, if you can do Factory Farmed in two days and it looks like that, and we think this monster idea has legs (or tentacles), then let’s do it!”

“But I got paranoid,” Edwards continues. “I have friends who are directors, and they all said, ‘Everyone tells you that, it doesn’t happen.’ My producer had a meeting with Vertigo and he said, ‘Write a date down on a piece of paper, and I promise you we’ll start filming on that day.’ So just out of fear, I wrote the soonest day that I could, which was three months ahead. That gave me three months to figure out what the hell the story was going to be, where we were going to film it, how we were going to cast it… Everything!”

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Much of Monsters, as it turned out, was filmed in … Mexico. The story takes places five years after creatures landed in Central America. Thousands, perhaps millions of people have been killed, but the paradigm-shifting shock has been dulled, and the First World has been working hard to keep the menace out, building a giant wall across the Mexican border, as US fighter planes strafe the landscape. The creatures’ appearances are very rationed, though we get a lengthy look at them before the ending. The film’s conceit is to portray an alien infestation along the lines of the unending conflict in Afghanistan, rather than the shock and awe of Pearl Harbor.

Monsters’ monsters were made with such staple softwares as 3ds Max and AfterEffects. “I looked at the bottom of the ocean for inspiration and did hundreds of sketches,” Edwards remembered. But with the monsters off-screen for much of the film, Monsters is essentially a road movie (a short excursion on water suggests a miniature Apocalypse Now.) For all the film’s incredible sunrises, ruined buildings and boats hanging in the trees, one of the most affecting moments is when the main characters see a “Day of the Dead” memorial parade, with photos of killed children and “Stop the Bombing” graffiti.

During filming, Edwards travelled across Mexico in a van with a tiny team; himself on the camera, beside a sound man, two line producers and the two lead actors. Nearly everyone else in Monsters was a “real” person, a non-actor found along the way. During the shoot, the group crossed into Belize and Guatemala. The locations were frequently hazardous. Edwards saw a prison that had recently experienced a riot, with decapitated heads displayed by a fence. Another time, the group visited a village where the cafe had been machine-gunned a week before. But the team also met, Edwards says, “some of the most generous people in the world,” without whom the film could have never been made.

Essentially, Monsters was shot in the manner of a documentary, guided by the settings and people that Edwards and his crew encountered on the way. “I really wanted to just ‘wing it,’ as part of the realism, and not have a ‘script’ script. When you flick through TV, even if you have no idea what’s on, you can still watch and say, that’s real, that’s drama, drama, real, drama… I wanted a film when you’d say ‘Real? Drama?’ and wouldn’t be sure. I wanted all the hesitations and interruptions.”

Early on, the main characters disembark from a train at night, find themselves marooned in the country, and are taken in by a kindly Mexican family. “They were a real family,” Edwards says. “We kind of went through the film in the way that the characters did. So we were on a train, and our Spanish fixer employed a friend to go ahead of us and find a house. She knocked on literally every house in that village, and one family was kind enough to say yes.”

Another striking sequence was the memorial parade for the dead, filmed for real in a Mexican town. “It’s a festival called Day of the Dead,” Edwards explains. “While we were filming Monsters, I was saying, ‘If there’s anything strange or different happening, point it out and we’ll go and film it.’ It was a matter of working out how could we fit it into the story…. We realised that we could turn this into a candle-lit vigil.” Edwards and his team used Photoshop to add details, such as graffiti saying “5,000 dead” and “Stop the Bombings.”

Edwards originally came to Vertigo with a five-minute film and a vague idea for a feature. “Off the back of the film we’ve ended up in crazy situations,” he said after Monsters’ release. “You go to LA, meet loads of people and at all these meetings, they ask, ‘How much money do you think your next film would cost?’ If I say ‘Three million’ – which is nothing I’ve ever thought of – they would be like, ‘We can’t work together.’ And in other conversations, I said ‘Thirty million?’ and they would go ‘Oh cool!’ It was like they couldn’t think of how you could possibly do a film for a few million, it would have to be in the tens. Which is crazy.”

In 2010, Edwards certainly thought that big budgets could be the death of creativity. “My DVD collections of my favourite film-makers tend to be the early parts of their careers. The more powerful they get and the fewer limits they have, they tend to make not such good films. A possible solution would be to make the same film twice, once with no money and once with loads of money, and in the edit you could pick and choose! That feels like the most sensible way to approach it!”

We don’t know if Edwards remembers suggesting that, as he comes off a multimillion-dollar blockbuster that could have paid for heaven knows how many Monsters.  However, there’s always the director’s cut. Who’s got a rubber suit handy?

Godzilla is released in UK cinemas on 15th May. Sci-Fi London is running again right now.

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