Giant Monsters on a Budget
If you asked Gareth Edwards how he came about the idea for his directorial debut Monsters, his answer would be, “Fishermen.” More particularly, he’ll tell you about how he conceived the idea after seeing fishermen try hauling in a sea creature with a net and imagining what kind of deep-sea monster it might be.
The result of this idea is Monsters, which takes place in the years after a NASA probe crashed in Mexico, which resulted in the appearance of giant tentacle monsters on Earth. The main character, Andrew Kaulder, is a photojournalist who must accompany his boss’ daughter back to the US by crossing through the ‘Infected Zone’ in Mexico, where the tentacle creatures reside.
Once his idea was fully formed, Edwards pitched the idea to Vertigo Films, who expressed support for his idea right away. Producer James Richardson suggested that Edwards watch Search for a Midnight Kiss, a $15,000 film being distributed by Vertigo Films at the time, so Edwards can get a feel of low-budget filmmaking.
The lead actor on Search for a Midnight Kiss, Scoot McNairy, caught Edwards’ attention but he was hesitant to cast Scoot because he wanted to cast a real-life couple for the main characters on Monsters, since the chemistry between the characters was vital to the story. Edwards ended up casting McNairy’s girlfriend Whitney Able as the female lead, after meeting her in LA and being impressed by Able and McNairy’s down-to-earth, genuine personalities.
Producing Monsters with a limited budget
Filming was done in five countries – Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and the US – and the crew used many locations they did not have permission to shoot in. The production crew for Monsters is incredibly small, including McNairy and Able. Edwards shot the footage and was joined by a sound operator, line producer, a fixer, and a driver. An editor and an assistant were tasked with downloading the footage from memory sticks and emptying the memory sticks for use the next day.
McNairy and Able were the only true actors in Monsters, as most of the other characters or extras in the film are actually bystanders in locations where the crew was filming. These people were persuaded to act in the film, and all of their dialogue was improvised. This technique was used for the main characters, too, as Edwards did not write a script or create a storyboard for the film. Instead, he wrote a story treatment and produced outlines that highlighted specific points that needed to be addressed in dialogue.
Edwards was able to keep production costs low mostly by foregoing professional-level equipment and using consumer-grade equipment. Monsters was shot using digital video cameras rather than on 35mm film. Editing was done mostly on laptops, too, and existing footage was edited while new footage was being filmed. Eight months of editing resulted in the 94-minute final cut, which is considerably shorter than the original cut, which was over 4 hours long.
To make his budget work, Edwards also chose to create the special effects himself, using Adobe software, ZBrush, and Autodesk 3ds Max. Edwards had five months to create 250 shots of visual effects; he was able to produce 2 shots daily until the first shot of a giant tentacle creature, which was significantly more difficult.
“Then suddenly two months went by and I still hadn’t finished a single creature shot; it turned out to be the hardest part of the whole process. The whole film hangs on the look of these things and I had to get it right,” says Edwards of his visual effect creation process.
Monsters was first released at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2010. The film also enjoyed active screening at festivals, including the Cannes Film Market, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Film Festival.