Monster in Manhattan feeds on fears, anxiety


A new fixture landed on the Paramount lot last week to give the picketers lining the studio's borders a little company.

The beheaded Statue of Liberty featured in ads for J.J. Abrams' sci-fi thriller "Cloverfield" arrived just in time for the film's premiere tonight and its theatrical release Friday.

While in some respects the headless statue symbolizes the current state of Hollywood, it also represents Hollywood's ever-continuing reinvention of the horror genre. This time, it's "The Blair Witch Project" meets "Godzilla."

With a modest studio budget of $25 million and a cast of mostly unknowns, the movie, which takes a point of view from someone's personal video camera, features the Big Apple as the all-too-familiar city at risk of destruction via a behemoth creature suffering from a severe case of separation anxiety. Those elements, along with the online viral marketing that has surrounded a project otherwise shrouded in mystery, has fueled a sense of anticipation around the film.

While the concept of the monster evolved from a collaboration among Abrams, director Matt Reeves and creature designer Neville Page, the film's New York setting was established from the project's conception -- despite living in a post-Sept. 11 world with wounds that for some are unhealable.

"It was the idea of doing a monster of our time that speaks to the anxieties of our time, and the epicenter of that is New York," Reeves says. "Does it play on fears? That really is for the viewer to decide. But in the same way that 'Godzilla' and films about unfathomable destruction do, well, this is a movie genre that is specifically pointed to those fears."

While he drew creatively from such movies as "Alien," "The Thing" and "King Kong," Reeves also watched a lot of YouTube and amateur footage taken on Sept. 11, 2001, and in Iraq to examine the mood and frame shots of footage documented by everyday people in crisis situations.

He knew improvisation would be a big part of the process when directing the camera operators and actors.

"Even if we were doing a monster movie, we were still doing it from the point of view of being very naturalistic," he says. "Knowing we would use some jump cuts, there were other moments where you wouldn't turn the camera off. We had to think of the camera as a character itself."

Reeves also filmed rehearsal time, keeping open the possibility of using the footage, which was bound to include any accidents during filming.

"We just always filmed -- we always had the camera on because you never knew what was going to feel real and alive," Reeves says.

"We were thrown into this whole mystery, and we all had to either sink or swim," he says. "It was a little like being up there without a net -- you had to get the shot in one take -- but it was exciting in that we were constantly on our toes."

For Reeves, it's all part of day's work with Abrams. The two have known each other since childhood and worked together on TV's "Felicity." They also are collaborating on the upcoming "The Invisible Woman."

"We're doing a film that has an unknown cast and has been kept under the radar, but the thing about it that is very marketable is J.J.," Reeves says. "He has a history of creating memorable pop culture. Everything he does has a certain stamp."

Reeves says Abrams chose him to direct because he was familiar with Reeves' preoccupation with story and character.

"We have a lot of trust together -- he knows I'm concerned more with realism, naturalism and character," Reeves says. "So I thought, 'OK, let's take something outrageous and do it in a realistic style.' "