Sci-fi thriller 'Monsters' touts unproven actors

Working with actors is a big part of any director’s job, but what happens when a film’s cast is largely nonactors?

That was the case with writer-director-cinematographer Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi thriller “Monsters,” opening Oct. 29 in New York and Los Angeles via Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing label.

An official selection of the 2010 South by Southwest and Los Angeles film festivals, “Monsters” has a cast that includes only two professional actors — Scoot McNairyboth (“In Search of a Midnight Kiss”) and Whitney Able (“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”).

“Apart from the two main characters, everyone in it was a non-actor that never acted in their lives,” Edwards said, adding that helped keep a lid on costs in making his first feature.

“They’re people we met on the journey and we just talked them into being in the film. You can get a really good performance out of nonactors as long as you don’t tell them what to do.”

Asked about reports that he’d made “Monsters” for only $15,000, he replied, “I don’t know where that number comes from. I actually don’t know how much it cost because they never told me. They let me control the camera, the actors and the CGI, but not the credit cards.”
Edwards and his team worked out of the back of a van while shooting for six weeks in Texas, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala before heading to Costa Rica for a week of budgeted reshooting.

“We just drove around, jumped out, filmed a scene, jumped back in and shot it all on a camera that cost us a few thousand pounds and with some lenses that cost a few thousand. There’s no way it could have cost more than that sort of figure.”

As for handling those nonactor actors, he said, “The trick was to get everybody we met to play themselves. You just let them do whatever they would do, but you tell them things like, ‘Don’t let him leave this room.’ ”

Working that way was more like shooting a documentary than making a feature, where you’d typically cover every shot with multiple angles.

Edwards would brief his nonactors on the points to make in each scene, leaving the words up to them.

“If I tried to tell them words to use it would be rubbish,” he said. “I actually found it easier to work that way than to have a script.”

All that mattered was whether the story came through. “It was filming for an hour or two until we got those little moments by accident or by repetition, but we always seemed to get them.”

Edwards set out to make “a monster movie that begins where all monster movies normally end. To me, what’s interesting is after King Kong has died or Godzilla has killed a giant creature, who are the guys who have to pick up those pieces in the morning?”

His story about aliens living on Earth is set years after their arrival, when people are no longer running around screaming about them.

McNairy plays a war photographer covering the aliens who must get his boss’ daughter (Able) back to America, which means traveling through the film’s “infected zone” in Mexico.

“It’s a road movie essentially, but there’s a relationship at the heart of it,” Edwards said. “It’s a bit of a hybrid of different genres.”

The idea came to him while vacationing several years ago. Edwards had begun working in computer graphics because he wanted to direct movies and wasn’t going to “wait for Hollywood to come along and give me the money, which was never going to happen.”

His goal was to make a film for very little money on his own.

“I was watching these fishermen pulling a net in from the ocean,” he said. “They were struggling with it and I was thinking, ‘It would be funny if when they finally pull this net in it had a giant sea creature in it that attacked them.’”

That’s when his computer graphics training kicked in.

“I was imagining this image as they were pulling in this net. The people on the boat couldn’t see what I was seeing so they carried on like it was normal. And it suddenly occurred to me, ‘What kind of world is it where a giant dead sea creature would be part of everyday life to the point where fishermen wouldn’t even react to it?’”

That got him thinking about how to turn this into an easy-to-shoot, low-budget first film.

“The irony is when you come up with an idea that has commercial potential and it’s really, really cheap, you’ll easily find someone willing to give you money to go make it. The first company I spoke to about it was Virtigo in the U.K., and they pretty much greenlighted the projected in their first meeting.”

In March, Magnolia picked up “Monsters” for domestic release when it was shown at SXSW in Austin.

“The first time anyone in the world really saw it was at South by Southwest,” Edwards said. “We did a Midnight Madness premiere. It got fantastic press. We were really lucky. Magnolia were in the audience. They saw it and bought it within 24 hours.”