Gareth Edwards looks weary. He’s deep into a worldwide promotional tour for his low-budget sci-fi film Monsters , and it’s not something that comes naturally. “I feel like I’m nearly at the cusp of having spent too long doing it,” he tells me, “and if, for some reason, you had to do another three months of this, I think you’d go insane. I used to think it was like being a surrogate mother, and you give birth and then hand it over to other people. But more recently I think it’s more like kidnapping, where they steal the child off you and keep calling up to ask what food it likes.”
Edwards reportedly shot Monsters for a mere $15,000 on location in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, working from an improvised script. His pitch to Vertigo Films was to create the “most realistic monster movie ever,” and their execs were swayed by his minimalist approach and his win in a short film competition run by The Sci-Fi Channel. Incredibly, Edwards produced the special effects for Monsters himself, using off-the-shelf software and a consumer-grade PC.
Looking at the film, you could easily assume its budget stretched into the millions (and more realistic estimates put the total cost in the still-impressive hundreds of thousands). It raises the question of how a seven-man crew with scant resources and a lot of ingenuity can produce a cinema-worthy sci-fi film that features helicopters, tanks and giant, octopus-esque aliens, when the big studios would be looking at a budget in the tens of millions.
“I would love to know the answer to that,” says Edwards. “I think they just live in a world where they can’t function without spending millions and millions. It frustrates me because if you sit in a room and say, “I want to make a film about this,” everyone gets worried it might not take $100m at the box office. And you say, what does it matter if it only costs $1 million to make?”
“In terms of this kind of film, which is really low budget, their perfect business model, I’m guessing, would be that they let everyone else go make those films. They don’t make them. And then when they’re finished they get shown at festivals and they get snapped up [by distributors].” That, more or less, is what happened to Monsters, which screened at the South by Southwest, Edinburgh and Los Angeles film festivals before being picked up by US distributor Magnet Releasing.
Trained in visual effects, Edwards, 35, cut his teeth on BBC and Discovery Channel documentaries before making the leap to the big screen.Monsters is his first feature, a relationship story with a science-fiction backdrop that has drawn comparisons to Cloverfield and District 9. It tells the story of a journalist who agrees to escort a tourist across the Mexican “Infected Zone” to the supposed safety of the US border. He (Andrew) and she (Samantha) are played by real-life couple Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, the only two trained actors in a film populated by locals recruited on location in Central America. Compelled by both practical restrictions and Edwards’ desire for a human story, rather than Independence Day-style government shenanigans, Monsters centres on the growing relationship between the two leads as they make their way across the treacherous countryside.
“At one point it was going to be three different stories, all interconnected in that world, and it just became too ambitious,” says the director. “But as a result I think the world was built in a way that you could have many stories told, and we just happened to tell this one about these two people. But you could have easily told the stories of the soldiers, or the ferry ticket seller, and how their paths crossed.”
The political aspects of the story – such as the conspicuous concrete wall running the entire length of the Mexico/US border – brings up both intended (the West’s indifference to the problems of the Developing World) and unintended (the plight of Mexican immigrants) real-world parallels. It’s a rich world that may yet yield further exploration, and though Edwards has right of first-refusal for any sequels or a (rumoured) television project, he’s keen to move on, and is currently developing on a new film with producer/director, Timur Bekmambetov ( Wanted, Nightwatch).
As the PR rep nudges me to wrap up, I ask him about the appeal of his inspiration: 1950s science-fiction movies. His eyes sparkle, and the mellow chap who lounged onto the sofa twenty minutes earlier is suddenly buzzing: “My favourite TV show ever is The Twilight Zone ... That footage looks like it came from another world. It looks like it’s been beamed here.”
He explains with gusto how some of the suburban Twilight Zone sets still stand on the Universal back lot, and that the numerous episodes featuring abandoned towns were a big influence for Monsters. “I just want to go walk around the back lot and live in The Twilight Zone for a bit,” he says, smiling. “It’s my favourite.”
Monsters is in cinemas from November 25.