Sunday, 15 May 2011

Monsters on a Microbudget

Monsters: Fearless, Fearsome, Imperfect, Important
Jonathan Stromberg
Oct 29, 2010

The following review is partially adapted from a workshop I gave to film students at the State University of New York at Purchase College on 6 October 2010.

“Monsters”, the debut feature of writer/director Gareth Edwards, is, from the point of view of a spectator, an imperfect film. It is, however, from the point of view of a filmmaker, one of the most exciting releases I’ve seen this year. Edwards’s production reads like a map for young filmmakers, marking pitfalls with his struggles and showing a way forward with his successes. “Monsters” is one of the clearest case studies yet for the challenges—and advantages—of micro-budget filmmaking.

The ostensible auteur Edwards approached his first feature from his background in visual effects and documentary television. In some ways, this spelled destiny for the production style of “Monsters.” The narrative is basically theatrical, but the shooting style is strongly influenced by the production necessities of non-fiction television. For example, the film has no script per se. Edwards shot using scene outlines and necessary plot points but allowed his cast, Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy, to improvise freely within the scene. The apparent production doctrine was for Edwards, also the cinematographer, to shoot the scene multiple times from different angles to get broad coverage of every beat. The film in this way develops a signature somewhat different from more traditional narrative constructions. Edwards foregoes the “establishing wide then punch in for medium shots and close ups” archetype for something that ends up more like a multi-camera shoot. The angles in any particular scene are more varied, but also less predictable. In documentary television we—I work in non-fiction television as well—often shoot this way. In this way, a decision regarding the mode of production has significant impact on the film’s aesthetic, for better or worse, in a way that contrasts it to traditional productions.

The improvisation itself—by which I also mean the virtual lack of a script—is perhaps Edwards’s most obvious production choice, both because its results were so rewarding and so limiting. Production anecdotes in Edwards’s own press kit tell of his directorial inexperience and the minimal rehearsal before shooting. However, they also speak to his intuition as a filmmaker. Able and McNairy, who play strangers becoming romantically entwined in the crucible of alien invasion, were real-life lovers prior to and during production. Utilizing their emotional connection to enrich scenes that might otherwise have been dull or expository was an extraordinarily wise decision. To take the critical perspective, even if it were a gamble, Edwards was right to guess that the potential dramatic reward greatly outweighed risks of any subtextual disconnect with the narrative. On the other hand, scenes which do not leverage Able and McNairy’s existing relationship do feel dull and expository, particularly the interminable one-sided phone calls with off-screen personas. This is where Edwards was remiss in not providing a quality script. He abandoned his responsibility to the subtlety of exposition to the hamfistedness of McNairy’s instincts. Given that the story is carried entirely on the strength of the leads’ performances, the neglected script is a regrettable and unnecessary blemish.

The story overarching the narrative is unpolished as well. By the literary standards of genre, “Monsters” is bad science fiction. In my opinion, this was Edwards biggest mistake. I won’t be spoiling anything by saying that the monsters in “Monsters” don’t represent anything—though they nearly do—and are completely at odds with any kind of informed perspective on the science of astrobiology. This isn’t nitpicking. There’s a reason that most science fiction writers are scientists: the genre requires a specifically empirical approach to allegory with which Edwards is clearly uncomfortable. Instead, “Monsters” adopts the trappings of science fiction, without addressing them directly. In my view, this is the tragedy of “Monsters.” The dramatic scenes are so strong—they truly are—and the monsters are so superfluous, that the whole film as small as it is could have been re-conceived as an even smaller picture, with virtually no change in plot or production. This smaller film wouldn’t have indulged Edwards’s visual effects virtuosity, and perhaps he wouldn’t have been interested in making it, but it would have been a better film.

If writing and story and even directing aren’t Edwards’s strongest suits, his intuition and audacity as a producer is. Of the plethora of despicable filmmakers peddling their despicable $15,000 films (which, until seeing “Monsters” I had written off as either practically implausible or ethically irresponsible), Gareth Edwards stands head and shoulders above. “Monsters” takes the extreme micro-budget film out of the province of gimmick. For a film of such production value, it sports only two starring actors, supported by local Latino non-actors and amateurs. Edwards and his sound recordist were the only on-location crew. The four of them shot more or less alone for three weeks at real locations—in jungles, in villages, atop Mesoamerican pyramids. And unlike many of the other micro-budget charlatans, “Monsters” is a true independent film produced on a small advance from a small but dedicated studio and sold by specialty distributors. The circumstances of its production harken back to the New York Independent mode of the early nineties—without the support of the stock market boom. In this way, “Monsters” is anything but Hollywood fodder, like “Paranormal Activity” (2009), or amateur hour, like “Breaking Upwards” (2009). Unlike both these films, and the others they typify, Edwards made the film he knew he could make well, without compromise, and with integrity. That in itself should earn the respect of any post-millennial filmmaker. “Monsters” is a success in spite of itself because Edwards made a few crucially important production decisions and stuck to them: to write a film he knew he could produce properly, to trust the drama to his actors and cast actors he could trust, to shoot on location and pull the most value from each location, to shoot with the edit in mind and adapt the mode of production according to the aesthetic of the film. On the other hand, hiring an editor probably saved the movie and might easily have been the most expensive addition to the original $15,000 budget.

I don’t love “Monsters” as a film, but I did thoroughly enjoy despite its flaws. More importantly, it represents the ideal of responsible post-millennial filmmaking. As the global economy recovers over the next decade, hopefully the model “Monsters” represents will thrive. I have no doubt it will: it’s almost a necessity given current market realities. Good or bad, the ticket price is better spent on this film than almost any other commercial release this year—especially for filmmakers and cineastes.

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