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How Gareth Edwards Created Acclaimed Sci-Fi Film Monsters on a Budget of Basically Nothing
Need to make some octopus aliens on a budget? Here's how you do it!
Any aspiring filmmaker with a limited budget knows how to make the most of what they've got.
A lack of financial resources doesn't deter a worthwhile storyteller from forging ahead on a project — it simply pushes them to be more creative and economical at every turn. Fancy equipment, massive crews, and decades of industry experience have nothing on the can-do attitude of a committed young director unwilling to take "No" for an answer.
It's exactly the kind of spirit VFX artist turned filmmaker Gareth Edwards employed on his 2010 debut feature, Monsters (now streaming on Peacock), a hauntingly beautiful sci-fi allegory that helped convince major studios they could entrust the British native with their most prized franchises. Produced on a meager budget of around half a million dollars, the film centers around a photojournalist (Scott McNairy) tasked with escorting his employer's daughter (Whitney Able) through a dangerous quarantine zone teeming with alien life on the border between Mexico and the United States.
How Gareth Edwards made 2010's Monsters on a microscopic budget
To cut down on spending, Edwards wore several hats at once. In addition writing and directing, he also occupied the roles of cinematographer and production designer. Beyond that, the filmmaker relied on a tight-knit team for a shoot spanning Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Texas.
"For 90% of the film we drove around in just one van that fitted about seven people," Edwards said in 2010, recalling the experience for Empire. "Myself on camera, Ian [sound operator] on boom, Jim [line producer] on his mobile, Verity [Mexican Fixer] on her mobile and various drivers at the wheel – plus Scoot and Whitney, obviously. That was it. Back at the hotel, Colin [editor] and Justin [his assistant] would download the footage we'd shot each day so we could delete the memory sticks to film again the next day."
Since the budget didn't allow for the things big budget filmmakers often take for granted — like crowd scenes featuring tons of extras and aerial establishing shots filmed via helicopter — Edwards aimed for a stripped-down, documentary-style approach. For instance, almost everyone who appears onscreen (aside from the two leads) were not professional actors.
"I found you could get really good performances out of non-actors as long as you didn't tell them what to do. Everyone in the world can do an Oscar-winning performance of themselves without even trying," the director explained. "The downside of this is that Scoot and Whitney had to dance around all this random behavior. As a result, the idea of scripting the film went out of the window. Instead I had a loose paragraph describing each scene with just the main points that had to be hit; how the actors carried this out was left up to them."
The real-world locations added another layer of verisimilitude, with Edwards successfully evoking a genuine sense of scope and scale without the need for green screen. And even when CGI was required for the movie's 250 VFX shots, the director reached for "off-the-shelf Adobe software." Not exactly cutting-edge stuff, but Edwards cleverly smoothed over any rough patches in the most complex of the computer-birthed illusions — the titular "Monsters" (giant octopus beasties) — by obscuring them in darkness and news footage.
This scrappy little venture paid off with positive reception from critics, $5 million in global box office returns, and a ticket to the blockbuster party for Mr. Edwards. While it's certainly nice to have millions of dollars at one's disposal, a spending surplus can sometimes inhibit creativity. When so much money is at stake, everyone wants a say and a director's singular vision may get lost in the cacophony.
“Strangely, if anything, everyone wants to spend too much money," Edwards remarked in 2013. "It’s hard to go back to your guerilla roots once you’ve moved on. Once you’ve got into bed at a certain level, everyone wants to make movies the way they always have; very expensively."
Monsters is now streaming on Peacock.