In 2010, a rookie British director by the name of Gareth Edwards came to SXSW with “Monsters,” a low-budget passion project he wrote, directed, shot and did the visual effects for. Cut to four years later, and Edwards is at the same festival that launched his career with another “little passion project” — “Godzilla.”
Like Marc Webb before him, who was handed the reigns to Sony’s “Spider-Man” franchise after wowing with the Sundance smash “(500) Days of Summer,” Edwards was tasked by Legendary and Warner Bros. to show the world his take on the legendary movie monster. The gamble seems to have paid off. The two released trailers for the May 16th release hint at a blockbuster in the Christopher Nolan vein with a focus on characters and an astonishing scope sure to awe.
Prior to previewing footage of the blockbuster at a SXSW screening of the original 1954 classic, Edwards sat down with Indiewire to discuss his journey post-“Monsters,” and what we can expect from his “Godzilla.”
How surreal is it to be back at the festival that arguably launched your career?
Yeah, you know, it did. When you do these things, when I did “Monsters,” you have high aspirations — obviously, that’s why you do it. They never went as far as even a career in Hollywood. It was more like, could we get a budget together to do another movie like this? I sat there at the Drafthouse with “Monsters,” and the credits rolled, and I thought it hadn’t gone very well and that no one liked it because everyone was kind of quiet. I looked at the actors who were in it and we came onstage to do a Q&A and they were sort of in shock or something. I interpreted it as they hated the film. I thought like, that’s it, this is all it leads to. And suddenly the next day, people started writing about it.
I was very lucky. I met my agent, who was here. It just changed my life. If you looked at a timeline of my life and tried to find the place where the biggest difference happened it was at SXSW. [It] just genuinely changed my life, this festival. If someone had told me I’d be coming back to promote “Godzilla” and that I had directed it, my jaw would have been on the floor. And I still don’t really… it’s still hasn’t hit me that we’ve gone and made “Godzilla,” in that you can’t make a movie like this, as bad as it sounds, you can’t make it for the people, you’ve got to make something that you want to see. So we’ve been making this little passion project that we’ve always wanted to see.
If I thought about the number of people, that this movie is going go and be in the cinemas, it would have paralyzed me. So I tried to treat it in the same way, like when I did the smaller film. What do you want to sit and watch? When you close your eyes and picture this movie, what would give you goose bumps and pull you in emotionally? We’ve tried our hardest to create that movie. We’re nearly at the finish line and the publicity is starting to kick in. You see the posters and people tell you they like the trailer, and you think, “Oh my god, this is real, this is actually going to be released.” It genuinely hasn’t hit me and if it hit me, I’d have a bit of a meltdown.
The thing that hit me the most was Comic-Con, two years ago, when we showed a teaser. I hadn’t braced myself for it, I hadn’t thought about it. 10 minutes beforehand I heard the crowd and got really nervous and they had a really good reaction to it and I had to stop myself from crying, it was so embarrassing.
It was just like, all your life you work so hard to try and do something like this, and I’ve been lucky enough to get that opportunity. It’s like to try and win a race you’ve got to believe you can win it and it’s only when you’ve crossed the finish line it hits you what you’ve done. We haven’t fully crossed the finish line of this movie yet. I think it’s going to hit me like a ton of bricks when we start having the premiere and things like that — that this movie is out there. I’m just praying that people like it because that is why you do it.
How did it all not “hit you like a ton of bricks” (per your own words) when you first stepped onto the “Godzilla” set?
You do have those moments, they come and go — where you suddenly realize what you’re doing a little bit, you get a glimpse of it, and you have to kind of ignore them. I remember the first day of filming, we were in this big convention center in Vancouver that was doubling for an airport. On my way — normally you get driven to set — I said I wanted to walk. It felt like it was the last moment to myself. I purposely went about a half an hour early and did a detour and walked around the water’s edge, which is near this convention center. [I] sat there listening to music, thinking, “Here we go, this is it, there’s no turning back.” And I was very nervous. I was very nervous about how that first day was going to go and it was really important to try and finish on schedule and it look good, be great.
The beauty of it is, it can get nerve-wracking, but the second you start filming and you’re looking at that monitor it’s like you’re in the cinema. It’s really easy because you’re just the audience and you’re watching a movie, and the beauty of this movie is that I get to run onto the set and change something that didn’t feel right. You can only take it one shot at a time, one moment at a time and just watch everything and feel everything and say, “Okay, I’m in the cinema. This is the movie. What am I feeling, what am I thinking?” And be your worst critic. Every time you have an idea or a thought like, “Oh you know what would be better… how about this?” you can just step up to the actors or the camera department and say, “Can we just do this instead?,” then run back to the monitor.
Basically the whole movie was like that, one shot at a time. The amount of decisions you have to make when you do a big movie like this — I don’t know how many, but you could probably do the math, it must be like 100,00o. If you listed them all it would be so intimidating, but it’s like a marathon or climbing a mountain: one thing at a time. It’s like, the next thing is, talking about Godzilla’s foot with the visual effects guys and you have an hour’s conversation about something like that. And the next thing is, casting a pilot in one shot and you watch all those then. It’s insane and it makes you realize how much information is in a film and how many different ideas end up in films. You’ve got to methodically work through all of those decisions and that’s what it takes years to do these kind of movies.
It honestly still hasn’t hit me. And I kind of don’t want it to ever hit me, if I could help it.
You had incredible creative control on “Monsters,” handling so many aspects of the production. How was the experience of giving over so much of that control on “Godzilla”?
Hollywood films are certainly a team sport. I was nervous about how much creative freedom I’d get and I was really pleasantly surprised by Legendary and Warner Bros.. Seamus McGarvey was my DP and he did “The Avengers” and a million different beautiful movies — and he has, everyone on the set has a lot more experience than me. I used to turn to Seamus a lot because he was my sage and I would say, “Is this normal? We’re being left alone to do… no one is stopping us [from] doing this… we’re doing all the things we want to do. How strange is this?” And he’s like, “Gareth, I’ve never worked on a film like this — this is incredible. The amount of freedom you’re getting is insane.”
I know all the stories I’ve heard from other people, it’s the same and that’s because of Legendary and Warner Bros.. Everyone said if you’re going to take that leap and you’re going to make a Hollywood movie they’re the studios to do it with because they’re very filmmaker-friendly. And if you look at great Hollywood tent-pole movies that are artistic and thought provoking, things like the Chris Nolan movies, Spike Jonze [“Where the Wild Things Are”], and “Gravity,” it’s the same studios that are involved. And so it felt like, well if those guys do this, I’ve got this amazing opportunity. If you’re going to get into bed with anybody it’s these guys and it’s proved that to be the case. It’s hard making a film and there are definitely all sorts of compromises you have to make along the way, but I look at what we’ve done and for what I think people are expecting to see when they go to see “Godzilla,” I think they are going to be pleasantly surprised. I’m proud of the movie we’ve made. I can’t wait for people to see it.