Words by Quentin Falk.
As a BAFTA-winning and Emmy-nominated visual effects wizard on TV programmes like Hiroshima, Seven Wonders of the Industrial World and Space Race, Gareth Edwards was, he admits, forever “the frustrated filmmaker.”
It also didn’t help that when he showed people his work, the first thing they often said was: “‘What software did you use?’ People don’t realise that when you’re doing VFX for a living that’s one of the least complimentary things you could say – as if it was the software that magically did it all, and that if you bought the same stuff you somehow could do it, too.”
Boldly combining his impressive array of disciplines (writer/ director/ cinematographer/ VFX artist), Edwards’ feature debut Monsters is a remarkable, and already widely acclaimed, sci-fi suspense thriller which should put his notion of being a “frustrated filmmaker” finally to rest. The Hollywood expression “quadruple threat” comes to mind.
It’s a long way from film school at Farnham, Surrey to remote locations in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico where the 35-year-old from Nuneaton, together with his two American actors, a four person crew and a fixer, shot ‘on the hoof’. The road movie, set in an ‘Infected Zone’ where alien life roam destructively, may be low-budget but it’s seriously ambitious.
Inspired by Spielberg classics like Jurassic Park and ET, Edwards initially set out to make not only “the most realistic monster movie ever,” but also a love story that didn’t make him “cringe” as well as a sci-fi movie where the premise “wasn’t totally unbelievable.”
However, despite Edwards’ ability to create drama and atmosphere, it’s unlikely that Brit indie producer/distributor Vertigo Films would have taken his ambition on if he hadn’t been quite so successfully steeped first in VFX-making.
"Visual effects is a great route into filmmaking but it can also be a long and painful way to learn what makes a good or bad image."
Explains Edwards: “At film school I had this impossible dream: you make a short film and then someone gives you a chance to make a feature film. When you look back at an earlier generation of filmmakers, I found I was quite jealous of, say, Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola who were trusted early with big studio films.
“However, my generation was lucky in a different way in that the technology came along that gave us the opportunity that, if no-one gave you a chance, you could still potentially make a movie on your own, and for it not necessarily to look low budget – even if it was.
“I bought my first computer around 1996/97 and I thought that within a year I’d be able to go and make a movie. In fact, it took me closer to 12 years. My whole career in visual effects was really born out of my failed attempt at doing Hollywood-scale stuff from home.
“When I finally picked up a camera and shot Monsters it was, for me, the most liberating thing in the world, what I call ‘real-time rendering’. I could move the camera and suddenly the image would also move. Just amazing.”
Edwards reflects: “Visual effects is a great route into filmmaking but it can also be a long and painful way to learn what makes a good or bad image. As a cameraman you realise almost straight away if you’ve got a bad composition. If you make a mistake doing VFX you can lose perhaps a day at a time.”
The filmmaker is quite clear that if he was ever looking for effects people or, say, one day building his own VFX empire, he’d always opt for people who’d tried to make films. “Better that than people who only know a certain software.”
He remains disarmingly self-deprecating about his sudden success. “Some people grow up and feel like the worst case scenario will be: ‘At least I’ll be the best filmmaker from my home town.’ But Nuneaton’s already had Ken Loach!”
“I hope this doesn’t seem facetious, but, to be short and sweet:
1) Buy a camera;
2) Buy a computer;
3) Make a movie.
The best thing you can do is to try and make short films; it really is the fastest way to learn. Also, you can only make a film for yourself."