Cloverfield opens today, ending months of internet speculation and Slusho tie-in controversies. We spoke to the man behind the movie, Matt Reeves. He took time out of his busy day, where he’s poised to count bags of incoming cash and laugh maniacally, to talk to us about Gojira, David Schwimmer, and the big secret at the end of the movie. Check out the interview inside, and steel yourself for one of the nicest guys we’ve ever met in Hollywood.
We know about J.J. Abrams going into the toy store in Japan and seeing all these Godzilla figures and being inspired to make this film, but at what point were you contacted and asked to come onboard to direct?
Basically, J.J. and Drew were talking about the story, and they went in and pitched it to Paramount and they immediately said “Okay, we’ll make it.” It wasn’t like, okay write a script and then we’ll put it into development. They were like, We love the idea, we’ll make it, we know where it goes, we know when to open it. Apparently Drew walked out of that meeting and turned to J.J., because they’d pitched it as if they had everything, and he said “J.J., that’s all we have!” J.J. said, “No no, we’re gonna do it.”
It all happened very, very quickly, so Drew went off and wrote a 60 page outline which we called a “scriptment” because it was a weird hybrid between a script and a treatment. That was what they showed me. J.J. and Bryan Burk, who has been his producing partner for years, came to me and showed me the treatment. I read it and they said I should meet Drew. The thing is… it was clearly filled with a huge amount of special effects. I was thinking, “We can’t just go out on the streets of New York and film this as is. There’s going to be a lot of effects work.” I’d never done effects work before, and I was also in the middle of of putting this film together that I’m hoping to do now called The Invisible Woman, and we were in the middle of a casting snafu and J.J. was like “I want you to do this! Do this first and you can do that film right after.” So I said to him, “Why do you want me? It’s such a heavy visual effects thing.” And he said, “Because I know that you love character, and that’s what we want. We want a sense of realism.”
Then I got very excited, because I was reading it and I was seeing all of the crazy detail, I thought if we could really do this, against this epic scale… on the page it read like a Roland Emmerich-sized Independence Day kind of movie. But I thought, if do it in this kind of intimate, naturalistic style… And I wanted to do some improvisation and other things to make it feel real. That was very exciting to me, and they said great, so J.J. and Drew and I got together and started talking about the direction to take the outline and we fleshed it out further.
That’s basically how I got involved. I’m going to guess they had their pitch around January or February, and then Drew wrote up that very extensive treatment very quickly. By the end of February I’d already read it and was on board, and we started developing the treatment further and going into production on the teaser trailer. There was no script when I got on-board, so from when I got on to the release date, is still under a year, which is crazy. In fact, we didn’t even have a script until four weeks before we started shooting. Drew was still working on Lost, and we were working on weekends and talking about how to rework the story, coming up with the structure of the flashbacks and all that stuff. It was all madly coming together because we knew that we had this release date, and we also knew we wanted to finish this teaser trailer and get it onto the front of Transformers.
We thought for a movie that didn’t have any recognizable people in it, we thought it would be great to tease people with that trailer on the front of a huge movie like Transformers, and we had no idea what kind of a reaction we’d get. All of that, working on the script, readying the trailer, was all happening at once.
How different was this experience vs. your other feature film, The Pallbearer?
It was very different, although it’s funny because the casting process was very similar in that… it’s funny, because when we did that film I wanted the main character to be someone you didn’t recognize, and who you’d meet as that new character. When we cast David Schwimmer at the time he was on the first season of Friends. We thought it was this show that had just begun, and he was part of a huge ensemble, and in it’s first season it wasn’t a hit, it was only sort of a middling success. However, right when it began filming it became this monster smash, and we knew this because we’d be out on location filming and kids, little kids, would come out and surround where we were shooting, and then we realized, “Oh, we don’t have an unknown cast.”
In this case, we thought it was critical to cast people you didn’t realize, because in trying to create this “reality,” and create this illusion that you’re watching found footage. If you’re supposed to be looking at someone’s camcorder, you don’t want to end up seeing Will Smith, because as great as he is, that immediately tells you that you’re watching a movie.
The actual process itself was different, and not just for me, because I’d never done effects before, but also for the visual effects people as well. I went to them and I said “Okay, I don’t know how this is done, but this is what I want to do. I want it to look handheld, and I want it to be continuous takes.” I thought it was critical that this needed to look like a handheld film. Our escape route has always been that we could put in a jump cut, but I felt if we used that in this, people would feel cheated. So when we met with the vfs people, they suggested shooting on steadicam and then adding shake later, but the problem with that is that anyone who is doing these kind of videos that you see on YouTube every day, which is really our audience, will say “Hey, that’s not authentic.” So they had to figure out a way that it could all be done handheld.
Also, in most films you have all these shots that are like a small shot here, a few seconds there, and it would all be very containable and the visual effects people would know exactly how many shots they’d be working on. But, with this film since we were doing everything in continuous takes, we’d shoot a scene and I’d ask them “How many effects shots is that?” and they’d say, “Well, we don’t know.” Instead of doing many shots, we did one long shot that would basically take in all the effects of many shots.
It was also really different for the crew, because I was having the camera operators run the cameras as unprofessionally as possible. And the focus pullers as well… focus pullers lose their job if they’re not dead on when someone walks into a room and hits their mark. I’d be saying “No! You’re too dead on! This is autofocus on a handheld consumer camera, it has to go past them, and come back.” They’d say, “Well, this is the kind of thing that gets me fired.” I told them, “Not on this movie!”
I also wanted to be able to use the handheld camera as a basis for improvisation as well. Instead of shooting the scene a normal way where you’d have several angles, I’d only have one angle. I would also shoot the rehearsals, because you never know if something great was going to happen. Then after we’d done the scenes a bunch of times, I’d say “Okay, forget the words and lets just try something else. You know what the scene is about.” I’d let them go and improv the scene, and a lot of times those ended up in the movie, because they felt more understated and natural.
Were you inspired at all by the original 1954 Gojira film?
Yeah, absolutely! That’s actually an incredible film, and we’ve seen the bastardized version here in the United States. Most people are familiar with the film and have seen the Raymond Burr intercut scenes, but that movie is far inferior to the original. It came out the same year as Seven Samurai, and is considered to be a masterpiece in that country. It is a great movie, and it’s very haunting.
There’s no question that we were aware of the fact that the monster in that film was really a metaphor for the anxiety of that time. That was definitely the idea here that we wanted to create our own national monster the same way Godzilla did to create a monster of our time.
When you worked with artist Neville Page who designed the monster, what inspirations did both of you draw from? What was that like?
We wanted it to be totally original. He is really amazing, he has this thing I affectionately call his “Wall of Terror.” You walk into this office and there’s this very colorful wall of pictures, and immediately you want to walk over to it and check it out. However, the closer you get to it, the more quickly you want to look away. They’re images of intestines and body parts and all these different things because there’s a very biological, evolutionary logic to his work. He was coming up with all of these different features for the monster, and drawing from nature for this.
In working with him I was very interested in what the creature was going through, and we came up with the secret that the creature was a baby. It was this enormous baby that was going through terrible separation anxiety, it didn’t know what was going on, and it was pissed. I wanted a creature that would be ferocious and angry, but also that there would be fear in the eyes. He showed all these sorts of fearful eyes, like how horses have a lot of white showing under their eyes when they’re scared. He would always come up with these diabolical features that the creature would have. He has a singular talent, and he’s really amazing.
So, at the end of the film, after the credits, a walkie-talkie crackles to life and you hear… something. What is it?
Yes, you do hear something! That’s another sort of radio chatter moment. I don’t actually want to give that away at this point, because it is decipherable. That’s the very last thing we did on the mix, I sort of jumped up to the microphone and did this thing. I know someone will figure it out, but I don’t want to give it away yet.