There’s a fair bit of mania in Nacho Vigalondo’s films. Features like Timecrimes, Open Windows, and the new Colossal come with plenty of action, but they’re also built on surprises and reveals just as much as any M. Night Shyamalan film. They’re layered with obvious expectations that don’t pay off, and hidden agendas that do pay off. And in Colossal particularly, those hidden agendas are likely to surprise viewers who show up just expecting a monster movie.
Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis star in the film, which starts off with some tropes familiar from romantic comedies and mopey indie films. Irresponsible alcoholic Gloria (Hathaway) loses her support and her fancy New York home when her fed-up boyfriend Tim (Beauty and the Beast’s Dan Stevens) dumps her. So she mopes off to her small hometown to crash on the floor of her parents’ echoing, empty home, and tries to put her life back in order. Along the way, she encounters Oscar (Sudeikis), who used to have a burning crush on her, and clearly hasn’t lost it. But she also abruptly finds out that there’s a giant monster stomping around South Korea, mirroring every move she makes. Colossal is lighthearted and funny about this development, right up to the point where it becomes deadly — which is the same tack it takes on its central relationships. It’s an unusual film that subverts a lot of expectations — not just for the seemingly familiar narrative it sets up, but for rom-coms and monster movies in general. I recently spoke to Vigalondo about what went into his monster design, why he doesn’t want to spell out the movie’s political agenda, and why it’s necessary to slaughter your entire artistic family.
With Kong: Skull Island attempting to start up the MonsterVerse, and Pacific Rim 2 just finished shooting, it feels like this is a good time for giant monsters at the movies. Is there a reason they have such appeal?
I have no idea why this happened! When I started writing the film, it was 2015. At that time, monster movies weren’t a big thing, no pun intended. It’s happened to me before — when I made Timecrimes, my first film, when I was writing it, time-travel films were far from screens. It was something that felt dated. That’s part of the excitement of writing, when you’re writing something that isn’t being seen on screens at the time. But this happens. This kind of magic happens. And all of the sudden, movies with the same thematic core come to the screen. And I have to say, I’m not a corporation, I’m not a studio. I’m just a guy who writes his stuff in his place. So this is not part of any plan that this happened.
Where’s the appeal for you personally? Did you grow up on kaiju movies?
Living in Spain, I was not as close to the Asian stuff as American children are. In Spain, those kinds of movies didn’t get a big distribution. If you were into the Toho films, it was because you were interested in pop culture, you were the kind of guy who chased things coming from overseas. But not me, as a child. When I was young, the movie that I related to the most was King Kong. The remakes they made in the 1970s and 1980s, all those films. The 1933 movie was one of the most shocking things in my life. But the remakes were more popular. I remember going to the movies to see them. King Kong was part of our lexicon. Other monster movies were not so prevalent in the culture that we breathe since we are kids. For instance, the Japanese Godzilla and others, that come later, when you are a teenager, when you are deep into films. If you knew about these films in Spain, it was because you were a cinephile. I came from a really small town in Spain, not so different from the small town in Colossal. So I didn’t believe I could be a filmmaker. I spent most of my childhood pretending I would be a writer, a comic-book writer, something like that. I didn’t think about movies that way until my teenage time, in the 1990s.
Your movies never follow familiar patterns. They come from a distinctive, unusual viewpoint. Do you think that could come from not growing up immersed in movies?
I don’t know! I don’t feel like I owe something to films from the 1980s. Of course those are amazing, but I never felt like I should pay tribute to those films the way other filmmakers of my generation do. That’s not intentional, it’s just so different to my education that I’m not aware of those films most of the time, the way some others are. If you look at my films, you can probably trace the roots of indie films coming from the 1990s. Those are more easy to trace than the movies related to my childhood. If you work in any artistic medium or form, I think you have to do two things: kill your artistic father, by trying to be bigger than your influences, and kill your artistic child, by not trying to go back to your golden age of your childhood, going to the theaters as an innocent kid. I think it’s okay to kill both and move forward.
This is two such distinct things — a relationship drama and a kaiju movie. Did it start off as one or the other and evolve from there?
Initially, I wanted to make a monster movie. I had this crazy idea about this monster mimicking the movements of someone as a giant avatar on the opposite side of the world. That idea became a chance for me to take a realistic take on a monster movie, without raising a huge budget. To make a movie this way, we can see the movie through iPhones and TVs. We don’t need to have a huge budget and throw it against people’s eyes. It’s a smaller take and more humble, and I knew I could make that. That was the initial idea. But it didn’t become a potential film until the characters came. With Gloria came Oscar, and once those two characters were in front of me, and I figured out why they were fighting, the whole movie became real. This funky premise was just something that can be funny at some points. But it needed the characters to turn it back into something interesting.
There’s so much anger and defensiveness out there right now about any story where men come across badly. But you’re very uncompromising about that here. It’s not just one bad man — everyone in the movie fails Gloria. Jason Sudeikis has said he talked to people from the alt-right and Gamergate to try to understand his character better. Did you write the movie to take that crowd on directly?
I’m okay with movies triggering a discussion rather than trying to get general praise. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with movies confronting people. I’m so into that. I’ve seen that there’s no better gift for a filmmaker than a movie that survives through time, and for a movie to survive, it needs to make people talk about it. I understand this movie could create some discussion of that, but I’m not scared of nasty reaction or reviews. I’d just care about the movie being boring or forgettable.
All these things are out there in the atmosphere right now. Those attitudes are around in the culture. You can’t avoid the fact that you’re talking about this outlying culture. And at the end of the day, this movie’s about people who are making decisions that can affect people far away from them. Even if the movie has a political agenda, I didn’t try to pose a political agenda when I was writing it. I truly believe — I have this kind of pseudo-magical theory about films, about how films work. I believe films are more relevant than the filmmakers behind them. Movies are able to talk about our times in a more specific way than the filmmakers intend, because movies are a product of time, and of many people working. So even if I wasn’t trying for a political agenda, I’m okay if the movie has one. I think one of the tools you need to write is a kind of innocence, an ability to let things come through you instead of you trying to have control of what you’re specifically talking about. That’s something I truly believe in.
What went into the monster design for the film? What were your main concerns?
We had to think about — this movie is not a satire on monster movies. It’s not a comment on this films. It’s not trying to laugh at those films. So the movie had to feel like one of those creatures, from those films. It had to feel like part of a tradition. It had to feel like it could fit into a regular monster movie, because we’re not trying to separate ourselves from those. And the other thing we were really aware of was wanting to make it as different from the other thing you see in the film, as much as possible.
So it looks tree-like because it’s meant to be organic by comparison?
Yes, instead of mechanical. So it doesn’t have corners, it’s meant to feel like a different thing. I don’t know if it could really be the opposite — if at some point, we had changed the avatars, I don’t know whether it would work. It just felt right this way. It felt like it made sense.
One of the things that feels truest in the movie is the way Gloria’s monster picks up a fandom, the way it becomes an online meme. What was your thinking around the way internet culture works in the film?
Because I needed throughout the film for there to be a constant dialogue between the characters and the media. The only way they have to observe the monsters’ reactions is through the TV, the internet, through every kind of media. And I needed to show that media isn’t just a window to look through. It has a voice coming from itself, it has its own personality. It has its own agenda. So I needed the media to be able to talk to the characters, and even insult them at some points.
What’s your method like with actors? How did you work with Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis to get these performances?
With a movie like this, you don’t have a lot of time for rehearsal. You have to shoot really, really fast, in a few days. You have to be really precise about what you want, what the film needs. And because you’re working with highly skilled actors with such a big background, such big experience, you just want them to breathe through the characters. I think it’s a combination of giving them enough space for them to feel comfortable with the characters, so things can come from them, and at the same time, be really specific about what you want. I would never allow myself to ask an actor to try a bunch of different things on camera, so we can experiment with what works during the editing. I have to be sure about what I want. I don’t want to feel like I don’t have things clear in my mind. And at the same time, we don’t have enough time with them to try every experiment, to try a lot of things.
You’ve said the film doesn’t have a political agenda, that you weren’t thinking about that when you were writing the film. But you’ve also said in interviews that one of the points of the film is that people in the movie are dying in South Korea because of Americans who can’t control themselves, who don’t take people in other countries seriously enough. That seems like a very political message.
The thing is, the way I want movies to exist is, I don’t feel like filmmakers should be next to the film, making its meaning clear. The movie exists in the minds of the viewers. That’s where it becomes something real. My intentions are just something I use as a working tool. Your description of the movie has much more value than mine. I’m not trying to avoid your question — I truly believe this! If this movie is able to say something, it’s because it was created in the minds of the audience. I’m just the guy behind it. That doesn’t mean my depiction of the film is more fascinating than the one that comes from the audience.
There’s something I can confess — I was aware from the beginning that the movie was dancing around within the tropes of romantic comedies. I was very aware of playing with those tropes. I love some of those films, but at the same time, some of them are really problematic. Most romantic comedies, the message is like, “If you persist enough, you will get her.” They encourage behavior that’s terrifying these days. “If you stop her wedding, you won’t go to jail. You will just show your charms to her, and she will prefer to go to you.” So something like that was inside the kindling of this movie. I wanted to play with those rules in a different way. I didn’t want to separate myself from monster movies, but I did want to create a difference from romantic comedies.
Was working with those tropes one of the reasons you wanted Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis specifically, since they’ve both been in romantic comedies?
Yeah yeah yeah, when their names appeared as a choice, it was like, “Okay, this is a fantasy for me! Not just because of their skills, and the experience they have, and their immediate charisma on camera. It’s also about how their names resonate, and how their names attached to the film are adding to the resonance.”
Colossal opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 7th and expands nationwide on April 14th. Find theaters and showtimes at the movie’s official website.