Ken Watanabe and Gareth Edwards on the  Godzilla  set in Vancouver, 2013

Ken Watanabe and Gareth Edwards on the Godzilla set in Vancouver, 2013

Gareth Edwards looks a little nervous. 

It's probably because, as visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel and unit publicist Ernie Malik tell us from the sidelines, this is one of the director's first big crane shots. Ever. 

"Ready?" the AD bellows into a PA system. "Smoke up, wind up, camera, and... action!"

The cast springs into action and suddenly this former sports-ground car-park looks - give or take a few yet-to-be-dropped-in backgrounds, and the presence of an immense, wrap-around green screen - like the deck of an aircraft carrier. And that large crane - the one causing a slight crinkle at the corner of Edwards' smile - swoops down to capture it all. 

* * *

Not long ago, at least in Hollywood time, Edwards was, as Rygiel puts it, "sitting in his apartment comping shots like this". His entirely DIY debut feature, Monsters, was made for roughly $500,000 - that's $159,500,000 less than the budget he is in charge of on this uncharacteristically frosty June day in Vancouver. 

"You look at his credits for Monsters and he was the DP, he was the production designer, he was the visual effects supervisor, he was the director…" Rygiel laughs. "And that shows, when we’re setting shots up, he’ll know what takes time and what can be done."

For his part, Edwards is drifting through the set in a state of suspended animation. "It hasn't hit me yet," he says. "I think if it really hit you what you were doing here you’d be paralysed, you wouldn’t be able to function."

What he is doing is supervising a crew that numbers well into the hundreds, and that on this particular arm of the shoot, has populated the Vancouver backlot with a tiny city of tents and caravans. Indeed, it looks likes some FEMA-run shanty town that would spring up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. 

Behind the makeup trailers, obliterated cars - soccer mom people-movers, cop cars, army vehicles - are stacked neatly in parking spaces, like some perverse modern art installation. Gravel crunches underfoot for as far as the eye can see, and more than one jet-lagged journalist stumbles on their way to the mess for lunch, to the great amusement of attending military experts. 

"We have a lot of sets that we're building for this film," says production designer Owen Paterson. "There's a real reality to it. We're hoping to ground it enough that when an audience sees the film, you walk out of the cinema and wonder why the buildings are not knocked down. It's real, in a sense, the way we film a lot of it. There's a human perspective, and they're not always in the right position to see Godzilla or some of the other creatures. It's a bit like how we, as human beings, treat ants; we're not even really aware of the ants, but if we tread on them, they're aware of us."

It was that sense of reality, and the cageyness in depicting it, that kicked this production into gear in the first place. Edwards secured his place in monster movie history with a now-storied presentation to Warner Bros. and Legendary that would later be shown at San Diego Comic-Con to rapturous applause.

"When I saw that [Comic-Con presentation], that sold me," Rygiel recalls. "I was like ‘How do I get in on this?!’" The notion that Academy Award-winners were chomping at the bit to work with him seems to have pitched Edwards into a dreamlike state he's not fully emerged from. 

"There was this massive reaction, and I didn't appreciate what a massive effect it would have on me, because I started nearly crying," Edwards says. "I was suddenly like, 'Oh my god!' I then couldn't speak, and I was pushed on stage to go speak, and my brain just had a little paralysis. It was that [crowd] reaction that kickstarted the process for the film. So I owe a lot to the crowd at Hall H."

Not long after, Edwards received a call from his agents. "They were like, 'Are you sitting down? We just got a call from Legendary, and they'd like to know if you'd like to direct Godzilla'," he says, giggling at the memory, "And I was like, 'Whoa, fuck!' And then they said, 'Do you like Godzilla??'"

Reflecting both his previous work and his own tastes, Edwards expresses his desire for Godzilla - despite its immense scale and budget - to occupy the naturalistic sensibility of a 1970s thriller, name-checking Steven Spielberg'sClose Encounters Of The Third Kind in particular. 

"Stylistically, the films that I was referencing as I started, were from the early-'80s and late-'70s; the stuff that I grew up loving. I wanted it to have that kind of pace and tone," he says. "We're trying to give it that flavour of something a bit more timeless. I hope... ah, it's hard to talk about this stuff, but hopefully it's got a tone that I miss in a lot of modern blockbusters; they're just worried that you're going to get bored if things don't explode every three seconds. We'll see how that pans out."

* * *

The finished product is a frustrating blend of the tone Edwards was talking about on-set, and more prosaic action movie beats. It's hamstrung in particular by a generic 'human interest' angle tied to Bryan Cranston's beleaguered engineer and, later, Aaron Taylor-Johnston as his son, Ford. 

Edwards has an unmatched knack for subverting the expected tropes of disaster films in a way that magics up often exquisite imagery - the HALO jumpers drifting from above the clouds to the crumbling San Francisco below them; two immense monsters (in a sweet nod to the climax of his ownMonsters) sharing a mating ritual amid the rubble - but the script, written by young-gun Max Borenstein, is tone-deaf.

Godzilla himself is oddly appealing. The "fatness" of his redesign, decried by Japanese fans, gives him a cuddly quality, which meant I found myself rooting for him even as he accidentally, like Paterson's humans stomping obliviously on ants, squashed most of the Bay Area Rapid Transit network.

* * * 

In the fifteen or so hours we spend on set, we walk inside a giant cave filled with immense skeletons, watch a helicopter take off six or seven times before we're shooed away by a safety supervisor ("You can't be here!"), and finally stand by as Ken Watanabe spots something monstrous in his binoculars. 

The "something" will of course be dropped in "in post" - right now, he's gazing, awestruck, at the treeline beyond the backlot - and, when we eventually see the film, those shots that took around two days to shoot will comprise roughly half a minute of screen time. 

"I feel we've got enough stuff in the bag now that we're happy with," Edwards says, as he starts to gather his things from the trestle table we've all crowded around, summoned back to set. "It's a shame because when you get to the end of the movie, I kinda wish someone from the future could tell me the result and whether people liked it, so you could just take the pressure off and enjoy the process of making the film. Because it is hard to enjoy it when there's so much at stake. It's like training to be a surgeon, and then they bring you your own child to do the surgery on. You're a nervous wreck that it's not going to live to see another day." 

He scurries back to the "aircraft carrier" to cram in some more shots before the light changes. The consensus among the cast and crew we speak to is that Edwards is a lovely guy, and it's hard not to want to believe in his dream for big-budget monster movies to regain the intimate quality of their '70s forebears. 

But I keep thinking of what Rygiel said, discussing the rise of DIY filmmaking. After enthusing about how "Now, people are literally making movies on iPhones, good movies! So it’s more about the storytelling than the quality," he paused, looked at the immense hive of activity on the aircraft carrier deck, and added, "It doesn’t really apply when you do big features like this."

By the time comes, in early evening, for us to take some happy snaps on set, my colleague Lisa and I are asleep on our feet; poleaxed by a mix of sustained excitement and crushing fatigue, we decide to commemorate the 'hurry up and wait' nature of SFX-heavy filmmaking: 

The attending crew-members, in on the joke, roar with laughter. Of course, the PR team prefer to keep the magic happening in the eyes of the folks back home, so we rally for a wallet-worthy finale: 

A few hours later, we hide from the rain and wind machines in a tent with the producers and watch Watanabe - take after take - summon that sense of awe as he peers through his binoculars. 

When it's finally time to pile into our bus and depart the set, we see Edwards standing near that nerve-fraying crane, facing his big-budget monsters - and I wonder when it'll hit him.

 

- originally published on TheVine, 2014