Some Kind of Monster

“It’s a monster movie for the YouTube generation” said director Matt Reeves about Hollywood’s latest high-profile release, Cloverfield. Marketed in an unconventional manner, here is a look at the story behind Cloverfield and more.

cloverfield_theatrical_poster.jpgIt seems that the more we get to know about Cloverfield, the less we know. The movie, once titled “The Untitled J. J. Abrams Project”, had a trailer which although was ambiguous, started a wildfire of speculation, hype and paranoia since it aired before the Transformers movie.

And what was the trailer about? A group of friends gathered to say goodbye to one of their own. We see the party getting started, through the eyes of a digital camera. Soon, the friend arrives and it is time for the toast and it is then that they hear the rumble. The lights go out. Someone screams. They panic and towards the roof where they see an enormous ball of fire on the horizon, near the Statue of Liberty. Hysteria erupts as the same digital camera, the eyes and ears of the audience, runs down onto the street, only to have its path blocked by the head of the Statue of Liberty which crash-lands through the streets. Here the trailer ends ominously with the numbers “01-18-08coming up on the screen.

In the following weeks and months, there was a deluge of speculation. Was it a monster movie? Was it a new take on Godzilla or King Kong? Was it a Voltron re-make? Did it have anything to do with the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and his stories about Cthulhu? It was then that the true marketing of the movie began, as websites started popping up, which although seemed to be completely unrelated to the movie at first, but careful investigation revealed that it was indeed the Cloverfield viral marketing machine at work. In truth however, the marketing of this movie began with the trailer. In an unprecedented move, the Motion Picture Association of America approved a trailer without any titles but only the release date of the movie. Last weekend, that date had arrived and cinemagoers finally saw what the hype and hysteria was all about.

J. J. Abrams is best known to his fans as the creator of diverse TV shows, such as Felicity, Alias and LOST. At the heart of his creations are character-driven stories: strong characters facing even stronger obstacles. He’s also known for establishing a modern-day mythos to each of his creations, where each and every single character plays a pivotal role in the story. It was such attention to detail and dedication to character, that attracted the attention of Tom Cruise. Abrams made his feature film directorial debut with Mission Impossible 3, and although it was a lukewarm box office hit, it is here that Cloverfield was born.

director-matt-reeves-and-producer-jj-abrams.jpgOn his Japan tour of promoting MI3, Abrams went toy-shopping with his son. He was astounded to discover a plethora of toys depicting Godzilla-like monsters, he told the audience at 2007 Comic-Con, “I’ve always wanted to do a monster movie. I thought, we need our own (American) monster, and not King Kong, King Kong’s adorable. I wanted something that was just insane and intense.”

Abrams got in touch with director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard, both alumni of LOST, Felicity and Alias. They quickly got the essence of the movie down on paper and approached Paramount Studios, who although loved the script, assigned a budget of only 25 million dollars and agreed to launch it only during January, a potential box office dumping ground for movies that are considered risky.

Undaunted, Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot Productions began to cast actors for the film. They were given no script or indication of story, and the audition process was highly secretive and casting complete unknowns merely added to Cloverfield phenomenon of secrecy. Special Effects Supervisor, Phil Tippett was approached because of his ability to work with a minimal budget and yet create effects that are intensely real. Filming started in February2007, in and around Coney Island, New York and a soundstage in Downey, California.

With a minimal budget and an unknown cast, it would seem that things were set against Cloverfield from the start. But that is not the case; movies like Open Water and the infamous Blair Witch Project have proven that even things at their completely minimalistic level evoke the strongest reactions from the audience and the box office. But is that merely a reaction from audiences or is there more to that effect? “Cloverfield very much speaks to the fear and anxieties of our time, how we live our lives. Constantly documenting things and putting them up on YouTube, sending people videos through e-mail — we felt it was very applicable to the way people feel now,” says Director Matt Reeves in an interview to an internet website. This is why the entire movie is shot with a handheld digital camera. He went on to describe the presentation, “We wanted this to be as if someone found a Handicam, took out the tape and put it in the player to watch it. What you’re watching is a home movie that then turns into something else.”

director-matt-reeves.jpgHence the look of the movie, a Cinéma vérité style, made famous in documentaries but used extensively in movies such as The Blair Witch Project and TV shows like The Office. Even the story aspect has a very natural, it-could-happen-to-you, element. Writer Drew Goddard heavily drew inspiration from real life, “The thing that was most helpful, the stuff that I watched that really informed the aesthetic, was a lot of YouTube videos. Then I looked at footage of terrifying events. I just wanted to see what happened when people were in the middle of these terrifying events and how they were filmed. There was this one clip in particular that I found absolutely terrifying where some troops were in a tent in Iraq and their camp was being mortar shelled. As the bombs were falling, they took the camera and put it on the ground. The shot itself was absolutely horrifying.”

And with that we come to the movie itself. First and foremost, it is indeed a monster movie. A monster of the new age, Cloverfield primarily explores the human psyche’s reaction to fear and terror. The latter of course is more important as this movie indirectly deals with terrorism. Often while watching the movie, one can compare the monster to the terrorists of 9/11 crashing into the World Trade Center. As the story progresses, each scene is a stark resemblance of news footage from ground zero during that ill-fated September day. Abrams and co. basically give modern day terrorism a face, that of a vicious inhumane, inhuman-like, monster.

Secondly, even while being a monster movie, the focus and the main propagating factor in the story is the action. It can be best described as a claustrophobic intensity (thanks to the hand-held cameras) surrounded by a background that is continuously crumbling. The cinematography is such that we don’t get to see anything in its entirety, everything is rushed and views are blocked or incomplete.


Finally, the cast are fresh, energetic and sharp. Michael Stahl-David recently discussed the characters in an MTV interview, “(My character) is someone who’s not a big risk-taker or somebody who’s very spontaneous,” Stahl-David revealed. “And then there’s Hud, the man behind the camera (played by T.J. Miller), Then there’s Lizzy Caplan (as Marlena), who randomly gets stuck with us and she’s not in our close circle of friends — she’s the outsider in our midst. Then there’s Jessica Lucas (as Lily), who is the caretaker of my brother Jason (Mike Vogel), who is wild and reckless.”Cloverfield is a new kind of monster movie. Whereas Godzilla and King Kong both ravaged and destroyed cities, Cloverfield is all about terror. Believe the hype. Something is alive. Something has found us.

(This article was originally published on the January 27th edition of DAWN, Images.)

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