In Total Control of His Out of Control: With Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo Breaks Into Major League Moviemaking

Nacho Vigalondo is constantly under self-review—both as an artist and, if movies are a window into a director’s psyche, as a man.

Spend a little time chatting with the 40-year-old Spanish moviemaker, and you’ll get candid, confessional answers. Watch his films, and you can’t help but notice the self-awareness on display (albeit alongside his patented sense of the absurd). He loves genre but can’t help but subvert genre expectations. He’s happy to indulge in a little outrageous violence or slapstick, but needs the moment to say something real, something that may be inside himself. He is, in an age of imitators and studied craftsman, an auteur.

This dedication to self-confrontation came into full bloom with his 2003 short “7:35 in the Morning,” a musical thriller of sorts involving a man (Vigalondo himself) dangerously obsessed with a woman in a café.

“The way I deal with my self-esteem changes every year, and that year was particularly tough,” Vigalondo explains. “I had doubts about whether I would ever become a filmmaker, so I put all my effort into that short film. And I was like, ‘OK, if this works, if people love it, if people laugh at it, I’m going to keep trying. But if people hate it, I will retire gently.’”

It was a hell of a gamble, allowing an eight-minute, black-and-white film shot over a day and a half to decide your path in life. And yet, fate was inordinately kind. After taking home trophies from various European film festivals, “7:35 in the Morning” went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.

“Nacho has the unique ability to access parts of his psyche that other people don’t access enough,” says producer Russell Levine of Route One Entertainment. “I think he has great empathy for humanity.”

Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis play a pair of childhood friends reuniting as adults who may or may not have their shit together in Colossal

Levine is one of the producers on Vigalondo’s fourth feature, Colossal. Route One is dedicated to financing socially conscious films, and its investment in Vigalondo marks a dramatic step up in budget for the filmmaker—not to mention an A-list cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens and Tim Blake Nelson.

“I don’t need a political project,” says Levine of the films he chooses to back, “but it really has to illuminate the human condition. Colossal is a perfect example of that. Yes, it was risky. You never know what something is going to look like from script to screen, and everybody was a little bit worried about it because it has such an original voice and [Nacho] is such an original thinker. But that’s what we want to support.”

Quite the vote of confidence for a movie you could describe as Godzilla re-imagined as an indie psychodrama. In it, Hathaway plays Gloria, a Manhattan party girl who bottoms out, returns to her hometown to struggle with her alcoholism, and discovers that she’s telepathically linked to a gigantic monster that semi-regularly lays waste to the city of Seoul.

Moonlight, this film ain’t. But the genre mixing and magical realism are very much in sync with Vigalondo’s mordant sensibilities. After all, this is the same guy who concocted the metaphysical pretzel logic of Timecrimes (2007), the farcical alien invasion/romantic comedy Extraterrestrial (2011), and the hyper-Hitchcockian Internet-age Open Windows (2014). Colossal continues Vigalondo’s desire to subvert genre, confront male ego and entitlement and—key to his style—mess with dramatic tone.

“The manual says that when you make a movie, you have to be really specific about the tone,” Vigalondo jokes. “But I can’t control myself. I want [the audience’s] expectations to become part of the show. When you watch a film and you’re halfway in, and you’re having fun, and then, suddenly, the movie becomes a drama that’s not funny anymore, that is exciting to me. I want to make movies that seem contradictory.”

This desire can be traced through his own cinematic heroes: Sam Raimi, John Waters, Hal Hartley, “and of course Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, especially Twin Peaks. [Watching their work] was an epiphany. I suddenly understood how they were able to change the texture of reality.”

Yet dramatic shifts in tone can be tricky even for the most seasoned director. Many an indie film has been dashed between the rocks of comedy and violence or melodrama and quirk. This is why, from script to shoot to edit, Vigalondo maintains a steady—some say uncompromising—hand on his material.

“Eric Kress, my amazing DP on Colossal, called me Kim Jong-il with my shot lists,” Vigalondo laughs. “But the way I shoot, there’s not much coverage. I am very specific about what I want and what I don’t. There’s two reasons for this: One, as an auteur it’s important that your signature, your point of view, is there. And two, you don’t have enough time to cover every scene from every angle. I’ve been working on limited budgets all my life, so I don’t have the chance to cover, cover, cover.”

Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo on the set of Colossal, his fourth feature after Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial and Open Windows

An example: Vigalondo believes that “the point of view in any scene should be told from one character’s perspective. The other character, in the reverse shots, may be in the background, but we never get close to him. Instead of a normal shot and reverse shot, I work with a close shot and a POV shot. Even if I’m respecting the line, we’re always shooting as if we are one of the characters.”

He cites a conversation scene in Colossal between Gloria and her on-and-off boyfriend, Tim (Stevens). “The camera is always floating around her. Dan Stevens is also moving, but in different directions. He’s going backwards, he’s moving to the left, moving to the right, but the camera never gets close to him. It stays with her. That’s really important for my understanding of the sequence and the point of view. But that kind of decision is something that you have to impose on set; otherwise the DP is going to shoot it in a more traditional way.”

(Ironic, then, that he tries to write his scripts as if they were for someone else. “I try not to think in visual terms at all. I never describe a shot in a script. Never. It’s something I’ve imposed on myself.”)

While the impassioned indie in him sees a production as his personal responsibility, this mindset didn’t prepare Vigalondo for the challenges of a film on the scale of Colossal—namely the well-oiled machinery of a Hollywood production.

“When you’re making a movie like Extraterrestrials or Open Windows, you are pulling the lever all the time; you are like the engine,” he explains. “If one day you have an accident and you don’t show up, it’s a disaster. But in [Hollywood], if I had that same accident, the team would be able to shoot things in a really beautiful way. This machine has its own engine. So your fight becomes something different—you fight to control the engine.”

At the same time, he says grace and good manners are vitally important to the success of any film. “I think it should be illegal for a filmmaker to be rude to anybody on the crew. As the captain, you’re responsible for the tone of the movie and of the set. If you’re an asshole and you make movies, you’re probably a classist. You’re thinking in terms of yourself as a king and the studio as your feudal kingdom, and that is so wrong. For me, it is important that the people doing the catering and clearing the streets feel as important to the movie as you do.”

Colossal became not just an apt description for the monster that stalks Korea (and Gloria’s emotional life) but also the logistics of production itself. Vigalondo brought his indie skills to bear during the movie’s four-week shoot in Vancouver and five days in South Korea. This meant moving at a breakneck pace, and letting locations inform choices, often rewriting scenes to accommodate them.

“I can spend up to a week in a location, finding what it is able to give me. It’s the reason I don’t feel attracted to working on studio sets,” he says. “Real life is a million times richer than what’s in your head. Having your ideas line up with reality gives you elements you wouldn’t have thought of.”

Sudeikis’ character, Oscar, owns a bar in the film, a space that comes to represent the character’s interior terrain. “That was a real location, a massive building with no windows and three different spaces: the rock and roll side, the Western side and the cavemen den. Those three parts ended up representing different sides of Oscar’s personality. I was inspired by reality.”

Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell and Sudeikis make up a spectrum of masculinity in Colossal

Both Hathaway and Sudeikis turn in pitch-perfect performances, anchoring an on-paper silly premise with essential emotional validity. Vigalondo himself started as an actor, and even played the villain in Josh Waller’s 2015 action-thriller Camino, but knew when to get out of his cast’s way.

“If Anne insisted on something, it was probably because she was right. That’s something I learned in the first few days of shooting. She fought for good ideas, not because of ego.”

With regard to Sudeikis, Vigalondo made the now-popular choice to cast a comedic actor as, arguably, the film’s villain. It’s a convincingly dark turn for the SNL alum, and likely to open the door for him to play more dramatic roles in the future. Vigalondo was eager to explore the thin line that separates comedy and cruelty, and Oscar is a direct manifestation of the director’s artistic sensibilities and interests. He is charming, damaged and, ultimately, dangerous—a character whose competing desires fuel the tonal shifts Vigalondo so dearly loves.

Casting a comedian made sense, the director says, “because this guy, especially for the first half of the movie, shows a special charm. It’s like when you have a gang of friends and one of them is always the entertainer. But Oscar is not only the entertainer; he’s a father figure to the men around him. And I wanted an actor who could pull that off. Once the layers of his identity are broken, and you see the real thing, he’s actually terrifying.”

This is a recurring theme in Vigalondo’s work: men, and their arrested and/or entitled attitudes about women. It’s not hard to connect the thematic dots among the maniacal would-be lover in “7:35 in the Morning,” Elijah Wood’s manipulated fanboy in Open Windows and Colossal’s Oscar, a likable guy’s guy who ends up tormenting his childhood friend Gloria.

“If I’m honest, I write about these things because I’m also questioning myself,” Vigalondo says. “When men join feminism, they often make the mistake of pointing out how bad other guys are. But I try and explore my flaws and all the things I don’t want to be. Sometimes I write about the kind of guy that I pretend to be, sometimes I write about the guy I’d love to be, and sometimes I write about the guy I never want to become. When I write about this stuff, it’s because I’m scared—I’m really, really scared of what’s inside me. The villain in the movie, that is your life—if it’s not you, it’s inside you somewhere.” MM

Colossal opens in theaters April 7, 2017, courtesy of Neon.

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