Even before there was a script—or a cast, location or story, really—audiences have been waiting the release of Cloverfield with baited breath. And the box office numbers did not disappoint when the film was finally released last week (bringing in more than $55 million so far). A monster movie in the most classic sense of the genre, the film is a collaboration between childhood friends Matt Reeves, JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk. And while it sounds like the type of movie these guys have probably dreamed about for years, the whole film came together rather quickly—less than a year from pitch to release. In the midst of a grueling press tour, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves spoke with MM about his first venture into the world of visual effects and how the film turned out to be a “terrific challenge.”

Jennifer Wood (MM): You’ve been a successful writer for more than a decade now, but have only sat in the director’s chair once before, on The Pallbearer. What was it about Cloverfield that appealed to you as a director?

Matt Reeves (MR): Actually, in addition to writing for film and TV, I have been directing television pilots for the past 10 years. JJ Abrams and I created “Felicity” together, and I directed the pilot to that, as well as a number of others along the way which were really fun for me; but Cloverfield, it’s true, is only my second feature as a director.

What attracted me to it was the sheer outrageousness of the idea—the idea of trying to depict an absolutely absurd premise (a giant monster attacks NYC) with a sense of utter realism. It was such an epic-sized story, with massive destruction and all these visual FX, but it had to be told from an incredibly intimate point of view, and grounded in a strong sense of naturalism. That seemed very different to me. I loved the idea that we would be going through this terrifying event with this small group of people, and that we would know no more about what was happening than they did, that the whole movie could be this visceral experience—a kind of first-person, voyeuristic horror. And the handicam style I knew would create a lot of opportunities for experimentation—long, continuous masters, improvisation, jump cuts, no musical score… All of that sounded very exciting—and I had never done anything with VFX before, so I just thought the whole thing would be a terrific challenge for me.

MM: I know that you and JJ Abrams have been friends since you were teenagers, when you were both aspiring moviemakers who met at a film festival. Is Cloverfield—a monster movie in the truest sense of the genre—something you guys have talked about making for a long time? It seems like the sort of project every teenage moviemaker dreams of one day making.

MR: No, the whole project actually came together very quickly, for me it was less than a year. I had been putting together another film, which I wrote, a drama/thriller called The Invisible Woman, and one day JJ and his producing partner Bryan Burk (who I’ve also known since childhood) came to me and said ‘We really want you to do this first.’ At that point there wasn’t even a script, just a very detailed outline written by Drew Goddard. But everything was moving forward fast; they already had a green light and a release date.

As it turned out, the entire movie, from studio pitch to release in theaters, was completed in under a year. It was kind of astonishing, the momentum of it all. But there wasn’t a lot of talking about it beforehand. It’s funny though, because this is definitely the kind of movie that JJ and I might have made together when we first met as teenagers—it is kind of a strange mix of our sensibilities. In fact there was a funny little 8mm movie we made together that was not totally unlike this in that it was this sort of sci-fi/drama hybrid. It was called Genius, and was basically our crazed, teen-aged attempt to do something completely Spielbergian, because we were such huge fans of his.
MM: The film also just happens to be one of the year’s most anticipated movies; people have been talking about it ever since Lady Liberty’s head rolled across the screens in the trailer before Transformers. The film didn’t even have a title yet and people were already blogging about it and trying to sneak on to the set. What sort of pressure does that add?

MR: Well, it was incredibly strange, because by the time the trailer came out, we were only about a week or two into shooting. So everyone was incredibly excited about a movie we hadn’t even made yet. Not only that, there was all this wild speculation about what the film actually was—in a way, the Internet fans were sort of writing their own scenarios, coming up with what they hoped it was going to be… So that was kind of scary because it’s very hard to compete with people’s imaginations of what something could be. But it was also exciting to know that people were already terribly intrigued by our little movie, which, up until that point, had been totally under the radar. So basically, we just put our heads down, shut out the noise and made the movie we set out to make.

Whether people would be satisfied with what we were doing, only time would tell. But at least we were excited about it, and in the end, that is all you can really use as a guide. The rest of the shoot was crazy because we had to keep changing the name of our production just so people wouldn’t find where we were shooting. But they kept finding us anyway.

MM: For me, there are two things that make all the difference in a movie like this: The “monster” and the camerawork. I know that these two things were really the very basic framework of the movie in the beginning. When you think of the great monster movies, which ones come to mind? Which films did you look to for inspiration?

MR: Jaws and Alien are two of my favorites—and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, which I think is also a terrific movie, very scary. The thing about those films is that they are very careful to hold off seeing the monster for a long time; they build incredible tension and suspense through that anticipation. I knew that would be critical. I really wanted there to be that terrible, building sense of dread.

But I also looked at a bunch of documentaries for inspiration, because I wanted the film to feel as real as possible. There is a documentary called The War Tapes by Deborah Scranton in which a group of U.S. Troops took handicams with them on their tour of duty in Iraq. The film is very compelling and frightening because the footage they brought back from battle was so extremely raw, and there is just something about being right in the middle of it all with them that is absolutely terrifying and emotional. I looked at amateur footage on YouTube, too. Getting a real sense of exactly what that stuff looked like was very important. I ended up showing the actors a lot of that footage to give them a feeling for what we were going for.

MM: From the beginning, you knew that the film would be shot handheld, which certainly makes the film a much more intimate experience. But considering that it’s supposed to be shot with one camera, from the perspective of one character who really knows nothing about using a video camera, it must have posed some unique challenges, not the least of which is making a professional film look “amateurish”… in a professional way! So how did you do it?

MR: We shot the movie on four different digital cameras. Two of them—the Thomson Viper and the Sony F-23—were heavy, professional ultra-high-resolution cameras which we had to use for most of our VFX shots. But the other two were actual HD handicams. I thought it was critical that as much of the movie as possible be shot on the kind of tiny, lightweight cameras that the audience watching the film might own themselves. Those light cameras have a certain look and feel that you cannot reproduce by shooting exclusively on a 50 to 60-pound camera, and I thought an audience would catch that in a second, and the illusion would be broken.

It was tremendous fun using those little handicams. I actually ended up shooting a lot of the film myself, because I am definitely not a professional camera operator, and I thought that would add to the amateur look of the film. The experience was the closest I’ve come professionally to the fun of shooting those 8mm films when I was a kid. I also wanted the actors to be able to shoot as much as possible, too. I would put the camera in their hands and stand off to the side with a little monitor and watch what they were doing, and we would try to shape the scenes of the course of anywhere from 40 to 60 takes. We did a lot of searching and improv. TJ Miller, who plays Hud, actually shot an enormous amount (especially in the party scene), because I thought it was important for the actors to have him to play off of instead of our camera operators—I thought it would add to the reality to have the camera in his hands. Then, when we finally shot on the big cameras, I had our incredibly talented professionals mimic the feel of what we’d been shooting on handicam. It was grueling because of how heavy those cameras were—there were a lot of accidents—but our operators were amazing.
MM: I always find it interesting when someone takes a typical genre movie and turns it into something much more. Yes, Cloverfield is a film about a monster taking over New York City, but like many of the great monster movies before it, it also serves as a bigger metaphor for the world we live in. Godzilla came out in the wake of Hiroshima, Night of the Living Dead dealt with the repercussions of Vietnam, The Host deals with the environment. What do you see as the larger message in Cloverfield? What does it say about the world we live in?

MR: I think many of the most interesting genre films reflect the anxieties of the time in which they were made. There is no question that Godzilla was a metaphor for the Atomic Age, and specifically Japan’s reaction to the horrors Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the terror of potential future attacks. In a similar way, I think Cloverfield probably reflects a kind of national nightmare that has invaded our consciousness in the wake of 9/11. A sense of helplessness. A fear of sudden, and incomprehensible violence and destruction in the heart of our most populated cities. In the end, of course, what we’ve really made is just a crazy, giant monster movie; but in a way, I suppose the monster is an attempt to give some form, some name, however ridiculous or absurd, to the unthinkable.

MM: Up until Cloverfield, your work has been very much character-driven, making this your first VFX-heavy project. Are you anxious to get back to something smaller?

MR: I am going to make The Invisible Woman, which has been a passion of mine for the last couple years. It is smaller, and a much more personal, character-driven story, but it also relies quite heavily on a kind of Hitchcockian narrative suspense. So as completely different as it is on the one hand, I suppose there is still a distant relationship to the sort of sustained tension and dread that I tried to create in Cloverfield.

It’s funny, having just had this crash course in massive VFX makes me look at filmmaking a bit differently. My favorite VFX shots in Cloverfield are the ones that I am sure people don’t even know we did—little shots you immediately accept as totally real, like simple street extensions, or when the choppers are landing right in the street at 40th and Park. So as I start to think about how to shoot my next film, suddenly I see all these opportunities for subtle, realistic VFX that could help me solve some of the real-world production challenges I’ll be facing—things I saw in my head while I was writing, but had no concrete idea how we would pull off on set. I suppose I’m talking about the kind of really effective, invisible VFX work you see (or don’t see) all the time in Spike Jonze’s films or Michel Gondry’s. But I never would have even thought to approach scenes like that before Cloverfield. It’s a whole new world for me.