Monsters: Dark Continent Panel at the MCM London Comic Con

Monsters Dark Continent panel (Sarah Tsang)

Set ten years after the events of Gareth Edwards’s 2010 film Monsters, Monsters: Dark Continent sees the mysterious creatures spread right across the globe, becoming part of the background of everyday life. Coinciding with a new Middle Eastern insurgency, however, there has lately been a proliferation of monsters in the region, causing the army to draft in more soldiers to help deal with the situation.

Joining us at the MCM London Comic Con to discuss the film were stars Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie and Johnny Harris, as well as writer/director Tom Green, editor Richard Graham and visual effects creator Seb Barker.

The panel began by discussing some of the differences and similarities between the original Monsters film and its sequel. Tom Green explained that while the scale of the situation had been dramatically expanded, he had tried to keep to the same basic principle of focusing on intimate character development and working within the limitations of a small budget. He also said that the actors had done a brilliant job of bringing the creatures to life through their performances:

“At one point I saw all the actors dressed up in military uniforms shooting at nothing, and I just started laughing. They said if I couldn’t take it seriously, how could I expect them to?”

As part of their preparation for the roles, the actors participated in a military bootcamp to help them get a sense of how real soldiers move and behave.

“Our military adviser said that he always hates it when soldiers are shown on screen and it’s clear that people don’t know what they’re doing,” said Sam Keeley, who plays the lead character, Michael. “But it was also good for team bonding: I think doing that together really helped to solidify us as a group.”

Obviously, effectively portraying soldiers requires a lot of discipline and the ability to cope with some intense physical action.

“We just had to put up with it, really,” said Joe Dempsie, who plays Michael’s best friend and comrade Frankie. “Often we’d be working for whole days without breaks for lunch or anything. It was tough, but very rewarding because of that. It always felt as though we’d really done a day’s work. By contrast, the other day, I was working on something where I just had to lie on a couch and pretend to be asleep. It doesn’t feel like you’ve earned your money then.”

Having such huge demands made of them, however, really helped the actors to get into character, and Johnny Harris described the surprising freedom that becoming so completely consumed by a role provided.

“It was a complete gift working with these kind of actors who were so ready to give their all to it,” said Green. “We tried to create a really immersive environment for them, so we were filming on the borders of Syria and Iraq with real military around. It was a very fast shoot – we filmed it in about four and a half weeks, so it was a very dynamic process that required the actors to stay in character all the time. It broke down boundaries, and I hope that has created a lot of authenticity.”

The barren desert landscape of the sequel provides a completely different backdrop for the monsters to the urban environment they had previously inhabited, and so the creatures have been redesigned accordingly.

“We took a lot of different textures from the environment,” said Seb Barker. “Things like rocks and an oilslick, and we added them in when creating the monsters. In the first film, they were much more like big jellyfish or something, whereas these ones are very dry and cracked – they look like they need some serious moisturiser! But the landscape really dictated the look and feel of them.”

Even editor Richard Graham had a chance to be on set and experience things first hand with the cast and crew, something which he said was very valuable for making decisions in the edit.

“Editing is all about putting the story together,” he said. “So I was really lucky to have that experience, and it was useful to see that process of evolution.”

Inevitably, as well as being physically and cerebrally demanding, the experience was also a very emotionally intense one for all involved, bringing the team together like a family.

“People are sometimes disingenuous when they say things like that,” said Green. “They describe themselves as being like a family when really they’re not, but here, we had a really tight bond by the end of it.”

A brief clip from the movie was then screened, showing soldiers reacting to the sight of a desert full of enormous monsters as they fly over it in a helicopter. The creatures move slowly, a range of tentacles and insectoid appendages swaying above the sand.

Talking about their experiences of working in difficult locations, Dempsie described it as “the most fun [he] had ever had on a shoot”:

“It wasn’t just great in terms of work: it was an amazing life experience. I felt very privileged to have had that opportunity. We were filming in a town that started out as a refugee camp and ended up growing into this city. One time we were filming when the local school day ended, and all these kids came out and mobbed us.”

“Everything in this film is about authenticity,” Keeley said. “When you’re working sixteen-hour days for five weeks straight, it churns up a lot of visceral experiences.”

Asked about how the actors had been selected for the parts, Green explained that he had worked with a casting director who has a really good eye for new talent.

“We needed people who would really make the parts their own and seize all opportunities,” he said. “I knew Sam already from working on Misfits. Johnny I think is one of the finest actors in the country but has never really led a film before. It’s amazing with someone of that calibre, so I thought it would be great to give him that chance.”

Asked about whether Gareth Edwards had been involved in the creative process, Green replied that he’d taken a very hands-off approach.

“He’s very busy working on another monster movie at the moment,” he laughed. “We actually went for a drink together early on, and he said we should make it our own. He’s a very all or nothing kind of director, as am I. Later on, he came to see what we’d done, and he really loved it. He couldn’t have been more complimentary and supportive, but it was always from a distance.”

Asked about how they had relaxed offset, given how overwhelming the experience of filming must have been, Harris replied that they hadn’t really had time.

“We had a very tight schedule and there were no easy days,” he said. “We were just emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of each day. Despite all the spectacle and excitement in it, this is actually a very hard, serious film. The canvas for the film is war – it’s a new way of looking at the human condition and the classic conflict of “good vs. evil”.

This statement prompted a question from the audience about what really is “good” and “evil” when we’re dealing with non-human creatures. At the end of Monsters, we are left with the feeling that the creatures are not so much evil as simply animals dealing with the situation they find themselves in. Green agreed, saying that they had left the sequel open enough for viewers to interpret things differently.

“I think this film explores the same issues as Monsters but in a different way,” he said “It’s a very allegorical film – the creatures are metaphors within the context of the movie, but it’s important for audiences to bring their own meanings to them.”

“They’re basically just animals taking a stroll through a village,” said Barker. “They’re like really big cows.”

Nevertheless, Green was careful to point out that it is also a monster movie.

“There was some fun to be had with that, in terms of thinking about what you could create,” he said. “There are elements of things like Jurassic Park with all the different monsters.”

“At the end of the first film we’re left with the lovely – well, it could be scary – feeling that maybe we’re the problem. This one picks up on that too. It’s easy for us when we’re scared of something to just pick up a gun and shoot it. It’s obviously metaphorical on many levels.”

Finally, a question was posed about whether the cast and crew had ever been in any danger as a result of filming in regions beset by instability.

“Jordan is actually quite a safe area,” Green replied. “Obviously we made this about a year and a half ago now. You can’t always plan for what’s going to happen, but we hope the film is astute. Of course, we were always very aware of the things that were going on nearby, but the Jordanian people were lovely to work with. They were so generous – it was very moving.”

Less seriously, Barker described Jordan as “the Switzerland of the Middle East.”

“On balance, I think it was probably more dangerous working in Detroit,” Dempsie went on. “I think one of the messages of the film is also about young men signing up to the military because they come from places where there are limited options. It was unbelievably deprived there. It’s just true, I think, that we are living in a time of extreme poverty and it’s not far away: it’s in environments that we’re all familiar with.”

Monsters: Dark Continent will be released in cinemas soon.

Photo by Sarah Tsang

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