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Love and Monsters director Michael Matthews talks Dylan O'Brien, Michael Rooker, and more - Exclusive interview

Following its October 16 release, the post-monster apocalypse film Love and Monsters won over critics and audiences with its sweet story of finding love during the end of the world. Starring Dylan O'Brien (The Maze Runner), Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ariana Greenblatt (Avengers: Infinity War), and Jessica Henwick (The Matrix 4), the movie offers a message of hope and love that's helped lead to a stellar 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes score

Helmed by South African director Michael Matthews, Love and Monsters gets impressive production values out of a relatively tiny $30 million budget — an incredible feat by Matthews and his cast and crew, especially considering that while Matthews has directed and produced several shorts, Love and Monsters marks only his second feature film. (His first movie, Five Fingers for Marseilles, is a South African Western that debuted in 2017.) 

Looper spoke to Matthews in an exclusive interview, during which he dished on what it was like working with Dylan O'Brien and Michael Rooker, all the shenanigans the cast got up to behind the scenes, and how much of Love and Monsters was ad-libbed.  

Finding hope during the monsterpocalypse

Love is explored honestly and equally throughout the film — whether it's the love between Joel and his pup, Boy, romantic love, or the love between found family in the aftermath of the monsterpocalypse. What drew you to this project? And what do you think audiences can take from these stories of hope and love in 2020?

It's a good question. Let me think what a good answer is. [Laughs] That is a big thing for me, and what drew me to it was the positivity of the film. I love genre stuff: the concept ideas within a film like this and the fun within the sequencing. The scary [parts] and the bit of the gags and playing with all that stuff, for me, is really great fun — and I love those sorts of things in film. But then, I also just really liked the honesty of it and the positivity of it overall.

It's a film that doesn't have an ego or something. It doesn't become like Joel is all-important, and he's the chosen one. I don't quite know how to articulate it, but it's not trying to do something or trying to be more than what it is. There's just a bit of an honesty to it and a positivity in the end in the messaging and that sort of thing where it's about caring for each other and about humanity. And it's not like, "I'm going to take what's yours for me, and I want this, and we have to fight each other for each other's resources," and all the usual stuff that you have in these sort of end of the world movies. I just liked that it didn't have that, and it was just this guy who's passionate about something and makes friends with this dog and is trying to get somewhere and kind of grows up in the process.

O'Brien slays every take

What was it like working with Dylan O'Brien?

It was awesome. We really get along well, and I consider him a pretty close friend now. I didn't know him well at all before going in, so I sort of met him for the project and talking about it. And he was the guy from the start that was right for it. And we just chatted and found what we thought was interesting about the character and the tone of it and how we wanted to work together. He's just got really incredible instincts for things in the moment — both a movie genre point of view of what's cool in the moment and what really works, but also just on character point of view in terms of humor, little things, the way he reacts to stuff, all that. It's just really entertaining to watch while you're making the film.

And he would always do different things pretty much every take, giving it a different angle and trying to find something [new]. I think that was what was really cool about it was just trying to find those things. You know, you're not showing up to just execute this exact thing. Obviously, the script is a script, and you're making that movie, but it wasn't like it's just a given exactly how something should be. And so there was always an openness to how to make the most of a moment or how to bring it to life in a different way. And so it was really awesome. It was great to work with him.

Did you have a favorite scene from him?

Probably the boulder snail one, funny enough. Just when Joel's shirt comes off, and then he can't move, and he's stuck in fear. There was just something about it where on the page I sort of had an idea of what I thought, and then just watching Dylan do it in the moment. It's just funny and kind of absurd, and he just did it really well. And at the end there, those were improvisations where they were going, "Thank you, boulder snail," and he's like, "Thank you," and he can't really talk, but he's kind of stuck in this moment. He's like overwhelmed. I thought that was really funny. I enjoyed that day. It was cool.

Michael Rooker is actually a softie

Definitely. How about Michael Rooker?

He's the loveliest guy. He comes across, and he's cast so much in things where he's really rough and quite hard. And that really worked for Clyde, the character in the movie, and it felt like a natural fit. He just sort of filled that role. But then it was nice to see him have a bit more of like a fatherly, paternal energy to him in this. There's a bit more warmth as you get to know him. And so that was really cool.

But him personally, he's just the loveliest person, and it was a hard shoot, we didn't have all the luxuries. We were all trying to make a cool movie without a really huge budget, and so things were difficult, and it was in the heat and things where it was like a physical performance, and he had a lot of lines to do. And he was always really gracious about things and really positive, even if it was difficult. I've got a two-year-old daughter who he introduced to, like, ketchup and mayonnaise, and was just feeding her that.

Awww.

But yeah, really lovely guy.

Dylan O'Brien, prankster extraordinaire

So during the New York Comic-Con panel, Dylan [O'Brien] and Ariana [Greenblatt] teased some on-set shenanigans. It sounded like set was a lot of fun. Were there any other notable moments or funny jokes and pranks on set?

It was pretty much ongoing. Dylan was filling the older brother role, really pushing it quite far. And so she was trying to taunt him all the time with things, and he was just being really mean to her in a funny way — like an older brother kind of way. Or she would do a really amazing take, and then he'd go like, "Come on, get it together," whatever it might be. Or during a scene when it's on his close-up, and she says something, and then he's like, "It's my shot now, this one's about me, it's not about you, so just do your lines." They just had this really funny thing, and she would just say the same things to him when it was her when she was in close-ups, and he wasn't on the camera. So they just had a really fun time. And I think it helped with the relationship onscreen.

Because she's quite mean to him and quite precocious and pushy, and I think him doing that also helped her feel comfortable being like that with him, and being kind of bossy and mean, because he let her be really comfortable like that off-set and they have a good vibe. It was great.

That's fun! While, at its heart, Love and Monsters is a love and survival story, the movie has some brilliant comedic scenes. You touched on this a little bit, but were there any ad-lib lines or improvised moments from any of the actors that stood out?

Oh, that's a tough one. Honestly, there were a lot. From Dylan's point of view, there were a lot. Often, it's in the heart of what the scene is and what's on the script. The work is in the script, so it's not to put down anything in terms of him changing things because it's not good enough or something, but it's just in the moment there were lots of things he changed. I'm trying to think what would be a good example. I don't know, to be honest, there are a lot.

He does that in a lot of his projects, and it's always hilarious. So that's not a surprising answer.

Yeah, and it's great. I love it.

The VFX monster mash

That's awesome. One of the coolest aspects of the film is the monsters, and most of them are quite beautiful rather than terrifying. How did you go about bringing that specific vision to life, and what were the most important components you wanted to bring forth? Were you inspired by any projects that came before?

I just love all that stuff. I love monsters and those sorts of genres in all different forms — I've really always been into that. And I can't say, just going into it, that I knew from a different movie or something like, "We want to do that." I guess it just, for me, stemmed from the fact that there were real things that we know. And my first point of reference was to look at insects and look at frogs and look at things and think, "That's an interesting type of frog and maybe if we changed it in this way, or like took that amphibian and mixed it with that one. That's quite interesting. I like those patterns. I like that one's legs," or whatever it is. So it was really just coming from real stuff. Because I just didn't want it to feel too alien or too fantastical. That was the main thing.

There are some touches of that. Like those sky jellies in the MAV1S scene that bring a bit of a magic to it. Even that just comes from real jellyfish and real glowing nightlife that we have in nature. But in general, the creatures, I just wanted them to be tactile and tangible, and that they looked like they live in their environments, the frog feels like he's like in that murky pool and that's his space, and there are eggs there, and there's slime around, and it's like a habitat for him. 

Finding the monsters' humanity

And it's the same with that creature, the millipede. It's called the siren, was the name for it — that one that makes the sound and then has the legs doing this and comes out of the ground. I just wanted to integrate it into its world and feel like it fits the way it looks and the way it feels like it fits into the place it is. It's not just Joel coming around the corner, and there's the monster, there are just monsters roaming around. It's like, this is their world. And they live here now. So that was quite key for me, just keeping that in mind. And I almost wanted to do more than that, but it kind of felt like sometimes it would be sidetracking what needed to actually be happening in certain scenes and things. 

But yeah, I think didn't want them to be too jokey, but in general, gave them a bit more humanity, a bit more life in their eyes. That's a thing in the actual script. But even outside of that, the creatures that are good or bad they generally have a little bit more life or character than bugs and things do, but I just didn't want them to go so far that you feel like there's a real personality behind that creature or that it's cartoony or a bit too jokey. Because then it just suddenly doesn't feel real — either too fantastical doesn't feel real, or too much character doesn't feel real. So just trying to ground them would be the key, but then still you want the fun of the genre and the quirks and the sounds coming out the mouths or what they do to have character in a textural way. So I don't know if that's a good answer, but yeah.

What's with the title change?

It definitely is. So the film was originally called Monster Problems. What prompted the title change?

That is a good question. And there are a lot of people involved in that, so there's no clean answer, I think. There were a lot of people that heard the name originally that had a reaction that it felt, like without seeing visuals and seeing the movie, it felt a bit like an animated monster movie or something — something like Monsters, Inc. or something. For some reason, it just sparked a lot with that, people, Monster Problems, it just felt like that. So there was something there. And then also the idea of having something negative in the title, like problems, it's a simple thing, but people like jump on it. Even if it's in a positive way that someone's talking about the film or if it's reviews of the film and people are like, "It doesn't seem to have big monster problems," it's something sort of cheap to latch onto.

And the title was really cool, and we did like it, but there were just lots of different people involved in a lot of conversations, and it felt like the love part of it... felt like it was important, and especially to the marketing team that [the new title] sort of gives it... It steps it just to the side of people thinking it's just a monster movie. But yeah, it's not an easy one to answer, and it did take quite a while. There were a lot of conversations — should we, shouldn't we? I can't say there was one clear singular, "This is why that title everyone felt it was wrong, and this one was totally right."

Drop bears: real or gag?

And the film is so uplifting. So the new name definitely does give it that justice, and people kind of come in knowing what to expect. That makes a lot of sense. So did you ever come across any of Australia's more notoriously terrifying wildlife while filming? And if you did, who was the biggest scaredy cat?

Oh, geez. I was probably pretty high on the list of scaredy cats. I enjoy nature and that, but Australia has just got like these really poisonous small things, snakes or like. Often we'd be in the forest, walking around, especially when I was location scouting, and no one had walked through spaces yet, I'm just kind of going somewhere thinking, "This could be really cool for this scene." And then... suddenly this spider just comes up into my face. And I'm like, "Oh, s***," and it's as big as my hand, and it's just floating in the air. And also on the night shoots, you're walking between trees and in the forest in parts, there wasn't much, but there were a few, and there were times when I was like, "I just went through a web. Oh, s***. I don't want to know if there's a spider on me now." But I don't know who was the biggest scaredy cat. I can't remember, but most of us were actually, to be honest. [Laughs]

Dylan [O'Brien] mentioned drop bears. Did you see any, or was that just the running joke?

No, we did. The koalas we did see. But the drop bear story was news to me on that panel. I wasn't part of that one. It was funny. But we did see quite a few koalas were around. There were actually times ... the nature conservation people are really good in Australia, and there were times when we were shooting where we'd be wanting to use the smoke machines or something. And they would be like, "There's a koala in the tree, they're like 30 meters away. So we have to wait until he moves on, or we have to go somewhere else, or we have to bring someone in to get him further away. We don't want him breathing our smokey on-set effects stuff." So they were really good like that. And sometimes it slowed us down, but... Or making loud noises and things, there were certain animals where they're like, "We have to wait until they've moved on before we carry on," so they're very good with that stuff.

That's awesome that they kept those kinds of things in mind.

Yeah, yeah.

Redefining indie film

What was the biggest challenge with the production?

I think it was just really ambitious for what it was. We wanted to have all these monsters, which on a VFX level, is tricky. It's almost easier when you're doing a space movie or something like that because creatures are so fully formed and fully realized and very complicated VFX-wise, and then the animations of them and the integrations of them into the film and stuff is more complicated than often a lot of other VFX. And we have a whole bunch of those for a small-ish movie. Obviously, it's not a small movie, but it's not a big Marvel film or that sort of thing. So that was tricky. Quite a bit of resources had to go to that, and so it meant with the shooting, we had to be really clever in how we did things and be quite efficient and had to do quite a lot every day.

And so that was the hard part for me was just wanting the film to be executed at a certain level, but constantly you're on the edge of that going like, "Oh, I'd love to do another take or get another angle for this. And I had this idea for a shot. But if we go and do that, I'm probably not going to be able to do this later, which is also important." And so that's just a balancing act all day of how much time you can spend on things. Like you have [Gone Girl director] David Fincher, he doesn't do less than 20 or 30 takes and sometimes like 60 or 70, and you can tell in the movie it has that precision. We would usually not do more than three takes or so, which is not much unless it was complicated.

Dylan O'Brien nails it

But it's also a testament to the quality of Dylan in being able to nail stuff. There were never times when it was like I'm sitting there as a director going, "Oh, he's just not getting this right." It's more just a case of if we could keep playing, we might come up with some other things that are really cool here as well. So that was the challenge: knowing if something is funny or not in the moment and going, "We've got that. It's funny, and it worked," but feeling like you're under quite a time constraint the whole time.

But everyone really loved the film that worked on it. We had a really passionate and amazing crew, and my AD James McGrady and John Starke, the line producer, as well as Dan Hennah, the production designer, and Lachlan [Milne], the Director of Photography. They were all very high-level people that I was really fortunate to work with. And we all were an amazing team, super positive and just trying to do the best we could with what we could.

The canine Hero

Boy stole the show in the film. What was it like working with the dog actor and his trainer?

Yeah, his trainer, Zelie [Bullen], she was really incredible. And so were the two dog actors playing Boy. I'd say 80 percent of it was the one dog who was called Hero.

Appropriate name.

I had to think cleverly in making the film when there were certain moments where it was just a close-up with Boy by himself. You sometimes can't rush getting that performance or something natural for him. So on the shot list of that scene, we would maybe try and get the right thing when we were there. But then we would also have a second unit that we would leave behind to spend another hour or two just trying to find that really natural thing with the dog.

So many dog movies, especially when they're in a fun sort of entertainment space like this, you often just are cutting to a dog kind of going "errrerrr" [with a puzzled expression] or lifting its paw or something. And I just wanted it to feel like he's a dog. He's got a bit more character, and you feel like he's kind of taking on things and thinking more than probably a real dog might in the situation. But I didn't want it to be kind of a jokey character on the side — I wanted to feel like a dog. I'm a dog lover, and I sort of know what feels natural or not from the dog.

And then on top of that, what's really interesting is in editorial, we had the assistant editor, Yvonne [Valdez], actually, really focus on Boy and would really sit there and help find little things — and also the type of sounds that might not be made on set, that she would add in. And she really focused [on] and loved dogs. There were always dogs in the edit suite and around. And she really, I must say, had a huge influence on Boy's performance in the movie as well. So there are kind of all these layers to it that sort of built it up to really work. And from the beginning for me, I was always like, "Boy has to be great" more than anything. Even though it is a romantic film, it's actually more to me about this guy and this dog on their mission.

The tween's the boss now

Mission accomplished. It's so good — loved everything about Boy. So the dynamic between Clyde and young Minnow is so fun and fresh. She's definitely the boss between the two. Did that play out naturally when Michael [Rooker] and Ariana [Greenblatt] were put together onscreen? Or did you have to work toward it a little bit?

You mean Ariana being the boss of Rooker?

[Laughs] Yeah.

Well, that's in the script. So I think they both, even just reading it, you know that's the dynamic. So Rooker had this really fatherly solidness to it, even though she was kind of a bit wild and a bit crazy. She's like this wildling. He just takes it in his stride, and this is who she is, and he kind of moves on, and I really loved that dynamic. That's in the script, so they're coming to it knowing [...] their roles.

But we did see a lot of different young girls for [Minnow] because it's not as easy with older actors where you love someone from all these movies, whereas we wanted to see a lot of different people and see what the energy was. And she just had a really strong, confident vibe to her that really worked. And then at the same time, with casting, she went from that to turning to then starting to cry, and with Dylan, she actually did it with Dylan there, and was like, "Why you got to leave?" And then these tears just came there, and we thought, "Oh, if she can move between those spaces, then she's awesome."

And she brought a lot. She was super easy to improv little things with Dylan, or if Dylan said something, she would just say something back. She never got thrown by it or anything like that. She was great.

Definitely an impressive young actor.

Yeah.

Mum's the word on Matthews' upcoming projects

Is there anything else that you want to say about the film or any of your other projects?

I don't know. [Laughs] No, not that I can think of. It's my second film, and the first one I did was Five Fingers for Marseilles, an African Western, mostly not English in Sotho and Xhosa, and so a very different kind of movie, but I'm also extremely proud of it. And if people are interested in the work I'm doing, I would say check the trailer out for that and give it a watch. It's on Amazon Prime.

And then I have some exciting stuff coming up, but nothing I can officially talk about, but I'm working on some really interesting things. And yeah, excited for the future and for people to watch this movie. I actually finished it at the end of February this year, but because of everything being delayed we had to figure out what the plan was going to be for it. So I'm just excited for that to get out there. And I think it's a really positive movie, and it's hopefully got good heart and leaves people feeling good about the world and about other people versus the real world right now where everything feels like conflict.

Larger-than-life monsters

Is there a chance that once it's safe, there'll be a bigger theater release?

I don't know. It's supposed to be in about 400 cinemas now, so it's not bad. I think anywhere you are you can go watch it in any city. I'm sure there'll be a few. I'm in Los Angeles, and they just haven't opened up yet, but I think there are lots of places that have it if you want to be doing that. But I think the focus is really the VOD release. So people don't have to feel like they're putting themselves out there or being risky to go watch the movie.

But it's a tricky one because it's hard for the cinema chains. I would love to say I'm sure they'll put it out, and I'm sure there will be select screenings, and hopefully, audiences demand wanting to see it on a cool, big screen in a few months or something because there'll be like fans that would love to watch it again in that kind of setting. But it's hard for a cinema chain to go through a whole release strategy again when everyone's seen it, and they don't know that people are all going to come back again. So it's tricky, unfortunately.

Everyone needs to see these monsters on the big screen once it's safe.

Yeah, it's great. I wish I had known finishing it that this is how people would mostly watch it. Because finishing the movie I was in the cinema, looking at everything like that and then doing the sound mix and all the seven speakers and hearing the little creature like wrestling around in that speaker back there. You spend all that time building that experience and it sort of changed for how it is. But at the same time, hopefully, lots of people have good sound at home and big TVs and can just enjoy it.

Love and Monsters is currently out in select theaters and on VOD for fans to watch with their favorite furry friends. For areas where it's not yet safe to go to the theater, you know what to do: Call your local theaters when the time comes and ask for a screening when it's safe. Your monsters will thank you.  

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