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A Moment of Significance: Nacho Vigalondo on Making "Colossal" to Scale

Over the course of 18 years, four features, and several short films, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo has proven that you can still make modestly-scaled high-concept science-fiction films. His new film "Colossal" is a perfect example. Despite a cast of known celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, Vigalondo's latest is very much a character-driven rather than special-effects-centric piece. Hathaway plays Gloria, a sympathetic young woman struggling with alcoholism who moves back to her hometown after she fights with her boyfriend ("Beauty and the Beast" star Dan Stevens). While there, Gloria reunites with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who now works as a bartender. Also, Gloria discovers that a giant Godzilla-like monster appears in Seoul every time she gets super-drunk. 

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RogerEbert.com talked with Vigalondo about writing a monster movie about personal responsibility, shunning romantic-comedy cliches, and questioning whether or not the world needs more movies based on dated comic books.

"Colossal" is in many way about responsibility, a theme that's stressed throughout the film. That's a tricky subject because, in many recent science-fiction films, responsibility is a zero-sum proposition: I can either be responsible or I will die. "Colossal," on the other hand, is basically about a woman whose personal sacrifice is in the name of a random group of people that she's never met before. When you wrote "Colossal," what kind of dilemma did you want to give Hathaway's character, and what were the ethical or maybe just emotional stakes? Who was the character when you set out to write this film, and how did she change, if at all?

You're actually not that aware when you're writing. When you're creating, you're primarily dealing with intuition. But I can try to answer that. [Laughs] I like to work with characters who are guilty of something. But in this case, we have a clear, explicit and not ambiguous at all antagonist. When you have an antagonist in a film, you're likely to give all the responsibility to the antagonist. In "Jaws," the shark is the one killing people, not Sheriff Brody. Initially, I had a chance to make this character confront an evil version of herself, but it felt unfair. I wanted to give both main characters a chance to be destructive. They're both guilty of other stuff. The difference is how they react to the crime they committed. In the case of the antagonist: this guy doesn't have much empathy. I committed this crime, so let's push the pedal to the floor. Let's move this forward against all self-confrontation. Her case is different: she's able to just see herself in the mirror and realize that things should be better. I don't like to think in terms of morality, or what's the ultimate lesson. But it's not about what she does, it's about the difference between what she does compared to him.

The sheer randomness of Hathaway's character's transformation is such a fascinating decision. If this were a big-budget sci-fi film, there'd be script notes to the effect of "Her backstory could be clearer" or "The monster's origins aren't sturdy enough." Why did you keep that stuff vague? And was there any pressure on you to make clearer your explanation of how Hathaway turns into a monster?

Have you seen those videos called "Everything Wrong with ___?"

Of course!

The thing wrong with those videos is that something is wrong any time something is vague. Most of the time, it's not because people making films are stupid. It's because you have to make certain sacrifices in order to keep the rhythm, or to keep the cinematic logic in tact. And if things go well, people will follow you through those sacrifices. In a movie, if you win a prize in a contest, you get the prize in the next sequence. But in real life, it takes weeks, months. So if you make it more like reality, you're throwing the rhythm of the film off.

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I have to be honest: I had a plan to make a movie that was a little more pseudo-scientific, but it wouldn't have made more sense in the structure of this film. The key flashback in this film is more of an emotional revelation than a pseudo-scientific revelation. The most revelatory element of the flashback is the realization that this didn't start the day she came to town. The problems were already there. That's the most important thing. I needed a visual link that ties the problems the characters are currently facing with their childhoods. Because I think our problems are born with ... maybe not born with us, but they are with us since childhood. 

While we're on the subject of responsibility: what did you think of "Man of Steel," namely the death of General Zod? Or "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"?! Zack Snyder's Frank Miller-inspired sense of tough guy ethics seems to be a perfect example of what not to do in a movie ...

Like many other members of my generation, I have the first editions of "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns" at home. Really old ones. If you go to any other comic book fan flat, you can see those prized first editions. I've got these rusty old ones! They look so ugly now, I have to say. I became a fanatic for that type of story-telling. But I think if you want to make a nice Superman film right now, there are takes that are much more relevant to these days. For example, Grant Morrison's recent take, or Max Landis' take ... he made an amazing limited series about Superman. If you make a Frank Miller kind of superhero film, it feels dated. Those stories were products of their time. 

The turn with the character who eventually becomes the antagonist is so disturbing. How did you nail that sinister tone with the character without making him seem like a mustache-twirling villain?

My actor really made this character. Everybody wants to play a villain, but the kind of villain actors want to play are flamboyant. They're charming. They want to dress like they're going out on Halloween. But to me, the most nefarious villain is the guy who had a choice to be a nice guy, but makes a decision that turns him into this evil character. If you see the film, you can see how easy it would be for this character to behave properly. But he decided not to. He's not the Devil coming from Hell; he's not an alien; he's not a psychopath. That's the most terrifying villain ever. They're not coming from the outside, but the inside. That's scary because it mirrors the worst of myself, for example. What if this happens to me? What if I lived in that situation instead of mine? What if I grew up in that small town instead of in living in Spain, and having a beautiful life in Madrid, making films, talking to you? What if my life was different, and I didn't succeed, and I have to stay in my place living in my parent's house? What kind of person would I be? Probably the worst of me would rise to the surface. I think it's more plausible to have these kinds of encounters than it is to meet a psycho killer, or an alien. 

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Have you ever seen Todd Solondz's "Dark Horse?"

I haven't seen that.

It deals with what you just said. It's an adolescent nightmare about a guy who fears he's stuck being a big fish in a small pond. It's a movie about a guy who grows up with this resentment that grows until the chip he's had on his shoulder—the kind that you get when you think you're smarter than everyone else—keeps growing and growing. 

That's really interesting. [Solondz] is one of the best.

There are many reasons why a film like "Colossal" could not have been made by a studio, it seems. But the way you defy expectations by not making the film a story about two lovers who are pre-destined to fall in love is one of the biggest. 

Some people are upset because it's not about saving the world. It's not about Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis fighting together against a race of aliens, or a primordial creature that comes from underground.

Your film seems to be a reaction to romantic comedy and drama cliches. Is that fair? Or are you a huge fan of contemporary rom-coms?

I have this problematic relationship with romantic-comedies. Few romantic-comedies—none of the classic ones—are about pushing decency. They're about chasing the girl, or chasing the guy against all social rules. Which is charming from that point-of-view, but it's sometimes terrifying. In romantic-comedies, if you stop a wedding, you get an award! You're socially awarded. Being a stalker, even sexual harassment can get you some benefits.

If you're persistent, you're good!

If you're obsessed with someone—if you chase someone, even in the most literal way—or if your love is strong enough that it breaks all the rules, then you deserve the girl. That is a terrifying agenda. [Laughs]

Like most of your films, this is a character-driven rather than special-effects-driven film. You might have emphasized the high-concept nature of the film during pitch meetings. But what's the reality of keeping this thing grounded, and what kind of creative feedback did you get? Were people wanting you to show the monster and the robot more?

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No, no, no. I was really, really lucky in that sense. I wrote the script—which is really similar to what you see on-camera. And it was read by Anne Hathaway even before we got some really interesting financial partners. She wanted to play the role, and that became part of the package. So the package became "This script from Spain—and Anne Hathaway." That's how the movie grew without becoming something different. When I write, I love to keep things tight in terms of number of characters, and even locations. So I had the chance to make everything breathe in this little container. When I came up with this setting of the bar, I wanted 1/3rd of the movie to be set there. Because I wanted this place to express itself. I wanted each character to have their moment of significance. This movie gave me a chance to write a story in three locations: the park, the bar, and her house. So by only having three locations, I have the chance to destroy all three settings! Everything gets destroyed. That's really liberating. [Laughs]

Not to pry, but what kind of directing or screen-writing gigs are you being offered? Making such idiosyncratic genre-based movies can't be easy ... Like how hard is it to make a movie like "Colossal?"

I've been incredibly lucky. I would try to pretend that I'm this kind of filmmaking hero. Because in this case, getting Anne Hathaway's interest was a game-changer. If this didn't happen, the film would probably be closer to my earlier film, "Extraterrestrial."

"Colossal" is very close to "Extraterrestrial."

Nobody would question the internal logic of "Extraterrestrial." Because it's a weird comedy starring Spanish actors with a self-contained internal logic. The game changed, for real, when Anne Hathaway took the role. So: how difficult is it to make Anne Hathaway accept this role? She came to us! If you like this movie, you have much thanks to give to her. But, to answer your question a different way: I'm writing something that so far I can tell you is about dreams. It's a chance to build a narrative inside dreams without being surrealist. I want to do something about our personalities in dreams. But at the same time, I'm getting suggestions from studios, so I will I be able to make something that doesn't feel like a betrayal? I don't know.

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You are doing amazing work. On the one hand, selling out is inevitable, and you should take money to make money to make bigger and better films. On the other hand, it would be awful if your personality got lost in the shuffle ... it feels weird to say this, but don't be more successful!

I'm not going to be able to make an amazing film with Han Solo and Captain America fighting together. But I'm thinking about what you're saying a lot. Maybe once in my life I should sell out. But I feel really feel comfortable at this scale. The place I'm at with "Colossal" is perfect for me.

People always complain that there's no mid-level movies being made any more, but you're proof that that's not true. Who's on your list of people you want to work with? Not just actors, or actresses, but composers directors of photography ...

That's kind of embarrassing! Because if I show my interest, it's like exposing yourself in a way that can be uncomfortable. [Laughs] What if I say I want to work with this guy in this interview and he says "Who's this weirdo?" You're not supposed to tell people things like that in interviews! I don't know, I'm shy. I really admire a lot of writers, composers, and actors, of course.

So if I held up a piece of paper that said "Vittorio Storaro," could you nod once? 

I don't know. Let's dream. Gimme five seconds. [Long pause] I want Ryan Gosling, and Joaquin Phoenix to star in a biopic about the New York band Suicide ...

Yes!

With a soundtrack by James Murphy. [Both laugh] Now that we just came up with this, it's never gonna happen.

No, it's gonna happen. To the Kickstarter, let's go.

I just killed the project.

That's a damn exciting project. Let's back-track a moment though: you've said that '90s filmmakers were a big influence on your cinephile education. So I'm curious: were Alex de le Iglesia's films a source of inspiration? 

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De la Iglesia was one of the first filmmakers that opened my eyes to what kind of films you could make in Spain. He made these genre-defying films in Spain ... they were genre films. When you're a child in Spain, the old tradition of horror films of the '70s had vanished. So when you're a child, you only knew that people made genre films in Spain back in the day. That was in the fog of the past. From your perspective, Spanish movies were dramas about recent history, about rural life in Spain, about poverty ... I don't know, crime from the dramatic point-of-view, like a noir film. If you were reading ... let's go back to "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns." If you were reading these comic books, it was because you were lacking some kind of texture, and narrative. Your counter-culture figures became John Waters and Hal Hartley, and they fell really far from your every-day experience. But Alex de le Iglesia made "Accion Mutante" and "Day of the Beast." And suddenly things felt possible. 

Have you seen his new film, "El Bar?" 

I haven't seen it yet.

Dying to see it. De la Iglesia and you have very different tones and styles. You're more of a character-driven storyteller and he makes movies like Sergio Aragones makes cartoons. 

There are many films I wish I had seen when I was younger. I wish I was more in contact with some Almodovar films. I wish I had seen a film that's still pretty unknown in the US called "Arrebato," by Iván Zulueta.

I know the filmmaker, but not the film ...

This movie is the Spanish "Eraserhead." I wish I had seen "Arrebato" when I was a teenager. 

I also thought of "In a Glass Cage" ...

Which one?

"In a Glass Cage?" By Villaronga ... Agustí Villaronga? You probably know it by another name.

This is like exchanging cards: I give you "Arrebato," you give me "In a Glass Cage."

It stars ... she's in a lot of Almodovar films ... Marisa Paredes!

She was the star of Zulueta films, too. You have to see "Arrebato." It's mesmerizing, frame-by-frame. 

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