Today's blockbusters live and die on their special effects. So it's not surprising that the wizards of f/x are beginning to step out from behind the curtain and direct their own films.
The next month will bring two such efforts - both, coincidentally, about alien invasions. Skyline, due Nov. 12, is co-directed by Los Angeles-based sibling visual-effects specialists the Brothers Strause, and Monsters is the feature directorial debut of the British visual-effects expert Gareth Edwards (it will open across Canada in November).
"For years I was in love with film, but I was like Cyrano de Bergerac, always helping other guys on their dates with it," Edwards told me in September, when his film played the Toronto International Film Festival. "It was like I was lending out condoms so this other bloke could have sex with the love of my life. Finally I said: 'Enough's enough, I'm going to get the girl this time.' "
It makes a lot of sense - and dollars. In most f/x-heavy movies, no matter how clearly the directors communicate how they want the effects to look, f/x supervisors have to redo them, often as many as 30 times, until all parties are satisfied. It's a hair-raisingly expensive process. But since these directors are f/x-perts themselves, they know all the tricks and can execute them much more economically.
In Skyline, the splashier of the two releases, alien forces lull humans with mysterious blue lights, then launch a battle for world domination. Co-directors Greg Strause, 35, and his brother Colin, 34, started out on TV ( The X Files), soon founding their own company, Hydraulx. It does films ( Iron Man 2, Terminator 3, Avatar), music videos (U2, Britney Spears, Red Hot Chili Peppers) and commercials (Nike, Jeep, Pepsi). Skyline is their second feature as directors - their first was Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem.
Universal is mega-promoting its wide release, and a sequel is already in the works.
Monsters is smaller in every way. Its premise is that aliens arrived on Earth six years ago, so humans have become used to them. But they periodically erupt into violence - in this case in Mexico, forcing an American traveller (Whitney Able) and a journalist (Scoot McNairy) to flee through a "Red Zone" to the United States.
It was shot on the fly for a paltry $15,000, then tweaked in postproduction for about $500,000 more. Edwards, 35 - who did visual effects for BBC-TV before founding his own company, The Monkey Experiment Ltd. - not only directed, but is also the writer, cinematographer, production designer and, naturally, visual-effects supervisor.
"I get the sense that some people in the industry aren't happy with what I'm doing, because it undermines their ability to charge millions of pounds," said Edwards, a cheeky guy with a deadpan sense of humour. "But effects people aren't sitting at their desks because they love cutting 'round a person's hand all day long. They're there because they want to be filmmakers, in the same way that previous generations of directors started as cinematographers or editors. So I think we're going to see more and more of this."
Especially if the films are as handmade as Monsters. "When you read all my credits on it I sound like a control freak," Edwards said. "But I couldn't have been more out of control."
He had only a loose outline for a script, and counted on his lead actors - a couple in real life, who have since married - to improvise their dialogue. Edwards (operating the camera) and his minuscule crew (a sound man, a local fixer and a line producer who'd cut his teeth on the Lonely Planet TV series) shot guerrilla-style on the streets of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica and Texas, usually without permits.
He used locals as extras, some of them never knowing they were in a movie - including border guards in Belize who didn't realize the couple who'd "lost their passports" were merely acting.
When real visuals echoed the movie's creeping unease, Edwards incorporated them: protest coffins that lined the streets of one village after a drug-related mini-massacre; a newspaper photo of severed heads that Able spied after a prison break in Guatemala; damage from Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Tex..
Instead of using film or tape, he shot on memory cards, so every night his editor, who also travelled with him, would clone and delete that day's scenes so the cards could be used the next. Then Edwards added the aliens - bioluminescent, squid-like creatures - wherever he wanted.
"It's all completely manipulated," Edwards said. "There are shots where Whitney's looking at Scoot in one country, and he's looking back at her in another."
Edwards gets away with it because he can fix any error himself. "Filmmaking was always an industrial process that cost millions," he said. "But now more and more, you can be more like musicians. You can create whatever you want, and you don't need a building full of people to help you."
Of course, Hollywood has already come courting. Edwards's new William Morris Endeavor agent recently danced him through two weeks of meetings with 100 studio execs, though Edwards vowed he wouldn't agree to anything on the spot.
"That was the hardest thing," he said. "It was like being a recovering alcoholic and having back-to-back tours of beer factories. I just wanted to drink!"
He laughed, then continued: "Put it this way: If you gave me $10-million as a gift, I'd spend it making a movie because that's what I want to do with my life. But there's a Hollywood way of making films, a factory process they have, where it would be very easy for me to get crushed by people who wouldn't care, ultimately, what I thought about my film, as long as they made money."
Don't get him wrong: Edwards wants to make a Hollywood movie eventually. "If I never did, that would be like being a footballer and never playing in the World Cup," he said.
He just wants to do it his way. And since Hollywood is unlikely to end its f/x-obsession any time soon, I'm sure he will.