The fact that people like writer-director Nacho Vigalondo are allowed to exist and create movies on this planet gives me hope. Not only is he one of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet, but he’s incredibly thoughtful when it comes to the way he constructs his stories and creates his characters, and he loves talking about his creations, which began for most of us with the 2007 time travel masterpiece TIMECRIMES, which he followed up four years later with sci-fi, comedy, love story EXTRATERRESTRIAL. He contributed segments to the horror movie anthologies THE ABCs OF DEATH and V/H/S VIRAL, and his previous feature was also his first film in English—something of a modern take on the REAR WINDOW motif, OPEN WINDOWS, with Elijah Wood.
Vigalondo’s latest is also his best. COLOSSAL is his examination of the giant monster genre, but seen through the eyes of a Gloria (Anne Hathaway), located half a world away, whose life is falling apart in a spectacular fashion. What’s the connection between her and this South Korean kaiju? Go buy a ticket and find out, you lazy bastard. The answer will surprise and delight you, as will the fantastic performances from Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, and others. I got a chance to sit down with Vigalondo at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, and as always, he was a complete blast to chat with. He sees the world like few others do, and it’s wonderful just to be in his presence. With that, please enjoy my sit-down with Nacho Vigalondo…
Capone: I saw the film yesterday, and I immediately found the publicist and said “Is Nacho here? Because I would love to talk to him.”
Nacho Vigalondo: Of course, I’m here. Of course. And happy to talk to you again, my friend!
Capone: You’ve gotta be happy with the way people have been responding to this at Toronto and now here.
NV: Yeah, the fact that we’re [at Sundance] and we’re going to be in SXSW.
Capone: That actually hasn’t been announced yet, but I’d heard that.
NV: Oh my god. I’m such a big mouth. But the fact that we’re here is like mind blowing. I had just accepted that the career of this film ended by November, so yes, I’m really grateful. I feel really grateful because when you make movies this way, you never really know for sure what’s going to happen.
Capone: When you say “this way,” what do you mean?
NV: The game that I love to play the most is using your expectations as part of the show. When you go to see a monster movie, you’re not going to expect dialogue where they’re talking about stuff other than the monster at all. I love to work with expectation. I love to play with expectation even inside the film, because for the first act of the film, it’s impossible for you to guess what’s going to happen later, and that’s something I actively like to play with, but I know that that is a dangerous game. Sometimes, people get into it and sometimes people feel rejected. People feel alienated in the theater, and I understand the fears. I understand both reactions. So if the Ghost of Future Festivals talked to me one year ago and said “They’re going to love it.” I would be like “Yes, of course.” But if he tells me they’re going to hate it, I would be like ”Yes, I understand.” I can accept both situations as totally plausible.
Capone: You’re right, it’s not just a monster movie; there’s also a relationship drama, there’s a story about childhood trauma. For a movie that’s about big monsters, it’s a vey intimate film. That’s been the theme of a lot of horror films and science fiction films in the last couple of years, that idea of something happening to us in our childhood that traumatized us and has implications in the present. Why do you think that fascinates people so much?
NV: For some reason that I can not control, all of my movies, even the most weird ones, are intimate somehow. Even OPEN WINDOWS, talking about this intimate feeling in the way I perceive myself under these specific situations. So when you’re talking so openly about going through your 30s in this complicated way instead of just walking in the clouds, when you’re talking about you being an adult, you’re pushing yourself. You try to guess why are you this guy instead of the guy next to you. “Why me? Why do I behave this way? What defines me? Where do I come from? What made me this way?” During the process of questioning yourself, while trying to create some fiction about yourself, sometimes it’s inevitable to go back into the past and try to guess “How did I come here? Where did I come from?” It’s interesting because the flashback in the movie, it’s not a revelation, it’s not a twist, it’s not an epiphany that turns the perception of the plot. It’s just an emotional explanation of where things are coming from, but it’s not part of the plot, which is kind of tricky.
Capone: It’s tricky to talk about because I don’t want to ruin the reveal for people.
NV: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s not give details, but it’s tricky. You are not using the flashback as the traditional revelation/twist/change of nature of the story.
Capone: I’m guessing the question you’re getting a lot is, how the hell did you get Anne Hathaway to agree to be in this movie? And she fully commits. She’s amazing in this. And I don’t mean that as an insult.
NV: Absolutely, absolutely. [laughs] I promise, I’m not an asshole. I totally understood you. The fact is when I wrote the script, instead of COLOSSAL, it was called SANTANDER. Santander is the region of Spain where I come from. I was ready to make a really small Spanish film dealing with surprising scope but keeping it tight and small. As if it was a spiritual sequel to my second film, EXTRATERRESTRIAL. Probably in the future, I’m going to make a movie that’s going to deal with another kind of science fiction in the background and it’s going to have characters with big hangovers in front of cameras. I would be a trilogy. EXTRATERRESTRIAL, COLOSSAL, and the third one. It would be like science fiction and hangovers. So I was really to make a movie that at that scale, but something happened. The script came into Anne Hathaway’s agent’s hand. She called me one month later, asking for permission to show it to Anne Hathaway. So it was blown away; I didn’t expect that to happen.
Again, the way I perceive my work is that if you read my script and you feel it’s genius, I will accept it. If you think it’s a piece of shit, I totally understand it. So I was happy that Anne Hathaway knows that I exist. That was for me enough. An actress like her with that caliber and those amazing skills in front of the camera, she knows I exist. She’s going to read my crazy script about this monster destroying the city far from the characters. I found that hilarious, the fact that she was going to read the script, but I never expected her to say yes to the main character. When that happened, and when later Jason Sudeikis came, I not only felt like the luckiest guy ever, I felt like I’m never going to be this lucky ever again in my life. I’m ready to die. I’m ready not to be this lucky ever again.
Capone: I’ve never seen Sudeikis play a part like this. It’s really complicated, because we like him so much in the beginning, but by the end we realize we’ve been watching a not so nice guy.
NV: It’s amazing, because the type of villain he’s playing—I’m just saying this to say that Jason Sudeikis is a really brave actor. He’s not playing the villain we all want to dress like at Halloween. He’s not playing the flamboyant, charming, attractive villain. He’s becoming a really sincere, nasty guy. That’s not a Halloween costume. You don’t want to look like this guy at all.
Capone: Or you already do look like him.
NV: That’s the problem. If you’re already like him, you don’t know it. You’re doing this denial thing. So yes, I really feel proud that I was able to give Jason Sudeikis his first villain, but I feel really grateful that he was able to deliver it the way that he does it, because she’s the main character. Gloria is the character we’re following through the film. We’re following her absolutely in every sequence, but he has the bigger arc. It’s not a natural arc, but the way the character is revealed is working as an arc.
Capone: Where did this idea come from?
NV: Fifty percent of the movie is my life and the people around me. I don’t consider this movie confessional, but there are pieces of me in all the characters. My friends and stories I’ve been witnessing through the years, stories related to me. A lot of stuff. But the other 50 percent is my love towards monster movies. I felt attracted to these films—as does everybody—since I was a child. And I love, the main first one is KING KONG of course, which is one of the most perfect monster movies ever because the creature is not a weather phenomenon. He’s not acting like a hurricane. He’s a real character. In other kaiju films, most monsters are confused. They’re just destroying everything in their path, but they don’t know that they’re doing evil things, so they have no character quality. I always wanted to make a kaiju film in which the monster-and-human element is developed in a different way, because once we go to the theaters, once we watch a monster movie, we are there for the monster. But in order for the movie to have the length of a feature film, it requires the humans to fill the plot.
So when you reach the climax of the movie, in some cases, something problematic happens. The humans have no part of the climax. They’re just witnessing from a distance. The scientists, they’re following the events from the submarine, from the tower. There was like a romantic plot down there that has nothing to do with the fight at the end, so the daughter of the scientist and this young, handsome journalist, they’ve been having an affair in the film, but that affair has nothing to do with the climax. And that’s because in those films, the humans are somehow the bread of the sandwich. You’re there for the meat, for the monsters, but you need humans to hold everything else. I just wanted to try something different, dealing with the human-vs.-monster situation in a way that will get a different kind of confrontation in the climax, because for me, the climax is one of the key points in the film.
Capone: I suspect you did it on purpose, setting the monster story in Korea and not in America. We as Americans have this habit of watching a disaster at a distance. I saw there’s signs up in the town about the Korean relief effort. That’s a comment on how Americans view disaster from afar.
NV: Not just Americans, everyone, everywhere. We in Spain are shocked with bombing in Paris, and we are affected when you have terrorist attacks on the United States, but when the culture is significantly different ,we don’t care about that that much. We see a big explosion in a chemical plant in China, this massive explosion, we are all amazed at how gorgeous this explosion is. “This explosion is the best explosion ever.” We don’t care about possible victims. That’s what happens to us every time. Some people were angry at the trailer. I heard some reactions of people saying “This movie is about white people watching non-white people die on the screen in a massive way and not caring about it.” And it was like “Yes, that’s right.” The movie is aware of that.
Capone: I don't think it’s about that, but it’s there.
NV: It’s not about that, but it’s one of the engines of the plot. The fact that one of these characters has enough level of empathy to care about people on screen. And for example, I needed the last sequence to be like that because I needed these characters to confront face to face, not through a TV screen.
Capone: I love that all of this happens to her at the worst time in her life. She’s just had this boyfriend break up with her, and then this happens. It feels like this was placed in her path to get her out of that funk, and she does. By the end she is her own person again, and she’s taking responsibility for her actions which she clearly had not been doing before.
NV: This is really sad, but the only way you can get over your biggest problems is through a breaking point. You’re not going to become a great person tomorrow just because. You’re not going to change your habits because of your will. Something is going to happen at some point that’s going to affect you and traumatize you, and therefore you become a different person. You need a breaking point. It’s sad, but it’s the real thing.
Capone: How did Anne Hathaway respond to your style of directing?
NV: She was so respectful. Before making the film I was like “I want to work with people who have much more power than me in the industry,” so if they want to crush you like a cockroach and they want to humiliate you in front of the rest of the team, be brave, deal with it, and be a professional and manage to drive the movie to a good point, even if you’re suffering because that’s part of your work, that’s part of your nature, it’s your life, you have to face that possibility, and if that happens you have to be a professional and move on. But I have to say, she was really cooperative and really helpful though the whole process. I would sign a paper that says I want to make five more movies with her. I will sign right now, because I have to be humble enough to acknowledge that she made me a better director sometimes.
Capone: In what ways?
NV: I’ve made four films. Probably, she’s made 40—I don’t know the number. So she knows, for example, when it comes to moving the character inside the frame, she knows how to add to the character the proper motivation for the character to move. Sometimes for the filmmaker you really want the character to move from the background, closer to the camera and to this specific position on set. You love it, because on camera it’s beautiful. It’s so beautiful. It works so well. But she was like “Give me a reason to go there, because if I don’t have a reason for the character to move, it’s not going to feel as real and honest as if the character is moving for some reason.” Sometimes finding the reason adds something to the sequence that made the sequence even better.
Capone: Did discovering that make you realize that you had done it for no reason before that?
NV: Suddenly I realized “You’re right. There’s no reason for the character to get closer.” In fact, sometimes it’s against the character. So this is pro-camera, anti-character. So we had a really, really interesting discussion at some point regarding character motivations. and sometimes giving motivation to the character is adding a new layer to the sequence that makes things work much better. So she’s demanding, but in all the good ways. I never felt pressure. Everything was made for the benefit of the film. I felt like we were cooperating all the time. I had a lot of fun. I have to say we had a lot of fun.
Capone: I love that Neon is putting this out. I didn’t realize that until last night. It’s so great you get to work with your friends.
NV: Like I told you, I don’t want the career of this movie to end ever, because it’s going so well. From the beginning to the end. From the writing of the script, the shooting, post-production, festival career, and now American release. Everything is going so well. I’m just try to enjoy everyday, because this does not happen always. Some movies work in a way, some movies don’t work in the same way, even if you put it out yourself, you don’t control everything Especially when you’re making movies that try to separate from the common elements in other films, you never know for sure, so I enjoy this situation, because you never know if it’s going to happen again.
Capone: Do you think the next film you make will be the third of your science-fiction/hangover trilogy?
NV: [laughs] I love it, I love it, I love it! I don’t know if I should make that right now, but it will happen, I promise. But I still need to find what will be the third science-fiction trope. We’ve got the big-scale invasion film, the monster movie, what will be the third one? It’s not easy. I don’t want to play with the end of the world or the zombie apocalypse, because that is being made hundreds of time. I need to find something. I promise I’ll find it.