OUT OF THE BUNKER AND LOOKING FOR LOVE
Director Michael Matthews tests himself with an international crew, an Aussie location and post-production work that is attracting attention, writes Tymon Smith
South African director Michael Matthews had a better 2020 than most. After the critical success of his 2017 debut Five Fingers for Marseilles, a neo-Western set in the Eastern Cape, Matthews secured representation in Hollywood and spent six months reading scripts for his next project.
That film, written by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson, starring Teen Wolf and Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien, is Love and Monsters, released on 500 screens in the US last year and now arriving on Netflix, on the back of an Oscar nomination for its visual effects.
Love and Monsters is a satisfyingly oldschool dystopian family adventure that follows the fortunes of its hero, Joel Dawson (O’Brien), as he learns to overcome his fears of the nasty creature-infested postapocalypse to travel from the bunker he occupies with a few survivors to be reunited with the love of his life. Along the way he picks up a loyal feline companion, meets some fellow survivors who teach him necessary skills and hard lessons he’ll never forget, and learns that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
Matthews says the story reminded him of the movies he loved growing up — 1980s and early ’90s films like Jurassic Park, ET and The Goonies. “That kind of adventure film that’s fun for families and wholesome to a degree but also not just a commercial project.”
After flying to LA at Paramount Studio’s expense in 2018 for a one-hour meeting, Matthews was given the green light to begin bringing the script to life. After that, he recalls, “it was still another six-month process of the film almost happening and then not happening and then me needing to work with the full team on the script to reduce the scale because it was too big, budgetwise — and then eventually we got the go-ahead and we shot it in Australia for 40 days in early 2019.”
Separated from his longtime South African producer Sean Drummond and his small South African crew with whom he’d worked up to that point, Matthews felt that “it was a bit of a Lone Ranger experience where I didn’t know anyone and I was relatively out of my depth. I had to prove myself. It was hard but amazing to work with some people I admire who’ve done incredible work. It opened my eyes to the bigger international world of movie making and how those people function.”
For the creation of the visual effects and the design of the creatures, which are so central to the story and for which the VFX team earned their Oscar nomination, Matthews wanted to ensure that the creatures would be unique — “ones I hadn’t seen in any other movie. There weren’t any specific references except real creatures. Then I’d combine them with other elements. I wanted to keep the creatures simple and not have them look like CGI creations doing things that were unrealistic.”
Matthews was careful to ensure that the story and its themes didn’t get subsumed by the spectacular elements. As he says, “What I like about the story is that it’s a coming-of age tale. It focuses on a character who has romantic ideals that are artificial and ignorant of the world. Through his passion and his commitment to following love he finds himself and learns about himself but it’s not in a generic, masculine, alpha male way — that was important.”
Matthews spent many months on the postproduction, waiting for the long VFX process to bring the film’s singular creatures to screen. He managed to finish just before the first Covid-19 lockdown. Of course the pandemic has had a significant effect on the film’s distribution. The film’s Netflix release is still exciting because it’s a huge, immediate audience but “please watch it on a big TV and not on your phone”, he says.
As he waits to see if the hard work of the VFX team will be rewarded with the ultimate accolade next Sunday, Matthews hopes audiences will see in the film a pertinent message in the light of the pandemic. “That message is about how much we’re controlled by fear and how, if you go out there and find out what’s important to you … you can be rewarded in ways you never imagined.”
Love and Monsters is on Netflix.