[Sundance '12] Interview: ‘Grabbers’ Filmmakers Jon Wright and Kevin Lehane

Grabbers

The Sundance Film Festival midnight movie Grabbers can claim at least one thing we’ve never seen before. There has never before been a movie where the secret to beating the monsters was to get totally drunk. Sure, Shaun of the Dead had heroes defeat zombies despite being drunk, but this is the first time it’s actually a strategy.

Irish writer Kevin Lehane and director Jon Wright made a film about bloodsucking aliens invading Ireland, and the local cops figure out if they’re drunk, the monsters won’t touch their blood. Partied out by the end of the week, Lehane and Wright chatted with me Wednesday afternoon over waters and Diet Cokes, but still a lively discussion about drinking, movie monsters and good CG. BD: Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?

KL: Well, the way it came about is I was backpacking. I was backpacking in 2006 and I was traveling around the world and everywhere that I was heading to, I would get bitten by mosquitoes. It was getting a bit out of hand because I was just tearing myself alive with all these bites and bleeding. People were giving me advice to eat lots of marmite. I don’t know if you have that here, do you? Marmite or vegemite? It’s quite an acrid sort of spread that you have on toast. Apparently if you eat it, the vitamin B in your blood makes you inedible to mosquitoes. It’s an old wives’ tale, it’s an urban legend but I believed it. Then one night when I was having a drink in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, I spotted a mosquito on my knuckle. I made a joke that I hope it would get drunk off my blood and die. It was that. The next morning I woke up with a hangover and mosquito bites and wrote in my travel journal “Get drunk to survive.” That’s where the idea came from.

BD: Why hasn’t anyone thought of that to fight vampires?

KL: Well, that was the thing. When I had that thought, I thought it would be quite good to do that with vampires, but I wanted to do a whole new monster. Yeah, the minute you come up with an idea like that you think somebody must’ve done that before and you start googling and trying to make sure that it hasn’t been done. I was shocked, and then I spent the whole time anticipating that a film would sneak up and just steal the idea.

BD: When you thought of calling them Grabbers, were you thinking of Graboids?

KL: No actually. Maybe it was in my subconscious but it didn’t come to me. I had forgotten that they actually called them that. Because they don’t really settle on calling them that. I think maybe the sequels do but there’s a conversation. No, Graboids didn’t reference for me. I wanted to sort of get around it by having one of the characters name the creatures. Therefore if it wasn’t cool, then just blame Paddy. He’s the one that came up with it. So they’ve got tentacles and a tongue that shoots out. You have to call these movies after the monster because that’s what they are.

BD: Do you just embrace the stereotype of drunken Irishmen?

JW: Well, its’ a stereotype for a reason in that Irish people do have a culture of drinking.

KL So do the Norwegians and the French and the Spaniards.

JW: Any culture.

KL: Especially the Americans. Americans drink more than Irish do.

JW: No, I don’t think that’s true.

KL: Of course they do. All their Bud Lites. Maybe there’s not as much alcohol in it, but.

JW: Yeah, there’s not [as much] alcohol in it. And it’s not so much the mad drunk. I think all cold countries have a drinking culture because it’s cold but the Irish have a different attitude to it. Like for example, on the film, there’d be crew members going out and getting really very, very drunk in the evening, like massively drunk and they’d turn up to set, they’d do a very good job, excellent job but they were hung over. The difference in the attitude was that’s not considered to be too big a deal amongst the Irish. They’re more permissive like that and I just think if you’re being honest, that’s part of Ireland. It can be a fun part as well as a negative.

KL: That’s why it’s based in Ireland because who else would think up that sort of scenario but the Irish, but it’s just having too much of a good thing. It just so happens that that’s how they come up with that solution. They’re not drunken characters. There’s only one drunk in the film. It’s just that they have to get drunk to survive and have too much of a good thing. It’s just being kind of ironic about it all.

JW: I mean, we tried to show both sides of it so you’ve got the alcoholic character who’s pretty miserable. So alcohol is bringing him nothing except sadness. On the other hand you’ve got the kind of, I’d like to see it as when they’re rolling about in the kitchen fighting the [monster], there’s a kind of joyful craziness to that stuff that is kind of saying this is a great life, isn’t it, really?

BD: How did you come up with the design of the Grabbers?

PW: Well, they kind of evolved. It started off Kevin had a notion, he described things within the script. I think the descriptions are fantastically evocative. They’re very unspecific. Medusa on a bad hair day and all this kind of stuff.

KL: Slimy black spidery mess.

PW: So we started with that which is fairly nonspecific. A ball of tentacles. That just evolved and we worked out the ecology of the Grabbers so that was quite a big thing for me. We wanted to know exactly how they lived on their home planet so that all of this has a kind of rigorous logic underpinning it. If you’re aware of that or not, I think maybe that just kind of percolates that you have a sense that this is being thought out and there’s a kind of logic to how they’re behaving. They’ve come to earth and they’re trying to work out what’s going on. What is a police chief? What should they eat, what shouldn’t they eat? Where should they lay their eggs? That’s all very considered and thought through. I suppose the design of the Grabbers partly came out of the fact that I knew we weren’t going to get a certificate PG, or a certificate where anyone could go. Because of the drinking and the swearing, it’s going to be a certain age and upwards. So I thought well, let’s put everything into the monsters that you don’t typically see in monsters. So they’ve got all these scatological references to the human body. They’re kind of reminiscent of assholes and cocks and vaginas. You kind of look at them and think that’s just revolting on so many levels, I don’t want that anywhere near me. Then of course we shove it into the actors’ face and we get right in their face. It’s just trying to be transgressive and sort of weird and have the monsters feel, whenever they ruck up, that you feel that they’re really just peculiar and strange and not something you want to be around.

KL: And yet very defined as well, like the fact that they’re aquatic. They only come up when it’s raining. They need water and they feed off blood and they lay their eggs on the beach. It just felt like if we could pin it all down almost like nature where turtles lay their eggs, they’re chasing the female and they present bait to lure the females out, then it all feels specific to Grabbers.

JW: Like it’s evolved. I suppose the other thing is I wanted a sense of intelligence. I wanted the alien to feel like it had a mind. Quite often in films they can feel a little bit mindless and that they’re doing things because it serves the plot. It’s more that they do. It’s trying to work out what it’s doing. It’s a very sneaky creature by nature, so part of the ecology was on the home planet there’s a creature that was 200 foot high that you could describe as vaguely looking like a stork. And it plunges down and plucks the Grabbers and eats them. It’s way, way bigger than the big grabber.

KL: That was not in the script.

JW: So they’re always sneaking about thinking about they don’t want to put themselves out and expose themselves too much because that’s not their nature. You look at the size of a grabber and what it can do to the police chief, it can just take the roof off the pub and just pluck everybody out and eat them like hors d’oeuvres but it doesn’t because that’s not how it operates. It wants to reach in through the backdoor and pluck somebody out without them knowing that it was doing that. So we’ve overthought it.

Grabbers

BD: How did you pull off CGI when most American CGI looks like crap?

KL: Paddy Eason and Nvizible.

JW: Yeah, Paddy Eason who’s our visual effects supervisor is a genius.

KL: We had no money as well, really small budget.

JW: Basically, there’s two reasons I think. Well, there’s lots of reasons but the company’s called Nvizible. They came on board and really bought into the film and it became a labor of love. Also, I insisted that Nvizible took the sole credit for the visual effects because I feel with a lot of modern movies, you go down and you get to the visual effects credits, there’s 10 companies, maybe more. 1000s of people. You’ve got no sense of who did what effect so you watch a film like Clash of the Titans and you think the Pegasus is amazing and that other thing is absolute horseh*t. But you don’t know, did D-neg do the Pegasus? You don’t know.

KL But this is an Nvizible movie.

JW: So Nvizible takes the sole credit so if someone watches Grabbers and they like the monsters, they like Nvizible and they like Paddy Eason. I felt that was one of the things that made the effects look good in District 9, I don’t know if this is true or not, but that Image Engine got the entire job. So it takes on a pride thing for them that they want to show what they can do. The other reason the effects are so good is we’re just at a different point in time with digital effects. They’re just hitting a point where you can do them differently and they are extremely photorealistic. What clicked for me was watching the making of Moon. I thought GERTY was a model, a built thing. When I saw the shots where GERTY was CG, I just did not know. It never occurred to me. And also in District 9, some of the close-ups of the aliens I really did not know whether they made a rubber physical alien that was very realistic or if they’d done that via CG. It turned out to be CG. So you just think okay, we’re at a different sort of point, and I could get very technical about it. There’s reasons.

BD: Does keeping it dark and rainy help? But District 9 was all daylight.

JW: It’s all single point light. So District 9 is all sunlit from one point. It’s a very bright sun and that helps.

KL: Get those hard shadows.

JW: You get hard shadows so that’s a reason why it’s very effective and Grabbers, when the grabber leaps on his face, we use 50% prosthetics so he has an actual rubber thing on his head that’s flailing about of its own accord.

KL: And they’re pulling at real tentacles.

JW: And then we add the CG tentacles to tracking markers and they flail about in a complementary way with the tentacles that are already flailing about but they look more alive. So you’re just trying to pull the trick off like in Jurassic Park.

KL: Which still holds up fantastically and that was CG.

JW: Well, it was a mix. Look at the tyrannosaur through the window and it’s a model, then you pan around and in the same shot it’s been changed to a CG. If you’re constantly flipping the technique, your mind stops being able to break it down, to deconstruct it.

BD: Another reason CG sucks is they show it full frontal. They never showed a model head on, they obscured it with camera angles and such. You should present CGI the same way.

JW: I met with John Landis before we shot Grabbers. I wrote him a letter and said, “Will you be an executive producer on the film?” because he was in the UK for some reason. He met with me and that was one bit of advice he gave me was never show all of your monster and try and keep it as shadowed as possible. I thought that was actually pretty good advice but then he’s very clever about monster movies I think.

JW: One thing we did which I don’t know if many films do is they presented the CG back to us and then we recut the film. Quite often the shots were a lot longer and what we were doing, and what I hope we’ve achieved, I don’t think we’ve fully achieved it. I think we’ve 98% or 95% achieved it, is showing it for long enough that you’re still believing it, it’s still real and then we’re away. So we’ve given you long enough to see it so it doesn’t feel choppy or too fast but not long enough for you to go, “Oh hold on, I can see how it was done.” For me there’s four shots that you can see how it was done. It does fall apart but the majority of it you can’t.

KL: At some point you have to stop teasing the audience. You do have to deliver so I think that we do that.

JW: It’s interesting because a lot of people think there’s a lot of the monster in the second half. There’s actually not. There’s actually compared to most films very, very few shots. It’s sort of a sleight of hand thing. We make you feel like you’re seeing the monster a lot when you’re actually not hardly seeing it at all. I’d like to take that forward when I do a big budget film to still do that. I say if, when.

JW: I think we’ve been a bit stupid as well because we’ve talked about our references too much. So people are going, “Oh, it’s Tremors” but it’s not really. It’s just influenced by those films.

KL: And the reason for drawing comparison to Tremors is because you can’t really call Tremors a horror film. It’s a monster movie and Grabbers is the same thing. That’s where we’re getting it from.