Love & Monsters stars Geekiary fave, Dylan O’Brien as Joel, a lovable doof, set on an impossible journey 7 years after the end of the world. After an incident threatens his safety, he decides to bite the bullet and go find his high school sweetheart Aimee (Jessica Henwick).
In Love and Monsters, Joel’s journey leads him to encounter survivors, companions, and of course, the titular monsters. We see that Joel’s trek may have been about finding Aimee, but the longer path heads towards finding himself. I sat down with director Michael Matthews to talk more about this gem of a film.
Watching action/adventure hero movies, I’m always curious about what happens after the end credits. How do the survivors deal with the fallout and what are the stories of those who exist after the world ends?
“I didn’t really have your typical upbringing. Well, I did, at first, but then the world ended.” Our hero in Love & Monsters, Joel Dawson, narrates these opening moments, giving us an overview of exactly what caused the #MonsterProblems to begin with.
An asteroid wasn’t the worst of their problems, but rather the chemical compounds that made up the rockets that defeated the asteroid. Take the fact those chemicals fell on hapless little creatures, causing them to grow and morph in terrifying ways and then multiply that further. It’s not just the creatures, but the army with their tanks and their guns fighting the creatures. After awhile a mere 5% of the population survives and is forced underground.
Kind of a bummer, right? So why is Love & Monsters so delightful?
The Geekiary: After your first feature, Five Fingers for Marseilles (a South African western), what made you shift to Love & Monsters? What drew you to it?
Michael Matthews (MM): It was the script, I guess I’m pretty interested in all sorts of genres and styles. I loved The Goonies, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. All those sorts of things, E.T., were all my childhood. So there’s a lot of that type of thing in this film which has got sort of an older action/adventure feel to it. Well, not old fashioned, just a little bit, like an eighties structure to the story. So a lot of it was really the monsters and the characters.
While the film doesn’t feel entirely typical, there is a built-in nostalgia to it. You’ll get The Goonies and Indiana Jones vibes, and you’ll be familiar with a lot of the tropes, they’re just used in different and new ways. It’s very comforting. There’s a scene later in the film where Joel is having a conversation that’s incredibly heartfelt. The music cue is something you instantly recognize and it evokes memories of being a kid in a movie theater on some forgotten weekend. It’s familiar and relatable despite the fact that the atmosphere is something none of us have ever experienced.
The heart of the characters and the story is why you buy this world with no hesitation. When I asked Matthews to elaborate on what specifically jumped out to him in the script, his first answer was about the loyal canine companion.
MM: I love dogs! It’s funny because it’s such a simple thing, but I really do like the idea of a story that a huge part of it is kind of a guy in this relationship with this dog on a journey adventure. There was a lot about [the script] that I loved. There was also a slight self-awareness about being in a monster world and how the movie kind of deals with that, with a bit of comedy or playing against it. So I like the tone of [the script], and the feel of it, but really it was just the adventure.
The movie isn’t overly complicated, it goes from point A to B to C without seeming bloated or plodding. Even the monsters aren’t terribly overdone, they seem like actual mutations, a couple of them are even cute! The complexity falls on the characters, Joel specifically, to be our emotional guide through the wasteland.
MM: I like the simple adventure of [Love & Monsters]. It’s not overly complex. It’s not a guy saving the world, or a whole lot of people or characters teaming up to do something, it’s [Joel] trying to get from here to there and it’s got monsters and he makes friends with the dog and he kind of grows up through it. Not many movies are made that way.
It’s classic, and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard. It’s sitting on the porch on a lazy Sunday, telling the kids stories about how you trekked over 85 miles of monster-infested land to get to the one you love. And the most surprising thing is that once you’re into this movie, you’re all in, and you feel like this could easily be a scene in a future timestamp.
TG: One thing that I really responded to was when Joel said “If I could do this, anyone can.” If he could get out there and survive and understand this giant world, then anyone can. He automatically understood his place in the world and has this vulnerability where as soon as I saw the trailer, I thought, “He’s a lovable doof! And he’s going to be our lovable doof!” and he was in such a pleasing way. He comes against these insurmountable odds, and he takes it in stride. I wanted to talk to you about the way the character of Joel was formed, what was the process like for building him up?
MM: A lot of what you’re touching on is something I liked a lot about him, which is that he doesn’t have a big ego. There’s something about that that’s really cool and quite different to films these days. Like someone has to be amazing or be the hero and saves the day. Or someone just inherently knows they’ve got this thing in them that they are going to change the world or they’re the chosen one, or whatever it is. What I like about this is it’s enjoyable to watch with the comedy and the way he deals with things because there’s an immediacy there and it’s very relatable and real and also very charming. He’s got a kind of honesty to him as well. Again, he’s not trying to be anything he’s not.
When Matthews and O’Brien were shaping the character, Matthews emphasized that he never wanted Joel to have an ego, even near the end. Joel wasn’t going to suddenly turn into Tom Cruise and you don’t expect nor want him to be. He’s just a person in the world doing the best he can and Matthews never wanted Joel to lose sense of that.
MM: You don’t want him to suddenly find that ego and be the cool, badass guy and that’s kind of rare in a funny way with movies these days.
TG: It’s really a redefining of the term “hero” when it comes down to it. Because he does kind of take the lead, but not in an overbearing way. He learns things along the way and works well with others and it’s just very refreshing.
Matthews talked about how they didn’t want Joel to be overly aggressively masculine and not projecting anything about what men should be because Joel’s journey is really about himself and growing up and taking responsibility.
MM: You feel like this is a kid who’s romantic and has these romantic ideals, but he hasn’t actually [thought] about things, he’s not really in touch with the real world. He’s sort of stuck [as] a 16-year-old and I didn’t want it to become some hyper-masculine thing, it’s really just about him being responsible and being part of the community. It was an aspect that Dylan liked a lot.
Matthews shared there were several moments where, in traditional movies, Joel would be the cool guy or have the awesome badass line, but every time they thwarted attempts of him being anything but basic. He described a deleted scene in Love & Monsters where they continued to turn the trope on its head. It’s echoed in another scene that made it to the screen where Joel is seen marveling at his survival, rather than being convinced by it.
TG: Well there’s something about that innocence that’s so endearing. And I think that’s the reason that people will flock to it, because once innocence is gone, it’s gone. There’s no way to get it back so you want to rest in it as much as possible.
MM: Yeah, there was definitely a positivity there and Dylan was very good at preserving that. I sometimes might have wanted to be a bit more cynical with something he said, but he often was just like “I think Joel just doesn’t think like that, you know? He’s not judging other people.” He doesn’t hate the others in the bunker because they’ve coupled up, he’s a bit like, “Good for them! It’s fortunate you can find someone in this time.”
Dylan O’Brien portrays Joel with a grace that sets the bar for the other characters around him. There is a love that is uncynical and his good nature rubs off on those he encounters. There’s a running joke when people find him alone, they ask if he got kicked out of his colony for stealing food, but you can tell they instantly know Joel is not a food thief, he’s a man on a mission.
Matthews and I talked a lot about Joel’s arrested development, and how a big part of his journey was maturing. During the NYCC panel, Jessica Henwick says she was pleasantly surprised that Aimee wasn’t just the goal. The way her story develops makes her more than just Joel’s destination, but a character in her own right. She’s mature and has her own set of responsibilities. These are things that Joel, in his state, hasn’t considered and the way they play out late in the film is really pleasing and revealing.
Rounding out the cast is Michael Rooker as Clive and Ariana Greenblatt as Minnow. Both deliver a definitive charm to Love & Monsters. Michael Rooker is a still gruff, but much nicer, more helpful version of mysterious traveler, and Greenblatt is a precocious sweetheart who is battle strong. At the NYCC panel, she described her character as “So strong and loving. She’s wild and young and dirty!” and Greenblatt portrays her beautifully.
Jessica Henwick’s Aimee is lovely and she goes a long way to make sure she’s a fleshed-out character with her own motivations. It creates a dynamic that is unusual for these types of movies and I think she does a great job of forging new territory.
Interlaced with all of the drama is a sure and necessary comedic tone.
TG: Was the script originally written as a comedy, or did you find that you were adding in comedic touches? What was the process like?
MM: It was definitely always there, it was just a matter of finding the tone, it can be a tricky one.
He went on to explain that a lot of that is in the editing and which cuts you use, whether you want to hang on for an awkward moment, or a punchy one. But the script itself was absolutely comedic.
MM: We wanted that tone, with the ups and sort of downs being really scary at parts and sometimes being kind of a joke. Like, you know he’s going to be okay, but oh sh*t! How is he going to get out of the city? Definitely, comedy added a sort of charm to it. I think Dylan definitely brought more comedy than I expected initially. As we got into it, we both [leaned] into those moments.
Matthews knew O’Brien from The Maze Runner, and we know how dramatic Thomas is as a character. Matthews was pleasantly surprised to see O’Brien’s comedic chops.
MM: As soon as we started talking then started getting into it, I realized there was a big space there and something for him that he would happily over lean into and go really far. If I was willing to go there, he was like, “I’ll do that!” even if it was maybe like, ridiculous! So there was a lot that we started mining which were little moments especially.
The comedy almost throws you off-kilter at first, but it starts at the very beginning of Love & Monsters and stays consistent throughout, instantly setting the tone. It turns the film into a romp that everyone in the room can enjoy.
Of course, I had to ask Matthews about the monsters. As a bonus, I’ve included a little clip about how he put them together, but they were very realistic to the atmosphere and fit seamlessly into the film. Check it out!
Here at The Geekiary, we do a lot with fandom culture. Fandom is one of the most creative and loyal communities. A picture of an inflatable crab was released during filming. It was used to establish an eyeline for monsters that hadn’t been created yet. A fan theorized that the crab wasn’t a monster at all, but just someone looking for a barbecue. A hat and mustache were photoshopped onto the photo and thus Party Crab was born! I asked Matthews what kind of fandom engagement would he like to see come from Love & Monsters.
TG: Is there anything that you’re like, “Oh, I’d love to see some Mavis fanfic!” or is there anything that you would have loved to do more on screen but couldn’t fit it and thought, “I’d love to see fandom take this and run with it.”
MM: What I’m excited about is the world of it. I feel like we got into it a little bit, but we had limitations, and the world in the movie is really quite small. So I thought how interesting to think about how other communities are living. You get a hint of that later in the film, but whether it’s a group of teenagers, or a group of elderly, or even a couple of families that found a way to bunker up in caves or took over a cinema complex, it’s a lot of interesting groups who have spent seven years by themselves.
Matthews also feels a connection to the way the earth kind of retook the world and how monsters built nests in buildings and adapted to their environment. Though the movie is set in Northern California, filming was done in the verdant hills of Australia.
MM: There could have been a bit more of that on a larger scale, that would be really interesting.
So, there you have it Love & Monster heads, get those pens ready to expand this already intricate and beautifully designed world.
Finally, I asked Matthews what he wanted people to take away from Love & Monsters. He initially said he’d like people to take whatever they take, that the experience is up to them. But he went on to add a bit more.
MM: People need to be good to each other. If things went really bad, like a monster apocalypse, you know, I think we would really appreciate where we are now and we would really appreciate each other a bit more. And I think in the movie there’s a lot of that for me. It’s not this classic end of the world kind of desperate feeling, it actually really appreciates humanity. And the fact that we like our relationships and how we treat each other is really special.
Love and Monsters is a very special movie and will be out on VOD, Friday, October 16, 2020. Plan ahead; it’s a real fun ride!
I asked Michael Matthews what part would he play in the bunker and the answer he gave is very relatable!
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