By Jack Egan
Cloverfield refurbishes the familiar science fiction trope of megamonster marauds metropolis. In this case it’s New York—not for the first time—getting its skyscrapers scrunched by an enormous creature. But it’s told in a way that captures the current zeitgeist. The novelty of Cloverfield, which has made it a box office smash, is its YouTube verite style of storytelling, as if the action is being caught on the fly by one of the characters with a handheld video camera.
Cloverfield is directed by Matt Reeves, in his first stab at a sci fi genre visual effects film, and produced by J.J. Abrams, who came up with the idea and is known for writing and producing television hits like Alias and Lost. Reeves and Abrams had collaborated on Felicity, another TV show. Several members of the Cloverfield crew are veterans of the Abrams stable, including cinematographer Michael Bonvillain, ASC, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank. Joining them were editor Kevin Stitt, A.C.E., production designer Martin Whist and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick. Reeves recently talked with Below the Line.
Below the Line: How did you conceptualized the unusual shooting style of Cloverfield?
Matt Reeves: I looked at a lot of YouTube and amateur footage, and one of the things I found was that when people were covering events they happened to be witnessing, the camera would get there a beat or two later than if the movie was planned to get that shot. Anytime you got something just when it happened it seemed contrived. So we always had to find a way to hit key narrative points to make it appear that someone was standing there and didn’t anticipate what was going to happen and would swing the camera over to get it
I thought the only way we’d be able to create the feeling that the movie was shot on tiny cameras that weigh less than a pound was to shoot a significant amount of the movie on those cameras. The trick when we switched to the heavier pro cameras was for those to be operated in a way that made it seem that it was still haphazard.
I also gave cameras to the actors. Instead of covering a scene in the traditional way where you have a reverse shot and then coverage, I would get one angle for the scene and I would do 60 takes for an hour to let it keep evolving. I would be watching on the little monitor, and suggesting camera moves to the actors. One of our actors, T.J. Miller who played Hud, was operating a video camera as part of his role for much of the movie—especially during the party at the beginning. He was, in that sense, part storyteller.
BTL: How did you assemble your crew?
Reeves: I knew some of them well, and some of them were new to me. But the experience for everybody was different from the past. We were all working in a way that we weren’t used to. We weren’t covering scenes in a traditional manner, we weren’t shooting visual effects in a traditional manner, and we weren’t getting sound in a traditional manner. That kept everybody on their toes.
BTL: Your director of photography, Mike Bonvillain, was a J.J. Abrams show veteran?
Reeves: When the idea for the movie came up, J.J. and I wanted someone we could really trust to be the cinematographer. Mike has worked with both of us for a long time. I first met Mike during my first season on Felicity—I was a writer and also the showrunner for four years. When J.J. went off to do Alias, he took Mike along, and subsequently Mike also worked on Lost.
BTL: And your production designer, Martin Whist?
Reeves: He came recommended by Josh Shepherd who was our storyboard artist. We made the movie for not that much money, compared to what a movie like this would ordinarily cost. It would be a real challenge to the production designer, who would have to be able to think out of the box in order to make it look like a lot without that much to spend. I interviewed several candidates, but Josh told me Martin wanted it so much his molars hurt. When I called him, I said “You’re asking for punishment, because this is going to be a really difficult job.” He said he had no idea how we’d pull it off . “Neither do I,” I told him, “but let’s just do it.” He turned out to be perfect.
BTL: Your editor Kevin Stitt, who did The Kingdom with Peter Berg, must have had his hands full on Cloverfield, given the many different types of footage.
Reeves: I told Kevin at the beginning what the style of the movie would be, with the feeling of these long continuous shots, but that we would be not be able to shoot everything this way. What I needed was for him to be able to pull things together invisibly, and also insert that jump-cut feel that you get from raw handicam footage. There were many, many cuts that were about bridging sequences together that weren’t originally supposed to go together in that way. The great thing about Kevin, he was so technically adept.
BTL: Your costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, comes with a lengthy list of credits, from Fatal Attraction and Wall Street to Unfaithful and Deja Vu.
Reeves: Yes, Ellen has done so many things, I was so lucky to get her. She had worked with one of our producers, Sherryl Clark. She was completely excited by the immediacy of it. Ellen not only found great costumes but also made them change as the characters went through trial after trial.
BTL: What about your special effects team?
Reeves: I had never done visual effects before. Kevin Blank had worked with J.J. on Alias and Lost and came highly recommended. He ended up doing the job along with animator Eric Levin who was from Tippet Studios and Mike Ellis from Double Negative. They were a great team. Normally when you go out and shoot a visual effects sequence, you break it down and get those pieces, some of them from your second unit. But in this movie there was no second unit and there was only the one shot that would take you through the sequence.
BTL: Your camera operators had to learn to be more amateurish.
Reeves: Exactly. I would say to Chris Hayes, an operator who I had worked with on Felicity: “It’s too perfectly framed—imagine you’re holding this camera that is supposed to be the size of the palm of your hand.” He was really holding either a Thomson Viper or a Sony F23, both of which are big digital cameras. He was constantly trying to come up with what looked like a casual shot but was still very planned. I was standing next to one of those tiny monitors, always searching for that shot that seemed accidental.
BTL: Did you use previsualization?
Reeves: Everything was incredibly well planned. I did previz with a group called the Third Floor. We laid out every shot in a detailed manner—we had moving story boards But the idea was to then find a way to mess those shots up, and make them more spontaneous and allow for mistakes so they didn’t look too perfect.
Once we got to the heavier cameras we had these great camera operators, Chris Hayes and Bob Altman Jr. But I wanted to catch footage that was truly caught by nonprofessionals so people watching this movie would let down their guard and stop questioning whether it’s a homemade movie. We did improvisations as well to create a vibe within this aesthetic. I wanted viewers to let their guard down and be lulled into a kind of complacency during the going-away party in the first 15 minutes. So when the terror strikes it feels relentless.
BTL: Some key footage you obviously shot on location in New York. Where was the rest of the movie done?
Reeves: When I pitched the evolving story to Martin, my production designer, he would write down every single location to understand the flow of the story as it starts out on the lower east side of Manhattan and takes this journey up to Central Park. He suggested going to New York to track the route with a camera, even though we weren’t going to shoot the whole movie in New York. That turned out to be vital. We pored over the footage he brought back, deciding what we had
to shoot there. We shot most of the movie on the backlot at Warner Bros., at Paramount and at the Downey Studios. When the monster and military come bounding down the street, it feels authentic because all of the scenes surrounding it were actually shot in New York.
The grand-scale destruction and battle sequences could never have been done on the streets of New York because it would have been virtually impossible to get permission and it would have been way too expensive. But viewers have the feeling we actually filmed in New York, though we were there for only about a week-and-a-half out of our schedule.
BTL: How did the image of the film’s monster evolved?
Reeves: We had a creature designer, Neville Page. When you went into his office, he had what I call his Wall of Terror. He was sketching on the computer, using a real biological basis for the drawings. I wanted something that felt terrifying but also had an organic reality. I didn’t want something that was just large and pounding around randomly. I wanted for there to be a script motivation. So we talked about conceiving the monster as a baby. It doesn’t know where its mother is so it’s in a kind of infantile rage. There’s nothing scarier than the idea of being around a giant animal that gets spooked. We got Eric Levin at Tippet Studio to animate what Neville had done in order to convey those emotions and sense of purpose.
BTL: What’s next for you?
Reeves: We’re talking to Paramount about a Cloverfield sequel. I also have a film called The Invisible Woman. It’s kind of a Hitchcock-style thriller about a former beauty queen who turns to a life of crime to protect her family. J.J Abrams is producing, as am I and Greenstreet Films, an independent company that did Prairie Home Companion. I’m going to start casting soon.
Written by Jack Egan