A24 recently released Bryan Bertino’s The Monster, and to celebrate the film’s opening, Daily Dead had the chance to speak with one half of the legendary team that brought the titular monstrosity to life, Alec Gillis of Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. During our interview, Gillis discussed how he and creative partner Tom Woodruff Jr. approached the design of the creature, his experiences collaborating with Bertino, and more.
Congrats on your work on the film, Alec. I loved the fact that what you and Tom created here becomes this metaphor for something much bigger, too.
Alec Gillis: Oh, yes. That was one of the things that attracted us to the script when we read it. We knew we could pull the creature off, but if Bryan is able to pull these characters off with his actors, this could be a really unique horror film. We were happy to play that support role for this. It really isn't about us, this movie. That was exciting to us.
Because so much of the crux of all the action takes place in a really dark setting, how challenging did that make things on you guys as artists? Is it a bigger challenge when you have to create something when you know you're going to have to fight against the shadows and the darkness?
Alec Gillis: Well, you definitely have to put your faith more in the cinematographer at that point. For something like Tremors, for instance, most of that film takes place in broad daylight, so there's nothing that you can do about that light. You can't control that light. Everything you do has to be biologically feasible, and it has to look like a real, living creature, and that's where the anxiety comes from there.
Conversely, with a movie like The Monster, for this thing to look right so much is on the DP, because Bryan was very specific that what he wanted was to have a creature that was all black and its highlights were reflected by the wet surface. That’s all that defined the creature; Bryan didn't want anything else.
It was very much like [James] Cameron's directives on Aliens, where he wanted the aliens to be all black. To us artists, that usually means it's going to look like it's black on film, but we'll paint it with tons of blues and browns and silver and all that. I remember there was a moment when Cameron was literally taking a can of black spray paint and spray painting a stunt man wearing the suit; he was that serious about the creatures being painted black. I do appreciate the purity of that kind of approach.
For The Monster, I thought the cinematography was beautiful and I thought the creature came off really well. The details that we have in there, you always put more stuff in than ever shows, but what's there I thought was pretty effective.
The one thing we had to be careful of is that when you create something that looks so monotone, you run the risk of it just looking like rubber, especially when it's black. For me, the idea was that it's like a seal’s skin, where it has that super-slick look. We also knew that we needed to have some focal points that looked very alive. That's where the reflective eyes came in, and the bloody teeth that are actually the color of bone, too. We were thinking of this creature as sort of a Rorschach inkblot with teeth, and that felt interesting to us and appropriate for the fact that it's a metaphor for their [the mother and daughter’s] destructive relationship.
When it came to designing this monster and coming up with his anatomy, or maybe how he exists within the confines of his environment, did Bryan give you guys a blueprint or a directive of what he wanted, or did he ask your opinions for how you and Tom thought this creature should be like?
Alec Gillis: Sort of both. Bryan was very specific, and he had a very clear vision for this creature in certain ways. With Bryan, he said, "I know I want this to be black. It's got to be dangerous. I want it to have teeth, but I want to see very little of it." He also had an illustration that he liked. I feel like maybe it was done by Aaron Sims, but I can't remember quite whether or not it was. Within those parameters, he allowed us to riff and to play around with different textures and make recommendations. He was very quick to approve.
This whole experience reminded me of working on a movie in the ’80s, when a director would come to you and that director had also written the script, so it's an auteur right there. You don't have a big list of people who have to approve of every little aspect. Other than Bryan, we answered to no one. That was fantastic. It was really like working with Jim Cameron again.
Bryan had such great insights into this creation. He had, for instance, this backstory for it. He had this idea that when the creature would move, it was in pain constantly. It was actually breaking its own bones as it moved and those bones were rehealing. It isn't anything that's overt in the script, but I was listening for it in some of the shots, and some of those moments where the creature's moving around, but you can't really see the creature, you can still hear those breaking sounds. I just assumed it was the breaking of twigs and tree limbs and things, but I was thinking, "I wonder if maybe those are bones breaking?" It was there as a backstory and it was there to feed into this idea of the metaphor for the sick relationship between the mother and her daughter.
He also had us plumb the eyes so that we could make the creature cry, which I thought was fascinating. I don’t know if you see it in the film, especially because with all the rain it's hard to see if it is there. But for us as creature designers, it's good to have those kinds of thoughts going on because, like an actor, we're usually coming up with a backstory for the creatures we create.
In case you missed it, check out Heather's review of The Monster, which is now playing in select theaters and on VOD from A24.