Nacho Vigalondo grew up watching kaiju eiga — cheesy Asian monster movies. Now the 40-year-old Spanish filmmaker, whose work includes several shorts and low-budget horror and sci-fi films, has made a creature feature himself. His new movie, “Colossal,” represents a giant leap, elevating Vigalondo’s profile as a filmmaker and raising intriguing questions about human behavior, through the vehicle of genre cinema.
Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens, “Colossal” centers on Hathaway’s Gloria, a struggling alcoholic who has just broken up with her New York boyfriend (Stevens). After moving back to her parents’ house, she re-connects with — and will soon be butting heads with — a childhood friend (Sudeikis). Meanwhile, across the globe, a giant monster has materialized out of nowhere, terrorizing Seoul. As it happens, the creature seems to have an uncanny connection to Gloria.
While in the United States to promote his new film, Vigalondo phoned in for a conversation about the contradictions and connections between movies and real life.
Q: Did the 2005 Oscar nomination for your live-action short “7:35 in the Morning” jump-start your filmmaking career?
A: I don’t know if I would be making feature films today if that didn’t happen. Filmmaking, even from the privileged position of an Oscar nominee, takes a lot of effort. In Spain, nobody expected me to be at the Oscars — ever. I had difficulties trying to make films. I’m sure that without that pedigree, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.
Q: In that film, you critique the cliches of the movie musical by staging a song-and-dance number in a diner with seemingly ordinary people. “Extraterrestrial” plays with the tropes of the alien invasion movie. In “Colossal,” you do something similar with the genre of the monster movie. What’s so fascinating about genre cinema?
A: The moment in “Colossal” that sums up what you’re talking about is when Gloria calls her ex-boyfriend, because she wants to talk about this monster that is invading South Korea. And he responds by asking, “Why are you calling so late? That happened early this morning.” He thinks that means she has spent the whole day just sleeping. I’m really attracted to the idea of playing inside these sandboxes, in which everybody in the audience knows the rules. Our expectations of these films become part of the show somehow. I admire Superman, but am I a kind person all the time, the way Superman is? How can I relate to a character who has an “S” on his chest, since there are moments in my life when I behave like an a------ to other people?
Q: Where did the idea for “Colossal” come from?
A: I thought, “How can I make a monster movie without the baggage of a blockbuster? How can I make a movie that is about these giant creatures that is, at the same time, affordable to me?” I just came up with this idea: What if these giant monsters are attacking a city, but we are seeing everything from a different city, through the filter of the news media? It becomes less about the monsters than about these conversations that people have when they go to the bar and see everything on TV. And what if these characters are somehow related to the monster, like an avatar? What if we have real-life, out-of-shape characters fighting in a park while two creatures are also fighting each other on the other side of the world? That idea could allow me to make a monster movie without a gigantic amount of money — no pun intended.
Q: How much did the movie cost?
A: I don’t have a specific number, but the last time I asked, it was $6 million, something like that. The budget grew because of the people involved in it, because of the cast. The movie’s really small, by the standards of the cast, but it’s really big for me.
Q: What is it about kaiju eiga that you love?
A: It’s not easy to describe. I have loved these films from the very beginning. Ever since I was a child, I was hypnotized, completely mesmerized, watching these giant creatures. It’s almost like pure, surrealist poetry. You just put in a giant animal in the middle of a city, where it doesn’t know what to do. Most of kaiju eiga are not about evil creatures. They’re just confused animals, surrounded by a hostile environment. It’s absurd action. This giant creature shouldn’t be there. That’s something you can relate to when you’re a kid.
Q: The cast of “Colossal” plays against type. Anne Hathaway doesn’t end up the sweetheart. Jason Sudeikis doesn’t end up the clown. And Dan Stevens doesn’t end up the hero. What are you trying to say by upending our expectations?
A: You have to let movies breathe. I want to confront the rules of romantic comedy, but I also want to make a really cool movie about these two characters facing each other. The core of this movie is why this man and this woman fight, and the dynamic inside Jason’s head. Why is Anne’s character able to feel empathy for people far from her, and he isn’t? I want to play with all this stuff, but I don’t think it would be fair to impose my reading of the movie on you. I don’t have enough perspective. The worst audience for a movie is the filmmaker, the guy behind the camera.
Q: Is the idea that we control avatars and that our own empathy (or lack of empathy) has the power to affect others a particularly modern condition?
A: There’s something fascinating about that. It’s something I feel we just discovered about our film. The Internet creates the feeling that you are not dealing with a real thing when you are humiliating another person. When a troll gets unmasked, when a hater is caught by his victims, the reaction is always: “It wasn’t real. It wasn’t me. It was an avatar. I was playing this role.” This behavior is everywhere.
Q: You’ve said that you want to make people laugh with “Colossal,” but aren’t you looking for deeper reactions as well?
A: On the one hand, you want people to enjoy what they’re seeing. On the other hand, you want to push people into the unknown, somehow. You want to please that one guy in the audience in a way that is going to irritate the guy in the seat next to him. Does that make sense in English? I’m having this discussion all the time. I don’t know where it’s going to take me.
Q: You’ve spoken of how lucky you feel to have worked with this cast, particularly Anne Hathaway. What did she bring to the project?
A: She added a lot. I don’t feel that the character changed, but it definitely evolved. When I write, I don’t pretend to have the character fully formed on paper. It’s just a vessel for somebody to step into. When Anne came, she made the character of Gloria herself. She’s the kind of actor who doesn’t just make the director happy. She’s also making the cinematographer happy, and the editor. She’s helping the camera guy. She knows how to get into frame, how to leave a frame. If we have to repeat a shot, she knows how to add something different, every take. This is something that I still have to learn. On a movie set, the person with the least experience is always the director. We’re supposed to be the authoritarian figure, but I make a movie every three years. The people I work with make movies one after the other. I make four films, Anne Hathawy makes 400. How the hell can I not learn?
Q: In the way that your Oscar nomination opened a door for you, I suspect that “Colossal” will open new ones too. What’s next?
A: I don’t know whether my next project is going to be an ultra-low-budget film, in real time, in one location, or a blockbuster franchise. I don’t know at this moment. All I can say is I keep writing. I don’t know what kind of filmmaker I am right now. I need to wait and see what happens.
Colossal (R, 110 minutes). Opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.