Nacho Vigalondo has a strong Spanish accent and an air of childlike enthusiasm. He’s also responsible for the least conventional film you’re likely to see this year: a perplexing hodgepodge of epic monster flick, quiet indie drama, and a domestic-abuse saga with a feminist edge. Colossal follows a New York City writer, Gloria (Anne Hathaway), who gets dumped by her boyfriend for partying too much and moves back to her small hometown, broke and jobless. Her family is nowhere to be seen, but she reconnects with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who owns a bar and lets her work alongside him. They’re both medium-functioning alcoholics.
It all sounds pretty standard, and you might expect Gloria to fall for the blue-collar fellow with the heart of gold and quit drinking. But Colossal has a twist up its sleeve, as a kaiju is attacking Seoul, and Gloria—watching the chaos unfold on CNN—realizes she’s inadvertently controlling the enormous beast when she’s stumbling around drunk. In Vigalondo’s world, Godzilla doesn’t necessarily have bad intentions, and not all “nice guys” actually want the best for you. The filmmaker’s monsters are purposefully a little dopey and kitschy, as it’s their human counterparts you gotta watch out for.
On the eve of Colossal’s theatrical release, I spoke to Vigalondo about working with Hathaway and Sudeikis, maintaining his uniquely playful sensibility on a bigger budget, and his unusual approach to the subject of domestic abuse.
Colossal defies many cinematic tropes. Critics keep using the words “original” or “unpredictable” in describing it. But how do you react to criticism of the film as “uneven” or “inconsistent”?
You accept bad reviews. I can’t complain about that. When you’re making a movie, you’re in this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [mode]. When I’m writing, I’m so excited about making this monster movie with all these sequences where [characters] aren’t talking about monsters, where they’re talking about other issues. I want to push the audience in so many different directions they didn’t expect. Some people love to go to the movies to see their expectations betrayed. Some go to confirm their expectations. Both ways of perceiving films are legitimate, like being left or right-handed. Sometimes I wish I was giving people something more in their comfort zone. But I’m afraid I can’t change things. I do know why some people feel betrayed by the film.
Yeah, the first and second halves are so tonally dissimilar. First it’s a comedy, then it becomes a kind of horror, especially with the physical violence between Gloria and Oscar.
And it’s not fantasy violence. It’s not funny. I remember being a child and hearing people say that violence and gore in movies desensitizes you. But that’s not real. Once you face violence in real life, it starts from zero—once you see a real fight in front of you, once you see a dead body for the first time in your life. Movie violence is brutal in an exciting way, like watching people dancing. It’s like watching horror puppets. But we were trying to approach the other side of violence, something you don’t enjoy watching. Low-key violence. I understand the movie is playing a dangerous game. You’re supposed to have an antagonist, and make sure people know who this guy is in the first act. Or if you’re hiding an antagonist, you’re supposed to have the reveal in the third act. But we turned a beloved character into the antagonist halfway through the film. Which is different from what you normally see in films, but we felt it was more related to real life.
How did Anne Hathaway get involved? You haven’t worked with a lot of big name actors in the past.
I remember when her agent called me, asking, “Can I show the script to her?” I was like, “Okay, I live in a world where Anne Hathaway knows I exist.” I never expected her to want the role. I didn’t write the role with her in mind, because that is beyond my wildest expectations.
How difficult was it to get financing for such a strange, multi-genre project? Did having Hathaway on board help?
The package was this crazy script and Anne Hathaway. I’m pretty sure she was shining so much, she ate the rest of the package with her light. It’s never been this easy for me to make a film.
How did working with a bigger budget compare to making more indie stuff?
It wasn’t really a lot of money for them! Anne has told this story, about the day we had all these meetings with different departments, the costume designer, the art director, and they were like, “Okay, we have to adjust to this budget.” It wasn’t the production size they were used to, they were working with these limitations. And then Anne says that I came into the room, the last one, so happy, like, “I’ve never had this money in my life!” For me, it was big time.
Did you have less freedom because of it?
No, no. The movie is better than I expected because of the people I was working with. There’s nothing in the film I feel could be better if they gave me more freedom. There’s no sacrifice. If the movie is a fail, I’m responsible. That’s incredibly satisfying. When I knew Anne and Jason [Sudeikis] were going to play the roles, I knew I was going to work with people who had much more prevalence and influence than me. I said, “If they want to treat you as a cockroach and they step on your face every day, be brave and handle it. Prove to the world you can handle a situation where you’re not a dominant figure.” But the shooting was amazing. They were so cooperative. I’ve never been this lucky in my life. If making a difficult film is like a ritual of passage into the adult age, I’m still a child.
Genre films are sometimes taken less seriously, but lots of genre films deal with relevant and important themes and issues. You’ve been called a “genre” filmmaker, so how do you feel about the way such movies are perceived?
I get the sense that we’re going through an amazing time with mainstream films especially. You go to the theaters and see Get Out and John Wick 2 and Kong: Skull Island, and you know Baby Driver is coming. We’re living in this post-Mad Max: Fury Road era, where it’s not surprising that a mainstream genre film is smart and beautiful in a surprising way. I don’t know if I’ll be a part of that, but I feel really enthusiastic about what we have on the screen these days. Maybe five years ago it would’ve been impossible to picture a mainstream studio action film with a feminist undertone. And it’s happening! Or you have a smaller film that deals with racism, then suddenly it becomes one of the big hits of the year. Five years ago, this might have seemed nuts. We get used to this phenomenon really quickly, so we need to step back and see these kinds of things didn’t happen before.
What do you think prompted this shift?
It’s vain to try and analyze the present times in the present. Now we can say things like, “All the sci-fi films coming from America in the ’50s were driven by fear of the nuclear age, communism, McCarthyism.” But I don’t think the filmmakers from that time were able to define their films that way. And to be honest, I don’t think they should. You need to hold some level of innocence when you’re making films. You’re letting the times go through you. I don’t want to make movies in order to portray myself as a really nice person with no faults. I want to make movies that, in 200 years, they’ll see who we were: with all the shadows and bright sides. It’s better to make films that portray these times but not from a self-aware position.
Another unexpected twist in Colossal is that the monsters are mostly comedic, while the human characters can be pretty terrifying.
I got this idea a long time ago: Two guys fighting while drunk in a park, and two giant creatures fighting in a city on the other side of the world. But it didn’t become a potential film until Gloria came in as the main character.
So you first envisioned the story with two men?
Yeah, I was this male guy writing another male film. I felt like it could be funny, but I didn’t feel the need to make that. Watching two guys fighting for a woman feels wrong, because [we’ve seen that before so many times]. But then, when I came up with the idea of Gloria, [about] a woman fighting a man, [the question became] “Why are they fighting?” I was like, “Oh my god, this is the film.” I was terrified at the beginning. When you have a woman and a man fighting on screen, you’re talking about some really loaded stuff. Domestic violence in Spain is a thing, believe me. And you’re gonna have this in a movie that contains a lot of jokes and funny moments with CGI creatures? People who relate to the movie, who don’t find it offensive but somehow enlightening—they are the reason I can sleep well at night. That means the movie works in a proper way. I wanted to tell the story without her being abused or forced. She’s going to be beaten, but she’s fighting too.