After getting very messy with some boys on a back road a trio of blade-wielding femmes go hide out at a seaside shantytown. In no time they're embroiled in a fight against a giant, many-tentacled creature from the deep. An A-grade fantasy film with a Z-grade budget, El Monstro Del Mar! has more ideas in it's frantic opening sequence than some films with 1000 times its economics can muster during their entire running time. Shot around Melbourne El Monstro is the second feature from filmmaker Stuart Simpson who has followed Demons Among Us from 2006 with a film that's likely to excite all sorts of trash fiends as it brings sex and violence into the same frame and holds it there in a case of what might be described as burlesque gone beserk! It's also got a seriously rockin' soundtrack along with a serious score. In the following interview conducted with Simpson not long after El Monstro premiered at the 11th Melbourne Underground Film Festival the filmmaker describes how he got respected actor Norman (Night Of Fear) Yemm to join the project and how the involvement of Richard Wolstencroft, director of Bloodlust, Beautiful and the Damned and the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, almost sank the film.
Michael Helms: How do you describe El Monstro Del Mar!?
Stuart Simpson: It's an exploitation creature feature. I wanted to marry those two genres together, like the girl gang thing and Roger Corman and Jack Hill. I love SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. I thought that a monster movie has to do something else. It can't just be a standard horror-JAWS-PIRANHA-style thing, though I love those as well. I thought of this huge creature and FASTER PUSSYCAT. I thought that stylistically, the whole rockabilly thing is really cool and very popular. It's an influence from the 60s and the film we're making comes from the 50s/60s; more 50s than anything. To me it gelled perfectly; I didn't have to worry about it.
MH: Can you compare EL MONSTRO to DEMONS AMONG US?
SS: I cut my teeth on DEMONS AMONG US and, to me, it feels more disjointed, probably because I was trying so many different things, and I learnt that that doesn't work. You've got to pick a style for the film and you've got to stick to it; don't try and throw everything you've got at it. The best thing about MONSTRO, too, was that I had Fabian Pisani, who's a mate of mine. He's been working in the industry on a kind of project manager level, so he can do anything that he puts his mind to; and just having that extra help too. DEMONS stretched over a 3-year period, whereas this one with his help I was able to bang out a lot quicker. That DEMONS was shot over 3 years actually made it disjointed. I had to break it up. I almost treated it like every theme was a short film and that ruined the flow. I think I've evolved my own style and found what works for me and hopefully wasn't copying anyone else. Also we had better gear and improved special effects; can't keep working with latex, didn't want to do that any more. To avoid that, we're using more silicone and doing it properly. I think that made it look better. And DEMONS was 4 years ago and the quality of middle-range production levels has gone up with HD. I was able to buy a camera for 6 grand and shoot it on that. It looks pretty good.
MH: How did you get your cast?
SS: The main girl, Nelli Scarlet, she has done alternative modelling and I found her on the net. I just wanted a hot, big chick and she worked on this video clip that we had. She had a really good attitude and I could see her doing acting because she had such a big personality. She wanted to get away from modelling; wanted to get into media and film work, so I appreciated that. She was keen and that helped. I wrote Beretta up with her in mind. We also required a somewhat younger girl for the role of Hannah. Kyrie Capri, who plays her, is actually the same age as Nelli Scarlet, they're both 22. Kyrie was in a video clip I did, a candy-pop thing, quite commercial. She looked young but I knew she was older. I think films always do that, which is terrible. You get that wealth of emotion that they can pull out, whereas a younger person doesn't, unless they're a natural. And she was cute, so I guess that helped. For the other two girls we held auditions. I just put a call out on Myspace. We held auditions at the back of the library in West Brunswick.
MH: How did you get veteran actor Norman Yemm on board?
SS: That was hard. Originally the film was going to have this old Italian character. But that was near impossible — finding an old dude who could act as well. I don't move in circles to know seniors so I asked around and Richard Wolstencroft suggested Norman Yemm. He'd just done THE BEAUTIFUL AND DAMNED for Richard so I gave him a buzz and he was awesome, very approachable and very friendly. I only knew him from TV shows like THE SULLIVANS and HOMICIDE. I just thought he'd be quite reserved and think it ridiculous or whatever. I didn't realise he had done exploitation movies in the '70s. He was happy to get on board. He loves the craft and it's really good to have someone with his experience because that does have a flow-on effect to the rest of the production to lift their game.
MH: Was there much deviation from the script?
SS: It was all scripted. I think that if anyone had a bit of creative licence it probably was Richard Wolstencroft. All the lines were there but I like to let the actors re-work the lines in their own tongue, so it sounds natural and normal when you hear it. You're not being Shakespeare but certain words come out of a person's mouth naturally, so I'd say, "Just say it your way". A lot of the time there would be a re-phrasing more than anything. Yeah, Richard changed his a little bit but, you know, it was all there.
MH:: You open with a scene that doesn't shy away from the use of make-up special effects?
SS: We talked a bit about that and about how much of that we wanted to see. Every time I watch that scene I feel blown away by how good it was. Again, up to then we'd done latex stuff and when you're working with crappy tools it's hard to know how far off the next level up you are. We used EASTERN PROMISES as a reference. There are a couple of choice shots in that. So it's good to go back and look at that and see how effective it was; use that as a blueprint. But it's all in the application. Really, it's just a tube running up the side and a blood bag underneath the neck and a silicone-latex piece covering that and blending in around the skin and using a bit of stippling paint to give you that 3-day growth and blend it in. That's kind of where the skill is. Nick Kocsis, our make-up FX guy is a one-man-army. As far as on set applications, the puppeteering and everything, we got people to help out. But Nick and I bounced ideas between us for the design of the monster. The design was based around the fact that I didn't want to show too much of it. I like horror movies where you don't show the audience everything and let people's imaginations do it. We wanted it to look organic, to look as though it could have come from the ocean, but didn't want it to be too alien. I got about 20 photos and I did an initial mish-mash of a bunch of deep sea creatures, gave them to Nick and he then turned them into sketches that he would then do sculpture designs for. Nick did a lot of digital sculpting and then turned them to practical sculpts. We just bounced ideas — add a few more teeth, make it uglier. We wanted it ugly, a mutation but not just a complete blobby mess. It had to be a creature with some structure to it. I guess the idea of that Lovecraft thing, 'older than time'.
MH: The end result is like something from a 50s Corman monster flick...
SS: Yeah and I love all the old over-the-top Japanese monster movies and how they trash miniature sets. I just love all that shit. PEKING MAN – over-the-top 70s stuff that puts in a huge effort building a miniature just to destroy it. With the eye peering in, we had a lot of fun with it.
MH: Where did you shoot EL MONSTRO?
SS: Location-wise the beaches and the exterior beach shack stuff was all shot in Campbell's Cove, which is Werribee South beach, an outer suburb of Melbourne. It's a real crappy little beach, not somewhere you'd go for a picnic. It's all Crown land and the people there are squatters. Nobody owns the land and I think that in a couple of years they're going to be moved on and it could be turned into a big marina. A few friends had told me about it, how awesome it was. We went there and found one end is actually a nudist beach, which was pretty scary when we went on location, with all these big, fat, hairy men bobbing around in the water and doing dodgy things in the bushes.
MH: But it wasn't just you this time out?
SS: It was good to have Fabian again come up with the goods. One of his workmates owned one of the shacks. It's a small community down there and he introduced us to this guy, Bill, bit of a character, who owned the shack where the girls stayed. Once we contacted him he said we could use the one next door. It was cool; worked out really well. For the interiors we built a set from scratch at my sister's place in Bacchus Marsh. They've sold it now but they had this massive, huge hangar, used to be an alfalfa factory, where my sister ran re-cycling and the company owned all these trucks and they were cool for us to take over one of the corners. Fabian works in the building industry so we were able to build a set really cheaply. It was pretty much me and him and Nick Kocsis chipped in as well, and some friends, and we built it on a weekend. The idea was that the set would have movable walls so we could change the shape of it and the two sheds are actually sets. We shot the girls' shack first, all the scenes in there that we had to. And then we painted it, re-dressed it, put all different props in there and an L-shaped stand and then shot all the last stuff. And, at the end of it we could absolutely trash it; smash holes in the walls so the tentacles come in covered in blood, do what the hell we liked. The last scene required that we would pretty much destroy it. We built a little mini light rig above it. It was good having Fabian on board; that really lifted up everything. I wouldn't have been able to do that at such a cost. It all came out of our own pockets. The first scene we shot at Anakie where the first MAD MAX was filmed, on the way out from Geelong towards Bacchus Marsh, where the You Yangs are. I try to shoot around there every chance I get. I'm MAD MAX obsessed. Houses are starting to pop up there now though.
MH: What was the shooting schedule?
SS: It was a 14-day shoot over 3 months. Saturdays and Sundays, bang, bang. I said to the cast straight up that if you can't give every day of your weekends—and they're going to be long days— then this is not for you. I did not want to repeat the process of DEMONS where one of the cast said, "You've got to reschedule", but I wasn't going to do that. He disappeared. So basically we just locked in everyone for 14 days and allowed 5 days for the effects shots and pick-up shots. A lot of the finale with the tentacles was on set, but a lot of it, too, was shot against green screen, so it was all pretending. I think, for a feature, 14 days was pretty crazy and they were 12 to 14 hour days. The additional beach stuff was along the Mornington Peninsula, the cave scenes were out near Sorrento at St. Andrew's beach.
MH: How many visual effects shots?
SS: A shit load that nearly killed us (laughs). I did about 6 months work on it and it was just killing me. Then my girlfriend met Julian Lawrence at a party and told him about my project and the demands of the animation. He said if help was needed to get in touch. But I thought that no one was going to be as dedicated to it as me because there was so much work and we didn't have the money. But it was killing me so I thought I'd give it a crack. I showed him the film and he just loved it, thought it was awesome, showed me he was competent in what he was doing, knew more about effects than I did, and that was the start. We were able to finish the film with probably 5 months work at the computer. The last scene involves rotoscoping which is like having to cut and trace around the girls. Trying to keep the tentacles on the girls is fine but when you want them to go behind them, as they constantly do, you need to cut around the girls, frame by frame, and that's where you start pulling your hair out; when you've spent a week on what is only a couple of seconds in the finished film. But you're doing that and go, 'fuck, that looks cool', and you just keep pushing further and further because you know it's going to be worth it in the end. So we could say there was about 12 months of post-production on it. There was probably 8 months on digital effects. I actually cut it pretty quickly. I find that kind of fun and natural. A lot of people ask me to work on their projects. I had a really good idea of how I wanted it to flow and cut.
MH: How much time did you spend on the script?
SS: I wrote the first 10 minutes, the opening scene, quite quickly, probably in 2 weeks. I fine-tuned it later but I really wanted to know who the actors would be so that I'm not trying to mould them. I knew I wasn't going to get A-grade actors so I'd rather get the cast and then write to their strengths.
MH: How much influence did FASTER PUSSYCAT have on the whole production?
SS: A lot, character-wise. Well, not even the characters, but the character dynamics. The girl gang has the three characters and I like the old guy in the wheelchair. Even though the younger girl, her character has much less to do with the outcome in my film, just the look of it, having the innocent girl and three bad ass girls, and then having an older, wiser guy, I really like that dynamic. But then, once I started writing the characters, the gang obviously stayed the same, doing their thing. They feed off their attitudes. But the other characters, the locals of the town, much more heart came out of that. I thought that this really has to have a heart; it can't just be two-dimensional, horrible characters. If you don't like anyone then you won't give a shit when they get killed later. Especially as this old guy carries so much weight on his shoulders. The town had been destroyed once before and he's the only one who remembers it, so I had to give him much more depth. And the girl she started out a bit innocent, a High School girl who gets influenced by these bad girls, doesn't turn into a bad girl but grows up a lot and is ready to kick arse at the end. She ends up with a shotgun and confronts the monster and has no problem putting bullets in it.
MH: Have you thought sequel?
SS: Yeah, I've written half of one (laughs). In the theme of MAD MAX I'm writing it as self-contained so you don't have to have seen the first one and don't have to reflect back on this low budget film because I obviously want to up the ante. I kind of have a nice little back-story to the first one, these girls aren't just an accidental gang but they actually come from a city gang. It's going to be more in the style of THE WARRIORS and how they categorised gangs. Also Monstro comes to the city via the drains. Remember the 80's city drains movies, ALLIGATOR, CHUD and a lot of others? Again, I like taking a trashy idea and then adding something to it, bring more heart, more rounded characters. I really like the idea of having a gang that Hannah joins with roller derby girls. ROLLER BALL was one of my all-time favourite films, so I want to bring that element into it too, a roller ball gang. She joins that gang and I've got this image of roller girls cruising and fighting tentacles. I think that could be a fucking epic.
MH: What made it most difficult to make MONSTRO?
SS: Probably the ocean. Taking on the beach is pretty hard work because the tides present a constant battle. You find a location when you scout but then, when you go there, you find it completely submerged, the tide is right in. The jetty that features a lot in the film showed the extremities of the tide. Water would go back 100 metres, leaving just sand, and you would have nothing; the boat wouldn't make it in. Or it would come in so suddenly that you would be standing on the edge, trying to quickly shoot the scene, and all of a sudden the water is up to your knees. You had to just leave it and run away because the water is lapping up against you. You have to move a lot quicker when you're filming on water and this film is so much on the water. That was a constant nightmare. And also making the girls jump in the water when it was the middle of June. If it had been summer! Yeah, nearly had a mutiny on my hands there. I reckon they pulled it off though; it looks like summer.
MH: Any near disasters?
SS: Yeah. Richard Wolstencroft nearly killed us (laughs). I wanted a shot of the boat from another one next to it. We gave Richard a 10-minute spiel on how to drive a boat; it was his first time. Remember, his character drives out into the ocean because they're going fishing. On the spot I said to my driver to speed up, go around in front of him — didn't mean close, or anything like that — I just wanted a shot that started from the side and came around in front. So Richard came in close, panicked for some reason and just lost it. He thought he was slowing down but went full-throttle and slammed right into the back of us, actually mounted us like two dogs. It was right on top of us for a couple of seconds; very scary. Luckily it slid back into the water. I was waiting for us to start sinking, but it just cracked the outboard motor's casing, so not much damage. Lucky! Richard went white for a while (laughter). That no one was sitting on the back of our boat was interesting.
For more on where and when you can see El Monstro Del Mar on the big screen visit the official site at www.monstromovie.com and become a fan on Facebook.
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