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Chasing ‘Monsters,’ on a budget

Alien attack movies tend to follow a familiar script. There’s an isolated spotting at first, then a few more reports, and before long the whole planet is crawling with otherworldly invaders. The people behind Friday’s “Monsters” hope the same slow-building formula might also work to build the micro-budgeted thriller’s positive buzz.

Premiering in just one theater in New York and one in Los Angeles, “Monsters” is being introduced to moviegoers the way most highbrow art films are released, but with much less advertising. Magnolia Pictures, which is distributing English writer-director Gareth Edwards’ account of a young man and woman trying to navigate through a zone filled with some skyscraper-sized extraterrestrials, is betting that genre enthusiasts will embrace the movie and that their Facebook and Twitter recommendations could help carry “Monsters” into theaters across the nation.

“There’s been a huge amount of interest on the fanboy sites,” says Magnolia’s Eamonn Bowles, adding that the film already is generating strong business through its video-on-demand channels and iTunes, where it premiered Sept. 24. “I think this guy is a big-time filmmaker.” Indeed, Edwards is about to start directing a second feature, with backing from producer Timur Bekmambetov ( “Wanted”).

Magnolia acquired “Monsters” soon after it premiered at this spring’s South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. The documentary-style drama was greeted with generally positive reviews, eliciting some favorable comparisons to the similarly constructed “District 9" and “Cloverfield.” “Monsters,” which is as much about the romance between the story’s lead couple (Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy) as its squid-like space invaders, subsequently played in about a dozen festivals, several tilted toward genre audiences.

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Edwards, 35, won’t say what was spent making the movie, but it’s almost certainly far less than $500,000. Best Buy was so impressed with his bang for the buck that the electronics chain commissioned a video about how Edwards made it.

Because Magnolia rarely spends much money promoting and distributing its films — in its history, only “The World’s Fastest Indian” and “Woman Thou Art Loosed” have grossed more than $5 million in domestic release — the independent company will need great word of mouth and a pile more of good reviews to make box-office news.

“Monsters” will be competing this weekend against one new movie and one holdover aimed at an overlapping audience. “Saw 3D,” which Lionsgate promises will be the last in the torture porn franchise, premieres Friday, where it will compete against last weekend’s amazingly successful “Paranormal Activity 2" for the top spot on the sales charts. All three films are rated R.

While those two movies have plenty of scares, Bowles and Edwards believe “Monsters” can be distinguished more for its personal drama than its frightful moments.

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The film posits that a wide swath along the U.S.- Mexico border has been infected with oversized aliens, the byproduct of a space mission gone quite wrong. McNairy plays a photographer named Andrew who reluctantly must accompany his boss’ daughter, Sam (Able), through this very dangerous region.

With a background in visual effects, Edwards shot the film in six weeks with a crew that often numbered just six people. He let his actors improvise dialogue while adding some inexpensive but nonetheless impressive effects on a personal computer in his bedroom during post-production.

Edwards initially planned for his movie to focus on a global alien pandemic, with three different stories unfolding on three different continents. He mapped out the intersecting “Babel"-like narratives on a chart, only to be told by producer James Richardson, “If you need a diagram to explain your story, something is not working.”

So Edwards tossed the other plots and ended up with Andrew and Sam. “Then we had a love story on our hands,” Edwards says. Rather than make the movie on soundstages, where the actors would stand in front of green screens so that visual effects could be layered in later, the filmmaker took his guerrilla team on the road, and looked for organic ways to incorporate aliens, helicopters, tanks and all of the other trappings of the genre.

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“The goal we all had was to make the world’s most realistic monster movie. Every shot in the film is based on a real shot,” says Edwards, who filmed in Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala. “I’m shooting in a real place with real people and just imagining that something else is there. The perfect version of this film is filled with imperfections. That’s what we were going for.”

Now that he’s in business with the deeper-pocketed Bekmambetov and has been offered other, pricier productions, Edwards wants to make sure money doesn’t destroy his run-and-shoot style. “It’s a massive concern,” he says. “I prefer to give up all those opportunities to preserve what we were able to do with this.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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