A new Australian film that pits four gorgeous but deadly women against a weird tentacled monster from the deeps, El Monstro del Mar (Aust-2010; dir. Stuart Simpson) has been causing much excited talk around the internet (see the earlier article “Vixen Assassins vs Sea Monster”). Wanting to know more, Undead Backbrain’s Robert Hood took the opportunity to talk to the director of the exploitation soon-to-be cult-classic.
Robert Hood: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Stuart. First off, why “El Monstro del Mar”?
Stuart Simpson: No worries. Ah, do you mean why the title or why do this film, haha?
SS: Right, I can see you going to make me do all the work, aren’t you? 😉
The idea for the film came about as I was thinking of what to do next. My collaborator, Fabian Pisani (Monstro producer), is a keen diver and used to study marine biology, so straight away he said “Do a sea monster film!” I laughed and then 30 seconds later thought maybe we could. After all, I was sitting next to the man who would be able to help make it happen. We had access to boats, diving equipment and expertise, a friend who does underwater photography and the perfect location only 30 minutes away. After hours of wishful thinking and basically joking around, I rang Nick Kocsis our FX master. It suddenly seemed like a real possibility and the inner child in me starting jumping up and down.
I’ve always loved monster movies from the 50s to the present. But to do something different to the genre was the key to making this worthwhile. As far as I knew there hadn’t been any film that combined the 1960s exploitation characters with the epic-ness of a creature feature — or at least not that I couldn’t think of. And in my mind it was a match made in Heaven! Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has the best characters of its kind, maybe in any genre, period. So I used this character dynamic as the basis of Monstro but tried to build up an atmospheric tension that is more akin to Jaws. It was a lot of fun to write.
As far as the title goes, I wanted it to sound original, exotic and basically just cool coming out of your mouth, haha. I love drive-in poster art of the 50s/60s and the South American release artwork looked and sounded even better! And I know it’s not correct Spanish. I wanted the word “monster” to be recognisable to English-speaking audiences, so Monstruo became Monstro. Plus it’s the name of the monster itself, so I can call it whatever I want. My attitude throughout this whole film has been to not take anything too serious. It’s a genre (exploitation) that is full of unexplained, irreverent and bizarre stuff and that’s a huge reason I love it.
SS: The poster art and title font was done by a good friend of mine, Matt Greenwood. [You can check out his work here.] He’s a very talented chap and does a lot of design work for a music street press in Melbourne called Inpress. And, yes, a lot of thought did go into it, but Matt knew straight away what I was after. I did the design of the one-sheet using photos I had taken and elements of Matt’s work. I’ve also currently got an artist in Argentina, Industrias Lamonicana, doing some artwork as well, in the style of 50s male stag magazine covers. Looking forward to seeing that.
RH: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was the first thing that came into my head when I saw the trailer and the artwork. Faster, Pussycat! with monsters, I thought. What could possibly be cooler than that? To your mind, what are the elements of 1960s exploitation films that you felt you had to cram into Monstro in order to get the right feel? And did you manage it to your satisfaction?
SS: Strong aggressive female characters that we can, somewhat guiltily, admire and look up to in that they do and say whatever they want, either through cunning or by force. And of course look super hot doing it. The main thing was finding that balance of beauty and the beast. I wanted beautiful girls but not of a typical barbie-doll look. You have to believe they could kick your ass and have lived some sort of life. These characters live hard and party hard. Russ Myer cast Faster, Pussycat! perfectly and I think I’ve got an awesome group of girls as well.
Also thrown into the mix is the innocent sweetheart turned shotgun-wielding hero. And the local grumpy old sea baron who knows all but whom no-one listens to.
And of course you have to have lots of coarse language, booze/drugs and plenty of violence. And these girls kick major ass in Monstro, sweet bloody revenge.
So, yes, in these aspects I’m very satisfied.
RH: You’re not likely to get any arguments in terms of the super-hot look of the girls. Where did you find them? Tell us about the cast.
SS: Well, I started with Nelli Scarlet (Beretta) [pictured below in she-devil mode] with whom I had worked with on the video clip “Mental” for the Funk Necks. Nelli has been modeling for years now in the alternative industry and has a very striking and glamorous look and is a massive six-foot tall. She loves sarcasm and has a wicked sense of humour. I pictured as being a kind of Aussie Julie Strain. I auditioned her and wrote the character of Beretta for her.
In fact, I had only written the first scene when I started casting as I wanted to write the film knowing who the actors were going to be and work to their strengths. Working with amateur actors in the past I’ve learnt to draw out what is already there rather than to try and force them into something that is unnatural for them.
Another girl I’d worked with briefly before was Kyrie Capri [pictured below in action-mode], on a video clip as well — CC Martini’s “Double Dutch” — and saw a spark that intrigued me. She also looked a lot younger than she was (she played a school girl in the clip), so when I started writing the character of Hannah, also a school girl, I immediately thought of Kyrie and auditioned her. She was a delight and a real pro.
For the other roles, I put a casting call out on Myspace and other internet sites and we held auditions. That’s how we met Karli Madden (Blondie). She was so enthusiastic and well read, she really stood out from the bunch. I was surprised to find out later that she had never done any acting whatsoever before that day. She’s a real trooper and quite the natural.
I still couldn’t find anyone I liked to play the role of Snowball so I asked around for suggestions and Nelli gave me Kate Watts’ number. So I invited her to our first rehearsal as a group. She was perfect. Kate also had been modeling in the alternative scene for some years and is a fan of the B-grade/exploitation genre, and she knew exactly what we were after.
So I happily had my group of girls but no old man to play the grumpy sea baron, Joseph Samson. We auditioned a bunch of guys and although there was some talent there they just didn’t quite pull it off. Again I asked around, but it’s hard to find anyone my age with 60+ friends. A fellow indie Melbourne film maker, Richard Wolsterncroft (Bloodlust, The Beautiful The Damned) had recently worked with veteran actor Norman Yemm on his latest film and suggested him. I knew him, of course, from his 40-odd years on [Australian] televsion from Homicide in the 60s and The Sullivans in the 80s. I rang him up and he was the most approachable bloke around. I was a bit nervous talking to him, but he treated me with respect and good humour. He told me about his role in a 70s low-budget horror film, Night of Fear [1972, dir. Terry Bourke], and that he was very interested in reading the script. I sent it to him and the rest is history. Norman was a real treat to work with and the film carries much more weight because his performance. He totally nailed it.
Other roles were filled by professional televsion actors I’d worked with before, the very funny Scott Brennan (Comedy Inc., Skithouse, etc.), Steven Stagg (Flipside, etc.) and Rusty Benson (Review with Myles Barlow) all receive glorious and bloody deaths.
RH: So what about the cause of the bloody deaths? I’m guessing old-school physical FX, right? How is the monster created and by whom? And what’s it like? Feel free to add interesting and/or embarassing details about working with rubber tentacles…
SS: Yeah, the monster, and all the gore effects for that matter, are physical FX designed and constructed by my regular and long-time collaborator, Nick Kocsis. Now I don’t want to give too much away about the creature, but it involved lots of puppeteers, both on set and in the water, miniatures and greenscreen compositing techniques. Basically we used all the tricks of the trade available to filmmakers in the 80s plus some computer tweaking by Julien Lawrence and myself. Nothing was created from scratch animation/CGI-wise so it has a real old-school feel to it but is still realistic and effective.
We got many a funny look from people walking past as we were shooting tentacle scenes off a busy pier on a Sunday afternoon, blood and guts bubbling to the surface. Once we had a huge swimming race just pass us 20 metres away with a massive crowd walking along the pier cheering them on. That was quite surreal. Fabian was often pulling up his boat covered in blood at the main jetty at the end of a long shoot. He told one guy giving him a quizzical look that he’d “had one hell of a day”.
We had a boating accident out at sea one day whilst trying to get a tricky shot. As the boat I was on with the camera over-took the boat we were shooting — attempting to get a sweeping tracking shot across its front — the actor on the other boat panicked and in an attempt to slow down, actually sped up and rammed full throttle into us, mounting our boat from behind like two lovestruck animals. Our poor actor hadn’t driven a boat before. Luckily we survived with just a cracked outboard motor casing and a few shattered nerves.
RH: I’ve heard it said that working with the sea is one of the hardest things to do in filmmaking: the unpredictable nature of the weather, unexpected waves, lighting difficulties… Add rubber tentacles and it’s got to be a challenge. I hate to seem fixated on tentacles, but I noticed in some of the shots we’ve seen that the tentacles have teeth. Very reminiscent of Audrey 2 from Little Shop of Horrors, maybe with a dash of Raimi pre-Spiderman and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (which in turn raise the spectre of H.P. Lovecraft). Any influences amongst those?
SS: Absolutely all of the above. I wanted to give our tentacles something a little different than the usual octopus style and make them more vicious with seemingly independent motion. They do indeed have mouths filled with sharp needle-like teeth. The idea behind this was to give the creature an appearance of a flora/fauna cross-evolution and to suggest that its tentacles are more like nasty flower pods with thorn-like teeth, reminiscent of triffids. In fact, John Wyndham’s books, Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, are a huge influence while writing the script. I like how he has a horrible scifi threat/creature but the real story is centred around the characters, the relationship/dynamic between them and how they behave under unusual circumstances. And, of course, Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” short story, the beastie from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and John Huston’s version of Moby Dick, plus all the awesome Japanese monster movies of the 50s/60s all played their part.
I’m also a massive fan of puppets in film, having grown up on Jim Henson’s amazing legacy, so working with a large-scale silicon monster was a dream come true.
[Or perhaps a nightmare?]
RH: You’re naming all my favourite things there! So, now that you’ve got me all worked up, when do I get to see the film? Where’s it at, and what’s in its future?
SS: Well, I’ve just starting sending Monstro out to festivals all over the world and will continue to do so all year. So hopefully it will screen at a festival close to you. Keep checking www.monstromovie.com/screenings.php.
And soon we will be going into negotiations with different DVD distributors to see which one will best suit the film.
RH: And what about your future? Any big plans that you’re ready to reveal?
SS: I’m in negotiations at the moment with a Melbourne studio about my next feature, as well as a couple of other scripts that I want to produce independently, including Monstro 2 and a violent crime revenge flick that involves drug addict puppets and black magic. It’ll be really out there!
RH: “Drug addict puppets and black magic”! Upping the ante on Meet the Feebles? Fantastic! And a sequel to Monstro! Be sure to keep us informed, Stuart. Meanwhile, thanks for giving us your time. I’m sure El Monstro del Mar will be a big hit — certainly with readers of this site.
Thanks to Stuart Simpson and Avery Guerra for supplying the pictures.