All images: Voltage Pictures/Neon.
You'd be correct to call Colossal a monster movie. But it's not your standard creature feature; it's a genre-defying indie film that's ultimately a story not just about that 91.44m-tall monster stomping through Seoul, but also about battling our own personal demons, culminating in a fantastic, emotional ending.
Balancing its kaiju action movie identity with its indie dramedy core could have led to a messy, disjointed conclusion in someone else's hands. With writer-director Nacho Vigalondo at the helm, Colossal delivers a memorable finale that satisfies on its multiple levels. Vigalondo, composer Bear McCreary, and visual effects supervisor Phil Jones talked with io9 about crafting Colossal's moving, epic, and yet intimate ending.
The Beginning of the End
Colossal's trailers highlighted its wacky premise, which is that down-on-her-luck Gloria (Anne Hathaway) unwittingly controls a city-crushing monster. Missing from the trailers is the major conflict of the movie: Gloria's kaiju-like monster's foe is a giant robot which is also controlled by a person's movement. The robot, which also appears in Seoul, mirrors the motions of Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) whenever he steps into his rustic hometown's park at 8:05 a.m.
While Gloria realises stumbling into the park after yet another of her night-long benders is having deathly serious consequences halfway around the world, she starts to clean up her act. But Oscar — a childhood friend of Gloria's who at first looks like he might be her love interest — takes a dark turn after he discovers he can finally escape the small-town existence he hates by terrorizing Korea with his robot avatar.
That difference in direction leads to the robot-monster encounter at the climax of the film. Uniquely, the climax happens simultaneously in two parts of the world: Gloria travels to South Korea, causing her monster to appear in New Jersey where Oscar is located (meaning his giant robot is still in Korea). That's why it's an encounter, and not a monster-robot fight. By this point in the film, Gloria has overcome her struggles with substance abuse (though the very last shot of the movie realistically makes clear it's an ongoing battle), and we've seen her stand up to Oscar, who's been emotionally and physically abusing her. In the finale, Gloria/her monster literally casts Oscar out of her life, and it's a gratifying moment of victory.
Becoming Part of the Action
While that story is in a way the intensely personal struggle of Gloria, writer-director Nacho Vigalondo used film to help tap into a universal feeling of distance from far-away tragedy.
"[I'm just] a guy who watches news on TV," Vigalondo admitted. "I'm not an activist. I'm not a guy who goes to grieve because people are hungry either. I'm a middle-class guy watching things on TV like so many people." And that's reflected in Colossal. Up until the concluding sequence, the people of Seoul under attack are only onscreen in news footage and mobile phone videos.
"I wanted to talk about that feeling, about the fact that we are these passive guys watching things happen on the screen," explained the director. "So when the world is falling apart, we see bombs being dropped on Syria, we're just watching that on TV. We are here, and we are doing a lot of stupid bullshit, and something horrible is happening on TV. So for most of the movie, we are reflecting that." Once Gloria's in Korea, the film finally lingers on several clear shots of Seoul's citizens running and screaming at the appearance of the terrifying robot. But this sequence doesn't spend much time creating an atmosphere of fear. We're still on Gloria's journey, after all.
Just as essential as the final showdown to Vigalondo was that Gloria would not end the movie tied romantically to any man at the end of the film: not sweet and shy Joel (Austin Stowell), whom she's been flirting with; not her ex-beau (Dan Stevens) back in New York who can't quite totally sever ties with his partying girlfriend; and certainly not Oscar. In their own way, the men have all failed Gloria.
Joel does get a final appearance watching the robot-vs-monster coverage on TV in a bar, where he catches a glimpse of Gloria on the news in Seoul. "I needed Joel watching Gloria on TV," Vigalondo said. "She has become part of the news instead of just watching the news from her sofa."
The Point of No Return
Though it may seem like Oscar's fate was inevitable, star Anne Hathaway had reservations about filming the scene as Vigalondo had originally written it. The director recalled Hathaway asking him, "Can we make the movie in a way that she doesn't kill him? Because it's capital punishment."
Vigalondo contended that the film had to end with Oscar's death "because he's not going to change. He's committing genocide at this point, so there's no way that guy can be forgiven for the things that he did. The danger of this guy doing the same thing the next time is too high." But Vigalondo listened to Hathaway's concerns and made a small but crucial change to the script before they filmed Oscar's defeat.
"Put me down right now... you fucking bitch!" Oscar yells, as he's begging to be let go while Gloria's monster holds him high above the ground. It's only two short lines, but they're vile enough that it basically guaranteed Oscar's whimpering wouldn't gain any pity for him at the last second.
"When he starts begging to be put down, it was so important that you not feel empathy for Oscar," McCreary said. "It seems like an obvious statement, but Jason's a really likable actor and even after all the horrible things he's done, that scene could've felt a lot different." Vigalondo admitted Gloria's monster killing Oscar would have felt "much more dry, much colder," without that line.
Settling the Score
This final sequence is the first piece of music McCreary wrote for Colossal. "It sounds like a backwards way of doing it," said the composer, whose credits include Battlestar Galactica, Outlander, and last year's 10 Cloverfield Lane. "In hindsight, I can't fathom starting that movie [score] at the beginning and just getting to the end. I just think it would be too hard to navigate emotionally what the score would need to do."
Musical themes heard earlier in the film all converge in this final sequence, with intimate, solo instruments and a full orchestra together crafting the payoff for both the film's personal storyline and its epic action elements.
Gloria's theme, an electric guitar riff strummed in snippets before, is in the final scene in its full form, coming in on a powerful overhead shot: Gloria coolly strutting toward the robot as the terrified people of Seoul run in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, the low, pulsing synthesiser representing Oscar highlights the danger she's about to defeat. Then a full orchestra comes in and sets the tone for an epic finale.
Before he was even hired, McCreary wrote the music for the entire final reel of the film as a lengthy demo. (Composer demos are typically much shorter.) It was an atypical, risky move that got him the job. And then, the bulk of his work was done. "In a way, that 12 minutes is the complete list of ingredients for everything I needed to score the rest of the movie," he said. "There was no other theme I needed, no other sounds I needed. It was all there."
But there was still work to be done, including some music re-writes for the shot Vigalondo says was most important to him: when a cluster of trees part, and through them marches the monster, appearing in the park of this small New Jersey town for the first time, looming over Oscar. At that moment in the finalised score, the part of Gloria's theme heard earlier on a solo cello is now played by a full, grand brass section.
"In the first version I wrote, I was playing it pretty pop rock indie — it sounded like Muse meets Queen, with a little bit of orchestra in there," McCreary told io9. "I felt like I needed to prove to the producers and to Nacho that I could do something on a smaller scale. Oddly, my reputation preceding me — having done a lot of big science fiction/horror — I felt like everyone was sort of confident I could do a monster movie but less so that I could handle the very intimate character pieces." (When I pointed out that anyone who's watched Battlestar Galactica would know he could handle both, McCreary said, "Well, thank you. So Say We All.")
Colossal, produced and distributed independent of any major studio, has an indie feel to it but needed to pull off some big-budget monster movie visual effects. For that, the filmmakers turned to Toronto-based VFX company Intelligent Creatures.
Leading the artists at Intelligent Creatures, Colossal's visual effects supervisor Phil Jones was eager to work on what he believed was "a really cool script because it was nothing like I've seen before — it was a monster movie but not a monster movie, which is kind of cool for us."
Part of his team's task was designing the collection of blue- and purple-tinted clouds full of flashing lightning bolts that accompany the monster and robot's appearances and disappearances in Seoul — including the final appearance of Oscar's robot.
"That was actually quite difficult," Jones said of designing the effect that had to signal both the heroic monster and the evil robot — including before it's certain that the monster is indeed Gloria. "Nacho said, 'I want it to feel magical but also a little bit dangerous.' He wanted to make sure it felt like they appeared and disappeared in a fairly elegant yet violent manner. So we generated those clouds in CG moving quite slowly and elegantly, whereas the lightning was the counter-point to that."
One of the biggest challenges of the final scene was creating the robot cracking his knuckles, mirroring Oscar in the park, clearly ready to wreak some serious havoc. "That was a tricky rigging thing to deal with because we had so many parts in there that we had to make sure intersected with each other properly but still looked like a really cool robot."
Another shot that took some particular finessing: The monster's nostril flare, tight jaw jutted out a bit — matching Gloria of course — as she clutches the whining Oscar. Jones found that with that sneering, stoic expression, "if you don't go far enough, you don't read it, but if you go too far, it's over the top and it's just fake… Just trying to get that emotion across in the monster that Gloria seemed to do so effortlessly, to transfer it from human to monster was a fun challenge, that's for sure."
The shot of the monster's nostril flare was the final shot Jones' effects team delivered a mere two days before Colossal's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year.
While Colossal's finale merges the epic with the personal, it was very important to Vigalondo that the audience see Oscar's robot flung toward the mountains surrounding Seoul, but not Gloria's monster throwing Oscar into the sky. "At the end of the day, this is a fable," Vigalondo explained. "The movie's not about killing this guy. The movie's about killing what this guy represents."
It all worked. The TIFF crowd cheered at that exact moment. "That was great to hear," Jones recalled.
"I'm trying to avoid hyperbole," McCreary prefaced his memories of the TIFF premiere, "but it's one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had in my life." During Colossal's concluding sequence, with his music pumping through the speakers of Toronto's Ryerson Theatre, he could "feel the audience going on an emotional journey. It's one of those few moments I just know without a doubt why I'm on this planet."
L.A.-based journalist Emily Rome has written for Entertainment Weekly, HitFix, The Hollywood Reporter, MentalFloss.com, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the host of recently launched podcast Shakespeare's Shadows.