Colossal Emerged From Its Director’s Desire to Kill the Rom-Com

Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway in Colossal. Photo: Cate Cameron/Toy Fight Productions

This story contains minor spoilers about Colossal.

The Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo recently joined the Vulture Insiders for a special screening of his sci-fi psychodrama Colossal. The audience reaction was strong and, given the utter weirdness of the movie, there was much to talk about — from the movie’s inception to his first experience with a big movie star (Anne Hathaway, who summoned him from Madrid to New York to say she wanted in), to the negative reactions of people like my 18-year-old daughter, who had a hard time reconciling the movie’s goofy elements with its serious themes of domestic abuse. I found his openness and passion completely disarming. At the end of our conversation, we opened up the discussion to Insider questions, one of which we’ve included below.

David Edelstein: Which came first, in terms of inspiration: the psychodrama story of female empowerment, or the Kaiju? Where did the story come from?
Nacho Vigalondo: I had this idea about giant creatures destroying a city while these two guys were fighting drunk in a park early in the morning, and there was a woman in the middle. But it felt really rusty and old-fashioned and boring. At that point, it felt like a romantic comedy, and I didn’t want it to be a romantic comedy — those are the movies I want to kill. But I’m okay with monster movies. Later, when Gloria came through as a character, it was one idea to the next pretty fast. Once I settled on Gloria being the main character, the Oscar character came immediately, and once you have those two, you just need to find the reason for them to fight. Then the movie suddenly becomes something.

Why do you want to kill the romantic comedy?
I like some of them, but those movies are really problematic, no? I’m talking about the movies that we saw when we were younger. The Porky’s films — they’re not super romantic but I’ll count them — and Dirty Dancing and Revenge of the Nerds and Pretty Woman in the same pocket probably.

There’s Something About Mary, too.
Yeah. And those movies are all about persistence: It’s about, Okay, she doesn’t like you, you’re an asshole to her, but if you persist, if you try again and again, if you kidnap her dog, if you throw a bucket of paint on her head or something like that, if you persist, if you become an obsessive maniac, at the end of the day she will find you charming. She’ll succumb to your charms.

That’s the story of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which is my least favorite Almodóvar movie.
That’s a creepy one. Yeah, there’s always a prize for being obsessive about someone and there’s the expectation that the other person will magically change. And that is troubling — it’s teaching us that we should try again and again and again, and if it fails try again harder, faster. At the end of the day you will make her fall in love with you, so I wanted to make a movie with a love triangle where the woman escapes from the triangle. I really wanted to betray all the expectations of a romantic comedy.

What I really love is that as a nerd, as someone who obviously identifies with nerds even in great movies — I think There’s Something About Mary is a wonderful sex comedy — what troubles me is that these movies do not suggest the deep level of self-hatred that nerds can have for ourselves, our bodies, our minds, everything else, which inevitably emerges in romantic relationships even when we are determined to be the most wonderful boyfriends. You do a great job of exploring this distrust, this possessiveness, and this sort of emotional fascism.
Fascism — oh, I see that. Emotional fascism! I love it!

You show the dark side of the Jason Sudeikis character who really begins quite lovably. He’s such a relief to her in how he takes care of her, so that the progress — the process of building that character and realizing that there was something darker and darker and darker in him — is quite shocking. The power of the movie comes from watching his transformation. However, I saw it with my 18-year-old daughter, and, I’m sorry to say, she hated the film. We argued on the subway going home and she said, Dad, you know, this shift is too serious for the theme, for the comedy in the beginning. It’s too serious for silly monsters.
She’s right.

And I said, No, that is the joy of it. You assume that you’re going in one direction but then there’s this unexpected, bizarre change in tone and the laughs pretty much dry up halfway through.
Yeah. When you’re making a movie, there’s this kind of Jeykll and Hyde complex that takes over, and I get excited by making things I know some people are going to hate. I understand the people who say, Nacho, wouldn’t it be great if we made just a plain comedy, that makes everybody happy like Pretty Woman and can’t we make that movie instead.

That struggle is always there. Making movies is terrifying because you start with the ideas and the spark and everything makes sense, and then you write the script and somebody likes it and you get the money, life is perfect. And then you’re making the movie, and when you’re in the process, all the beats, all the parts of the movie are disseminated, and you’re not able to see the thing as a whole anymore. One day you’re shooting a happy couple, and the next day you’re shooting something that doesn’t possibly seem like it could be in the same film. One day I’m dealing with toxic masculinity, domestic abuse, domestic violence, all these heavy topics, and then the next day I’m shooting a monster dancing on a green screen, and it’s really terrifying to have all these pieces separated. You have to make a leap of faith, like, Okay, this will work in the future because it worked when it was written in the script and I hope it happens because I need this movie not to be offensive to the people who feel these things are close to them.

What was it like for Jason Sudeikis to go to this very, very dark place with his character?
I love Jason Sudeikis, I love his work. Somehow the movie feels like a comment on Jason Suedekis films — he’s always the charming guy all the women fall in love with, but now you can see the evil side of this charming character. I think most comedians have a dark side, they can be totally destructive; you can see the evil buried deep down. For me it was like, Okay, Jason, this time I want the evil that you have lurking in the background to emerge and come close to the camera. He’s a total asshole in this movie, and he’s very funny. I’m pretty sure people will hate Jason Sudeikis because of this role. He’s scary — he’s really scary.

Anne Hathaway gives a terrific comic performance in the first part of the movie — falling all around, being adorably drunk. She has to gradually become more and more sort of legitimately terrified as the film goes on. Did you help her modulate her performance — change her performance as the film went on? Or did she just instinctively know where to go with the character?
When you’re a small movie, you don’t have the chance to rehearse the way you should. So you have to be really precise. And you have to be really specific about what you want. I had daylong conversations with Anne to make sure we were on the same page. So I was even more terrified making this movie because we didn’t have the amount of rehearsal that makes you sleep peacefully every night.

But after that first day of shooting with her, I was like, Okay, this is going to work. She knows perfectly what to do here. I think this is the easiest movie I have ever done because these people work so well. I can tell you a story about how Anne expressed her interest in the film: She asked my partner and I to come to New York to meet her. And so we think, Okay, sure, let’s go to New York to have a meeting with Anne Hathaway. I was really nervous. I was like, Okay, we’re coming in from Spain and we’re going to have a chance with Anne Hathaway — what if she hates me? It could happen. And she comes into the bar where we’re meeting her and says, Okay! I’m gonna show you the moment where I decided I want to do this movie. And she did the last gesture of the film, and she was so funny! I laughed so hard. I thought, Okay, this is gonna happen, this is gonna be amazing. Oh, I have another story about the film, but I don’t know if I should say …

Yes, you should. We won’t tell anybody.
I fought to keep the ending that we have. The producers wanted a different one. The version they wanted, it was going to end with her saying to the waitress, Do you want to hear an amazing story? Cut to black. And if she says, Do you want to hear an amazing story? and then we cut to black and it says ‘Written and Directed by Nacho Vigalondo’ — it will be so arrogant. So embarrassing. Like, do you want to hear an amazing story, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo? It would be the most arrogant thing ever! It would be like the ending of Inglourious Basterds, like ‘This is going to be a masterpiece — written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.’ Which I think is really cool — Tarantino is one of my favorites, but I’m not in his position. Tarantino can do something like that, but if I do the same thing, I would be a douchebag. But I was able to finish the movie without that line.

What’s your connection to Kaiju movies?
I love them, and I enjoyed them as a kid growing up in Spain. For me, the first King Kong movies are a cornerstone, of course. King Kong’s climax is a true climax. It’s just this character is holding the other character in his fists. And he’s holding her while trying to kill the planes — it’s just a pure emotional piece. It’s difficult to make a climax that is just as pure as that.

Vulture Insider: Seeing the different types of men in the film, you have Tim who’s a little bit more verbally abusive, and Oscar, who’s frightening, and then you have Joel, who’s not abusive, but he’s just this pathetic bystander. I thought that the way you showcase the different ways men can behave was fantastic.
Thank you. Thank you so much. Yes, my life is horrible.

DE: Well, Joel is a funny character because we kind of wait for him to maybe intervene on her side given that she slept with him.
Yeah, for Joel, I think I was inspired by Lars von Trier. Lars von Trier’s films have these indecipherable men who seem to be intellectual characters. They seem to help. And at the end of the movie, they are the worst. Because they betray the woman in the most pathetic way. So this is the theory I have on Von Trier: I think Von Trier hates himself and he always put himself in every film and he’s the most despicable character of all.

Funny thing is, the test audiences wanted some sort of closure for Joel, even if Joel wasn’t a positive character. So we spent the whole day just trying to come up with something and suddenly it came: What if Joel is watching her on TV so the character gets a little compensation. Gloria’s not calling him, it’s not like, Okay, let’s fuck again, nothing like that. He’s not gone, but there’s something that is being closed in a fair way.

So the very next morning, we grabbed a camera and called Austin Stowell. He’s wearing a hat because his hair was blond for another film, so we took him out to this bar and we shot the whole thing with no money and no production values at all. I mean, the DP had only a towel to put on the bar so the light could reflect on the towel. And he made the whole scene for free. Those are the days in which you actually feel like making movies is really epic. When you come up with something out of nothing. It’s like when I was making short films with my friends: We’re making something out of nothing. That is the best part of filmmaking, solving these sorts of troubles by using this weird alchemy where out of nothing you get a little joke or a little piece of shiny bullshit. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s great.

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Colossal Came From Its Director’s Desire to Kill the Rom-Com