It’s been just about two years since I had the opportunity to visit the set of Chris Wedge’s Monster Trucks in Vancouver, but the movie finally has a trailer to go along with its official release date. When the project was first announced, it was set to debut in May 2015, but then it was pushed back to March 2016 and then finally settled down in the January 13, 2017 slot.
I’m sure Wedge and producer Mary Parent are eager for everyone to see the film, but as someone who spent a mere two days on set, I’m especially excited to get to share some of the material from the visit, one, because there’s so little information out there on the project and, two, it’s a rare opportunity to go on a set visit that isn’t for a sequel, reboot, prequel or a feature film adaptation that’s connected to robust source material.
Monster Trucks is a completely original project with some fun lore that the filmmakers hope will spark a series of films. Check out what Wedge and Parent had to say about the project during our on-set roundtable interview below.
Question: What initially attracted you to this whole thing?
CHRIS WEDGE: A few things. I’ve wanted to make a live-action movie for a while, that was part of it. But also Adam [Goodman]’s enthusiasm for this idea. I thought about it for a couple of weeks and came up with a take for it that really appealed to me. It’s a big adventure movie, I don’t know how much you guys have seen.
For me, you know, it’s a crazy concept. It’s a fun, crazy concept, but to get inside of it, I wanted a grounded story. And I know from animation that you can throw all the crazy color and design and motion you want at it, but at the end of the day all the audience really wants is character. So we found a great character story at the center of this thing. It’s basically the story of this kid and a monster, which may be the first and only friend he’s had. It’s just got a lot of heart, a lot of comedy, and a lot of great surprising action.
PARENT: In wish fulfillment, as they say, I want one of these trucks when I go back to LA. Oh, the traffic’s pretty bad here too. The idea of being able to leap over and cut in front of line is hugely appealing. [Laughs]
Some of the comparisons made earlier is that it’s like E.T., and it does kind of feel like a return to those 80s movies about a lost kid who discovers some sort of supernatural thing.
WEDGE: Yeah. No apologies. It’s an update on that feeling of, ‘I’m an alienated kid that trips into a kind of supernatural set of circumstances,’ and it takes off from there.
When you first started and decided you wanted Trip’s truck to emote, did you realize how much you were asking them to do with hydraulics and those things, especially compared to tradition animation?
WEDGE: They did it happily. Nobody said, ‘That’s impossible.’
PARENT: It surprised me. I didn’t think they’d actually be able to pull that off. [Chris] did, but I was surprised at what they were able to do.
WEDGE: I was pleased and surprised at what they were able to do because I knew we could switch off from the real trucks to CG trucks whenever we had to. But that thing, you saw it doing it’s little acting. When it’s in the movie, I swear it looks animated already. It just moves with that kind of purpose. Just the design of it and the way it sticks out from the rest of the environment and the rest of the trucks, it already looks like a character, which is what I was after.
PARENT: It has a lot of personality.
Seeing the truck move really sold a lot of us on the concept.
WEDGE: It’s alive. You’ll feel that it’s alive. You’re not really gonna see it moving until you’re in the middle of the movie, once everything’s come together for the Act II.
PARENT: And the sound design. We had a meeting two weeks ago, we sat down with Skywalker who’s gonna do the sound, and so creating the creature’s voice – I don’t mean a voice literally because it doesn’t talk, but how it sounds and an engine and all of the above. It’s gonna be really cool, but it’s a big job, you know?
How is it bringing the creature into the real world? ‘Cartoonish’ is probably the wrong word, but how well is it going to fit with living, breathing humans versus something like Alvin and the Chipmunks?
WEDGE: No, it doesn’t feel like it came from a different style world. We’re being very careful. It’s a very, very, specific looking creature and it does very specific things, but it looks like it came plausibly form our world.
PARENT: It’s photo real. That’s a good question though. The idea is not …
WEDGE: It’s more Jurassic Park than Alvin and the Chipmunks.
That’s a very good answer. [Laughs]
PARENT: We were talking about it this morning, it should feel real and there’s a mastery and a challenge in wish fulfillment to being able to tame this creature. If it’s too easy and fuzzy right out of the gate, there’s no sort of challenge, you know?
WEDGE: The fun thing for kids will be that, you know, ‘I’ve got a giant secret that I have to hide from everybody. I’ve got a dragon in my basement that I can’t let anybody know about.’ That’s part of it.
Earlier we were talking to Lucas [Till] and he said that on set Jane [Levy] caught something in the script that didn’t make sense. Is that a behind-the-scenes thing you can tell us about?
WEDGE: That couldn’t have happened. [Laughs] No, that must’ve been…
PARENT: What was it? Do you remember?
WEDGE: I don’t know what it was specifically. In animation we can make anything. As long as it sticks in the same style as the rest of the movie, we can make anything. And here we’re creating a very specific fantasy and from a bunch of different character perspectives and a bunch of plot logic perspectives and settings. It could’ve been anything. Jane’s very good at catching that stuff.
WEDGE: In fact, that’s her character in the movie. She’s very kind of Type A, focused and driven towards her kind of academic career, so she’s all over this stuff.
A lot of animators have been making the transition to directing very successfully like Brad Bird and Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I’m wondering what you learned from those examples and what was the learning curve for you?
WEDGE: That animators have made live-action movies hasn’t been part of it for me. That’s other people’s careers and paths. It has nothing to do with what you do. I’ve always wanted to make live-action movies when I was a student. My path was through animation and I got an opportunity to do this. I finished a movie last year that I’d been working on for six or eight years, and I felt, you know, I’ve been at Blue Sky for 27 years and I thought before I could still do it I wanted to try it! [Laughs] I got this opportunity to do this and I jumped right in and this movie’s gonna be done before our next animated movie from Blue Sky is done.
Did anything throw you for a loop or surprise you about the process?
WEDGE: Yeah, I’ll tell you a few things did. I mean, I had a lot of apprehension going in that I wouldn’t know what I was doing, but when I got in the whole process of working with the actors – all the prep is the same, developing the script is the same and all the pre-production is pretty much all the same. You’re dealing with people that are making giant electric cars that can act, but so many people bring all their excellent work from their disciplines that you count on that. What surprised me was how much I loved working the scenes out with actors on the set. Once the cameras are set you get about 15 minutes or a half an hour to really kind of focus a scene, and then just play it and shoot it so that’s fun.
Is it still tightly storyboarded?
WEDGE: No, no. I did a lot of storyboards that I threw out, because you walk on to a set and it’s like, the camera can’t go there or who knows? You walk on to a set and you figure it out when you get there. I mean, you know what you want. The storyboards can help with details. It’s a lot different than animation. [Laughs]
Are there any parallels with coverage? Do you find yourself using the same style of shots you did in animation here?
WEDGE: That’s a lot different, that’s a lot different. I think in a different process or if we had more time to shoot the movie, I might do it differently. But I never think about coverage in animation because you move into the sequence the way you wanna move and you put the camera wherever you want. Here there are economies you have to take advantage of because it moves very quickly, so you’ve gotta shoot the master and then you have to push in for coverage.
PARENT: When you’re lighting in one direction, you’ve gotta shoot everything that way. And if you have an idea and you’ve already turned around, it’s not as convenient.
WEDGE: There are all sorts of variables. ‘How long is this actor gonna last? Is this actor gonna peak at a certain point? This one’s really solid so we can do their coverage last.’ It’s a big puzzle.
PARENT: I think you get wonderful surprises, too. That’s the medium.
What’s your interaction with the second unit?
WEDGE: We interact as much as we have time to. We’ve done a lot of previsualization for the second unit. We talk it over quite a bit, but they’re out there doing the same thing we’re doing, it’s all happening in real time. And speaking of coverage, they’re just all over it.
PARENT: It was all prepped under his vision and then you guys speak multiple times a day and we meet again tonight. Try to meet a couple of times a week.
WEDGE: And as you have material to look at, you have things to talk about, ‘We’ll do this this way, we’ll do that that way,’ or, ‘Put more cameras on this side when you do that,’ or, ‘I like those shots when blah, blah, blah.’ Building Blue Sky and making those feature films, I know a lot about delegation. I’m about the people that really enjoy having somebody do something better than you could’ve done it [laughs], and it’s in your movie anyway. I like that, so I like trusting people and giving them as much creative latitude as you’d want for yourself.
Did you utilize the brain trust at Blue Sky at all for this project?
WEDGE: No, no. I’m on a little sabbatical from Blue Sky.
Have you thought about voicing the monster yourself?
WEDGE: We’ve been voicing it on set …
PARENT: He does, Chris does a lot to help the actors. [Laughs]
Can you do it for us?
WEDGE: [Laughs] No, no. We should save that for the movie.
PARENT: His performance for the family reunion was incredibly emotional. [Laughs] It was late at night, it was like two in the morning. You did a really good job though because you’re good with voices.
WEDGE: We’ll see. The voices for the creatures are gonna be fun. They’re gonna be very distinct.
Can you say anything about what you’re basing the voices off of, like animals or …
WEDGE: They’re animals, they’re animals.
I didn’t know if you were like, ‘It’s kind of like a whale mixed with dubstep.’
WEDGE: Well, that’s a good idea. [Laughs]
PARENT: He sounded like a whale – at first I thought there was an animal that had been hurt outside [laughs], then I realized what you were doing.
They don’t communicate with humans with speech, do they?
PARENT: Not speech.
WEDGE: Well, their own – they’re very intelligent animals.
PARENT: They have a hive mentality.
WEDGE: They’ve evolved separately from us unbeknownst to us, isolated from us.
Are they as intelligent as humans?
WEDGE: No, but they’re very soulful. They understand but they don’t have the same kind of – oh, let’s see – they’re very adaptable. They have what we’re calling a hive mentality where it’s kind of a collective consciousness where once one nearby them learns something the other one picks it up very quickly.
PARENT: Like ants or bees.
What does the creature bring to Trip’s life? How does the creature help him?
WEDGE: Can we tell story stuff here?
PARENT: Go for it.
WEDGE: Trip’s got issues. He’s kind of an alienated, kind of emotionally isolated 17-year-old, he kind of feels like a loner in his own town, the place he grew up.
PARENT: Never got over his dad leaving.
WEDGE: His town’s been transformed by all this oil money and friends have sold land leases and their parents moved across town and built bigger houses and he doesn’t have any of that, so he acts out. He wants to get out of town so he’s been building a truck at a junk yard out of parts. He thinks he’s about to finish it and then this thing comes.
PARENT: It gets him into trouble.
WEDGE: Yeah, it gets him into trouble and even into worse trouble, makes him wanna leave even more, but then he kind of befriends this thing and he hides it, he hides it in his truck. The creatures in our world are like an octopus on a beach. They’re completely vulnerable and awkward. This giant thing can hardly move, but once it gets in the truck, it’s like a paraplegic in a wheelchair that can do a marathon faster than you can. So it’s a super suit for the creature and it’s a super car for Trip.
What’s the transformation going on emotionally?
PARENT: He needs to connect again. He’s so emotional. For me that’s been so resonant in this movie and you really feel the character’s yearning and you feel his isolation literally and emotionally, and for him learning to have empathy and to connect again and actually being able to trust something, you know?
WEDGE: It’s the first thing he’s ever really cared about. He has a penchant for defending underdogs anyway. That’s one of the principles that makes him kind of interesting.
PARENT: It’s like what I talked about, how he and Meredith first meet is in detention where he’s actually been defending other kids, standing up for another kid.
WEDGE: But he won’t take credit for it.
WEDGE: And it’s just something that he naturally does, fights for people that he feels are going through the same thing that he is. He can’t fix anything in his own life so he helps little things in other peoples’ lives, and the creature’s one of the things he feels an early empathy for. So he wants to figure out where it came from, why these other people are chasing it, he’s just in between trying to figure out what’s best for it. It doesn’t come easy for him, but he gets there. [Laughs] It comes into his life and kind of fixes his life.
PARENT: In some ways he becomes a father figure to that creature, or sort of what he didn’t have, he’s able to bring to that creature. And the family that he finds, there’s more of an unlikely group of people that come together to form a family in his life as he begins to reunite that family. And it’s a disparate group of people, as I mentioned before, that wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths but this creature and this event brings these people together, Trip and Meredith being an example of people who wouldn’t ordinarily socialize or hang out together.
If they’re hive minds, if Big Ugly teaches them to drive trucks, does this mean they’re gonna go home and teach all the other squid monsters to drive trucks?
PARENT: [Laughs] Exactly.
WEDGE: [Laughs] That’s Act IV.
Earlier we were talking about this setting up a franchise. Do you guys have ideas for sequels yet?
PARENT: Like I said, just trying to make a good movie first and if that happens then hopefully other things will organically unfold.
Lucas was joking about planes and stuff like that.
PARENT: I must say, he’s got a very creative mind. [Laughs] I love that he’s thinking ahead.
WEDGE: He just wants to drive an airplane.
PARENT: Exactly. That’s what it really boils down to.
Why North Dakota? Why that location?
WEDGE: Well, that’s where I wanted to ground it. That’s where they’re doing all of this drilling into the back and shale.
PARENT: These towns have been taken over.
WEDGE: Towns are just taken over. I went to visit Williston, North Dakota and it was a boom there in the 80s that died and now this boom is here because part of it is the technology where the deep-well drilling and the fracturing of the rock down there, that’s how we get to these creatures. We’ve never drilled deeper, and I looked at that town and I thought the oil companies are moving in and transforming the towns, and the people that are involved in our story are going through the same things they’re going through in those towns.
PARENT: There’s a whole culture with it. Restaurants pop up, housing pops up. There’s positives and negatives to it.
WEDGE: It’s nothing but trucks there, nothing but trucks.
Can you talk a little bit about casting? Why Lucas and Jane?
WEDGE: Actually, they were the toughest ones to cast because we were so specific about what we wanted, and a lot of it is first what you want and then meeting people, because I didn’t know a lot of the kids we were talking to in the beginning, and then getting one of them, the chemistry between them, so it took us months to cast those two. But then I was very fortunate on a lot of the other casting. A lot of my first picks lined up or were very close.
PARENT: We had a great casting director, John Papsidera, who does all of Chris Nolan’s movies and he just did a Jason Reitman movie. There’s a lot of young kids in this age range that are cast. He really sort of had his fingers on the pulse in terms of who the stars of tomorrow are, you know? And Lucas, as I’m sure you’ve met him, he’s got all of those qualities. He’s got humanity, he’s got this heartthrob kind of tough guy thing to him even though he’s a big softy. Jane has impeccable comic timing.
WEDGE: The camera loves both of them.
PARENT: Yeah, it really does. And they’re both on the precipice. He’s obviously working his way up, and Havoc in X-Men, a small role but hopefully leading to other things. And Jane’s really just started with Suburgatory, if you guys saw it or not, she was quite good on. She’s pretty and has comic timing. It’s an interesting combination.
What was the biggest challenge bringing your vision of the film to life?
WEDGE: Bringing my vision of the film to life has been the biggest challenge. [Laughs] I mean, you take it a step at a time. You come with a big fuzzy ambition and you do it a step at a time, what fits. You have to learn, I think, to be instinctive and just say what you think and not think too deep at every moment because it’s easy to get caught in logic loops.
PARENT: He’s done a great job. These movies are a marathon, as we talked about a little earlier. The amount of days that you shoot and the hours and after four weeks of nights we kept saying, ‘You realize there’s a lot of nights?’ And he’s like, ‘No, junk yard, I want it to be night,’ and he’s held up. And that’s the challenge which is not to compromise when you start to get tired. So you haven’t so far unless you’re gonna break down in a week. [Laughs]
WEDGE: We’re so close! We’re so close!
How are you feeling right now? Are you ready to go back to animation after this or do you wanna stick to live-action?
WEDGE: I’m ready to get the shoot done. I’m ready to cut the movie together. I can’t wait to see it cut together. I mean, we have a whole long post process that’s mostly animation, which I know how to do but fortunately somebody else is gonna do it. I’m sitting on the other side of the table. I’m anxious to get – we have a couple more meaty scenes to shoot and a lot of – we’ve got about three weeks left so I’m anxious to get into the cutting room and get home. I live in New York.
For more from my Monster Trucks set visit, click here to check out the roundtable interview with Lucas Till. Monster Trucks is set to hit theaters January 2017.