Pollyanna McIntosh is an actor, writer and director who currently plays Jadis on The Walking Dead. Her recent work in film has included The Woman, Filth, Let Us Prey, Burke and Hare and Tales of Halloween, while on TV she appeared in Sundance Channel’s Hap and Leonard and was the female lead in the BBC political comedy, Bob Servant Independent, starring alongside Brian Cox. Born in Scotland, she grew up in Portugal and Colombia and now lives in Los Angeles. (Picture by Lexus Gallegos.)
Magical realism is probably my favorite genre. Female leads are also my thing, and the combination of a respected foreign indie auteur (Nacho Vigalondo) with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Anne Hathaway) is always interesting to check out either as a coup (the art attracts the actor willing to take a risk) or as a warning (Hollywood can often sanitize a fine indie vision). Based on all this, I tucked into Colossal with fairly high expectations; happily, they were met and more.
Colossal is full of unexpected happenings, character nuances and gender/hierarchical/location reversals amid an (at first) seemingly oft-told story. Just as my dread built about the “terrible thing” happening to the female lead, I discovered the dangerous monster truly is within – though in unexpected form. My favorite kind of horror, if you can call it that. There’s humor too, but not the kind you’d expect in a movie also starring Jason Sudeikis. It’s not only Anne Hathaway who gets to try something a little different here. Both Miss American Pie and Mr. College Humor become North American folk we can recognize; their disappointment, disregard and frustration build to some of the most realistic and ridiculous fight scenes I’ve seen on film.
Though sometimes its telling of the movie’s rudderless, lonely, drunken protagonists’ survival attempts is myopic, this only serves to surprise us with the gigantic impact their shitty choices and held-down fury end up making – all the while poking holes in the idea that any one person’s troubles are all that important or impactful. Colossal is the perfect title for it; as witty, wry and defiant as the film itself.
The film’s freedom in storytelling fascinated me, and I really wanted to talk to Nacho about it.
The last and only time we’d spoken before was three years ago over a weekend at Fantaspoa Film Festival in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I was there with Love Eternal, a strange and wonderful Irish necromance based on a Japanese book, a film I’m proud of being in, and was also proudly supporting my boyfriend at the time, Bobcat Goldthwait, who was there with his great found-footage horror Willow Creek, which satirizes with fondness both the search for Bigfoot and for lasting love. Nacho was amongst friends too. It seemed everyone knew and loved this clowning Spaniard with a big appetite who was there for fun and for his film Open Windows, starring Elijah Wood. Despite the brevity of our previous connection, he responded warmly when I reached out through Facebook, so we spoke on Skype, from opposite ends of the earth, and found marvelous coincidences as we talked Colossal.
Pollyanna McIntosh: You’ve been on the road promoting Colossal for a while and I know what it’s like to be interviewed relentlessly about the same subject. So my first question for you is: what are the questions you hate being asked?
Nacho Vigalondo: “Tell me what it’s like working with Anne Hathaway?” As if she is some sort of creature from outer space. “Is she difficult to work with?” Things like that. I think that’s disrespectful because it’s not showing a specific interest in her, it’s about, “Give me the gossip, give me the headline.” What is it like working with Anne Hathaway? It’s like working with a nice professional; she’s not the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s to feed this phenomenon of the Hathahaters. I didn’t know when I started working with her that there were people who hated her for some reason and once I was deep into the production, I heard and was surprised and intrigued and began looking for a reason and couldn’t find any.
PM: Her being famous and beautiful?
NV: I think it’s something else. She has this aura of being a true professional. I read things like, “She’s too perfect for us to believe in her,” so I started thinking, ‘So, OK, I think we should hate Michael Caine too, because he’s too fucking perfect. Let’s hate everyone out there who’s too perfect for us [laughs] for some reason.’ And the thing is, she’s someone who’s made like 400 films to my four and so she knows much more than me in terms of set dynamics, how to treat other people, how to make people comfortable, so I have to say that I learned a lot of things from her. And that’s not the answer they want you to give.
Another question I hate – and I understand that this one comes mostly from a good place, but I hate it because it’s impossible to answer in a satisfying way: “How did you get this idea?” It’s like, what can I tell you? I can give you an answer, but it’s not going to be a beautiful answer because all the ideas come from the same place – personal experience – and I’m not going to confess all the personal experiences that drove me to this film. There’s not a funny story behind it, it’s just creation.
PM: Well, I won’t ask you either of those, then! I found the tone in Colossal was so specific with the actors which was oddly funny and it was part of the poking fun at importance yet it didn’t stop me from being moved. Did that tone come naturally out of the writing and your sensibility or is that something you sat down and talked about with people?
NV: People think that being rich whilst making a film is having a lot of money, but being rich really means having a lot of time. For example, when making a short film you can be rich in terms of doing a lot of rehearsal with your cast. In this case, I wasn’t able to do that, so all I had were a lot of conversations with the cast, trying to define the world we were making. Here the tone is really delicate because one moment something super silly is happening and the next minute something super serious, so we were all concerned. Was this a drama? A comedy? A mystery? An action film? The conclusion we came to was instead of trying to define a tone for the film in an abstract way, let’s stick to what the characters feel and how they behave. I had this conversation with Anne; some movies stick to the funny and they are called comedies, some movies stick to the drama, but if you take a whole day of your real life there’s a big chance that it will be filled with the silly and the dark. So we decided, let’s stick to both as if they were equally important in this portrait. Let’s try not to be afraid of being both because that’s what life is about. Let’s not have a marketing department next to us when we’re making the film, let’s try to be honest.
I didn’t share this with the cast, but I was really scared because in this movie there was a shadow projected everywhere and that shadow is domestic violence, which is a real, serious thing everywhere. But especially in Spain, where for the first time the media is finally opening to it. I remember when I was a child, you could make a joke about hitting your wife in primetime and it worked as a joke, everybody was laughing, including me, and now we are perceiving this recent past through different eyes. So in this time when domestic violence is hitting the news every day, I’m going to make a film about a very serious topic while making a bunch of jokes and putting in a lot of effects with a giant monster and a giant robot?! I was like, they are going to throw rocks at me, my family and friends, they’re going to kill me, they’re going to burn me on a pyre because I’m putting these things together that shouldn’t be together. At the same time, I was pushed by this idea of trying to be honest with this story and not being afraid of the topics we were touching.
PM: And having that faith in yourself as an artist, right?
NV: Yes, the things that scare you the most are the ones that push you the most, that’s the thing.
PM: Absolutely. I got so scared while writing the script that I’ll be directing in December – I had anxiety because I was writing something painfully dark and personal and I became so protective over it. I think what saved me was writing it in my own odd, funny way.
NV: Yes, you have to use that fear as fuel because if you use it, you’re going to move on in a really special way. It’s like super extra fuel for your car. Congratulations on that fear and on that decision.
PM: Thank you very much! Can you tell me a little bit about the film’s fantastic soundtrack?
NV: I fell in love with Bear McCreary when he sent us a test for one of the sequences. [Coincidence #1: Bear is also the composer on the show I’m in: The Walking Dead.] We talked about how the movie is like an indie flick from the ’90s that sometimes pretends to be a blockbuster, so let’s do the opposite: let’s think of this movie as a blockbuster who is dreaming of itself as an indie film. We decided to draw that schizophrenia into the soundtrack and so we have this guitar with a raw texture that then goes into these big orchestral, Amblin-feeling tracks like from the ’80s.
PM: Yes! I loved those ’80s-style tracks. So I have to ask – I saw a picture of you wearing the same T-shirt I have, of the John Waters movie Female Trouble, and I wondered if he is an influence on you?
NV: Oh yes! For me he is like a spiritual father. When my contemporaries talk about their childhood, their filmmaking education, they talk about the ’80s, Amblin, Spielberg, George Lucas, Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Goonies and stuff, but in my case I started thinking about myself as a filmmaker much later, in the ’90s, when I started to discover films by people like John Waters. I remember when I watched Pink Flamingos I thought, OK, movies can be like this. [Coincidence #2: I had just finished watching that before we got on this Skype, just for kicks.] Instead of trying to make these escapist fantasies into another world, you can use your inner context, you can use the people and places around you and create something out of those instead of trying to fly to another planet. I remember when they put his films on Spanish television – Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, Multiple Maniacs – and it just kind of opened my eyes: OK, I can make movies out of my life instead of trying to build these cathedrals of fantasy somehow.
PM: Like the character of Pecker did in Pecker.
NV: Yes! So, for me, those people like Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley or John Waters, those are the guys who convinced me that I could be a filmmaker because I’m from a little town in the north of Spain, I’m not from the city and when you’re a child dreaming of yourself as a filmmaker, it’s a completely irresponsible thing – it can’t be real. But later, when I was in high school and I started watching these kinds of films, I was like, I can make fantasy out of my life and the things around me and I kept that spirit for my films. There’s a chance Colossal is my most confessional film. I always wanted to put the fantastical element [in my films] because that’s how my nature works; in Colossal, I’m talking about myself and my people and the conflicts in my small town.
PM: It’s interesting that what feels very North American is really based on your little town in the north of Spain. On the subject of locations, how did you choose South Korea as the other place? And did you shoot there?
NV: Yes, we shot there and we shot the rest in Vancouver. They both played themselves. As a cinephile, the second place had to be an Asian country and it’s perfect also because it looks very different and I needed that for the TV screens that were showing the disaster happening. I see that if we are, say, in Spain and we see a disaster happening in Paris, we are affected but if we see something terrible happening far from us – in Syria, for example – we don’t care as much. I needed my characters to react, or not react, to suffering in a place that looks different than “us.”
PM: Before you flipped it.
NV: Yes. And another reason I chose South Korea is because I had a chance to go there for the Busan International Film Festival to promote Timecrimes.
PM: I love that festival! I went there with two films I was in, Love Eternal and Como Quien No Quiere La Cosa?, but a different year from you.
NV: So you know the place and why I fell in love with it.
PM: Yes. Did you stay in the hotel near the little old lady with the stall where you can throw darts at balloons to win a firework which you then just let off in the street so they’re constantly screaming past your 10th floor window at 4 a.m.?
NV: Um, I don’t think so. I don’t remember that.
PM: You would have remembered! One night my producer Conor and I were trying to be kind and guide our drunken, unruly friend Tim safely back to his own hotel, but we forgot that we were also drunk and so we ended up stopping at that stall and putting darts and fireworks into his hands! He was lighting his prize rocket firework as it was pointing at Conor and we were all yelling, “Point it up! UP!” and Tim gave us this wild grin and then shot it right into Conor’s crotch.
NV: Tim League from Alamo Drafthouse?
NV: There are so many stories about him! That sequence in Colossal with the fireworks is somewhat inspired by him [Coincidence #3] … but I won’t give you the details because I’m probably talking about illegal things.
PM: He’s full-on as fuck, but with pride. OK, next question: the monsters in the film make sense to me on a visceral level but did you know what they were going to look like before you started or did you have a particular designer in mind to bring them to life?
NV: I’m not an artist. I wish I was this Guillermo del Toro kind of guy who was able to draw everything that he thinks of, but I’m not so I worked with these Spanish designers and I tried to be as specific as I could about the intentions behind both creatures. It was about designing two creatures that felt opposite to each other and I didn’t want to be postmodern or super clever. I wanted to design something that felt like part of a tradition but I didn’t want to push the nostalgia element or the sarcastic element. I wanted to create two believable monsters that could appear in another kind of film because I don’t want to make a comment on monster movies with this film. The genre that I want to talk about is the romantic comedy, that’s probably the genre that I want to destroy but towards monster movies I feel only love.
PM: It was such a satisfying double finale for me where we had this definitive last battle between the protagonist pair and then in the bar with the woman she talks to, it’s got a very different flavor, the opposite of definitive, which I just loved.
NV: The last two seconds of the film were what convinced Anne Hathaway to do the role, she told me. And that made me very happy, because I knew that she really got it.
Image of Nacho Vigalondo courtesy of TIFF.