Shawn Levy Interview: Love and Monsters

Alongside 21 Laps Entertainment, Shawn Levy has produced a number of genre hits that are sure to have a good deal of heart. Love and Monsters, their latest fantasy adventure film currently available on VOD, is no exception.

The story of Joel Dawson’s (Dylan O’Brien) journey across a creature-infested, post-apocalyptic land to find his true love Aimee (Jessica Henwick) is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a dystopian film. Levy spoke to Screen Rant about how and why he chooses to blend those things, and how the impressive cast came to be.

I saw the film last night and again this morning. It’s phenomenal.

Shawn Levy: Well, I’m so happy to hear that. It’s such an interesting moment to be releasing a movie in any fashion. While I confess I would have loved for audiences to experience Love and Monsters on a big screen, I’m most of all thrilled that they’re going to be able to experience it at all in the comfort of their homes. Frankly, in any way that the world allows possible, because I do think it’s a really special movie.

You’re clearly at home in the sci-fi genre. What are your personal rules for picking projects, and what about Love and Monsters pulled you in?

Shawn Levy: Well, I do like genre storytelling, but I don’t like genre storytelling unless it’s anchored in characters that we feel and root for. This is true of Stranger Things, it’s true of Arrival, it’s true of Free Guy, and it’s definitely true of Love and Monsters. I really responded to an archetypal coming-of-age story set against a heightened backdrop.

To me, this movie – and we spent years developing it into the draft and the movie that it’s become – was always a descendant of Ferris Bueller and Risky Business, but set against a genre backdrop. From the very earliest conversations with Dylan, that was the model: a character-centered, coming-of-age hero’s journey that happens to be set in the apocalypse.

Dylan brings so much to this room, but the whole cast is phenomenal. How did this standout cast come together?

Shawn Levy: Well, Dylan was unsurprisingly the first and cornerstone piece. I’ve known Dylan since he was in a movie I directed called The Internship. That was one of his first movie jobs, and it showed me what a gifted comedic actor he is. He got super famous because of Maze Runner, but I’ve always known that he’s equally facile with action, comedy and heart. We need an actor who could do all three, and that’s why Dylan was perfect for this protagonist role of Joel.

Once we had Dylan, we knew that we were gonna have someone who could find humor, poignance and heroism – and we wanted to surround him with strength. We wanted to surround him with just cool, unique actors. No one cookie cutter, no one generic; everybody specific and singular. So, we just pick the supporting cast based on how individual and unique they felt.

It’s refreshing to see a film on this scale, with real sets and locations. Can you talk to me about the some of the monsters and effects, were any practical?

Shawn Levy: We didn’t use as much practical effects as we could. I learned early on in my career, on a movie called Real Steel where we built many of those robots in real life, that if you can ground the effects work in practical effects, it really gives the audience a different and better experience. So, we did build as many monster components as possible practically. And then, of course, we built out the world from there.

But if you have, for instance, a real monster claw in a shot with your actor, then guess what? When the visual effects team does a digital monster, that monster needs to look as real as that claw. So, it builds a bar into the movie that the VFX team has to meet. It always reminds you what real looks like, so you don’t kid yourself as you’re looking at the visual effects being done digitally.

How does the underground colony view Joel at the start?

Shawn Levy: Well, part of the hero’s journey that is Joel’s story is that he goes from being perceived by his colony as the dutiful, sweet, definitely single and sexless kid in the group. He is the sweet, single, sexless kid in the group. And over the course of his journey, he comes into his heroism and returns to his colony a savior and a man.

We meet so many characters that Joel crosses along the way, but a large portion of the film is really Joel by himself. What impressed you about Dylan’s performance?

Shawn Levy: What impresses me about Dylan’s performance doesn’t surprise me. Because again, I worked with Dylan when he was starting out seven or eight years ago. What impresses me is that Dylan does the words on the page, but every day and every scene, he brings so many ideas and improvisational instincts to every moment. He makes every scene funnier and more authentic, because he’s constantly discovering and trying stuff in the moment, in the midst of the shoot day. Nothing ever feels stodgy or predictable or scripted, because his moment-to-moment authenticity makes things feel real.

One thing I’ve learned is the more out there the premise of the movie, the more real the performances need to be.

Love and Monsters is a great adventure film and, like you said, it has a bit of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in it. But something else that I found in there was a dash of The Princess Bride in it. What were some of your inspirations while working on it?

Shawn Levy: Well, certainly, the slightly self-aware adventure movie was epitomized most magnificently by Princess Bride; that was at work. We wanted the movie to have an Old School, Amblin sense of fun and warmth. We’ve all seen dark, bleak, desaturated dystopian apocalypse movies, but we wanted ours to be decidedly portrayed with color – with spectacle, with saturation of palette.

We wanted it to feel like a grim, imagined future but not a grim movie. The movie is definitely committed to a certain levity in its tone, a sense of fun in the midst of the adventure, and a romantic yearning which is aspirational. I would say, from the earliest conversations with our director Michael, that was the spirit that he and we wanted to bring.

Can you talk to me about the collaboration process with Michael Matthews, and why he was the right choice to direct this film?

Shawn Levy: We looked at a lot of directors for this movie. Michael had some smaller films and not yet made a studio feature film, but he presented a video short and a lookbook. It somehow captured the tone that had been in the back of our mind but that we’ve never articulated. So, when Michael came along, was he a risky bet? Absolutely. Anytime you bet on a new filmmaker, it’s risky. But the rewards are so huge. Michael not only came with some really good instincts already, but he was collaborative. He was looking for partnership with Dylan and with 21 Laps, and that seemed like a really good fit.

I also have to give a shout out to our cinematographer, Lachlan Milne. Lachlan shoots Strangers Things for me, and I’ve worked with him a lot very personally as a director on my episodes. He brings such visual instincts and such a genial, warm, collaborative spirit that Michael and our movie benefited immensely from his terrific lighting and cinematography as well.

One of the more touching scenes in the film is is with Mav1s. Can you talk to me about what inspired that moment?

Shawn Levy: First of all, I want to tell you that I empathically agree with you. Literally, through probably 20 drafts of the script and years of development, the Mav1s sequence was always my favorite. Even when the script wasn’t good enough yet, that Mav1s scene was always incredibly moving to me, and just such a critical piece of the movie’s narrative and tone. Because that scene, where Joel comes across an obsolete robot that allows him to have the catharsis he’s been needing, is what differentiates Love and Monsters from so many other comedies or adventure movies.

It’s where the movie takes a breath and allows itself to be truly human and emotional. It’s the moment where you fully understand Joel; where Joel can heal a bit. And how beautiful and ironic that Joel reconnects with his humanity in that moment with a nonhuman.

I’ll just say that it was always one of the most original ideas in the screenplay, and through many drafts and many cuts in the movie, protecting the Mav1s sequence was always the law of the land and our North star.

Joel starts his journey in search of the person he believes is his true love. What does he really discover about himself throughout?

Shawn Levy: That’s a really good question, and it was really important to us. It’s about a boy crossing the apocalyptic landscape for a girl, but the movie is not about finding the love of your life. It’s about finding your better self. He goes in search of a girl, but he finds himself. That’s what Love and Monsters is about. The quest allows him to discover the heroic in himself; the brave in himself. Ultimately, a better and more confident Joel emerges from this quest that he takes for Aimee.

So yeah, will Aimee and Joel end up together? Probably. But that was never the point. The point was that Joel comes into himself and steps into a new level of self-awareness, self-belief and confidence moving into the future.

More: Michael Rooker Interview for Love and Monsters