‘Enormous’ director talks big monsters, adapting comics for screen

March 20, 2014 | 4:28 p.m.

“Enormous” tells the tale of the aftermath of a huge ecological shift that spawns giant, Godzilla-like insect creatures. Mankind is endangered and hunted, but Ellen Grace is still out there trying to help her fellow man by leading a search and rescue team. The graphic novel, written by Tim Daniel and drawn by Mehdi Cheggour, went live-action today as a short film/pilot was released by Machinima. Director BenDavid Grabinski, writer Andre Ovredal and producer Adrian Askarieh bring the graphic novel to life with an almost 10-minute project introducing us to the world of “Enormous.” The film picks up years after E Day, when the massive monsters attacked (watch it below). Hero Complex caught up with Grabinski to get the low-down on how the project came to be.  Toward the end of our chat, we were joined by the project’s star, Ceren Lee — who plays Ellen and is married to actor Jason Lee — and she answered a few questions about the project as well.

Hero Complex: So how did you come to be involved with the project? Comic book aficionado, etc.?

BenDavid Grabinski: I’m basically obsessed with this stuff, but in this case, the project came to me.  I received a call from  Adrian Askarieh and they were looking for a director. It sounded really exciting.  Adrian has introduced it at New York Comic-Con and had all of these big plans to turn it into a Web series and a TV show and movie but in ways that actually made sense. I guess “transmedia” is the buzzword. So by the time he called me, it was actually coming together, because he partnered with Machinima and they were ready to get in pre-production and do a pilot. There had been a director before me, but there were scheduling issues and issues on another project, so they came to me. It was giant monsters, the title was cool, the comic was great, and I really love a challenge. This was as big of a challenge as you can get — it needed to be done by Jan. 31 and I got the call around Halloween, so it was a really ambitious production.

HC: This was slated to be a big-screen event. Did you have to scale down the idea at all?

BG: No, not really. There was a script that they sent to me, and the final version ended up being pretty close to it, except that some of the characters evolved a bit and some of the logistics had to change, but the structure was similar. We see these characters, we meet them, they run into human conflict, then they run into a giant … monster. The details of all that evolve, but it felt like a really strong way to get into it.  I just wanted to execute it, turn into my own thing, and make it as cinematic as possible.  But it was exciting because I felt like I could make something that looked pretty good, and had some great world-building, cast it pretty well, then try to make the best thing possible. I’m pretty happy with how it came together.

HC: Why do you think that post-apocalyptic stories — “The Walking Dead,” “World War Z” and so on — are so popular nowadays?

BG: It’s probably stress release for — somewhere in the back of our heads — where we can go economically or politically in terms of resources and everything else.  I’m a very optimistic guy and I really believe that we can turn everything around and that we’re going to be OK.  But we all have that thing in our brains, that kind of fear, and there’s catharsis in these [movies] the same way you get catharsis in traditional horror. At the same time, it’s just interesting to ask that question: “What would you do in a circumstance like this?”  That’s the fun when you watch this and projects like this. Except maybe “Road Warrior.” I don’t know if I’d like to do anything those guys were doing, but it’s one of the best movies ever made. One of the best questions for any story, apocalyptic or not, is the question of human behavior in the context of dramatic events.

A scene from "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

A scene from “Pacific Rim.” (Warner Bros.)

HC: Though the brand of kaiju on “Enormous” are different, “Pacific Rim” was recently out there in terms of huge monsters. How did you go about making something unique with that hanging over you a bit?

BG: It’s interesting because I saw “Pacific Rim” six times in theaters and listened to the soundtrack and was pretty obsessed with it before I even got this phone call.  In a way, it was kind of appropriate because I really like material like this and I really loved that movie.  I felt like there was a way to make this that it wouldn’t be generic or derivative. You’ve never seen a series about people dealing with giant monsters in live action and you haven’t seen an apocalyptic story where the survivors are dealing with that. I just felt like if I tried to follow my own visual instincts with how I thought the world-building should be, it would be its own thing. The real goal at the end of the day when you’re directing something is to inject as much personality as possible  and as much specificity as possible without being indulgent or without taking away from the story. I think people respond to things that aren’t generic, that feel fresh. You don’t want to be a carbon copy of something else. But, because this was a series and it’s set in the world it is, it just feels different.

HC: Did the art on the graphic novel by Mehdi Cheggour influence the look of the project?

BG: It was an inspiration in terms of Ellen the lead character, but I was trying to really do my own thing. Not for selfish reasons, but because we’re taking a different story and we’re doing a different interpretation of that, it’d be better to be a little separate from each other. And the process was really fun because Tim Daniel, who wrote it, was there the entire time. He would email me, because he wasn’t on set, and he was by far the most supportive person of everything I was trying to do the entire time.  The guy is a complete sweetheart and probably the most stoked person because I think he understood the appeal of doing something based on his story that works separately.

There are two ways of going about adapting a comic book: You take what you love  about it and apply your own vision or you just try to bring the comic book to life.  There’s merit to both.  “Scott Pilgrim” is one of my favorite movies of all time, and “300″ is extremely impressive, but for this, I felt like the comic book was purely a comic book and it works in that medium. The same way that if I was going to do a movie, it wouldn’t be like the Web series. I just had to make sure that they were complementary of each other.  If ever there were issues about what I was doing, I would’ve taken it to heart. But [the comic book creators and Machinima] were really supportive the entire way.

"Enormous" cover for graphic novel

“Enormous” cover for graphic novel.

HC: Have you watched a lot of the Machinima projects?

BG: When I got the job, in one weekend I think I watched everything on the Internet. I was just curious as to what these things are.  I had already seen the Mortal Kombat series, and I hadn’t seen all of the other stuff, but I was aware of it. I basically ended up falling down a rabbit hole as to what Web content is.
The one thing people keep saying about Web stuff is “You want to make sure people don’t turn it off and make sure people stay engaged.”  That’s true, and I think that’s the goal for when you do anything.

HC: Are there things that you left out that you might’ve wanted to get in? [SPOILER WARNING]

BG: There are a couple of things. There’s back story of a few characters that we were going to divulge, but we thought it would be best for it to be told later. In terms of storytelling we’d be showing our hand too much. There’s also a character who died that we ended up not killing because I liked the actor so much. I was so happy with what they were doing that I “unkilled” him.  I just thought that he really needed to be doing more, and I realized he just had a lot more range and potential than was originally conceived. I’m a huge fan of letting things evolve creatively.

There’s a character in the pilot that was in the original script that was basically just a tech guy that sat in the back of a truck. One of the other characters pulled a gun on the group, and I had this idea that that character was actually a sniper. It was good both visually and in the story, and the actor was so much fun and was so excited to play a sniper. They were in a jam and they get out of it.

Ceren Lee, the star of “Enormous” who plays Ellen, chimes in to the interview.

HC: What drew you to the project, and do you at all read comics or just enjoy this kind of post-apocalyptic adventure?

Ceren Lee: It’s not really my genre, but what BenDavid did to this was incredible. I felt like I was reading a story about real people in real situation. I wasn’t really even aware of the post-apocalyptic genre while I was reading it.  Sometimes, when you read material like this, it’s very obviously a sci-fi thing. This just felt like a bunch of people that ended up in a situation together that would either make them or break them.

HC: Were there things that happened during your reading of the script that surprised you?

CL: The human quality surprised me. I stereotyped it as an all-action, no-substance type of thing. It felt very connected and real.  Also, the artistry behind it. I was so excited to see what was going to happen because of the ideas that BenDavid had.

Jeren Lee as Ellen Grace in "Enormous." (Machinima)

Ceren Lee as Ellen Grace in “Enormous.” (Machinima)

HC: What were the difficulties in shooting this?

CL: The second unit stuff. We didn’t have a real second-unit crew. We ended up doing stuff with a camera guy, a director, the creator Tim Daniel, and some stunt coordinators throwing rubble at us while I’m carrying a little boy down the staircase. Literally, the dolly was a wheelchair and we were just kind of yelling “Action!” It was just so exciting. Even though it was difficult because we had such a short amount of time: three days.  Yeah, that would’ve been the most difficult, but you couldn’t even tell.

BG: There was a point where I could’ve compromised, but I came up with a solution.  I brought in two friends. We had a crew of about 40 people, then we had a second unit of two people and the comic creator, which in terms of operating the group you need four people, but we had one guy doing all the work.  Basically, every time Ceren wasn’t shooting something with me, I’d give them marching orders and send them off to get shots and do out-of-sequence stuff. It was a really fun experience, and Ceren was down to basically run into this scary building for pick-up shots and the whole thing. Everything they brought back was almost exactly what they wanted or it was much better. The pilot is about 10 minutes long, and I’d say maybe a minute 20 of it is stuff from the second unit.

CL: We had a stunt coordinator there and a stuntwoman, but everyone was so amped to get the shot, I was like put the kid on my shoulder, let’s just do it! You guys are in a wheelchair? I can carry a kid down the stairs.  That was what was so amazing.

BG: When I had to audition someone, they told me that she was strong and tough. I literally had her pick up a kid in the audition. I think she had adrenaline going for about three straight days.

HC: What do you want people to take away from the project after watching?

CL: I want people to take away that sense of excitement and ultimately wondering what happens next. I want people to be watching it and go “Where’s the rest?!” That’s what I want. I want people to look past the story, whatever genre it is, and look at the characters and feel connected to them.

BG: I’d like for them to watch the pilot and want to see more out of the characters and world. There’s a lot of places it can go. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I guess it would just be nice if they thought it was cool.

– Jevon Phillips | @LATherocomplex

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