One of the first hints of the destruction brought on by the monster’s devastating tantrums comes early in the film, as the core group of young friends leaves Rob’s party to find out what the commotion outside is all about – only to be greeted by the head of the Statue of Liberty bouncing down the street.
The shot was originally featured in a two-minute teaser trailer filmed in late May 2007, which appeared just a few weeks later attached to Michael Bay’s summer blockbuster “TRANSFORMERS.” The trailer contained a variety of shots, including party scenes, Miss Liberty’s head and other depictions of destruction, all of which were shot prior to the start of production on the film.
“The Liberty head sequence was a huge leap of faith from the studio,” explains Burk. But the trailer had an immediate impact on genre fans. “The reaction was just what we’d hoped for,” notes Abrams. “No one had heard of this movie yet. We didn’t even put a title on it, something the MPAA had never seen before.”
The title of the film, though seemingly cryptic, actually came out of the producers’ desire to keep news of the production quiet until the time was right. “We wanted to make a movie that no one knew about and then let them discover it, the way we used to discover movies growing up,” says Abrams.
Interest in the film, based on just the trailer, has been, to say the least, remarkable. “I certainly didn’t expect the outpouring of curiosity and intense scrutiny of this project,” says executive producer Clark, “or people sneaking onto the set and taking photos and video. It’s been intense. People are very interested in J.J. and what he has to say.”
It was, in fact, one of Abrams’ and Burk’s agents, John Fogelman, who, having seen the word “monster” one too many times in private e-mail correspondence, suggested calling the project “Cloverfield,” after a main street near Abrams’ office in West Los Angeles. “We started working on the movie, and it became like a nickname. But we thought, ‘There’s no way that’s going to be the title of the movie,’” Abrams recalls. “We even had another title, ‘Greyshot,’ the name of the bridge that Rob and Beth are hiding under in Central Park at the end of the film, which we were all set to announce at Comic-Con. But, by that time, the name ‘Cloverfield’ had already leaked out, and the fans already knew it by that name, so we just decided to stick with that.”
The shocking Liberty head shot was filmed on the Paramount back lot and created originally by Studio City-based Hammerhead Productions (the shot, later reused in the feature film, was advanced by Double Negative to include more detail). It’s Abrams’ homage to John Carpenter’s 1981 film “Escape From New York,” which featured a similar image in its original theatrical poster. “I loved that movie as a kid,” he says, “but one of the things that drove me crazy is the poster had this picture of the head of the Statue of Liberty sitting in the middle of a New York street – but it was never in the movie,” says Abrams. “And I always felt that was such a crazy, scary image, that it had to be in our movie.”
Difficult as it was to give a fictional 25-story monster a sense of authenticity (which for Reeves was crucial to the success of the film), Tippett Studio and Double Negative were further challenged to create scenes of destruction that had to look real to an audience for whom scenes of falling buildings in New York are all too well-etched in their minds.
A few years ago, few people had any idea of what a building looked like when it collapsed. “Now,” says Michael Ellis, “when a building collapses in a particular way and throws off a huge amount of dust, it’s recognizable to everybody.” “Again,” notes Leven, “YouTube has changed the game in terms of visual effects references.”
Double Negative already had experience with similar destruction shots. In this case, though, Ellis notes, “the building is collapsing as a result of being knocked down by an enormous monster, so it has to fall in a specific way.” The cloud dust that results from the buildings’ collapse was created specifically to meet Reeves and Abrams’ requirements. “We did research and development in recreating that kind of dust bowl coming down a street,” says Ellis. The dust cloud’s movement was simulated using fluid dynamics, recreating the specific way in which a huge amount of dust and debris behaves when it's sent cascading along a canyon of buildings.”
For the actual collapse of the buildings, the two teams worked tirelessly to fulfill Reeves’ desire for realism. “We would model floors of the building on an exterior structure, and then just destroy the building layer by layer,” Leven explains. “We’d start with the glass outside, and then the floors inside. We even built bits of furniture. It’s super time consuming, but everyone involved in this project loves this kind of work – it’s every little boy’s dream to blow stuff up!”
Particularly tricky was creating “shaky” visual effects as seen through what is supposed to be a roughly-handled camcorder. While it is now commonplace for effects houses to employ a team of “match movers,” who track the jump of each frame to the next so the computer-generated characters will move to match, “Cloverfield’s” handheld footage multiplied that challenge exponentially.
“Normally our software can solve most tracking problems with a degree of automation,” says Ellis. “But many of these shots proved too complex. It was a humongous task; we had people tracking the shots by hand, frame-by-frame. Zooming shots are always hard to track, but these shots with their increased jerky handheld nature were very difficult. No gentle smooth movement – the camera was all over the place.”
Among the more familiar landmarks destroyed by the monster was the 125-year-old Brooklyn Bridge, which gets swiped by the monster’s tail. A 50-ft. section of the bridge was constructed at The Downey Stages in Downey, California, surrounded by a 360-degree green screen, which was later replaced by background plate shots taken at the real bridge. The horde of extras hired to portray the stampede of panicking New Yorkers trying to escape the creature through stopped traffic on the bridge actually parked their own cars on the “deck” level of the specially constructed structure to fill out the shot.
To reproduce the rest of the bridge, Ellis’s team photographed and measured the real Brooklyn Bridge, from which a full computer-generated bridge was then built. Ellis and his animators also studied footage of real suspension bridge collapses such as the infamous 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington. “We studied it carefully to see how suspension bridges break up and tried to get as much excitement as possible into the shot,” he explains.
While the filmmakers wanted to create as much of that excitement and realism as possible for the audience’s enjoyment, they were also extremely conscientious about the implications of these sequences. “In a lot of ways,” says Reeves, “the monster is kind of a metaphor for our times and the kind of terror we all face. So it was important to find a way to approach those feelings without diminishing or exploiting them, and to do so in a way that wouldn’t be disrespectful.”
The film carefully avoids crossing the line from realistic scares to all-too-painful reminders of recent events – through a unique point-of-view experience, humor, and Reeves’ reconnection of the audience with the characters throughout the film. The visual effects teams even took care that the collapsing buildings in the film were older-looking structures that did not evoke the style of the structures that were attacked six years earlier.
Stirring up uncomfortable feelings is not entirely without purpose for a monster movie, Abrams notes. It’s a standard of the genre. “’Godzilla’ came out in 1954 in the shadow of the bomb being dropped in Japan. Culturally, you had people living with this terror they had experienced – but in the guise of something absurd and preposterous. My guess is that it enabled people in Japan to have a catharsis.”
“To me, that’s one of the most potentially impactful aspects of this movie,” he continues. “It takes so many images that are so familiar, that are potentially horrifyingly scary, and puts them in a context that is ludicrous and laughable, so that people can experience catharsis in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re going through therapy. People have a hunger to experience that, and to process the terror we all live with in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re getting a social studies lesson. And at the end of the day, whether or not that’s something they’re aware of, this movie allows them to have that release. And for younger kids,” he says, “you just have one heck of a great monster movie.”