From the set of ‘Monster Trucks’ – Blending ‘E.T.’ with ‘Fast and the Furious’

Some movies move quickly from principal photography to finished product. Some…do not. Monster Trucks was one of the latter. Two summers ago I found myself in Vancouver on a set for a kid”s film about monsters that take over trucks with several other journalists. We were shown around, interviewed some of the talent and the crew, and generally did set visit things.

Then Monster Trucks disappeared into the abyss, only to resurface today with a trailer. Can you recall in great detail what you were doing in June two years ago? Ha ha! Me neither! Luckily, past me was kind enough to leave notes. But those notes look like the half-mad ravings of a toddler. So this will be an adventure for all of us!

Monster Trucks is a bit of a modern-day E.T. The story focuses on a clever monster who finds itself alone in a new environment. Tripp (Lucas Till) comes across the creature and shenanigans ensue. A shady corporation led by Holt McCallany”s character gets involved in trying to contain/dissect/perform general villainy on the monster. It is up to Tripp and Meredith (Jane Levy) to save the monster”s parents and return the family to safety. Or, to put it in PR parlance:

Looking for any way to get away from the life and town he was born into, Tripp (Lucas Till), a high school senior, builds a Monster Truck from bits and pieces of scrapped cars. After an accident at a nearby oil-drilling site displaces a strange and subterranean creature with a taste and a talent for speed, Tripp may have just found the key to getting out of town and a most unlikely friend. Melding cutting edge visual effects and state-of-the-art CGI, Monster Trucks is an action filled adventure for the whole family that will keep you on the edge of your seat and ultimately touch your heart.

What sticks with me the most from my time on the Monster Trucks set was how fluid the concept of the monster still was. Many iterations were still being batted around. Producer Mary Parent described it as “sort of an octopus meets an other-worldly creature” while Lucas Till described them as prehistoric “octopus walrus [with] teeth made of diamonds or something like that.” But it was the art department that hammered home the challenge of creating a species from scratch.

There are textures that are not unlike an eel. We're pulling like reference for eye shapes from other animals, even an elephant, and elephant seals, and those sorts of things. It's kind of like putting together this creature based on other references, so that makes it quite a bit more difficult we're finding. It's a real challenge.

The results are pretty cute if the trailer is any indication. I can definitely see some Creatch plushies hitting stores (or Etsy) in the future.

But the design of Creatch isn”t the only thing that changed in the two years since my time on the set. During filming, Lucas Till”s character had a different nickname for the creature: Big Ugly. For whatever reason the name changed at some point. Probably because Creatch sounds cuter. Just what is Creatch though? Mary Parent explained in length:

Very deep underground and when the movie opens, there's a drilling accident. Essentially we've drilled too deep, drilled too far. We've essentially disturbed [the monster”s] world. They've been minding their own business down there and come up through this drilling accident.

We've tried to approach it as, what if this really happened? We discover new species all the time, right? Every couple weeks you read somewhere, ‘where did this thing wash up on shore? Where did this come from?” What if this were to really happen, how would this play out? That's sort of been the approach for everything.

After the round of interviews, everything blurs together a little bit. To keep everyone from my stream-of-consciousness ramblings here”s what I know I saw in handy bullet point form:

An outdoor set had been rigged up with one of the trucks on a huge gimble. It was basically a giant remote-controlled car that could be shaken around while an actor was inside. That way the camera would get the shakiness of a car chase without putting non-stuntmen in danger. Though “not in danger” is relative when the rig is seven feet in the air and shaking like a rag doll.
• One of the many cars that are Tripp”s jalopy was literally a giant remote-controlled car. It was rigged up so it behaved more like a puppet – complete with what I”d call an expressive ‘face and arms” aka grille and tires.
• We didn”t get to see the second unit because they were out in the Vancouver woods filming all the advanced stunts. Stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos (Fast and the Furious) and his team were said to be having the time of their lives.
• Lucas Till was drinking spirulina during his interview, though he wasn”t sure what that was. His girlfriend made it for him.
• Jane Levy wore a “life vest” for all of her horse stunts. Think of the magnetic “Oh no!” button that will stop a treadmill if you fall off, only for horses. Should she fall off the horse, the life vest would inflate to cushion the blow.
• All the guns in the film are just tasers. There will be no bullets.
• By the time of the set visit, eight trucks had been destroyed during production. Most of them on purpose.

Monster Trucks arrives in theaters on January 13, 2017.