Monsters Q&A: Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able
Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able are the stars of Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi road movie Monsters, one of the year’s most unique and interesting films. McNairy plays a photojournalist tasked with bringing his boss’s daughter (Able) safely back from a trip in South America where she’s become stranded. The twist is that this takes place in an alternate reality where aliens have landed on earth six years previously, leading to the whole of Mexico being cordoned off as the ‘infected zone’. The couple’s journey inevitably leads them to have no option but to go through this zone. McNairy and Able got married just days before the film’s premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2010, but still made the trip to promote the movie. They talked to Paul Gallagher about Edwards’ guerrilla filmmaking style, and why they were so keen to be part of Monsters.
I’m so sorry I’m interviewing you guys on your honeymoon!
Whitney Able: It’s sort of coming full circle, you know.
Scoot McNairy: That’s what was really interesting, watching the movie and hearing her say “are you married?” and I’m like “nope, single, single!” That gives me a nice chuckle.
I saw you in In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Scoot, and thought it was great.
SM: That’s how I met all these guys [behind Monsters], through that film, so I’m just really blessed and excited that they even thought to call me to ask to be part of Monsters.
There’s a similarity in the films; they have a similar loose, improvised feel don’t they?
SM: Well Midnight Kiss was scripted. Even though it was pretty loose, all the scenes had a starting point. With Gareth and this it was just all improvised; he would say, “say whatever you want, whatever you feel”.
So was there a sense of ‘we want to get to this point’?
SM: He guided us through the backstory.
WA: There were little pinpoints of story that we would have to hit, but it was very loose. Like, “make sure you somehow work in this point so we can move the story along, but however you need to do that, just do it”.
SM: We’d done so much backstory and work on the characters that once we were there, we would just talk and he would say this and that, but we were basically talking the entire 8 weeks as the characters, so it was just a case of moulding what we were saying to make sure the geography of where we were going and where we were headed was all correct. We studied Gareth’s 12-page treatment so well, and the plot points were so definite, and we had thought and manifested so much on that treatment; for example, we had thought so much about that harbour scene, so it wasn’t like we were just endlessly talking, we knew exactly where we were going with it.
WA: So basically, because there was no written dialogue, there was no formal script, it was just like some paragraphs explaining the main points, the only work we could do was the backstory research. Literally we were tearing our hair out, we couldn’t really figure out what else we could do, so we just jumped into these characters and thought, if we can just get into these people then we’ll be okay! We ended up fairly killing ourselves in Mexico City; one night we had to stay up really late and just kind of go over things just to get some control. Because we couldn’t go to bed and memorise lines, there was just “what do we do?” We had to do something before we’d go to bed, and it just felt like we had lost all control, and we had no idea what it was going to turn out to be. You just zone out and turn into these people, and it’s hard to remember what happened that day.
Were there a lot of different takes of scenes, so it was down to the editing to put together the story?
SM: We had the plot points, and we shot as much as we could from that treatment for 8 weeks. Then they went back and cut for about 7 to 8 months, and once they’d cut for that time they realised some scenes could be shot better, like the ticket guy. We had shot with another ticket guy, in Guatemala, and that guy was pretty flat, and it was a pivotal point in the story that we needed to beef up a little bit. So we knew after the initial shoot that we were going to go back and reshoot after the 8 months editing. We went back and reshot some scenes that needed a little bit more spunk to them, and also some scenes to make some transitions smoother.
WA: One of the cool things about Gareth is that he has an amazing ability to multi-task in his brain. He’s got so much going on with the story, managing the dialogue that’s coming out, how he’s going to navigate with putting a tank here, the signs there, dealing with markers that are not there. And at the same time he was listening to the dialogue very closely, so that when we’d have to catch things here and there he was already one step ahead of us, and would catch the other person’s response, if it hadn’t already happened. For the most it was pretty organic, he was so on top of things.
The production was hit by swine flu too, wasn’t it?
SM: So many different things were happening; we had to deal with the border towns, where there’s lots of drug-trafficking, which is kind of like dealing with the border of the infected zone [in the movie]. And then we were down in Mexico City and Gareth needed people in gas masks, and we were originally going to do our reshoots in Mexico City when the swine flu came out, and Gareth was like “this is amazing, everyone’s wearing masks, this will be perfect!” And Whitney and I were like “well yes, but I don’t want to get Swine Flu and die”. So we ended up going down to Costa Rica to do the reshoots, but there was so many of those kinds of things!
Like the scenes that were filmed in an actual post-hurricane zone?
WA: Yeah there was a hurricane that had just come through Galveston, Texas, and we were filming and it was sort of a strange thing; it’s hard to walk through streets, filming, while people are literally picking up the pieces of their homes, and they’d just kind of look at us, you know? On one hand it’s good for the economy, helping the city in a time of disaster – like a lot of people are filming in New Orleans, and were very supportive and gung-ho about bringing business there – but it was a little bit different than I expected. It was very fresh.
SM: It’s understandable, we weren’t exposing the town’s beauty, we were exposing the dilapidated structures.
WA: But it was the emotional effect as well, it was very bizarre.
It adds a whole other layer of reality to the film too.
SM: You can feel the vibe.
WA: Well I’m from Houston, Texas, just an hour from Galveston, so I grew up there, my grandfather would take us there at Spring Break, so it was weird on a personal level too, seeing that.
SM: There were some days that I would be walking around with the camera and there were people in front of their houses weeping and crying, and we’d have to go over because they were so confused about what we were doing.
[SOME PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD]
One of the scenes that was very effective was the one with the dead girl. We anticipate that your character (Scoot) is going to behave one way, but then something different happens. Was that all planned?
SM: It was kind of the growth of the character. He started out as this really selfish person who is out for himself and for money, and without saying it through the course of the film, I wanted you to see him make a change. And I think that that [moment] was kind of the start of it. And as he’s falling in love with her [Sam] he’s trying to show her that ‘look, I’m not the person you think I am, and deep down I am a great person, but I don’t know what’s happened to me over the last 10 or 20 years, that’s made me this person I am now’. She’s bringing out the best in him. It’s the love element to the story, and at the very end, he finally gets the picture of the monster, and he doesn’t take it. And that’s the resolution, I think.
It’s an interesting mix of a film; a relationship movie with monsters in it! How did you hear that pitch from Gareth?
SM: Well it’s funny because I had said to the producer James ‘what about Whitney?’ And James was like ‘yeah she’s great, she’d be perfect’. And he pitched Whitney to Gareth, and Gareth had never met her, just saw a picture of her and said ‘I don’t know if it will work – she’s too pretty! I want this thing to be believable and real’. But when he came out to meet her within 10 minutes he was like ‘okay I get it’. Because she’s a lot rougher and hard around the edges than she looks from the outside!
Is that true?
WA: Yeah it’s true!
SM: Which to me was good, cos I’m a huge camper and outdoors person, so I was dating Whitney at the time and I was like, well, if she can make it through this production – cos it’s gonna be hell shooting – I could definitely spend the rest of my life with her! (tongue in cheek) So when I drag her out to the middle of the woods and she can starve for three days and not complain, by all means I can live with that for the rest of my life.
WA: On that note, I have had trouble, and have a lot of trouble still, working on jobs and being really misunderstood – they always seem to want to put me in a box. Being blonde and blue-eyed, they never give me a chance to do something like this, so I was really excited to be accepted into this and for them to give me a chance to show a broader side of myself.
I think you do the part justice, so well done. So what is next for you guys?
WA: Well I was working on a pilot in Nashville about country music, called Tough Trade, but I’m not sure what’s happening with it right now.
SM: With Sam Shepard and Lucas Black.
WA: And Cary Elwes, he’s an English man!
SM: Yeah, and I’ve been dying to work with [Sam Shepard], I’ve read all his plays and I was actually doing a Sam Shepard play at the time, and Whitney called and was like ‘I’ve booked a Sam Shepard TV show!’ and I was like (gritted teeth) ‘Really? Great!’
Do you guys want to work mainly in movies?
SM: We’re open to it all. I’m open to new things and I like to be a part of the process, doing something new and creative. I like to be a part of the creative process, but as far as right now, I like working mostly on independent films where I can really stretch my wings and be a part of that process, and not just be someone who shows up to say a line for the sake of having a smaller part in a bigger film. So for me it’s getting my hands right into the creative pot; I have a production company as well and produce films, and I just really like being a part of the creative process of storytelling. So I’d like to stick with film. TV moves really fast and there’s very little time to sit down and evaluate or rewrite something. They do rewrite but actors aren’t a part of that, you know, it means some writers coming down to do that. I really love being part of the entire creative process.
Do you have that same feeling Whitney?
WA: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about where I’ve come from and where I would like to go, and honestly, it is like that loss of control and what’s supposed to be. At points I don’t know what is going to happen and I can get very nervous and upset about it, because I’m terrified to get put back in the box, and I feel like I have an opportunity here to keep myself out of that box. So for me when I look at the future, I don’t want to be chasing the dragon. Which is living in Los Angeles, you know, never leaving because you don’t want to miss the audition and saying yes to everything regardless. I really want to consider what my footprint will be at the end of my life, and I want to make time and room for experiences, and hopefully live abroad and do different things, try different things, learn new languages. Try and fill myself with everything that I can so I can bring my life experience to my work.
SM: Whitney’s the kind of person that, if you stick her in Italy for a month she’ll be speaking Italian to everyone, or if you stick her in a plane hanger she’ll be working on the engines in a month. She picks up things incredibly fast! And so it’s much more adventurous for her… whereas for me it’s quite frustrating cos I don’t pick up things fast and have to work ten times harder than her to get something. So she’s very well versed and well travelled cos she can acclimate so quickly to things, (smiling) which is incredibly fucking frustrating!
WA: On the flipside of that though, Scoot is the smarts man, and that’s why we got married you know, because we have the same feelings and goals, and we work well together in those aspects. And hopefully our life together will bring us to new places and things, just learning and living.
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