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Party 'Monsters'

Party 'Monsters'
With a budget reportedly in the $15,000 range, director Gareth Edwards' "Monsters" proves that it doesn't take a lot of money to make a suspenseful, entertaining film. A hit on the festival circuit and going into limited release this weekend, the movie is set in the not-too-distant future, after a space probe returning to Earth crashes in Mexico, causing an area to be overrun with gigantic octopuslike creatures. Reluctantly, a photojournalist must escort the boss's daughter through a walled-off portion of the country and home to America. "Monsters" is a tight, smart piece of filmmaking that succeeds on the strength of its story and the talents of its two stars, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, who improvised all the dialogue from an outline provided by Edwards.

If McNairy and Able show remarkable chemistry onscreen, it might be because they're recent newlyweds. The producers had hoped to cast a couple in the movie, though Edwards had to be sold on Able, whom he initially deemed "too pretty." Both actors have been working steadily in recent years, making guest appearances on television and landing the occasional film role. Able might best be known overseas as the bitchy high-school cheerleader in "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," a low-budget horror film yet to be released in the U.S. McNairy is somewhat of an indie staple, having appeared in "Art School Confidential" and the Spirit Award–winning "In Search of a Midnight Kiss," which he also co-produced. But "Monsters" offered a unique opportunity for the actors, who created their characters from scratch and deliver impressive performances.

Back Stage: Had you two worked together before? 

Scoot McNairy: No. We'd only been dating four or five months. But I was excited, I would love to work with her, it was just a matter of finding the right project—and this kind of fell into our laps. Since then, I've had some other people ask us to do some stuff together, and we've just been like, "Eh, not right." We want to challenge ourselves to do other things, but if the right thing came along, we'd absolutely be up for it.

Back Stage: Whitney, were you daunted at all by the idea of working together?

Whitney Able: Yes. You know, being a couple and going to work together, it's kind of like the kiss of death. We said that if we can make it through this movie, then we can get married. And we did, and it was a great experience, and now we're married. 

Back Stage: Since you contributed to the characters and the dialogue is improvised, do you feel you're playing versions of yourself?

Able: No. Because there was no scripted dialogue, the process could only be backstory, and so we spent a lot of time working on that. We spent days with Gareth going over the story and finding little personal things that, you know, we had to make our own. So we decided on characters that interested us. 

McNairy: When we started off, it was bare-bones, probably a three- or four-page treatment about this couple. And it was through talking with him that we defined exactly where we were and what our relationship was. We tampered with a lot of ideas—at one point we considered making her pregnant. Then we were like, "No, let's back off that."

Able: At one point I was a flight attendant, which explained how I got to this country.

McNairy: Right, it all came about through discussion. For example, I always wanted to be a war-photography journalist, or a National Geographic journalist, photographer, videographer, what have you. So when Gareth asked me, "Who would you want to be in this world?," I was like, "A war-photography journalist." And he was like, "All right, then let's make your occupation a war-photography journalist." The problem with that was, I did so much research on war-photography journalists, I learned they're actually kind of bland people—which I understand why: They've seen so much. They're very, very inward, which can make for a pretty boring character. So I kind of took a piece of my friend Andy, who is one of the most eccentric people you'll ever meet—he's an artist, photographer, writer, director, you name it—and a piece of myself. I think in every film that every actor does, they take a piece of themselves with them for the character.

Back Stage: It seems like you've both been working actors for a while, at least according to IMDb. Is that accurate, or did you feel like you were struggling?

McNairy: Financially, no. But careerwise, I think you're always striving. You want the opportunity to play these different parts. For example, Whitney feels like she had been pigeonholed into these cheerleader, girl-next-door roles.  And if you know Whitney, she's so far from that. But if you just see Whitney, I can see how you would place her as that. So that was pretty frustrating for her. I know I've heard her complain about it a lot, and I felt her frustrations.

Able: Also, I've never had good audition-room finesse. I'm a happy person, I'm a nice person, I can be outgoing at times, but I compartmentalize. So when I'm in the work mode, it's very hard for me to, you know, go in and do the bubble-gum smiles, shake your hand and make them like you. So I tried doing that, and the first impression and the only impression that they had was blond-haired, blue-eyed, "Hi, how are you, la la la…" cheerleader high-school bitch. Things that gave me wonderful opportunities, but I've grown out of that, and I'm fighting now to be viewed as a stronger person than they like to see me. It's very difficult.

McNairy: It's because you have so many more layers than the person they put you in the box as. She's not just this one thing; she can be all of these things. It's interesting that when she met with her representation, she really wanted to play, you know, like, Charlize Theron in "Monster" or a Russian spy or somebody that kicks ass like in "Tomb Raider." And they said, "You know, we don't really see that." A week later, she booked a Russian spy on "Nikita" with a Russian accent. So she can do it if she just gets the opportunity. It's just people don't see her as that, because they're not giving her the opportunity, you know?

Back Stage: Scoot, did you find things changed for your career after "In Search of a Midnight Kiss"?

McNairy: Not really. You know, a lot of these films come out—you know what I mean?—and they do well, but there's a perception that it was a fluke or that person's not that great or something. I don't really believe that there's ever one job that's going to blow you up. When someone blows up, you can look back at the body of work that they've done and realize that they've always been great; they're just now getting seen. And I hope that that's the case for me.

Back Stage:
"Midnight Kiss" was a project you also produced. Is that something that still interests you or was it just out of necessity you did it?

McNairy: I have really honed in on the fact that I love independent filmmaking, and I love being a part of the creative process, and not as a hired hand. I like to be a part of the story and a part of the creative process, and "Midnight Kiss" allowed me to do that. But I'm fortunate that I have other work, like commercials, which allows me to do these independent films. Because truthfully, if I was just doing the independent film, it wouldn't be enough to support me. 

Back Stage: Along those lines: Whitney, I remember seeing "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" at Toronto, where it sparked a bidding war and was thought to be a potential hit. Yet it's never come out in America. How have you dealt with that disappointment?

Able: I mean, it's just a crazy thing, and the lesson that I learned from that was there's never a time to get excited about something, because you're constantly setting yourself up for disappointment. You can't get excited about the part until you've shot it; you can't get excited about the release until it's released. And you can't get excited about getting a check until you get it. 

McNairy: You just have to focus on the work. You just can't be looking at the outcome, you know what I mean?  Take the project because you like the project, and then whatever happens happens. It's totally out of your control, but you'll enjoy it if you're taking it just because you want to do this job or you like this character or this director or this other actor you want to work with. Make it more about that and not about the outcome, because it's just going to destroy the fun you had doing it. 

Able: Yeah, it's just moving on from all of that and not relying on those moments. So I think for me, a lot has changed in my perspective because of that. And it sounds very cliché, but it's absolutely true: It's the journey, not the destination. And there's so much work to be done in the journey.   

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