‘Doing visual effects for a living is like being a gynaecologist’, says Gareth Edwards, ‘when you do it every day at work, it doesn’t turn you on any more.’ So he decided to stop staring at pixels and pick up a camera. The result is Monsters, one of the most unique and surprising films of the year, an ingenious mix of indie romance, sci-fi road movie and CG trickery that positions Edwards as his generation’s answer to James Cameron. All he wanted was to reclaim visual effects from the blockbusters: ‘I really hate watching Hollywood films where you can tell they’ve made lots of effects people break their backs to do these shots, but the final emotional impact is nothing. So it was really important for me to put the record straight: what I did with this film is not technically groundbreaking, but I hope the choices that were made were to be bold and throw away visual effects, not make a big deal of them.’ Monsters takes place in an alternate, alien-invaded earth, but Edwards’ focus remains on two human characters, travelling through the Mexican ‘infected zone’ throughout: ‘My favourite bits in the film are when you have these crazy visual spectacles, and as a cameraman I’m more interested in this couple. I hope that’s infectious for the audience.’
The couple are real-life husband and wife actors Scoot McNairy (In Search of a Midnight Kiss) and Whitney Able, who signed up for Edwards’ improvised Mexico shoot on the strength of one meeting and a 12-page plot treatment. ‘He’s a mad genius’, says McNairy, emphasising the mad: ‘We were down in Mexico City and Gareth needed people in gas masks, and this was just when swine flu came out. Gareth was like “this is amazing, everyone’s wearing masks, it’s perfect!” And Whitney and I were like, “well yes, but we don’t want to get swine flu and die”’. The seat-of-the-pants nature of the shoot was an ideal form of marriage preparation for the then-dating couple though: ‘I’m a huge outdoors guy’, says McNairy, ‘and I thought, if she can make it through this production – cos it’s going to be hell – I could definitely spend the rest of my life with her!’ For her part, Able relished the chance to do something that broke her out of the traditional confines of her stunning movie star looks: ‘Most [directors] want to put me in a box, being blonde and blue-eyed, so I was really excited to get a chance to show another side of myself.’ Edwards was clearly impressed: ‘It’s the Scoot and Whitney show, and I can’t imagine this film with anyone else.’
Monsters is on general release from Fri 3 Dec. This feature first published in The List magazine.