This week sees the UK release of the Lupita Nyong’o zombie comedy Little Monsters from Australian writer/director Abe Forsythe. It is a fresh, funny, crass, gory and surprisingly heartfelt genre hybrid that comes highly recommended. We were lucky enough to be able to get some time with Abe Forsythe when he came over with the film for the BFI London Film Festival where we managed to discuss some of the inspiration behind his latest film, as well how his dream cast came together for his latest zombie flick.
Congratulations on having your film as part of the London Film Festival. I’ve always thought that Australian humour is quite similar to British humour, do you agree and are you excited to see how the film plays with a British audience?
Completely, I’m really excited about the release of the movie over here, more so than anywhere else in the world to be honest. All my DNA in comedy comes from being raised on Monty Python, The Young Ones, Bottom, Blackadder, Mr. Bean, that was all I saw growing up. All the comedians that I looked up to came from that sort of world. There’s an Australian group called the ‘Doug Anthony All Stars’, who were my favourite comedy group, and they were influenced by Rik Mayall and all those guys too. They’ve started touring again recently, and I haven’t seen them since I was about 14 or 15, but I saw them again recently and I had forgotten just how much they have influenced me. It’s amazing how you can still be so influenced by things you were exposed to as a child, how it just kinda sits with you and comes out later. British people, quite helpfully, can also understand Australian people, as ridiculous as it sounds. There’s a shared sense of humour, obviously, but I don’t need to watch how I speak, people can just understand me. It’s very different somewhere like the States. When you’re in America, I often feel like you’re in ‘their place’ so you just have to cautiously navigate certain things.
How has Little Monsters played in the States?
It’s opening this week, but we did Sundance and SXSW, so we’ve seen it with a lot of audiences. But we also did a lot of the post-production over there too because I wanted to make it for an American audience. I wanted to make it something that they felt familiar with so that we could subvert it with other things that they weren’t expecting. So, in order to do that I had to play by their rules, so we did a lot of the work over there and testing it over there to work out what it was. I like to think that it is traditionally American in its three-act structure and in the kind of journey that the characters go on, but it’s more Australian/British in the more shocking elements of humour, that only really works if we have the foundation of this American, more traditional story behind it. You can’t fuck with something unless you do it properly, which is where a lot of comedies can go wrong in that they just try to be shocking for the sake of it. You have to set up a world properly in order to make the shocking stuff make sense and give it a reason to be there.
Part of what makes the film really work is this crass element of humour and gore mixed with a lot of genuine heart. The main factor of that is how the film treats the teachers like superheroes they are in the eyes of these kids. Does that stem from something in your past and your own admiration of educators?
Not me specifically, but more my son, who is now 8 years old, and was 5 around the time that I came up with the idea for the film. The movie is a love letter to my son, and the character of Felix is very much based on my son. He has a lot of very life-threatening food allergies and health conditions, as a result of which he had never been out of my care before going to kindergarten for the first time. So, there was a lot at stake for me giving other people this responsibility to look after him, it was fucking terrifying to hand him over to this teacher who was going to be caring for his health, as well as teaching him in a classroom filled with 30 other kids. He just lucked out and had this incredible kindergarten teacher who straight away made me feel ok about leaving him with her.
The by-product of that was I began to see how she influenced him and help him make sense of the world. It wasn’t just me shaping his world anymore, it was his teacher too. It was a real eye-opener for me. We all know how important teachers are, but specifically, kindergarten teachers are so important. They take on a lot at a very key point in all of our lives. I did go on a school excursion with my son and his class to a petting zoo, the same petting zoo that we ended up using for the film. The idea got sparked on that trip and it was like the floodgates opening from there. I had never wanted to make a zombie movie. But the zombies were the easiest way of symbolising the threat of the outside world. They can be a metaphor for whatever you want them to be, but the whole point is how do you stop all these beautiful little children from being corrupted by the horrors of the outside world. Miss Caroline is the person who is able to stop them from literally having their brains eaten, from being corrupted by all the horrors that are around them. So then the violence, the gore and the extremely horrific adult behaviour in the film became an important dichotomy for me to show in the film too, the worst of our behaviour versus the pure way a child sees the world. Then it all becomes about striking that balance to make it all work.
You say you never intended to make a zombie movie, is horror a genre in general that interests you?
Oh don’t get me wrong I love horror. I love genre in particular. For me, genre only really works well if there’s something else going on. As a teenager, I used to be able to shut off and watch pure genre movies, but now I need them to be about something, which makes things scarier and more profound in horror. Take The Orphanage. It’s terrifying because you give a shit about the characters. That is the most terrified in a cinema I have ever been, but it is still very beautiful and is a film that says a lot of fantastic things. You’ve gone on a journey. I have less tolerance unless you actually have something that you are going to leave me sitting with afterward. The intention with Little Monsters, and also with my last film, you want to market it as a genre picture but you also want people who would never normally like zombie movies to come and see it. There are zombies in it of course, but you want them to come out of it going ‘oh it’s a movie about that’ and not just another zombie movie.
Zombie movies have been so prevalent for a while. Do you put that longevity down to, like you say, the malleability of the metaphor?
That’s certainly part of it. I’m a big fan of the George Romero films, and then obviously Shaun of the Dead, which you can’t not mention when doing this sort of film. Those guys have such a particular energy and style of filmmaking that is so much fun, but that feels like the first proper subversion of the zombie movie on a mainstream level. I love Peter Jackson’s Braindead, and that was really key for me growing up. What made it good and easy for me to go with zombies was that I needed a thread, and one of the most appealing things with zombies is that you don’t have to explain them. We did some screeners with some genre people in LA to get some notes and they would come back with stuff like ‘you have to show this, you have to show that’ and I’m just not interested in that, and you don’t have to show that.
Yeah, the audience surely has a shorthand by this point.
Exactly, all you need to know is ‘are they fast, or are they slow?’ So then you can start having fun with the rules because we know the rules so well already. It offers a shorthand to try something new, to try and do something that you haven’t seen in a zombie movie before that can make our movie feel more unique. Our message of the movie is that music is the key that can bring us all together, so that was a nice way to do something thematically different. I remember the first day when we had a fully made up zombie, me and my producer suddenly got so excited ‘Oh my God, we’re making a zombie movie’ because we had already kinda forgotten by that point, it’s just about finding the way it works for you.
And it must be an independent movie’s dream, fake blood is cheap!
Fake blood is cheap! The hours required to dress up 40-50 zombies a day, however, is a whole other thing entirely! We were very lucky that the special effects team that we had on the movie, the same team who had won the Oscar for Fury Road, gave us an incredible deal for working on it. Everyone wanted to make it for the love of making it They had never made a zombie movie, and that’s a special effects guy dream. It gave them the chance to make their zombie movie too.
In terms of the casting, this feels like a dream cast list that’s come wonderfully together, and they’re all great. How did it all work out?
Alexander England (the film’s lead] was on my mind as I was writing it. He was in my last movie and I’ve worked with him a bit back in Australian on a number of different things. So, that one was easy because I knew he could tick all the boxes of what that role required. Lupita was the unusual element in the sense that we had started pre-production with a list of all these names for Miss Caroline already. My US casting agent said that you’ll definitely get one of these names, and any of them will be great, but now we have the chance for you to swing for the fences; who is the ultimate person that could portray Miss Caroline? Straight away for me it was Lupita, simply for what she represents as an actor. There were some great names on that list, but it came down to the question, who would I feel safe knowing that my son was under her care? And Lupita fits that. She’s obviously an incredible actor, and her timing is incredible in everything, and while she had never done comedy before, I just got this sense from watching her performances that she’s so good she’d be able to deliver. We took the swing and sent the script to her agent. Timing wise, she was just coming off of Black Panther and she was very much looking for something that was completely different and she was wanting to get into comedy. She read it, 24 hours later we were talking on Skype and then the next day she was in. For me and the whole crew, it was a real validation for all of us in what we were doing. It lifted all of us up a level.
In regards to Josh Gad’s role, we had a lot of trouble casting that role for a while. Josh initially wasn’t available, so we went looking at other actors and just couldn’t fill it. But then Josh had some time free up and his agents came back asking if the role was still available. What a relief! For me, he was always the perfect choice. He was the only person out of the others we were looking at that could believably play the children’s entertainment character before the shift. It was very hard to find people who you would believe, everyone else you would expect that twist. With Josh, he is that guy in real-life, he’s Olaf! And for that reason, he got a chance to really vent some stuff. Alex, Lupita, and Josh all have very different approaches, but they all get to the same place by approaching it differently. That’s why it was so much fun working with all three of them, but particularly Josh as he doesn’t hold back. There’s a version where Teddy McGiggle is way further than what he is in the movie. Josh’s career with Disney would be over if anyone saw that stuff!
Looking back at your previous work, you always seem drawn to a genre hybrid, with comedy running through. Are there any other genre hybridizations you’d like to try your hand at? I kept thinking Little Monsters would also work as a musical.
I’m writing something at the moment that is science fiction, which is very similar in tone to Little Monsters. It’s a bigger budget, bigger stakes for the world. It’s another kind of crazy idea though with characters who are in a science fiction movie who just shouldn’t be in a science fiction movie. It’s that same kind of thing. That only came about because there’s this really great story to tell through this crazy world-building that we’re going to do, which trades off what people know really well from alien invasion movies. It’s more about whatever the story is, what does the story dictate the perfect genre to be. I would love to do a musical, but again the story would have to call for it to be told in that way. It’s not an intentional move, I did have a smaller drama written, but after the way Little Monsters was received, the producers and I got together, and Lupita is working on it with us as well, we just thought now was the time to strike on this idea and do it with a studio, so that’s what I’m working on right now.
To wrap things off, one final question, how do you think you would do in a zombie apocalypse?
Are they fast or slow? [laughs] I’ve always had this fantasy since Dawn of the Dead where you’re in a supermarket, or maybe even just my apartment building in Sydney, just kinda going ‘right, if there were zombies everywhere now how would you react in that situation, how would you manage to get through?’ It’s been an ongoing fantasy, that I think we all have. Would you go out into the countryside and set something up and grow food? Or would you go more the barricading yourself in a building route? And then I always count my kid in that equation too, what would be best for him? How can you raise a child in that world? I think I would do pretty well. I’ve been thinking about it since I was 10 years old.
Little Monsters hits select UK cinemas from November 15th.