By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Continuing our coverage of the Christmas zombie musical ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE, which expands into more theaters today, we have words with the man at the helm and one of its key cast members.
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE focuses on a group of high-school students in the UK town of Little Haven, where a zombie plague interrupts both their personal situations and their plans for a Christmas pageant. Outbursts of gore alternate with the young characters bursting into song, a mix of tones expertly handled by director John McPhail, working from a script by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, and his talented ensemble (who discuss the film here and here). Christopher Leveaux, who plays aspiring filmmaker Chris, joined McPhail for this interview, which took place after ANNA screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival. (See our review of the movie here.)
John, you had to learn two separate disciplines you hadn’t explored before—musicals and horror—and combine the two seamlessly. Was that a major challenge for you?
JOHN McPHAIL: Well, I was never going, “Oh no,” and worrying about it. With the musical side, I wanted to make sure it felt seamless, and not like, “Oh, here we go, it’s going all dreamy, we’re going to have a musical moment.” Each song had to lend itself to the story, to the character development, and push those things forward. And with the horror side of it, I’m a major fan, and when I watch a horror movie, there are certain things I want to see. One of them is in-camera, practical gore. We did touch it up with a bit of CGI blood, but we wanted to be sure that each time we were going to break out the gore, we really broke it out.
You have some pretty extreme moments for a film that is essentially high-spirited, including the one involving a baby. You mentioned at the Fantasia Q&A that none of the people backing ANNA had a problem with that…
JM: No, nobody mentioned it! The only person who did was Nicholas Crum, one of the producers. We were in post, and we were talking about it, and I was going, “Are you sure we haven’t had any notes back about the baby?” They said, “No, we’re definitely getting away with it,” and then Nick was like, “I have a problem with it!” [Laughs] And we were like, “Shhh! It’s OK!” Because, hey, it’s a zombie movie; you’ve got to have that violence, you’ve got to have that shock.
At what point during filming were the musical numbers done? Were those held for the end, or scattered throughout the shoot?
CHRISTOPHER LEVEAUX: It was scattered. We were in the school for about three weeks, and we did “Hollywood Ending” there, and that was day two! But what a great way to start. When we saw the rushes from that, within a couple of days, we were like, “Fucking hell!” Filming there was so much fun, because it was really like being at school. We had a green room that was basically a common room, so we were all together. We weren’t separated in different changing rooms, and that, I think, was crucial to the chemistry that happened among the cast, and that then happened on camera. It made us very close, very quickly.
Marli Sue’s racy musical number as Lisa is one of the film’s highlights. Can you talk about staging that scene?
JM: As they say, Marli’s got so much pizzazz. “More pizzazz, Marli!” I don’t know what “pizzazz” means, but OK! But when you have someone like her up there, and she’s absolutely adorable, you just don’t expect that song, with the boys coming out as well. But I never wanted them to touch her; it was always like, I’ve got a 17-year-old girl singing this song, and I wanted to make sure it was cheeky, but not overly sexualized in any way; I didn’t want the boys to interact with her. They were there to back her up. Their costumes were—have you ever seen SLEEPAWAY CAMP? You know how the boys in that are in these cropped tops and teeny shorts and their socks up and stuff like that? That was the inspiration, SLEEPAWAY CAMP.
How did you find suburban streets you could close down to shoot the scenes with crashed cars and other mayhem?
JM: That was brilliant, because we had all the residents standing there like, “What’s going on?” because they weren’t used to anything like that at all! If you Google this stuff, you can find things on Facebook, people filming out their windows and stuff like that. That was so much fun, and many of the locals wound up opening up their houses to us. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we would knock on somebody’s door and say, “We’re filming, do you mind if we use your house for a little bit to keep our actors warm?” They all joined in then and came down to set, brought their kids with them, and it kind of felt like a family affair.
What was the most challenging musical number to shoot?
CL: “Human Voice” was tough, just because of where it comes in the script emotionally. That was the scariest number for me, and it was so vulnerable as well, because we were just standing there. There was no dancing or affectations; we were just these teenagers standing there singing about the people we love and want to see.
How about working with all the gore and prosthetics?
CL: Oh, that was great! All of us, on so many days, would have to get painted up with blood. They would try and keep the continuity, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re splattering people with blood! There was a wall in the makeup department that was just covered with it, because they would put you against the wall and get out a paint brush, and just splatter you. It was a lovely tradition.
When you had a musical number like “Soldier at War” that involved a lot of blood effects, was it especially difficult keeping the continuity?
JM: Yeah, and we did reshoots on that one as well, because it was such a terrible day the first time we shot it. We got rained on, and it was really, really hard. But I had an amazing makeup team; all my departments were incredible, and this makeup team was brilliant. There was Raymond [McArthur], who did the blood effects, and whenever I saw him coming, I would be so excited, like, “Ohhhh, the blood canister’s coming out!”
There are a few little shout-outs to past zombie films, like the name “Ash Campbell” on a cell phone and a character named Mrs. Hinzmann, but ANNA never gets into specific parodies of previous movies.
JM: Yeah; there are a few things in there, like when Nick goes into the sports store and he’s using the cricket bat, that’s a SHAUN OF THE DEAD reference, and Steph’s hand coming out of the ball pit, that’s from THE EVIL DEAD. Even when Chris is talking to his teacher, in the background there’s a poster for [Takashi Miike’s zombie musical] HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS. They’re just little nuances I wanted to put in for horror fans, the one who want to dig a little deeper and find things. We never wanted to do spoofs or anything like that; it’s all just winks and nods and being respectful, saying, “We love these things, and we know you probably love them too.”
How important is the Christmas setting to the movie?
JM: That was actually Ryan McHenry’s idea, and it gave me a palette I could play with. The costumes could all be bright and colorful, and the first act and the beginning of the second act could have that feeling, and then when we got into the latter part of the film, we started to push the blacks and crush them and make them inkier, and make it feel darker, muddying up those reds and yellows and blues and greens. We also had to have colorful zombies, because when you watch SHAUN OF THE DEAD, they’re all pale and grey and the clothes they wear are dark, browns and blacks and things like that. That was part of that movie’s feel, whereas for ours we wanted bright and colorful, and Christmas was the best setting for that.
Also, my mom starts putting the Christmas stuff up in October, and it kills me. So this is like, me taking out all my frustrations about Christmas—taking off Frosty’s head, setting fire to Christmas trees, killing Santa Claus. It’s like, “Yes! Take that, mom!”
See more of this interview in RUE MORGUE magazine #185, now on sale.