Fantastic Fest Interview: ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE Director & Cast On Making A Musical

The whole jolly gang on their warped high school zombie Christmas musical.

You all aren’t ready for what’s coming out of Scotland. From director John McPhail and crew comes a rare and unique spin on the undead sub-genre - a zombie horror comedy Christmas musical. Set amongst a group of angst-ridden teens, Anna and the Apocalypse tells the story of a young woman with her heart set on escaping her little town to travel the globe - that is, until it becomes overrun with the walking dead. Now, she and her friends must work to regroup with their families, the very ones they’re been dead set on running away from, and do their best to evade bites, outrun the freshly turned, and make it out of high school alive.

While at Fantastic Fest Birth.Movies.Death. was lucky enough to catch up with the cast, director McPhail and producer Naysun Alae-Carew to talk about their sweet holiday-themed horror movie, what it takes to make a film that brings people joy, and honoring the legacy of Ryan McHenry, the wonderful creative mind who dreamed up this whole awesome scenario in the first place.

Birth.Movies.Death.: So you’ve got so many things going on here at once, you’ve got a zombie movie, but it’s also a musical, but it’s also a coming-of-age story that takes place in a high school setting, so I need to know, where did the inspiration for this wild movie come from?

Naysun Alae-Carew: The initial concept was a short film that my friend Ryan McHenry came up with when he was in his third year of college. Ryan also got really well known for making the “Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal” vines (laughs) he was a very interesting guy, he had a very good sense of humor. So, we made that short film together and it won a BAFTA and it launched us into the industry, and since then it’s been a kind of long and tumultuous ride to getting the feature done, during which time, Ryan was diagnosed with cancer and died unfortunately two years later.

BMD: I’m sorry.

Alae-Carew: Well, the thing that’s kind of amazing about this project is it’s kind of the best tribute we could ever have for him and also I think the spirit of what he created, especially from the kind of heart that’s in the film, is still very much there. You can feel his fingerprints all over it, but at the same time, these guys, and Alan McDonald, the writer, and Roddy [Hart] and Tommy [Reilly] who wrote the music have made it their own thing, and it very much is all of these guys’ creation.

John McPhail: What we were saying last night is he saw the trailer for High School the Musical and said “Yeah, I want to see Zac Efron getting eaten by zombies!” So yeah I love that. It’s just great imagery.

BMD: Have you always had an affinity for musicals?

McPhail: My favorite musical is South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. I watched so many musicals for the first time when I got the job, like it wasn’t a stipulation that the guys were looking for but I wanted to have an infinite of musical knowledge. Music’s had a massive influence on me, just as far as storytelling goes, I think some of the most amazing stories are just told from music and songs. And with Naysun and Nick [Crum] who just loved musicals, I couldn’t go wrong. I had so much support from them, and if I needed to watch anything, they got me.

Ella Hunt: I actually think it’s a really good thing that you weren’t massively into musicals beforehand, because you’ve brought a really original take on what a musical is. It’s not driven by being a musical, it just happens to be one. That was really cool, having a director that wasn’t driven by jazz hands.

Sarah Swire: Tommy [Reilly] and Roddy [Hart] are both singer-songwriters separately and both have careers as musicians touring with their bands, so they tackled writing the music from that perspective, and wanted to create an excellent soundtrack that could stand alone.

John McPhail: Alae was so supportive of me throughout this entire process.

Hunt: Well we all looked after each other! It was so wonderfully collaborative. I’ve never worked with a group of people that so respected everyone and it was amazing that we all worked in such harmony with each other, and I think that’s why we’ve got something special, because we trusted each other. Not to be gushy.

BMD: I like the pairing of the musical and the coming-of-age story, because I feel like there are some things that you can sing that you can’t quite say out loud otherwise.

Hunt: Your internal dialogue, your angst! Sarah [Swire] talked so much about the angst.

Swire: That’s a lot of it! Well, it’s more complex when you’re singing lyrics, but I think the best thing about having choreography is you can externalize angst better because it’s a very kind of, one directional thing, it’s a burst. So, a lot of the choreography, that was one of the main triggers, or one of the main references to what the movements should look like. It was teen angst, and this sense of entrapment and wanting to break free, which is essentially the conundrum the kids face before the zombies come, and they have to fight to survive.

BMD: It’s funny, somebody described this movie to me as if Shane Black made a musical --

McPhail: I’ll take it!