Sitges 2017 Interview: Director and writer of Anna and the Apocalypse on their Scottish high school zombie Christmas musical

Director John McPhail and writer Alan McDonald talk about mixing genres, and a rap about fish.

None of you are ready for the experience that is Anna and the Apocalypse, a fantastically mixed genre mash-up of a zombie musical set in Christmas and starring angsty high schoolers. We follow Anna, a girl set on escaping her quiet little Scottish town – until the dead start rising. Then she and her friends must fight, and sing their way through a zombie apocalypse and find their families, or what remains of them.

While at Sitges film festival, I was lucky enough to talk to director John McPhail and writer Alan McDonald about mixing horror, high school and musicals, a rap about fish and honoring the memory of Ryan McHenry, the man crazy or cool enough to dream of kids singing through a zombie apocalypse.

This started as a short film, how did you guys come on board?
Alan: The original short film came out in 2010 [Zombie Musical, went on to win a BAFTA] and it was made by Ryan McHenry for his third year of film school. It screened at local festivals in Scotland and a production company in Glasgow bought the option to develop a feature. At same time I was co-writing with one guy who was a development exec at the same company. He knew I liked Glee and Shaun of the Dead.

By this point Ryan had written a very early draft, like 60 pages. I think he went to a cabin in northern Scotland and just wrote like a madman. The company was asking for someone who knew the genre to just write notes, and the producer of the original short Naysun Alae-Carew asked me to do that. I was still a teacher at the time, so I went home from school that day, read the script and loved it. I wrote some stream of consciousness stuff within the hour and two days later I just an email back where I was invited to speak to Ryan and then the next day I was a co-writer. Then for the best part of 3 or 4 years, up until the point that Ryan got sick we wrote the script for the feature together. Then after Ryan passed away I took over.

John: I didn’t get to meet Ryan and it’s something I will always feel disappointed about, because I feel like Ryan and I could have been best pals. We have the same sense of humor, he was a prankster, even when I read the script for the first time I felt like it could have been me that wrote it. What is lovely is that I got to meet his parents very well.

Alan: The first time I properly met John, I remember going home that day and when my wife, then girlfriend asked me how it went I said “He’s going to be great, he’s just like Ryan”.

How was the process of adapting the short and expanding it to a feature?
Alan: We knew from the start that the genre mashup was going to be really hard to do well. The danger of a genre mash is to do too much of one thing, too little of the other and it just feels messy. So we started very deliberately with a standard high school, coming-of-age story. The short was also High School Musical meets Shaun of the Dead, and the narrative was pretty simple. For the film we started with Anna, what is happening to this girl that makes this a coming of age tale. We took the short as a template, but we pretty much built the movie from scratch based around the character of Anna.

(from the left) Director John McPhail, Geek with an afro, writer Alan McDonald and advisor with producing company Blazing Griffin, Barry Waldo.

When did the Christmas angle come into play?
Alan: Originally it was going to be a summer graduation film. It was like 2 years into development that Ryan called me on Boxing Day and said “This should be Christmas” at which point I said “You’re right! It should!” So the characters and the world were developed around Anna, he relationship with her friends, with her family. And the Christmas angle helped a lot for that because Christmas is about family and reunion.
We watched a lot of John Hughes movies before things like Shaun of the Dead and a lot of people picked up on that, that despite it being a musical with zombies, it is about these teen characters coming of age.

Are you fans of musicals?
John: So I’m probably one of the most uncultured people you’ll ever meet. My favorite musical is South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. I love that and Book of Mormon. But I’ve seen musicals since then, I saw Wicked and I loved it. After I got the job I went on Amazon and bought every musical DVD I could find and walked through them. I tried so hard to watch High School Musical but after the first 10 minutes I said “no, I’ll find another way”. Ultimately I think that’s one of the things that work in the film, that it doesn’t feel too musical, but it just fits the world. We all love our John Hughes movies, and as I said I am a massive horror fan.

Alan: I think that’s something you really brought on board. We were really focused on the coming of age, musical and to add zombies to make it fun. But John really added an understanding of horror as a genre. Even the shot of the Snowman getting decapitated was something you chose to make it look that way and it really works.

How did you combine the visual aspects of a horror film and a high school comedy?
John: I always wanted to color grade things apart throughout the film. It’s Christmas, it’s high school, it’s teenagers, and of course it’s horror where you can have so much fun with color. Everyone wanted to put red on things and we have some lovely reds like peaches, blues, yellows and great vibrant colors. I’m a massive Carpenter fan.

That was something me and my Director of Photography talked about all the time. The DP would always go around with a color swatch, and really liked yellow. There are some beautiful yellow scenes in the film. And we also used some Christmas colors. We knew from the beginning that the film would get darker. And we planned to lighten the three acts so the black level would walk through the film so the blacks were on the floor and the beginning of the film was so bright and breezy. Then as we go into the second act and the song Human Voice, the blacks become inkier and darker until we get to the school and we are casting hard shadows across faces and we are losing parts and members of the cast and everything gets darker, the tone, the score. That all plays a part in creating a horror atmosphere.

Anna and the Apocalypse had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin.

You have a lot of women working on the film, which is female led. How did you work on writing for this character while being men?
John: Alan was very good at this. We were very conscious because we are all men, and this is a female-led project. We have a leading lady and it’s her story and telling that form a man’s point of view isn’t the best. And Alan went to message boards and blogs just to make sure, because there were things that we as an older generation would say that the new generation wouldn’t. We wanted to make sure we didn’t do or say things as guys being funny, but that it came from the heart. One of the biggest ones was “friendzone”, we didn’t want to say that word because there are so many connotations with it and it’s a pressure thing for young girls so we wanted to stay away from that and stay true to the character.

Alan: The song Hollywood Ending is a great example of that where John sings that line “sometimes the nice guys don’t always get the girl” which is a great song line and on the writing day I said “That’s great, but if he want to keep that line we have to have Anna’s next verse being about how that’s not how things work” It’s not about John winning her, she doesn’t care. She has her own life.

So we give John that, cause it’s a thing boys his age would say, as long as we give Anna her moment right after where she specifically says “I’m not a princess hoping my chance could come” that balances it out and turned out ok. We wanted to be inclusive and something as simple as one line could achieve that.
There’s so many women involved in the production who would say like “I know you don’t mean this, but you can’t say that” and that’s what you need. You can’t expect everyone to get it right all the time, but you have to be open and make an effort to have people around to keep you right.

Who came up with the idea for the Fish Wrap song?
John: We originally had this terrible Rumanian, Russian sound for a song to be performed by the two students dressed as penguins. Then we were at the edit room and I went “We need to fix this. What about a Fish Rap?” I went to Roddy, our composer and said we needed something like “I like big fish and I cannot lie”, So Roddy left.

The next day Roddy just went in and started rapping about fish, and our other composer Tommy thought he went nuts. “Why are you rapping about fish? Where did this come from?” and Roddy said this was for the Penguin dance. To which Tommy responded, “has anyone spoke to you about this, this is just nuts”.


Read my review of Anna and the Apocalypse.

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