LITTLE MONSTERS is not a zombie film, but it is a film with zombies. Starring Alexander England as Dave, an immature man-child trying to get his life on track, Lupita Nyong’o as kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline, and Josh Gad as an obnoxious children’s entertainer, as they try to keep a class of five-year-olds safe from a zombie outbreak. STARBURST had the chance to sit down with director ABE FORSYTHE at the recent London Film Festival ahead of the film’s November 15th UK release…
STARBURST: There’s an interesting origin story behind this film, could you talk a little about it?
Abe Forsythe: Oh, 100%! That’s the most important part for me contextually, and that’s why I’ve made a real effort to travel with this movie to film festivals. People go into the movie, thinking ‘okay, we’re going to go in and see a zombie movie. I’ve seen zombie movies, I’m over zombie movies. Zombie comedies are only ever Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.’ Everyone always says the same stuff. So for me, it's really important to put forward where this movie came from. I've got a son who's now eight years old, but he was born with multiple, severe food allergies and some other health conditions, and as a result he had never been out of my care – until he went to kindergarten. Out of my camp until he went to kindergarten. And it was a really terrifying thing for me to have to hand him over to someone else.
We really lucked out though, because his kindergarten teacher was amazing. Not only did she look after his health needs, I also got to see him have his world opened up for the first time. So it led me to realise… I always knew teachers were important, and that they were undervalued. But specifically kindergarten ages, I just had never thought about all the things they do for us and for our kids; I got to see first-hand what this woman did for my son. And then what happened is that I chaperoned this school excursion with her, my son and 25 other kids – we went to a petting zoo, which is part of where we ended up shooting the movie. And the inspiration for the movie came from that. We were literally driving on a tractor train which stopped, and the woman driving the train got off to investigate something. It was just one of those random ideas of, what if it was a zombie? Then how would we protect these kids if there was a zombie apocalypse? And I just kept extrapolating from those ideas, like it's not just stopping them from having their brains devoured by zombies. It's actually about protecting them from being corrupted by everything that was around them. Then this thing just kind of poured out of me. The movie is basically a love letter to my son and to all that he’s taught me.
And the kid who takes the fictional placeholder for your son [Diesel La Torraca, as Felix], he’s incredible. That scene where he has an allergic reaction was probably the most emotional moment of the film.
That was really important, and I think he is incredible. It was also the hardest thing to film, for obvious reasons. And that was an important scene for me, because at that point it was still a fun zombie movie, with songs etcetera. It was key at that point to let the audience know there was still danger here, and specifically real-world dangers. One of these kids could die, and I wanted to make that point by having a threat that people can identify with; and building an action scene around someone trying to get an EpiPen was a good way of reminding people of the stakes. All the kids in that scene just did an incredible performance. And then you get to see Miss Caroline becoming the lioness protecting her cubs.
And it leads to that iconic image that’s on all the posters, of Lupita Nyong’o in a yellow dress soaked in blood, wielding a spade! What were your inspirations in creating her character and her look, beyond drawing from real-life?
I think there was some discussion with the costume designer – he’d done my last film and done an incredible job – along with the production designer and the DP, we did talk about wanting to push the world a little bit. Not so it’s so over-the-top that it becomes silly, but more that we needed to think about it. So the departments had a think about how to represent the characters in their look, which is why Miss Caroline wears the sunny dress, because she’s the light for these kids. And there’s something about that dress, with the bum-bag and the ukulele, it had a very Sound of Music quality to it; but then saturating that dress in blood, and the dichotomy of those colours working against each other. You’ve also got Teddy McGiggle in the big polka dot suit, and Dave in the heavy metal tees, which changes as his character develops. It was giving them a slightly pop kind of look but making sure we were grounding that with bits of performance that remind us it’s real, and that there’s serious stuff going on. We talked a little bit about the looks in Coen brothers’ comedies, or The Big Lebowski, where there’s so much backstory to their looks that they contribute to the worldbuilding.
What did you have to do to land someone like Lupita?
That was all my US casting agent, because she was the one that suggested making a list of people we thought would be great for Miss Caroline. And we started pre-production when our casting agent said, “Look, you’re going to get one of these people, and they’ll be great. But now’s the time to just swing for the fences. Let’s go unrealistic. Who’s that person you would want most for this movie?”.And Lupita was that person. No one thought we would get her. I happen to be at the same agency as her in the US, which meant that at least the script got put in front of her. She’d just finished doing Black Panther, she’d said she wanted something completely different, something she hadn’t done before, like a comedy. It just timed out well that her agent went, “It doesn’t get more different than this…” and gave her the script. Lupita read it, and 24 hours later we were having a two-hour long Skype call. And next thing was, she was on board. Everyone was just, “What the fuck just happened?” What was key for me was that the things that resonated with her in this movie were the same reasons I wanted it made, and having an actor of her calibre recognise that and come on board was incredible. And you know, there’s a lot of intentionally lowbrow things in the movie, but the reason they’re there is to show the contrast between that and the more beautiful, emotional things.
What’s interesting is that you focus so much on the kids and the humane element of the story that we never find out much about the zombies’ backstory. Why did you decide to leave that out?
There was a version of the movie where we started with the military base right at the beginning, and there were other versions where we explained more about it, but for me it was never something I was interested in. It was meant to be that these characters would find themselves in a movie that they didn’t think they would be a part of. We’re in their world and all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a zombie film. And to be honest, I feel like we we've seen so many zombie movies and TV shows that we've reached a saturation point where we don't need the rules explained to us anymore. The only thing people need to know is, are they fast or slow? I wasn’t trying to make a zombie movie, zombies just happened to be in the movie.
And with all this talk about Lupita’s role, in fact it’s Dave who is the central character. Is that because you were placing yourself in the story?
Not really, he represents a very particular type of male for me. And it's someone I think I shared traits with at some point before becoming a father, but I tell this story because, for all the normal, clichéd reasons, I was terrified of becoming a father. But when my son was born, I remember this profound feeling when I looked at him, that all those things I was worried about totally went away. At that moment it’s like, it’s now my job to make sure that you’re okay. So since then my life totally revolved around my son, but I remember when he was a toddler and we would walk down the street and every single time, when we would cross a couple, the man and woman reacted to him so differently. The woman would engage with the kid, and the guy would do everything in his power to pretend my son wasn’t there. That kind of guy was more the inspiration Dave, those who think that having a child will be the death of everything of who they are, when the reverse is true. It can be the beginning of you growing up and realising that there’s more to life than your own shit.
Do you have future projects in the works that we can look forward to?
I'm working on something else with Lupita and this film’s producers, on something that’s similar to Little Monsters in that it’s a genre. It’s not a zombie movie, it’s not horror. It’s a different genre that we’re very familiar with and would be totally in line with STARBURST. It’s making very big commentary on the world right now, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
LITTLE MONSTERS opens in UK cinemas and on Sky Cinema November 15th.