The Saturday of MCM Birmingham Comic Con saw a panel with the crew of upcoming Christmas zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse, hosted by Stuart Claw. In attendance was the director John McPhail, writer Alan McDonald, composer Tommy Reilly, co-producer Charlotte Walsh, co-producer Naysun Alae-Carew, and producer Nic Crum. They also had inflatable Christmas canes with them. As well talking about the film, two extended clips were played showcasing the musical numbers Turning My Life Around and Soldier At War.
The film is set in the sleepy town of Little Haven. As the inhabitants gear up for Christmas, they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Anna (Ella Hunt) and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) must fight, sing (to original songs) and slash their way to survive, as they try to save family and faculty alike. Their ordeal sees them having to deal with zombie snowmen, a manic bachelor party and teenage hormones.
“It’s fundamentally a story about a teenage girl who has a fight with her dad and wants to get back to her dad to make up,” said Alan. “She’s desperate to get to her hometown and explain why she feels this way to him, and then the zombie apocalypse happens.”
“If this actually happened to a bunch of teens, what would they actually do?” said Alan on a scene where the students decide to see which celebrities are still alive. Drawing on his experience when he used to work as a teacher, he said, “It’s not that they would all immediately become heroic and amazing, it’s not that they would all say, ‘That’s it, life is over.’ They would check their phones, they would see who else is a zombie.”
“My mother weaned me on horror,” said John when asked about his influences on Anna and the Apocalypse. He also added that musicals were not his favourite genre, but that changed after making the film. “It’s something I had to throw myself into. I was quite uncultured when it came to musicals, because South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is my favourite musical. When I got the job I started watching DVD’s and going to see musicals and I just fell in love with some of them. Like, I absolutely adore West Side Story.”
When asked on what made them choose John to direct, Naysun said that they spent around a year looking at directors who were horror fans and had done music videos. “When we saw John’s film, [Where Do We Go From Here?], it was a micro-budget film and it just had character, it had heart in it. At that point, Nic and I were like, ‘Well this is what we’re looking for.’”
Asked on the challenge of subverting the conventions of traditional Christmas songs in the film, Tommy revealed that the song It’s That Time Of Year was one he “spent way too much time worrying about,” adding, “the idea of writing a dirty Christmas song is a dream come true.”
James revealed that every song in the film had to have a purpose. “It wasn’t like, ‘It’s been 50 minutes, we better batter a song in there.’ We wanted every song to drive the story and drive the characters.”
Asked on the challenge of shooting the musical numbers alongside the action, Charlotte revealed that they had originally recorded all the songs before they started shooting. “After we actually shot and choreographed those pieces, we realised that the energy in the voices didn’t necessarily match what we ended up doing on screen. So we had to re-record them again afterwards, get the actors in little rooms by themselves and recreate the energy that they did.”
That they had to cast performers that could act, they were then asked how long it took to assemble the cast. “It took us a good eight, nine months to actually find everybody,” said Nic, who explained that they searched all over the country and viewed hundreds of audition tapes. “We were all adamant that we wanted to find actors that could also sing and everybody was singing their own part.” Casting Anna’s friend John took the longest as Nic revealed, “We properly kept searching… it was right up to prep. We just kept looking because we knew someone would be out there. [Malcolm Cumming] walked in, in his Ghostbusters jumper and we were like, ‘Nailed it!’”
“Malcolm is John,” added Tommy. “He’s the human embodiment of the character. It was a joy to find that man.”
Asked on their reactions when they viewed the finished film back for the first time, John said, “When you’re cutting something like this and you’re putting it together, you never know how people are going to take it.” They didn’t know until the film was screened in front of an audience for the first time at its premiere at Fantastic Fest in September 2017. John mentioned that the film was initially scheduled to be screened twice, only it kept selling out and so was screened eleven times. “People were coming back. In fact, a guy came up to me and said ‘I’ve been to see your film three times.’ That’s when you know, ‘Alright, cool, we got something on our hands here.’”
Naysun elaborated, saying, “After the Fantastic Fest premiere, one of the reviews that came out said that this is going to be a Christmas classic, that they’ll be watching Die Hard, Gremlins and Anna and the Apocalypse every Christmas from this year on. I was like, ‘Okay, we probably did something right.’”
John also added that he was scared about screening the film at Frightfest. “That’s my audience, I go to Frightfest. I don’t want to disappoint that audience because that’s me.” At the festival, lead star Ella Hunt won the Screen International Frightfest Genre Rising Star award. “It was at that point where I thought, ‘We’re alright, people are enjoying it,’” said John.
Alan mentioned that the film originated from co-writer Ryan McHenry, via his short film Zombie Musical. “Sadly we lost Ryan to cancer in 2015,” said Alan. “To see what was his original idea and the script that we were co-writing together come through that long and really painful process, to see a film that not only we were really proud of and that John had put such an amazing stamp on himself, but that other people are taking to heart now, it’s both amazing to us personally and a really beautiful thing in Ryan’s memory.”
“It’s very difficult to work on a film with your friend for five years and then for him to suddenly not be there,” said Naysun, who mentioned that after Ryan’s passing, they discussed whether they should still make the film. “It actually became much more important for us to do it. It is very much Ryan’s, but it’s also everyone here at this table.”
As questions were thrown to the audience the panel was asked what would they do if given the opportunity to do another genre mash-up.
“We’ve talked about this,” began John, who said that Anna and the Apocalypse would not have a sequel, but they loved working together and would like to do something similar. “Things like a sci-fi musical,” said John.
“Sci-fi mockumentary musical,” added Naysun.
“Set in space,” continued John.
“Think Spinal Tap… in space,” said Naysun.
They were then asked if there were references to any other films apart from Shaun of the Dead. “There’s loads of film references in this because we are all just film buffs,” replied John, who mentioned that there are references to the likes of The Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead and Demolition Man.
When asked on having Orion Pictures distributing their film in the US, Naysun replied how Orion made all of his favourite films in the 1980s and 1990s. “To have their logo at the start of our movie… it’s probably one of the coolest things that has ever happened.”
An attendee asked if there were any logistical problems when it came to filming dismembered bodies on residential streets. Nic revealed that the art department had the most issues after they had finished filming on the sets. John recounted how they had filmed in a canteen at a school. “The last day we was filming in the school, we had a big meeting before we went out on location and my designer came in and he says, ‘Look, we can not have what you’ve done to the canteen. We have to get industrial cleaners to come in to clean this canteen. There’s a primary school about to move back in this school and it’s covered in blood.’”
Asked about any funny moments on set, Tommy revealed this his younger brother, Connor, filmed behind the scenes footage on the film. “He shot all the EPK stuff and the cast took a shine to him and made a making of ‘The Making of’ that will never see the light of day. So Connor was making ‘The Making of’ and they started filming him. It became this really intricate complicated narrative involving the fact he liked to wear pillows on his head.”
The final question had the panel being asked on what their favourite scene was to shoot. John and Charlotte both highlighted the musical number for Hollywood Ending, which was one of the first scenes shot. “It was on day two and three we shot that,” recalled John. “It was one of those moments where we kind of went, ‘We’ve got something here.’”
“I’m one of the first people who gets to see what we’ve actually shot,” said Charlotte. “For me, seeing Hollywood Ending coming in and just being like, ‘Wow… we’re actually making this!’”
As the panel came to a close, goodies were given out to the audience that included promotional candy canes, posters and cassette tapes of the track Hollywood Ending.
Anna and the Apocalypse opens in the UK and US on 30 November 2018. The soundtrack is also available to listen to now.