The Cast And Crew Of 'Anna And The Apocalypse' On Their Christmas Zombie Musical [Interview]

Every year, every film festival, some World Premiere comes out of nowhere to reveal itself as "the next big thing." At this year's Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, that title was Anna and The Apocalypse. This film is director John McPhail's – wait for it – Scottish, Christmas-themed horror musical about coming of age during the zombie apocalypse. High School Musical meets Shaun of the Dead with a dash of Footloose. Sound fun? This is going to be a new winter rewatch tradition for the jolliest of genre fans.

We were able to find a little time amidst the chaos of Fantastic Fest to chat with McPhail about his sing-songy doomsday treat, along with actress Ella Hunt, actor Malcolm Cumming, actress/choreographer Sarah Swire, and actor Christopher Leveaux. Here's what the whole crew had to say about musical zombie kills, cinematic influences and – as an added bit of fun – what horror movies they'd love to turn into a musicals next.

So you make this musical zombie comedy, get accepted to Fantastic Fest for your World Premiere and open to acclaim. Looking back on the project's storied history from incubation to reality, what does this kind of welcome mean to you all?

John McPhail: All of us have worked on [Anna and the Apocalypse] for so long and we've worked so hard. To see those responses and those comments, it's just been amazing. It's been a total whirlwind. We [to Fantastic Fest] not knowing what people were going to expect and what people were going to say, but yeah, we've been getting messages from home and stuff like that. My mom's constantly been going, "Have you seen this? Have you seen that?"

Ella Hunt: This is really special for all of us. We had such a wonderful time making [Anna and the Apocalypse]. It was such a labor of love. Right from the start. To then come here and watch Anna get the response that it's gotten is just such a wonderful thing. It's so special. I've never had that before with a film and I wear it with such pride.

I know Twitter responses and social media responses can be really quick and really witty in today's film festival world. Have you seen any reactions that stand out yet?

Ella Hunt: We all have a favorite that I think we should just trend now. It's "What the hell is Anna and the Apocalypse and why is it trending?"

Malcolm Cumming: Yeah, just some girl called Anna reading it and going, "What is this? Why?"

Sarah Swire: Why is my life on fire now? [Laughter]

When you're making a horror musical like this, what element comes first? The horror or the musical?

John McPhail: It's the story. It was always about the story. It was always about the characters. The musical aspect just helps show the depth and their growth, their plight. Where they're going, which way are they coming from and where they want to go.  The horror aspect of it is just part of the story. It's part of our zombie apocalypse. That's the inevitable part of it. We'll eventually reach the horror moments by starting like a zany teen comedy and introducing the new characters – get people laughing. Then, slowly but surely, head towards that horror genre where people are going to be terrified for their favorite character. Scared that they're going to lose them which, in turn, means they'll root for them when they're at their lowest.

For the actors here, what kind of choreography and training goes into cuing up death sequences with lyrics and musical numbers? That's not just dancing and singing. Kill-dancing is a whole other level.

Sarah Swire: The whole time it was a dance between myself [Swire is also the film's choreographer], EmmaClaire Brightlyn, who is the fight director, Sara Deane's the cinematographer, and John [McPhail]. It was a very open, selfless space where we are always supportive of each other's needs. It was like, "Well, what do you need? Why do you need this shot?" And Claire would be like, "Well, what hit do you want. How can the choreography service the fight choreography that you need?" John's characters need to reach a certain emotional point. The question becomes "What in the choreography – in the terms of the dance movement – can we add in order for the character to tell their story best?"  And, "What does Sara Deane need to frame in all that, to have all of that manifest itself on the screen?" It was such a humble working environment where everybody really had each other's backs.

Ella Hunt: It was important, as actors, to root performances in reality. To try and remember through all of it – through the singing, through the horror, through the fights – that these reactions need to be real for the film to be a success. That was clear right from the start. That was the most important thing. It's a bit like what John's saying, but we had John constantly reminding us of that and keeping us centered.

Christopher Leveaux: It's just like scrambling eggs. Really, I mean, you can get it wrong very easily.

Do you have a favorite improv moment that really stuck out when you watched the final cut?

John McPhail: There are a couple. Like, one of my favorite ones is [Sarah's] "Boom! Saved your life."

Sarah Swire: [To Malcolm] Your scream. But that was written in the script?

Malcolm Cumming: I mean it's this scream, that is just entirely how that was written. You can see it, you can see each, every single letter there is like, "Yeah, that's the length of that".

Sarah Swire: Chris had a bit in "Hollywood Ending" where they're all at the cafeteria table, and right before we shot the take, he scuttles back behind the camera and he's like, "Sarah! Can I do...this [mimics heart outline motion]?" This is going to serve as, like, nothing in a written interview...

I will write-in [doing the heart motion]. Don't worry. [Laughs]

Sarah Swire: So I was like, "Yes!" In the final cut there's a perfect shot of him going down and making that heart motion. On the screen it's so happy. It's so silly, but so apt for the character.

John McPhail: Oh! "Is Paris still standing? Yeah. French don't take no shiiiiit!" That was great fun.

Do you have any favorite musical moments in cinema that might have influenced your take on Anna and the Apocalypse?

John McPhail: I hadn't seen West Side Story before but when I was in prep for [Anna and the Apocalypse] I watched it. One of the things is I wanted the boy's movements in "Soldier Of War" to have was this little skip. It's a little skip-a-dee-doo.

Ella Hunt: That's the Shark's skip.

John McPhail: It's one of my favorite moments, them strutting down and then just doing this little skip away. It's just perfect because they're walking so hard with knives in their hands and weapons, but then we get a wee skip and a step. Perfect.

Ella Hunt: I think, for me, a lot of these moments we haven't really seen before in that I'd never read a zombie horror musical before – obviously – but I'd also never read something with a teenage female lead where she doesn't walk off into the sunset with someone. So that was new and I'm so proud to have played that role.

anna and the apocalypse review

Do you have any favorite zombie kills? Or, actually, I should first ask if you all were horror fans before coming into this film? 

Christopher Leveaux: Not as much as I realized, but when I was running away from a zombie, I realized that I was.

The horror became real in that moment?

Christopher Leveaux: Yeah. This is something that I had been waiting for my whole life for apparently.

Malcolm Cumming: I think some of the...well, I think all of the kills were really mental. The script was so meticulous and there was so much stuff written chaos. Everything was so well thought out.

Sarah Swire: [Writer Alan McDonald's] little details and nods to the actors themselves within the script were so perfect. Humorous themselves.

Malcolm Cumming: I loved that. In our first real encounter with zombies that you see, in the bowling alley, I think everything in that is just – there's a golden moment for everyone.

Ella Hunt: I love that bit. The moment where [Sarah Swire] – the zombie squeezes her boobs – and she finds the spatula and slaps him with in and sticks it through the roof of his mouth. I'm like, "Yes girl! Yes!"

Sarah Swire: I loved the audience's reaction to when the bowling pin blocker came down and chopped off a zombie head, then it rolls out...

Malcolm Cumming: Yeah, when it comes through the ball return!

Sarah Swire: Everyone was like, "Ah! That's gross but awesome!"

So have you guys seen Shaun of the Dead before? And I'm sure everyone has asked you this question... 

Ella Hunt: [Laughter] Yes. 

I know. I'm not being original here, but I have to ask about all of Edgar Wright's influences throughout the film.

John McPhail: Oh no, of course it's there. I'm a massive Sam Raimi fan and Edgar Wright is a massive Sam Raimi fan, do you know what I mean? 

The history of cinema keeps coming full circle, our heroes inspired by their heroes. Only natural. 

John McPhail: You always come back that way. I mean, of course we're going to get compared to Shaun of the Dead because it's a zombie comedy. There's the romance element to it. But I love those quick cuts; whip pans and amazing sound design. That's something I've always wanting to play with. It's great to even be compared to Wright, because Edgar Wright, again, he's one of my heroes. He's made some amazing movies and he's got his own style.

Ella Hunt: I think that's art in itself. You take inspiration from what's come before, you respect that and you develop on it. You grow and that's how as humanity we build our culture. So to not acknowledge that would just be silly. We're not trying to do the same as those films, but we are respecting how awesome they are.

For my last question – well, you're all creative types. If you were given the opportunity to remake any horror movie as a musical, what film would you choose? 

John McPhail: The Thing, John Carpenter. That would be amazing.

Do you have a song title in your head? 

John McPhail: I'm just trying to think of like, you know the bit when the head starts to go back and everything? What would that song be called. "Strain Your Neck?" The Thing. A musical version of The Thing. It has to be done.

Ella Hunt: The Human Centipede. The main song could be "We've Gotta Stick Together." [Lots, and lots, and lots of laughter.]

Oh my. That's a Disney musical in the making.

Malcolm Cumming: [Referring to The Human Centipede idea] All of the harmonies would just be muffled, wouldn't they be?  No, I think Blair Witch Project. Like the same production value, the same style, everything, but they just somehow get musical. I think that would be great.

Guerrilla horror musical? 

Sarah Swire: Yeah. They could bring their ukuleles into the woods. Recording on their iPhones.

John McPhail: I would love us to do a horror version of Voyage of the Rock Aliens. They won't let me do it [motions to partners sitting off-camera]! Jermaine Jackson turns up for fifty minutes! Imagine that!