The zombie genre gets a blast of fresh air in the form of Little Monsters, a new Australian film from director Abe Forsythe. A heartwarming romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a zombie outbreak at a petting zoo (well, technically the military base near the petting zoo, but still), Little Monsters stars Lupita Nyong'o, Alexander England, and Josh Gad as an unlikely trio who must band together to protect a kindergarten class from the undead horde.
Hot off the success of his provocative 2016 hit, Down Under, writer/director Abe Forsythe is back with Little Monsters, which is a deeply personal film for the Australian filmmaker. While some continue to dismiss the horror genre, and zombie films in particular, Forsythe proves the versatility of this type of film by using the zombie outbreak as a metaphor for his own anxieties over being a parent to a young child.
While promoting Little Monsters, Forsythe sat down with Screen Rant to talk about the film, including how his son inspired the script, and his awe over how Lupita Nyong'o so fully invested in developing her character. He discusses the comic genius of Josh Gad, as well as his own personal returning champion (and arguably the film's secret weapon), his Down Under muse, Alexander England.
I want to ask you, we've seen a proliferation in the zombie genre, and we're at the stage where zombies are more of a setting than the premise. So the premise is this... Not love triangle, but a friendship and affection and relationship between these three adult characters, and there are also zombies. With that in mind, were zombies always always part of this story?
Zombies weren't the catalyst. The catalyst was my son, and my son's first year of kindergarten, in particular. He has very severe food allergies, the same allergies as the character of Felix. It was a terrifying thing, for me, his first day of school. He had never been out of my care before the first day of school. I was so scared of having to give responsibility for his health responsibilities to someone else. He was so lucky that his kindie teacher was amazing. She really knew what to do to allay my fears, and not in a perfunctory way. I knew she was actually really taking it seriously, among 24 or 25 other kids. Seeing her manage everything and, in particular, look after my son, and how she opened up the world outside of me to my son, it made me realize how important teachers are. I knew how important teachers are, but kindergarten teachers, in particular, I hadn't really considered that, and to have direct experience of it... I was on a school excursion with her, my son, and 24 of his classmates. We went to a petting zoo, which is where the film is set. It's actually the same petting zoo that we filmed the movie. Something happened on that school excursion where I thought, what if there was a zombie? How would we defend a class of kids from a zombie attack, and how would you stop their minds from being corrupted, as well? That seemed, for me, like a metaphor for zombies, in a fun way, to represent the horrors of the world. Whatever you want those horrors to be, whatever they mean to you, it's easy to look at an instance of a child and the thing that's going to corrupt and destroy them. It was the best way of telling that story and that idea in a fun way, to make them zombies. I never went, "Oh, I want to make my version of a zombie movie." No, it was my son, and everything he's taught me, I can put into something and say it in a way that feels surprising. I think I can say it in a more profound way than if I made it as a drama.
All that being said, did you have a ton of fun once it was decided? Like, with makeup and killing?
It was fun! There are definitely elements of it that are fun, but the reality of trying to make a low-budget independent zombie movie that has the scale of what this movie has, along with 11 five-year-old kids as key members of the cast, who are in about 70 or 80 percent of the movie, and the reality of the character, Miss Caroline, trying to protect them from the horrors of the zombies, and some of the adult behavior of the movie... We genuinely had to protect them from that stuff, as well. That's complicated when you've got a set full of zombies in special effects makeup, and Josh Gad swearing and screaming expletives in their little faces. So the challenges were many and tough, but at the end of the day... The greatest challenge of this movie was making it with 11 five-year-old kids, and the greatest reward was actually capturing who they were at that time, at five years old. I knew that if we could set up the shoot to capture those reactions and preserve those reactions, I knew those were going to be the things that would make those stand out. It would have been easier to make the movie with seven or eight-year-olds, getting them to play five, but the challenge of getting five-year-olds to do it was also the thing that made us all recognize that we were doing something different.
It makes it more real. If you had eight-year-olds...
You can tell. You can totally tell. It is about my son's first year of school. It is about him at that age. You can't fake that. It starts happening at six. They start to process things differently. At five, there's still a complete unabashed wonder, the way a five year old perceives their surroundings.
Let's talk about the relationship between Lupita and Josh and Alex.
The way the relationships and the characters connect, it's not just them, but also Felix, and Dave's sister, Tess. Everyone has these different connections that all illuminate each other in different ways. Dave starts the movie not wanting a kid, not wanting to be responsible, because he thinks that's what having a kid represents. Through meeting his nephew, Felix, his five-year-old nephew, that leads him to Miss Caroline, but Felix is getting something from Dave, too. He doesn't have a dad, since he's a test tube baby. He's getting the fun experience of hanging out with his uncle, even though his uncle is doing some really inappropriate things around him. But then, through meeting Miss Caroline, initially not wanting to connect with her on an emotional level. But just seeing her as this amazing, beautiful thing. Then, Miss Caroline, when they get to the farm with the zombies and everything, Miss Caroline steps up and not only has to protect Felix and his classmates, but has to protect Dave, as well, since he's probably the most incompetent person there.
Including the kids!
And then Teddy McGiggle comes in as this bomb... It's arguably more safe for the kids to be out with the zombies than it is for them to be stuck in this souvenir shop with Teddy McGiggle. That's a really good moment, when Teddy comes in, that shows Dave has something that can be saved. Everything he has is because of his sister, who looked after him when he was a kid. So it's a passing of the torch for who we see as the worst adult in the movie. And it pays off in a way with Felix. Everything Dave has inadvertently taught Felix, he brings back to save everyone. And, you know, Dave actively grows up for the first time, in front of the eyes of his sister. It's this crazy kind of thing where everyone has their own little arc in the movie as they go through. Miss Caroline is saved by Felix, ultimately, as well. She's got her dark past, as well. She's got her reasons why she's ended up in this position. It was really important for that character that she wasn't just a super hero. Everything she has to do in this movie, in terms of protecting the kids, stopping their minds from being corrupt, and keeping this hysteria at bay so the kids don't realize everything horrible that's going on, but she's also managing these adults, too! You understand that she has a past, she has a reason why she's ended up in this role. She stepped up in her past, and it's something she urges Dave to do now.
Incredible, I love those connections.
The key was finding actors that would hit all those notes in ways that were fun and that there was enough truth in there, too, that you could understand why they were acting in one extreme way or another. I was so lucky with casting everyone, those three in particular, Alex, Lupita, and Josh. They're each big and funny and camp in their own individual ways, but they all also approach everything from a truthful place. You can tell that Dave's hopefully got the capacity to change. You can see Miss Caroline having to work on how to navigate everything and keep it together, and you can understand, you know, behind the big, brash, comic veneer of Teddy McGiggle, the offensive terrible character he is, you can see the broken person behind it. You get a couple of glimpses where Josh gives you a sense of like, maybe this is why he is the way he is. So each of the performances work because the actors find the things underneath.
It seems like such a distinctly script-driven movie.
Yes, it is.
That being said, was there anything, when you hired these actors, that you added or that they added to their characters?
Definitely. It is very script-driven, and that's a task I set for myself. Even though this is an Australian-made movie, set in Australia, the creatives are primarily all Australian, I followed the rules of American storytelling. I said to the crew, "You have to imagine the Universal logo before this movie." It was my way of thinking, that's what we're making. It needs to feel like a movie that's come out of a studio. Not just in the look, but in the way the story moves forward. It's got a three act structure, it's got a hero's journey, all those sort of things. But then it was about how if we made it feel like it came from a studio, then we could subvert it with things you don't ordinarily see in that type of movie. Then it would feel fresh and more shocking and more funny and more heartfelt, because we wouldn't be expecting it. Each of the cast brought very individual things in different ways. Lupita brought this incredible truth and incredible strength, but also, she technically hadn't sung before or played the ukulele before, but she grounded that character.
It's harder than it looks. I play a little, and it's tricky!
It's so hard. When I tried out of sympathy, I tried, and then just, no, "f*** this." (Laughs) But she learned that in the space of, like, two months. And then, you know, Alex similarly has this amazing... I worked with him before, and I knew he could access a really vulnerable truth. It was important for me to have a character who started in a comic way, and then you realize, oh, you're acting out, and none of that is real. And then Josh, he's an incredible... Not a surprise, but he's got an incredible comic gift. He's a brilliant improviser. He will do everything that's on the page, and then sprinkle this other stuff on it, which makes it funnier but keeps illuminating the truth of the character. There's a whole other version of the movie with a Teddy McGiggle who goes way further than the Teddy McGiggle we ended up with. The great thing about Josh is he gives you so much to work with, and then you can bring it down and find the sweet spot. I can't see this story existing without those three actors. You wouldn't expect, ordinarily, to see them all in a movie together. But they just work like magic.
Since you had worked with him before, I want to ask about Alex. I just talked to him, and he's just so nice.
See? The exact words, "So nice." I knew that's what comes across with him on camera, as well. I knew it would be... We had to make this movie with 11 5-year-olds, so I knew he was going to be... When you have a character acting in an extreme way, it's always nice to have someone who's really genuine, really heartfelt, when you're not shooting. Yeah, it helped everyone. Josh is phenomenal at that, too.
Did you write the role of Dave with Alex in mind?
When I was writing it, it was one of those things where I just couldn't think of anyone else who could do this in this particular way. Not only does he have to have to be extremely comedic during the first half of the movie, he's also gotta be the leading man as well, you know what I mean? When he and Miss Caroline inevitably forge a connection, you had to want to see those two people get together. And I knew he would fulfill that part of the deal, as well, for the audience. It was really nice to see the way people respond to him. Lots of people said, "I hated him initially, but then I fell in love with him at some point, and I didn't even realize when it happened!" That only happens because his performance really navigates in that way.
Little Monsters is out now in theaters and on Hulu.