As high school students prepare for a high school Christmas musical, we follow Anna who is not in it, but still sings about her life. Through song we meet her friends: her lovelorn best friend, the guy Anna is hung up on, the student journalist, the cute couple, Anna’s father and the overbearing school headmaster. Anna, played by Scottish actress Ella Hunt, sings four songs on the soundtrack but most of the songs are sung by the ensemble including Anna.
“The movie was pitched to me as a zombie musical set at Christmas. I’ve done so many of those recently,” she drolls. “Once I got to the audition, it was very clear they weren’t wanting to make a parody movie. They weren’t wanting something that was going to seem ridiculous. They wanted to make a coming-of-age story rooted in reality as a teenager in a zombie apocalypse.”
The feature was developed from an original short film about zombies eating singing students.
“I don’t know how many of you know the backstory of the film. The original idea of the film was thought up by this fantastic young filmmaker called Ryan McHenry in his last year of film school,” she said.
Ella Hunt repeats Ryan McHenry’s story as “I’m watching High School Musical and it’s a bit rubbish, but it’d be great if Zack Efron was eaten by zombies.’ As a group of friends they made this film. It was nominated for a Scottish BAFTA. They got funding to make a full-length feature. They started making this feature. They got a new writer attached to work with Ryan (Alan McDonald). Then Ryan becomes Vine famous for his videos of Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal. Then, sadly, Ryan McHenry was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. He passed away in the summer of 2015. His friends came together to make this film in his memory. Ryan Gosling did a tribute to him where he actually ate his cereal which is why there is a moment in the film where we talk about (Ryan Gosling) as ‘Dead? Alive? Dude’s still cool.’”
The students are trapped in a bowling alley waiting out the zombies. They have time for a song or two. After the military bombs the town, the students seem sure that everyone they know is dead or undead. They are full of fear and remorse.
“The film wasn’t shying away from yes it is a zombie musical comedy set at Christmas. All of those playful things. But also at the heart of it, it is about loss and the loss of innocence and hope throughout it. I thought it was really admirable that the producers weren’t shying away from doing that,” Ella Hunt said.
The characters seem carefully written to not be hapless or clueless.
“John McPhail is an excellent director. It was very clear in the script that they didn’t want these characters to seem like clichés the whole way through. We meet them and we say okay there’s the boy who’s hopelessly in love with his best friend and there’s a misanthropic outsider. There are things that might seem like clichés at the beginning but it was very much about telling a story while we were telling all of these stories. Not just our heroine. I think through that it tells a story much a hellauva better than if it was just about Anna,” she said.
Much of the staging and action was made up on the fly, Ella Hunt said.
“This film was very much about thinking on our feet because we didn’t have the budget to rehearse. The only big sequence we rehearsed was the Hollywood Ending song. Other than that, most mornings we had about 10 minutes to choreograph three zombie hits or the beginning of a song before we started. At the time, we just needed to trust each other.”
The choreographer, Sarah Swire, was always on set working. She also played the lesbian journalism student, Steph.
“It wasn’t like we had all month of rehearsals prior. She was choreographing in the minute that we were shooting. I’m really grateful that it was Sarah that was our choreographer,” Ella Hunt said.
“It was very much about discovering movement that was an extension of our bodies as opposed to it being like ‘hey jazz hands’ musical. That morning when we did Turning My Life Around when I put my headphones in and skip down the street,” she said.
The song quickly becomes a duet with Anna’s lovelorn best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming), leaving his house listening to the same song on his headphones.
“We had half an hour (of rehearsal) before we came into that song. We just skipped up and down the street to work out what was going to seem right and what was going to feel fun. She was like “maybe you could do a hop skip and a jump out the door.” I did it and she said, ‘That was terrible. Don’t do that again.’ That was out relationship. I would just do things. She would either like it or she wouldn’t. I could just go crazy.”
“Sarah comes onto set and she’s like ‘guys you can freestyle this next bit,’” Ella Hunt explains.
Malcolm had to walk a fine line between making his guitar solo funny and making it cool.
“I have been begging through the shoot to get a high kick in somewhere I can do this high kick. It’s my one thing I am not clumsy about. I am proud of this high kick. I’m in the trailerrrrrrrr! She does this bit like an air keytar solo and she comes up to Malcom. He bursts into this most elaborate incredible air keytar solo. We are all in hysterics on set. It is like the most beautiful, weird moment of filming,” Ella Hunt described.
Anna and the Apocalypse gained attention at Fantastic Fest. The film came into the fest an independent film and left as one distributed by Orion Pictures.
“The festival was done on popular demand. We were only supposed to play twice but we wound up playing 12 times which was awesome. Our little group became festival celebrities which to the four of us was hilarious. Then we were picked up by Orion. We’ve been on this to music fests. We’ve been to Comic Con,” she said.