Interview: Little Monsters Writer-Director Abe Forsythe
The Aussie film-maker chats with me about his wonderfully absurd zom-com
Greetings readers — if I have any that is. No? Well then, hello to you, cyberspace.
Sincere apologies for the long hiatus after a mere two blog posts back in September’s lead up to BFI’s London Film Festival. On a whim, I decided to shelf all responsibilities for a short while to float around India with my trusty backpack in tow. After three months, two bouts of Delhi Belly (including the loss of 10 kilos — every cloud…) and one Bollywood film, I’m back to work and raring to get creative once again. Check out my Twitter for a few reviews I’ve written this past week, and stay tuned there or on Instagram for any upcoming work.
I’ll go ahead and kick things off here with an interview I had with talented Aussie director Abe Forsythe during LFF 2019. I was gutted at the thought I’d lost the original recording at the time — before transcription or sensibly making a backup, may I add — but after a recent spot of online wizardry by a genius friend of mine, BOOM, I’ve retrieved it. Praise be for buddies who aren’t semi-technophobes like me, eh? Abe, if you’re reading, sorry for huuuuge delay. I’m certain the movie was a total flop without publication of this interview — wink.
So, Abe kindly agreed to talk shop with me while promoting his last film, zombie comedy Little Monsters — one of my top picks from the festival, by the way. Luckily, he’s a really friendly, open and totally humble guy, as well as a top-notch film-maker, so we had a great chat.
“In this wonderfully absurd comedy-horror, failed musician Dave (Alexander England) assists charming kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) and obnoxious kid’s TV show host Teddy (Josh Gad) to save a group of youngsters from a pack of hungry zombies during a school trip. Coming at us with the antithesis of her ‘Red’ in Us, Nyong’o takes centre stage in writer-director Abe Forsythe’s latest work. Nyong’o’s dedication to her role here, combined with England’s entertaining turn as an odious narcissist and some sharp direction by Forsythe, helps this droll, enjoyably blood-soaked gorefest make it to the top tier of the zom-com ranks. I have a slight aversion to zombie comedies, but Little Monsters tickled my pickle, so it’s a good’un for sure.”
And without further ado, here’s the interview itself:
How are you enjoying London Film Festival so far?
I just got to London yesterday actually so I’m still trying to acclimatise. The first screening is tomorrow. People here are extremely nice. I’ve lived here before too, so it’s just nice to be back and visiting. I’m also at that point where I have festival fatigue, watching this movie over and over, but this was the one that was that was really important for me to be at, to be able to watch it with a British audience. I’m really excited about the release it’s getting out here, and to be in a room full of British people reacting to the film. England is part of my DNA, not just because I’m from Australia, but also, culturally, it’s very much part of me. I was raised watching British comedy. Monty Python, Rik Mayall, Rowan Atkinson, that sort of stuff. I really appreciate being able to be here and show my work where these guys are from. It’s really special. My last movie played over here at the BFI, which I wasn’t able to get to, so I didn’t want to miss this. It’s just one of those little life moments where you just want to tick the box and enjoy it.
Before we go on, I have to admit I’m not a fan of zombie comedies.
I mean, I’m not either really. (Laughs)
That said, I loved the whole premise of Little Monsters, so I’m a slight convert.
Well, that’s lovely. Thank you.
I know you were inspired by your son and a school trip he was on, but was it always your intention to make this a zombie comedy? Or did you have any other ideas in mind first?
It wasn’t actually my intention, no. It was literally just being on this school excursion with my son and his kindergarten teacher. She was so significant in his life at that time because she really looked out for him and his classmates. It was me, her and these 25 kids at the petting zoo where we shot some of the movie. I was struggling writing another script at the time. I knew that I had a finite time to get another movie out because my last one had just come out, and I was just really struggling with it. It wasn’t working. I went on this school excursion, really got to experience what it’s like being with 25 kids, to manage 25 5-year-olds, and appreciate everything this teacher was doing during this particular excursion. We were on a tractor train at the petting zoo, and it stopped because there was something ahead on the road. The woman who was driving got off to investigate, and it was one of those random moments in life. I thought, what if that was a zombie? I don’t know why. I think what I extrapolate from that was, if we were surrounded by a threat, how would we survive that threat? How could we stop these 25 kids from being eaten alive? And how could we stop their minds from being corrupted by everything they were witnessing? It was also the realisation of that the one I’d feel confident my kid being with in such a situation would be his kindergarten teacher. That idea then led me to all of the stuff that my son had taught me at that point in our lives, coming out in different ways. So, I didn’t plan to make a zombie movie, no. It wasn’t something I had to tick off my bucket list. I just thought that zombies were the best threat we could have. We’re so familiar with zombies now, with the rules of zombies. They’re kind of ridiculous, I think, so it brings an element of humour into it. Even though the threat is real for these kids in the movie, you can still laugh along with it. If it was a real threat, you couldn’t. At one point, I thought about a hostage situation before thinking that would become way too serious.
So, you were never tempted to lean into something darker with the film? You wanted to keep it lighter?
One hundred percent. And that desire came out of the film I made previously [Down Under]. That was much darker. It was a comedy, but it was very, very bleak, and it was difficult to get out into the market given it was so extreme. So, I wanted to do something totally different, to make something that was optimistic, that made a comment about the world in a lot of different ways but mainly in a way that allowed us to let off a bit of steam and have some fun with it.
You say you wanted to comment on the world. What you’ve written works as a metaphor for a lot of stuff going on right now. Did you have any specific situations in mind?
There are obviously some pretty specific references, like the stuff we say about the military. To be honest, the military is the other real threat in this movie, so it’s certainly commenting on the American military coming in and taking over in various places. There are a lot of different ways you could read the zombies because they can represent a number of different things. Also, my son has life-threatening food allergies, and that sequence in the movie, where danger is built around running for the EpiPen, is really important for me. It says to the audience that, even though we’re having a laugh and having fun, we need to remind ourselves that one of these kids could actually die. It was important for me to make that reminder with something that was based in the real world rather than through the fantasy of the zombies. So, yeah, there’s a metaphor there which could mean a number of different things, but for me, the zombies generally represent the horrors of the world and how the world will one day come to try to corrupt us or our children and change our brains. And that’s why the humour in the movie is so extreme. Obviously, the adult behaviour is appalling, but that was the point because it mirrored the behaviour of five-year-olds and the way they see the world, asking, at what point do we stop looking at the world with wonder and start becoming very insular and toughed up by everything we’re surrounded by? I couldn’t do that without showing both sides for what they are, and it was a tricky balancing act, but it was really important for me to not pull back on that extreme adult behaviour.
Speaking of appalling adult behaviour. In both Little Monsters and Down Under, you included some pretty horrible, immature male characters. They’re not completely unlikable though, so how do you find some humanity in these people despite their flaws?
I think it’s just about the fact I’m less interested in characters who are just completely one-note. I know that some people would easily look at a character like Teddy McGiggle and say that he is one-note, but for me, he’s not, and there’s enough moments in there that give you glimpses into why he is the way he is. They sometimes come out in jokes or as little moments of insecurity, but they’re there. I believe everyone has the capacity to change. For example, Dave’s growth in this movie shows that a person can start off one way and end up totally different by the end of the story. When I knew I was going to be a father, I thought about how I could bring this child into the world, making sure he doesn’t become an awful human and end up behaving in a toxic way, how I could set him up with the right moral compass without dictating exactly what he should do, how I could protect him at the same time as leading by example in different ways too. Some of the characters in my last movie were me looking at that particular type of male, like Trump, who are unfortunately all across the world, and wondering where their parents are and why they’ve become like that. I truly believe that sort of thing has to do with upbringing. This film was more about looking through the eyes of a child and wondering why we don’t just shut the fuck up, sing some Taylor Swift, pet some animals, and then realise life’s kind of ok.
And by looking through the eyes of kids, what did you learn?
I feel like I learned a lot before I started working with these kids. In the past, I’ve directed commercials, and a by-product of that is working with a lot of kids around the age of 5 and sometimes even younger. So, I knew that if you cast the right kid and set up their environment in the right way, the power of what they can give you changes. They can deliver the most pure, unfiltered reactions to something and give great performance without realising they’re even doing it. It’s the kind of reaction that even the best actors can’t achieve in the same way. The kids aren’t acting, they’re just being themselves. And that’s what you want to try to do, set up the right environment for that to happen. So I took that into the Little Monsters shoot, knowing that if we were able to set up the right environment, that adult behaviour we talked about earlier would be tipped the other way when you see the faces of these kids and the natural way they would react to an animal, or how they are when they get scared or when they sing. I wanted to protect that to make sure we got achieved the best end result.
Circling back to the script you abandoned for Little Monsters. I guess it isn’t one you plan to go back to?
Oh no, I’ve given up on that one. That is one thing I’m pretty good at, if something isn’t working out for me, I’ll just get rid of it because obviously it’s not working for a reason. And I’ve also realised that I need my movies to tell me something about my life at that point, and Down Under taught me to question the sort of world I was bringing my child into. Little Monsters is now what he taught me about the world. And my next thing, which I’ve been working on for a couple of years, is — without giving anything away — something that I’m always thinking about.
Are you talking about the Miss Universe project?
That is Miss Universe, yeah.
Um…accurate enough to kind of keep people guessing what it is (laughs).
And that it does.
Men in Black is the type of movie that I’ve always wanted to make. I’ve always wanted to make a big studio film. What I love about Men in Black is the story works so well, as does the relationship between the characters. So, the reference to that is very accurate. You know, it’s science fiction. I’d say it’s an alien invasion movie with characters in it that wouldn’t traditionally be in an alien invasion movie. That’s the best way to describe it.
That certainly sounds pretty interesting. Watch this space, I guess. And I believe you’re teaming with Lupita once again for this next project?
Yes, that’s right. She’s producing it with us. It’s taking up quite a lot of my time at the moment, making sure that we get it right before we can move forward. I feel like I have something important to say with this movie, again about what we’re going through in the world and to show there may be a way of bringing the world together. So, it’s aiming for something pretty high, but again, it’s trying to do it in a way that’s pretty unexpected and that subverts our expectations in terms of genre.
Before you do a runner. I read it was surprisingly easy to get Lupita on board for Little Monsters, but what was it like working with her? She’s a real powerhouse of talent, huh?
Oh yeah, man. It was hands down one of the best experiences — certainly of my career and probably of my life — collaborating with her on that character and seeing what she brought to the role. She recognised the proof of that character, what she represented, and what she says in the story. She not only recognised that but then delivered it at such a truthful level, and she’s also great with the comedy aspect too. There was a reason why, before I met her or even got in contact with her, it registered she was right for the role. When I saw 12 Years a Slave, which is one of my favourite films — and Steve McQueen is one of my favourite filmmakers — I was particularly blown away by her performance. And, maybe it’s strange that was the performance that made me realise I wanted her to play Miss Caroline, but the reasons I did want her to play that character is she had such a strength and charisma that are so truthful and believable. If Lupita Nyong’o was the woman looking after my son during a zombie apocalypse, I’d feel pretty good about that.
Abe, thanks so much for speaking with me today, and I hope the rest of the festival goes well for you.
My pleasure. Thanks for your kind words about the film.