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Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming talk Anna and the Apocalypse, the must-see Christmas-zombie-musical everyone is talking about

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Anna and the Apocalypse is this December season’s must-watch film. The Christmas-zombie-horror-musical-comedy is certainly one of a kind, and has been garnering critical praise and public acclaim across the film festival circuit. Releasing today across North America and the United Kingdom, the indie Scottish film is set to become a cult classic; I spoke with stars Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming about their experiences filming, their thoughts on this unique genre mashup, and their excellent performances as the titular Anna and her best friend John.

Though she’s only recently achieved international recognition, Ella Hunt has been acting for over a decade. “Since I started acting, I really wanted to get to a point where I was playing roles that were stimulating and felt well-rounded, and I wasn’t just playing the ditzy girlfriend part,” Hunt explains.

“And I’ve been doing this since I was eleven, so it was a very conscious process of reading for some things and not reading for others, and waiting for the right things to come about. And when Anna got sent through my inbox, I started reading it and I was sort of bowled over by how three-dimensional she is and what a fantastic opportunity it would be to play a young woman, honestly.

Ella Hunt in Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

“What I didn’t know when I started auditioning was what a fantastic team it was going to be, and how collaborative the process was going to be. I was so allowed on that shoot to be all the things that a young girl is, and that is so freeing and special. She is an amazing character! She’s smart, she’s aspirational, but she’s also vulnerable. She doesn’t just start off as somebody that knows how to fight and handle herself, that grows throughout the story, she has to discover in herself this badass.”

Though the character is written and directed by men, Hunt insists that her character grew from collaborative process between herself and the team. “We had a lot of amazing women on the set. We had a female director of photography, female fight coordinator, female choreographer, female head of post-production. So I was surrounded a lot of amazing women, and I really believe that empowered women empower women. So those women empowered Anna, in a sense.”

As to what drew Malcolm Cummings to this unusual and fascinating project, “It was such a surprising and eye-catching thing to get in, to see that tagline and the treatment for what the story is,” he explains of first receiving the script. “And I was really lucky at the time when I was auditioning and got the script, I also received demos of all of the songs. So I got to read it and discover it, and listen to the music at the same time. And I remember reading the first couple of pages and the initial opening sequence and listening to ‘What A Time To Be Alive’, and still being like ‘What on earth is this?’.

“At this point it was just the fascination of needing to understand why this was a thing! And then I got into some of the scenes and the meat and bones of the story, and saw that this was actually the focus of it. That was the drive; it’s a coming-of-age story about people on a journey of self-discovery but in an honest way, not trying to be anything more than what they are. Anna is there trying to find her place in the world, and that’s the drive.

“Yeah there’s zombies, yeah there’s music, there’s all this stuff that’s going on, but you turn the page and it was always coming back to the story. And there were some beautifully-written scenes that were there.”

In total agreement, Hunt chimes in, “It’s funny when we were rehearsing, obviously we have massive dance and fight sequences, but the things we rehearsed the most were the emotional character scenes, where… there’s a scene where we’re making snow angels together, and a scene where we’re in a trolley, and those are the things that I have the biggest recollection rehearsing. That’s what really mattered to us as filmmakers, and mattered to John [McPhail, director] and Naysun [Alae-Carew, producer] when they were pitching the film, was that those scenes felt right. Because it’s only if the audience can relate to these characters and love them that you can suspend disbelief in the way that we do in the film.”

“And it’s the strength of the music, when it’s there,” adds Cumming.

“Yeah, it’s that thing of giving you a visceral feel, horror and music are supposed to elicit that,” she continues. “And Tommy [Reilly] and Roddy [Hart]’s score is amazing for that, they’re incredible music writers. And getting the opportunity to share that internal dialogue with an audience is just… what an amazing thing as actors that we got to do that!

“When both of us signed on to the project, it was a little Scottish indie zombie musical set at Christmas. It wasn’t what it’s become, which is cool because it was a very positive making experience and we’re all taking such positivity and learning from it. But these songs that Roddy and Tommy have written I think are going to be loved, and the film is going to be watched by a big audience and that’s such an awesome privilege,” Hunt explains, smiling.

Speaking on his character John, Anna’s life-long friend and confidant, Cumming praised the writing. “I think it was the fact that it never felt like John was there to just service the story, it’s not like he was some cobbled-together device of how to get Anna to where she needed to be. He’s one of these people in her life, sometimes he’s the obstacle and sometimes he’s the thing that supports her. And so, to be able to be supporting that story and that journey whilst being able to have a completely rounded one yourself, that’s a complete privilege as an actor.  It takes a lot of skill for a creative team to make that work and to facilitate that journey.”

In turn, Hunt’s favourite thing about her character, “which I didn’t realise at the beginning, was that… so I’m really clumsy, really don’t take to fighting, and I’m really a pacifist. I’d done something before where I’d had to hold a gun and shoot, and I really didn’t want to. It was something I really struggled with. I hadn’t thought about that when I came onto this that much, because I just went ‘Of course I have great body confidence! Of course I like to move! Of course I feel good in my body!’.

“And then we got into our first fight session and it was very clear that every time I was throwing a punch, I was laughing at myself and I couldn’t believe in myself as that. And then throughout the process and throughout the film, Anna discovers this inner strength and learns how to fend for herself.

Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming in Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

“And I think throughout the process of filming – I was 18 – and I really felt like I discovered myself and I now feel so much more confident in my body, and in my strength and also in like, my inner sass. I didn’t know that was there, and especially working with Malcolm… But yeah, I loved how sassy I got to be as Anna, and also that ‘learning your own strength bit’, but that sounded too cheesy!”

Hunt and Cumming’s characters have a wonderful relationship, remaining friends even when faced with unrequited love. “Think of a female character that doesn’t run off into the sunset with a boy,” Hunt challenges. “Even in The Hunger Games, you’ve got Katniss Everdeen torn between these two men and that’s what drives the story, even though she’s a fucking badass! But when I read the script for Anna and saw that she didn’t run off with a boy, I thought ‘Yeah, they know what they’re doing’.”

“I think it’s these stories are fine to have, and they do exist, and sometimes it is that,” Cumming says of these love subplots. “But it has to be natural and it has to be organic to those characters, and looking at Anna in that turning point, that’s not who she is in that moment and to do that would be the absolute worst cop-out.”

“I’m so glad we’re glorifying that friendship, because it’s such a special friendship! There’s points where you’re an obstacle or a support,” Hunt says of her co-star’s character, “and I think that’s a really honest portrayal of a relationship. And I think there’s always a point when if you’re a guy and a girl, there’ll be that ‘Are we, aren’t we’ thinking going on, and it’s really beautiful to be like ‘No.’ This can be this without having to be that.”

Anna and the Apocalypse is out now, distributed by Vertigo Releasing.

 

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