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Director John McPhail and actor Mark Benton talk Anna and the Apocalypse's origin story and its cross-generational appeal

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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 last week across North America and the United Kingdom, the indie Scottish film is set to become a cult classic; I spoke with director John McPhail and star Mark Benton the film’s complicated origin story and their hopes for Anna.

As McPhail explains, the making of this indie film was far from smooth-sailing. “It originated as a short film, which was written and directed by Ryan McHenry, and Ryan was paired with our co-written Alan McDonald. Unfortunately, Ryan came down with osteoporosis – a type of bone cancer – and he tried to shoot and go before that, but he passed away.

“Naysun [Alae-Carew], who is the lead producer, him and Ryan grew up together, so Naysun didn’t want the project to die or fade away. So what they decided to do was to look for another director and push on from that… and someone had seen my film Where Do We Go from Here? a sort of romantic comedy, coming-of-age film at Glasgow Film Festival, and they’d found it to be full of heart and character. And clearly, they thought that that was what the project needed!

                                          Photo courtesy of Duncan McCallum

“They approached a few directors that were more on the horror side, and a few in the theatre and musical side, but they just weren’t finding the right balance. Then they asked me if I wanted to come in and pitch for it. So I went home to my mum like ‘I got a job!’” he exclaims.

As for how the whole genre mashup thing even happened, McPhail explains that “they always wanted to do the musical side of it because Ryan had seen High School Musical and hated it, and been like ‘This would have been so much better if the zombies had chewed on Zac Efron’s face’.

“It was the only musical that I ever watched and didn’t finish… But so, the Christmas side of it was one that came after, but the horror aspect of it and the musical side was always there; when I arrived to the project, there was a couple of different scripts, there was one that was very dark and one that was a bit lighter. And me and Alan worked towards amalgamating that and finding that right balance.”

And in regard to that Christmas dimension, “It was Ryan’s idea to set it over Christmas. He was a big fan of Gremlins, and Die Hard… It’s one of those ones where you can’t help but love Christmas. So getting to set a Christmas tree on fire, getting to kill Santa Claus, decapitate Frosty the Snowman, all that kind of stuff is cathartic. But I love Christmas!” he assures.

As for how Mark Benton got involved in the production, being cast as Anna’s father, he says that “I’d worked with John before, so you immediately go ‘Yeah, John’s lovely’. And then reading the script, how often do you get offered a Christmas zombie musical? It was a really easy decision for me, I just said yes virtually straightaway. And you wait a while to get it, and with most films it’s touch and go if it’s going to happen, but we moved ahead and I’m very proud of the movie.

“Someone was interviewing me and asked ‘Well, what is it?’ and it’s very hard to describe, because it’s basically unlike any other movie. You could say it’s a zombie film but it’s not, you could say it’s a musical but it’s not, you could say it’s a comedy but it’s very moving. I think it works on a lot of different levels, and I know John did a lot of homework on it, and he knows a lot about films and about zombies so that there’s lots of nods in there. I think there is so much in there in 90 minutes, and I hope people will love it as much as we do.”

Ella Hunt in Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

“We made this for all audiences,” McPhail adds. “I grew up with my mum being a social worker and my dad being a painter, so we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so when we went to the cinema it was a special occasion. I always wanted to make sure that when you go, you’re entertained, and I try to never cop out on anything.”

Benton concurs, “I would say it’s for anyone from 15 to 50. My dad is 76, and I think he would love it, because he’d love the laughs, and my daughter is 13 and she would love the songs. It’s not just for teenagers… there’s lots in it, it’s not just popcorn. Well it is popcorn, but it’s more than that... you really invest in these characters, you like these characters…”

“There’s so many characters in there, and you want people to project themselves onto them, that’s how you know you’re bringing the audience in,” McPhail continues. “People can relate and project, and so when you put them [the characters] in danger, the audience panics. We’re just hoping for that wider audience, and there’s a lot of stuff in there for genre fans.”

Beyond the horror aspect, “the sort of theme of this film is kids dealing with death. That’s the sort of basics of it, as you progress through life and you grow up, you’re going to lose people and it’s how you deal with that. And I think when Alan took over the script, I think there was a lot of that which he wanted to put in the script, because at that time they were still dealing with Ryan’s death and coming to terms with that.

“There’s also that aspect of just growing up, once you leave high school, you’re an adult, you’ve got nothing to fall back on. And when you do that, you lose friends, you move away, you meet new people and it’s all about that growth and that development.

“But it was made to be enjoyed!” the director re-emphasises. “I don’t have any dreams of grandeur or anything, I just want to reach an audience and for people to enjoy it.”

“The reaction has been brilliant, people who have seen it have been knocked out by it,” Benton adds.

“We’ve got a great cast, great music, it’s a good fun story that’s really colourful and fun. I think that’s why the Americans are really enjoying it! …The biggest surprise is when people come out crying. They go in expecting a sort of B-movie, zombie film. And people come up to you ‘You made me cry!’” McPhail laughs.  

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




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