Anna and the Apocalypse

Fantastic Fest 2017 preview

There are three kinds of musical films. Romantic comedies, straight-up romances, and then, almost inexplicably, horror musicals. From Phantom of the Paradise to Repo! The Genetic Opera, somehow there's always a little blood on the orchestra. Add to that gore-drenched list Anna and the Apocalypse, where the undead besiege a Scottish high school, and the living respond with high notes and head smashing.

So why is it OK to throw tunes in with terror? "You can do anything with horror," said director John McPhail. "It's one of those genres that you can mishmash with so many different things and it'll still be entertaining. You look at really terrifying horror on one side, and Sleepaway Camp on the other, where you can't stop laughing. If I want to put a comedy on, I'll want to put on a B-movie horror and laugh the whole way."

Producer Naysun Alae-Carew said, "Horror is about eliciting a really visceral reaction. You're trying to get people to bypass their minds, not really think about it, and have that immediate response to what they're seeing onscreen. Music is exactly the same. You're using the notes to get people's hearts to respond rather than their heads."

So while Anna bursts at the seams with dance routines, it's also unmerciful. That's the carefully crafted narrative legacy of scriptwriter Ryan McHenry, who tragically died of cancer before filming began. Alae-Carew said, "It is a zombie musical, so it is as silly as it sounds, but we'd always had this idea of the kids growing up in this violent world that their parents had left behind for them."

Austin Chronicle: So what was Ryan like?

John McPhail: I never had the pleasure of meeting Ryan, but when I came on board and read the script, and his comedy, and the things that made him laugh, his inspirations were so close to mine. I was really disappointed that I didn't get to meet him, because I think we'd have been best pals.

Naysun Alae-Carew: I think what comes across in the script, and from the concept itself, is that he was a prankster. He was always looking for the thing and the silliness and the absurdity in things. That came when he was trolling people, playing Minecraft, which he did incredibly well. He'd put a tremendous amount of thought into it, a lot of effort. Once he got something in his head, he just went at it until he did it to the best possible standard. But it was always ridiculous, it was always silly.

The other part that's relevant to the film, and was in the script, was that he was very visual as well. He didn't think about it structurally, or from a character arc point of view – at least that wasn't his initial impulse. His initial impulse was to think about how this would come across visually to the audience, and then the rest of it would fill in around that.

JM: When I first read the script, there were two different versions.

NAC: We told him, "We've two versions of the script for you, which one would you prefer?" And it was a tough call when we were going through it, because it was the first draft that we'd written without Ryan, and it took things to a really dark place. I think that was a lot to do with where we were all at, but it also showed what Ryan had brought to the project, which was that light touch to really serious themes. So we said to John, dark or light? And John put us right.

AC: Considering what happens to some characters here, I imagine the darker version got a little grimmer than Audrey II eating everyone in the alternate ending of Little Shop of Horrors.

NAC: Close. I think it was mostly just people being nasty to each other.

JM: There was a lot of darkness between characters, a lot more tension.

AC: You also had to find a balance with the music. On one hand, you have films like Once, where the music is almost diegetic, and then you have some Bollywood musicals, where everything stops and the characters are suddenly on a beach.

JM: I never wanted it to feel strange when they burst into song. I never wanted it to feel like a music video. I never wanted the audience to feel, "Oh, here comes a song."

NAC: We always talked about it pushing forward the characters' emotional arcs, so it always felt like there was a reason to go into the song. Like John's saying, the audience aren't surprised. "Oh, it makes sense, because now they're feeling really alone and disconnected from the world, and from each other," so you have this inner monologue.

AC: In the same way you've got to balance the music, you've got to balance how far you go with the gore, and you go pretty hardcore in some places.

JM: I love the gore, I really do. One of our makeup team was called Raymond, and I'd always be so happy when I'd see Raymond because he'd always be carrying buckets and buckets of blood and guts. He's like, "Eh, John, I've got the blood pump for ye," "Thanks, Raymond. Good to see you!"

One point, I was shooting in the school, and I was terrified that we didn't have enough blood. I'm standing in the corner going, "I don't know if I've got enough gore, I don't know if I've got enough gore," and then one of my sparks busts the door open. He's curling up the cables and he's going, "Fucking blood everywhere, fucking blood, blood," and I go, "Nah, I've got enough."

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