When an editor asked if I was game for covering Anna and the Apocalypse, an apocalyptic, zombie, Christmas, musical, there was only one logical reply: You had me at zombie.
I’m a life-long horror fan who has seen it all, so I’m always down for a fresh take on the genre. Anna and the Apocalypse could have coasted on its outlandish concept, getting by on snark-factor, over-the-top violence, and its top-shelf kitsch-value. Who expects a zombie apocalypse holiday musical to set its sights above the lowest common denominator? But something about this film feels different, and you can sense that the cast and crew went that extra mile to deliver a real holiday treat.
I sat down and spoke to a couple members of the film’s cast; Christopher Leveaux who plays Chris, and actress/choreographer Sarah Swire who portrays Steph. There aren’t enough hours in the day to run through all the questions I have about this movie, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
Most people go their entire lives without hearing the words zombie, apocalypse, Christmas, and musical in the same sentence. “I had no idea what to expect,” said Leveaux. “I suppose the madness of it does go through your mind, and that’s fun, but ultimately you look at the characters that your being presented and that was the most interesting thing.” Leveaux admits that the movie’s wild premise took a while to hit him. “Seeing the script was what I focused on immediately, and then filming it I realized how totally f#<king mad that whole idea was.”
“I don’t think you ever really know what it’s going to turn out to be because it’s so unlike anything that I ever read for before,” Swire added. “I think the one thing that stood out more than anything was this collection of young teenagers working together and banding together felt very John Hughes and The Breakfast Club-ish and that’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of.” Part of capturing that John Hughes vibe is representing young adults in a positive light and as Swire puts it, “To find different ways to allow them to grow and explore throughout the film.”
What sets Anna and the Apocalypse apart from other genre pictures is how likeable the characters are. They endear themselves right away, and you know you’ll be crushed if someone doesn’t survive to the end. There’s a degree of authenticity and relatability to the characters you don’t find in similar movies. Swire chalks that up to the collaborative nature on set. “There was a lot of room for growth and exploration,” she told me. Everyone from the writer to the costume designer was, “Thoughtful about where our characters’ backgrounds were from, what they would tend to wear. It just felt like we all got a say.”
Leveaux stressed the value the cast and crew placed on character building above all else. “When we were rehearsing and talking about the script with [director] John McPhail, it was always about what does the character want? It wasn’t about how do we get this laugh,” he said. “It’s about what the character wanted. So, although we have an awareness of the comedy that’s clearly written in, it always came from what the characters wanted rather than the production’s need for comedy.”
They say necessity is the mother of invention. So, with a 28-day shoot, Swire had to balance creativity and pragmatism when putting together the film’s intricate dance numbers. “There’s not a lot of time,” Swire said to me. “I had a bit of time by myself about a week before shooting. It was me in the canteen, by myself, choreographing myself as everybody else and then videoing it and then stitching it together into little mini-movies so I would have some reference to be able to send to people and say this is what we’re going for.”
Stop me if you heard this before, but Swire and the team emphasized character building over crazy dance moves. She said that they would gather the main cast and, “Talk about character beats within the movement and make sure that the characters came through before my choreographical agenda.” The shoot was so time sensitive that they had to maximize their time on set. Even if that meant simplifying some cool moments. As she put it, “You have to create choreography that looks good, and you can execute it in no time at all.” Swire spoke with the financial savvy of a line producer as she explained her process. “I don’t have time to make a big spectacle so how do I make something that’s just as nice to look at in as little amount of time as possible?”
I asked Swire and Leveaux how they would describe their movie to someone who dismissed it as a straight-forward zombie flick, and I could see their eyes light up as they responded. “The producers, the writer, and the original director who passed away, they’re all massive fans of horror films, of Christmas films, of musicals themselves. Those genres are beloved to them so why would they cheapen it even though it’s a massive genre mash-up,” Swire told me. “They put so much care and consideration into representing those genres well, satirically in certain aspects, but overall making sure that if you’re a horror fan and you want to see this, it’s awesome. If you’re a musical theatre fan and you want to see this, you’ll love it. If you love Christmas films, you’re sorted.”
“It’s got heart,” Leveaux added. “That’s the reason I think people have taken it into their hearts and advocated for it so strongly on social media and through their journalism. It’s not a genre movie, it’s more than that. It’s about kids who are having this coming-of-age experience, and that is the most important thing about this movie. Obviously, zombies and Christmas are important to it, but without the kids, it would just be a collection of wham bam thank you, ma’am.”
Swire told me why she believes the movie’s themes resonate. “It’s just reminiscent of what I think all of my friends are going through right now, young professionals, creative professional, it’s that we’re all struggling to have our voices heard, we have jobs that aren’t recognizing our hard work, we have houses that we can barely afford, and we’re being blamed for all of that.” She also said, “A lot of the reason that’s happening is because of neglect in the past. Now we’re having to deal with all this neglect that the generation before us have been in some cases incapable of solving to allow us to have a bright future.
I guess in some sort of nice metaphorical way, we have the image of these young teenagers who to the best of their abilities are really fighting the zombie apocalypse with the tools at hand. They are using their phones, and they are working for them. They’re banding together. They’re putting each other before themselves. And then you see the adults on the opposite side of that who are looking out for themselves, who are fighting in the canteen, [and] can’t create order.”
Swire also said that from that chaos comes this new generation of kids who will, “Care and look out for one another to make sure that we can build the world up again.”
Leveaux followed up by telling me, “It is a theme of the film, but I think you can have a theme of kids being self-absorbed through any generation and through any era going back to when Jesus was born.” He says that last part with a charming grin. “Although it is an aspect of their existence, crucially what their existence is about is being friends with each other and supporting each other, no matter which generation you’re from.”
Before we part ways, I asked the young actors what one last thing they would like moviegoers to know about their film? “We’ve done our thing, and now it’s up to other people to absorb the film and decide what they want about the film. And I just hope that people, in amongst the mayhem of the film and the darkness will respond to the friendships of these characters as much as we did during filming,” Leveaux said to me.
“This has been a [high] bar set for me, and I think for all of us, about what a good working environment is like and what a good team is like,” added Swire. “We had the best times of our lives making this, and we hope that definitely comes across.”
It absolutely does.
Anna and the Apocalypse opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, December 7, 2018.