The tragic, triumphant story behind zombie-musical Anna and the Apocalypse
Scottish singer-songwriter Tommy Reilly admits that not all his friends were supportive of him working on the new film, Anna and the Apocalypse (out Nov. 30). “I remember running into a mate of mine,” says Reilly. “He was like, ‘What are you up to? I heard you’re working on something.’ I was like, ‘Aye, man, it’s a zombie musical set at Christmas.’ He was like, ‘That sounds f—ing terrible. I will never watch that.’”
The U.K.-set Anna… stars Ella Hunt as the titular character, a teenage schoolkid who does indeed sing and dance her way through a Christmas season-set zombie apocalypse.
“It was crazy to be going from shooting a zombie-smashing scene to an intense dialog scene, to a musical scene,” says Hunt. “I grew up singing, and dancing, and wanting to do an original musical. This was always a dream of mine. I just didn’t realize it was going to come in the form of a zombie musical set at Christmas!”
Anna… was originally the brainchild of the late Scottish filmmaker Ryan McHenry, who is best known for creating the Vine phenomenon Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal. In 2011, McHenry wrote and directed a short film titled “Zombie Musical,” and over the next few years developed a feature-length version with the help of writer Alan McDonald and producers Naysun Alae-Carew and Nicholas Crum.
In July 2013, just months after his Ryan Gosling Vines had gone viral, McHenry was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of cancer, which had spread from his legs to his lungs. “I got told yesterday that I have cancer,” McHenry wrote on Twitter. “I would just like to let you all know I’m staying positive and I’m going to fight it. F— cancer.”
McHenry began undergoing chemotherapy treatments and, for a spell, his prognosis seemed positive. In July 2014, he tweeted that he had “beat cancer,” and round the same time, producer Alae-Carew approached singer-songwriter Roddy Hart about writing songs for the film. Hart, in turn, reached out to Reilly to see if he would want to collaborate on what was then still called Zombie Musical.
“Roddy called me one day saying, ‘I’ve got this thing we could maybe try and write a song for, it’s called Zombie Musical,’” says Reilly. “As soon as he said that I was like, ‘I’m in! I’ll be there! I’ll see you in an hour!’ We just sat there and read [the script] and we were like, ‘This is ridiculously good, we have to try and write songs for this.’”
Tragically, McHenry’s cancer returned and the filmmaker died on May 2, 2015.
“We loved Ryan,” says Hart. “We responded to him, we thought creatively he was brilliant. That’s the great tragedy in all of this. We don’t get to see what kind of filmmaker he goes on to become. It looked like the prospects were fairly good for him and then it took a really drastic turn. Everybody stayed away from [the film] for a long time. It was Naysun who came to us all and said, ‘Guys, we have to do this. We have to do it for Ryan and we have to do it for ourselves.’”
While Hart and Reilly returned to working on the film’s songs, the project’s producers started the search for a new director, finally landing on John McPhail, who had recently finished his first movie, the romantic-comedy Where Do We Go From Here?
“The zombie background I had,” says McPhail. “I absolutely adore horror. It’s my favorite genre. People ask me, ‘Oh, what kind of director do you want to be?’ And it was like, ‘I want to be John Carpenter. I want to delve into that comedy, that action, that horror.’ Musicals, I didn’t know. So, I was watching, like, three musicals a day, trying to just get my head around it. I fell in love with West Side Story. I watched Moulin Rouge. I watched Rent, Cabaret. I went and saw Wicked live. I saw Legally Blonde live, which is brilliant. I was just watching as much as possible on that side of it.”
McPhail admits to having some trepidation about stepping into McHenry’s directorial shoes. “It was daunting to begin with, because, of course, Rod and Tommy, Nick and Naysun and Alan, were all best friends with Ryan,” he says. “They’d all been doing this together and all of a sudden here I come in. I was nervous about it, but they welcomed me with open arms, they really, really did and that made everything nice and easy.”
McPhail picked Hunt to play Anna and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland student Malcolm Cumming to portray her best friend, John. “I got an email saying, ‘There’s a zombie movie-musical set at Christmas, if you want to audition for this, you will miss the Shakespeare module,’” he says. “I remember going, ‘Am I going to do a Shakespeare performance over Christmas or am I going to do a zombie high school musical?’ And I thought, I’m probably going to do Shakespeare. Then I read the script and was like, ‘Oh no, I need to do this.’”
Another student, Steph, was portrayed by Sarah Swire, who also choreographed the movie’s dance sequences.
“Because it was an indie budget film, that means there was no time,” she says. “It means that you don’t always get a cast of professional dancers, but you get a lot of really good movers. So, you have to be smart in the way that you devise choreography so that anyone can learn it, depending on the time allotted, in almost under an hour. It was an interesting exercise in how you can be crafty to pull that off.”
Swire’s choreographic abilities were put to the test when overseeing the routine for the song “Hollywood Ending,” which involved a large number of cast members dancing in the school cafeteria.
“’Hollywood Ending’ is my favorite,” says actor Marli Siu. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it now, but I still get chills. We had two days to film that sequence in the canteen when we were all dancing and that felt like magic, that felt like this film could be really exciting.”
Anna… received its world premiere last year at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX. Audiences gave it an extremely warm welcome according to Hunt, who was also watching the finished movie for the first time at the event. “It was the best way to watch the film for the first time,” says the actress. “I really think it is a film you should watch with a noisy crowd, with your best mates, slightly drunk. That’s kind of how I watched it the first time.”
“It was just a wonderful way to start that journey,” says Christopher Leveaux, who plays another of the film’s students. “It gave everyone so much optimism. Plus, they serve you cocktails at the seats! It’s f—ing great!”
In January of this year, it was announced that Orion Pictures had acquired the North American rights to the film and would be putting it in theaters this Christmas. While few who see it will be aware of the film’s tragic backstory, songwriter Hart is content that Anna and the Apocalypse is a fitting tribute to its late creator.
“He was there in spirit and there’s a lot of little moments in the movie that are little nods to him,” says the songwriter. “There’s a namecheck for Ryan Gosling in there. In the background, there are dusty mirrors after the apocalypse has hit with his initials etched in a heart. His DNA was all over this. We all understood from the start, after Ryan’s passing, that he was Anna and the Apocalypse.”
Anna and the Apocalypse opens in select theaters Nov. 30 and expands nationwide, Dec. 7.
Watch the movie’s trailer, above.