One of my favorite films out of Sundance 2019 was Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters, the hilarious and heartfelt horror comedy that finds a kindergarten teacher tasked with keeping her students safe during a zombie outbreak, and stars Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, Josh Gad, and Diesel La Torraca. While at the festival last week, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Forsythe about Little Monsters, where he explained how personal this story was for him, putting together his stellar cast, and his apprehension about sharing his latest project with audiences at Sundance.
Little Monsters was recently acquired by Neon and Hulu, so here’s hoping horror fans get to see this one for themselves sooner than later (you can read my review HERE).
I know you talked a little about this before the premiere screening, in terms of how your son inspired the story, but was there something in particular, when you were coming in to figure out what your next project would be, where you realized, "I need to make this movie. I need it to be about these things in my life, and I want it to be with zombies?"
Abe Forsythe: No, you know what? It was exactly the opposite of that. Down Under was my previous movie, and I am so happy with that movie, but it wasn't like it was a huge breakout success. So, you realize that when you're releasing a movie, particularly one like that, which is a very challenging movie, that you don't really have that much time to get something else out there and into the world.
So, I was working on an entirely different script, and had done two drafts of it. It just wasn't cooking. It was one of those incidents where real life just gave me an idea, which I was nearly finished with the second draft of the script. I'd been on that school excursion with my son and his kindergarten class and his kindergarten teacher, had the idea, and then I called up my producer Jodi Matterson that evening and said, "What do you think of this as a story?" And she said, "Well, that sounds crazy." And I said, "Yeah, but I really feel like there's something there." Within about three weeks after that, I had the first draft.
And that was just because it was a really key learning experience for me, too. I had the script in mind. I had no connection to the material in any way personally, whereas this whole bunch of things just fell into place because when I was on this excursion with them, there was one particular thing that happened. We were on a train which had some stops. The woman driving the train got up to check on something up ahead, which obviously is what happens in the movie, but it made me go, "What if that was a zombie? What would we do in this sort of situation?" That just snowballed into this idea where, what if I have to stop these kids from being eaten, but you have to stop them from being upset by what they're seeing, too, because you don't want them to be scarred for the rest of their lives?
Let’s talk about putting together this cast. Lupita is, of course, amazing, but I think everyone really brings something special to this film.
Abe Forsythe: Just to begin with Lupita, we had a list of people that we were talking with our casting people about—these are the people we are going to approach. After we had this meeting and talked through all these various names, they said, "We don't have much time, but we've got enough time to take an unrealistic swing to get someone, so who is the ultimate person that you would put in this role if you had your choice?" Lupita was that person. To me, Lupita as an actor, but just everything that she brings, the way she plays her performances, I was like, "She would actually be the ultimate choice. I would feel so safe if my son was with Lupita." It was just a question of, "Well, okay let’s just take this swing and lets just try to get it by her agent and see what happens."
Again, Jodi, who I was talking about before, she was saying to me, "I just feel like we're wasting time. We should go with someone else. There's no way in hell this will ever happen." So, imagine our surprise, when two days later, we get the call from her agent telling us that she read the script and she wants to talk to me. It really felt like this happened for a reason. I'm not just saying that, because there were things in the script, which were certain things that I had experienced, but she had experienced in her own way with her own life with her family. There were just a bunch of other weird little things in there that really connected with her on a personal level that I just couldn't have predicted. She was just completely the right person in all the ways.
When I was pitching this movie, when we were trying to raise financing for it over here in America, I said that Miss Caroline needs to be Ripley, and she needs to be Sarah Connor, where she’s a strong female, but she’s not a superhero. She's still vulnerable and she's still got all the facets of a normal human being. When Lupita came on board, she just brought all these truths in the way she played that role. It was everything that I had hoped for and more.
With Josh and Alex, I had worked with Alex before in my previous film, and so I knew he was an incredibly truthful actor. He's got a great sense of comedy, but he's also an incredibly truthful actor. His character, Dave, has to do quite a big shift from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, and I knew he would be able to do that shift in a way where you don't even realize it’s happening, and then all of a sudden you go, "Oh yeah, he’s a completely different person now."
And then Josh, he is just a force. Similarly, though, all three of them have a very raw and accessible emotional vulnerability and that comes out in different ways. Obviously, with Miss Caroline and Alex, it comes out in a really sympathetic way, but with Josh, it comes out in a way which helps you to realize why he is so broken. This person that's acting out is because they're not happy in their life. Also, for Josh, the shift that he does from being there for the kids’ entertainment to being probably the biggest threat to the kids, it was so fun to watch him do that because he is so fearless with how he approached his role. You should see the stuff that's not in the movie. It took us a while to calibrate his performance and just get at the right level of offensive, but not so offensive that you would walk out.
I wanted to also talk about Felix in this movie because, oh my gosh, tiny Darth Vader is the greatest thing I think I've ever seen in a movie. It is so great because it's so rare to see kids' characters have an actual arc. Sometimes they become a plot point or a device for another character to react off of, and I really like the fact that he becomes something bigger in this movie. Can you talk about working with him? I just think there is something really special about his character and Felix’s performance.
Abe Forsythe: I really appreciate you saying that in terms of the arc. The obvious arcs are watching the adults in it, but what the character of Felix learns from his uncle—there are some bad lessons from his uncle at the beginning of the movie, but they actually end up paying off in a way which ends up saving the day for everyone. So maybe there are very specific things in relation to my own son that are in that character. My son is obsessed with Darth Vader, too. I showed him Star Wars when he was about three and one-half and he just became fixated on Darth Vader. And my son also found a certain confidence from portraying Darth Vader as well. There is something in the movie about this fragile little kid with all of these allergies and everything, but when he puts on the suit and the mask, that gives him that inner strength. There is something that mirrors Darth Vader as well as who is being protected by this mask, so it just seemed like a great way of getting in all of this stuff.
To be honest, I was terrified coming to Sundance to show it for all the reasons that filmmakers are always terrified about, but it really did feel like I was exposing a really personal part of myself to the world through these characters. No matter what anyone said about this movie, whether you love it or you hate it, you've got to actually really look at these kids and appreciate their performances on the screen because they are the heart and soul of the movie. I think that some people, when we were putting this movie together, found it quite strange, where you have the most fu--ed up stuff that adults can do within the same scene with these tiny children who are completely oblivious. To me, that's the whole point of the movie. It's those two things that articulate what the world is going through at the moment. So, yeah, I was just trying to do that in a way that wrapped it up and made it fun for audiences.
[Photo credit: Above photos courtesy of Sundance Institute.]