Coming off his well-received, dark satire film Down Under (2016), which was set in the aftermath of the infamous Cronulla Riots; director Abe Forsythe decided to flesh out a decidedly different style for his next film.
Not content with complacency, the filmmaker, who cites influences as diverse as Peter Weir, Bong Joon-ho, and Sam Raimi, and who has won plaudits for works which shift genres, changed his canvas from the unreal chaos of Sydney, to the undead.
The resulting movie Little Monsters, which premiered at Sundance this year; is a horror vehicle quite unlike any before it – a satirical zom-com about the re-animated wreaking havoc on a petting zoo, which is being visited by a group of kindergarten schoolchildren – who are chaperoned by their ukulele-playing music teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o).
To fend off the lusty bloodsuckers, Miss Caroline teams up with washed up musician Dave (Alexander England), and profane, alcoholic children’s entertainer Teddy McGiggle (Gad).
We caught up with Forsythe to discuss the personal inspiration behind the movie, how his casting “swing for the fences” attracted Oscar Winner Nyong’o; and his distinct recipe for a bloody Aussie genre film.
Little Monsters is a distinctly unconventional genre film, made in Sydney with a couple of big Hollywood stars. Your path from a biting, Australian black comedy (Down Under), to zom-com with an international Oscar Winner, sits you alongside forebears like George Miller and Baz Luhrmann. Are these filmmakers that you look up to?
George Miller definitely. And Baz Luhrmann’s got an amazing, idiosyncratic voice. I always find it really interesting charting filmmakers from when I started to see what they’re doing now, and how their careers have evolved. There’s so much about both of them. George Miller for me is the kind of pinnacle of what I would want to aspire to be as a filmmaker. Talk about someone who’s moved from genre to genre. I feel like he’s exploring and making sense of the world through the work that he does, Mad Max: Fury Road is so well made. And so obviously very personal. And I think that for me is the most important thing, feeling like there is a personal connection to the work, if someone’s written and directed something, getting a sense of who they are through the work.
I think as filmmakers, (Australians) have a very particular Australian flavour, and a lot of that comes out in a lot of different ways. And that’s why Baz Luhrmann is Baz Luhrmann. That’s why George Miller is George Miller.
Even though Mad Max was shot halfway around the world, it was made by Australians. And it feels Australian. And that’s one of the things that really sets it apart. And that’s one of the things where you just know this could only come out of the brains of Australians.
Looking at George Miller’s work, there’s a history of jumping between genres (Babe, Mad Max, Lorzenzo’s Oil); and making movies for the US, but finding a way to filter an Australian, personal point of view into them. Is this a goal you aspire to?
Yes. It’s that personal aspect for me. I’ve had opportunities that have presented themselves, recently. But it’s important to me to try and use this as an opportunity to make films at home. We’re writing something at the moment, which we’ve sold to Universal, internationally. Hopefully, we’ll be shooting that next year. But the plan is to make what looks like a big budget, science fiction action comedy set in Las Vegas, but it makes sense for us to shoot it in Australia. It’s the best place in the world to make a movie at this particular time using the technicians that we have, and bringing other people to Australia to make it. I’ve kind of written the script in a way which helps with that.
So, the intention with this film was to make a movie with your DNA embedded, that resonates globally, rather than being just for Australia?
Down Under was me trying to make a movie for Australia. And then I was like, “Why am I making movies (just) for Australia?” With Little Monsters, I wasn’t really thinking about the Australian market. I intended to make a movie set in Australia and make it here. And make it make sense. But I’m thinking about American audiences when I’m writing it. So now I’m trying to think of how to make something internationally. And hopefully that can then find an audience in Australia, because you’re making something that’s universal, as opposed to just localised.
When we were in pre-production, every time I would talk to someone for the first time, it would be like, ‘we have to imagine that we’re making a movie that’s being made by a US studio. You have to imagine the Universal logo before the credits. Just as a mindset. And then if we imagine that, we can subvert that with all that other stuff that the audience isn’t expecting.
The challenge for you going forward is to make ambitious, universal and subversive films that question our attitudes and preconceptions (societal, individual, genre) as audiences?
I have a real hunger to try. I want to make this studio movie (for Universal), we’ve just done this deal, so hopefully we can we do that. But I want to make it on my terms as much on my terms as possible.
I think the best thing that we can do as storytellers is try and remind people actually what unites us rather than what splits us up. I don’t mean that to sound cheesy but there’s a lot of nourishment that as a cinema-goer I look for now with movies, which doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t want movies to be challenging. I do want movies to be challenging and unconventional. But, yes, I need to feel like somebody is going to tell me something in a different way and remind me of something that’s going to open my eyes and make me think about a problem differently. Or maybe experience an emotion that I can relate to my own life that I haven’t drawn those parallels to before. Parasite is probably the last time this happened, and also recently Crawl, the Alexander Aja crocodile movie.
Little Monsters puts Australia’s stalwart actor Kat Stewart alongside Hollywood heavyweights Lupita Nyong’o and Josh Gad…
I’d worked with Kat Stewart before, she’s one of my favourite actors. I’ve had the benefit of working with her a couple of times on some TV things, and really getting to experience (how brilliant she is) as a comedic and dramatic actor. She is just as equipped as Lupita or Josh, she’s an equal for me, equal to them. The emotional journey of Alexander England’s character is actually told through her eyes. Her son is caught up in this horrible situation, and there are real world consequences to what’s going on outside of this crazy bubble the other characters find themselves in. Kat was basically the only person who could do this, and I wrote it with her in mind, knowing she’s gonna be funny and know how to bounce off some quite extreme comic situations. But she’s also going to know how to anchor it with the right amount of heart. When she’s crying at the end of the movie, she’s going to allow the audience to cry as well. She’s the emotional heart of the movie.
How did casting Lupita Nyong’o come about?
There was a list of actors for that role. There was a list of really good actors that we were going to approach, and we were confident we would get one of them, it was always the intention to cast a name in that role. Four weeks from pre-production starting, we had a meeting with our US casting agent. And she said at the end of this meeting, “we’re likely gonna get one of these people, but now’s the time to just take a swing for the fences, who is the ultimate person that you would want to cast for Miss Carolyn?” I’d seen her in very little because she’d done very little prior to this film. But I loved 12 Years A Slave, and I love Steve McQueen as a filmmaker. Her performance in that movie really stayed with me. So, it was just like, “take a swing for the fences”. She said to her agent, just find me something different, unconventional, she was not looking for a comedy. Her agent, to her credit, put the script in front of her and said, “it doesn’t get more different or unconventional than this”. I went on a Skype with her. And then 24 hours later she was she was onboard. So, it’s one of those random things that was never going to happen. And then within 48 hours, it had happened.
Lupita, Josh, Kat, everyone was going for a common goal in slightly different ways. But we’re getting to the same place. Lupita couldn’t be more out of her comfort zone to come to Australia, playing a character like this, she’d never sung before. She never played the ukulele. She’d certainly never had to do a movie with 11 five-year-old kids. I couldn’t have done this movie without her. At the end of the movie, she turned to me and she said, “I have no idea how this happens”. And I said, “I don’t know either”. It was so fun. It’s like, I’m trying to just be truthful in what I do. And that’s what she does. And we meet in the same place.
Little Monsters is in cinemas October 31, 2019