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'Anna And The Apocalypse': The Scottish Zombie Christmas High School Musical

Dec 8, 2018

Anna and the Apocalypse is a [checks notes] Scottish zombie Christmas high school musical.

It drew raves in Great Britain, and has now been released in the United States. It's based on a short film by the writer-director Ryan McHenry, who died of bone cancer at age 27, and did not get to complete this feature-length production.

Anna and the Apocalypse is directed by John McPhail. Ella Hunt (who is English) stars as the young Scottish teen who's about to graduate from school, but first has to contend with the zombie takeover of her village and perhaps the world — with a little help from her friends.

"I love that this film glorifies teenage friendship and not teenage romance," Hunt says in an interview. "To me, it's a much truer thing to glorify."


Interview Highlights

On how teens are portrayed in movies

I shot this film when I was 18. I was the same age as Anna. ... I am really passionate about how young people are represented. So often you see teenagers that are bored out of their brains, only look at their phones, don't want to speak to their parents. And I didn't feel like that was quite honest of my experience as a teenager. And although Anna has those things of being bored with her small town and her school, and she wants to get out of the conventional cog of expectations put upon her by her dad and her friends alike, she's so much more than that. And I was so excited to get to play with that.

On possible connections between teens and zombies

I think zombie stories, and horrors in general, are quite funny breeding grounds for talking about things without really talking about them. And for us, the zombies were a metaphor for the violent world we're leaving for our kids, and the film talks about loss and connectivity too. And I think what people have been responding to is: Yeah, it's all these crazy things, but it's also this film that has a darker, more thoughtful message to it as well.

On the late Ryan McHenry

I unfortunately didn't get to meet Ryan, and I didn't know the entire backstory of the project until I was attached and came up to Glasgow to record the songs. And I remember going out for dinner with the producers and then them telling me the story of Ryan. And they started right from the beginning, about Ryan watching High School Musical and being sat on the phone to Naysun [Alae-Carew], one of our producers, and being like [in Scottish accent]: "This is rubbish. It'd be great if Zac Efron was eaten by zombies." And I felt they were telling me a really happy story about how the film came about, and the more they talked, the sadder it was that that Ryan passed away before he got to make this movie. But hearing that story I was so determined, and all of us were, to make something beautiful in his memory, and to use this incredible idea that this awesome young creative had, and to take on the baton and do his story justice.

On being a working actor since age 11

I think my adolescence never would have been normal because I come from quite an unconventional, crazy family, and I am super creative. I sing and songwrite and act too, obviously. My teens, for me, I spent the majority of my teens just wanting to get out of my teens. A lot of young people, they chastise and tease other young people if they have aspirations or if they care about things — and I cared about things. I had stuff I wanted to do, and I was so over being bullied for being an aspirational hardworking kid.

So yeah, maybe it got in the way of having a normal teenage experience, and I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. But I also think that so often teenagers are encouraged to pursue their backup plan. And to me, that's a foolish thing to encourage a young person to do, because I think you're going to succeed in the thing that you're passionate about, because you're naturally going to work hard, or it's something that you enjoy doing. Or at least that's my perspective on things. So whenever I had teachers in school tell me to pursue a backup plan, I was like, "Nope! I'm going to do what I want! I'm going to be an actress, I'm going to be a musician, I'm going to be happy." And I'm happy. ...

I've enjoyed discovering over the last couple of years that even if I don't spend my whole life being an actress, there are so many jobs in film. I'd love to produce and direct and write, and I've seen so many awesome women this year directing photography on set. And just — there are so many jobs behind the camera as well that I feel like if I had to have a backup plan, that would be it.

Sarah Handel and Steve Tripoli produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Try to put these words together in a sentence - Scottish, zombie, Christmas, high school musical. Wait. Somebody already has.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE")

ELLA HUNT: (As Anna, singing) I'm not a princess sat in white just hoping my chance will come. Then, I'm the problem, don't want to solve them, just want to have some fun.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) 'Cause no one ever tells you when you're young, love's not like the books, the films or the songs...

SIMON: "Anna And The Apocalypse," a film that drew raves in Britain and has now been released in the United States, is based on a short film by the writer-director Ryan McHenry, who unfortunately did not live to make this feature. It's directed by John McPhail. And starring as the young Scottish teen who's about to graduate school but first has to contend with a zombie takeover of her village and perhaps the world is Ella Hunt. She joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HUNT: Thank you.

SIMON: This film isn't "Love Actually," is it?

HUNT: (Laughter) No, no, no, no. The only thing it's similar to "Love Actually" in is it combines a whole load of storylines...

SIMON: Yeah.

HUNT: ...A whole load of genres in some ways.

SIMON: I have to note that some movie teens can be actors in their late 20s and early 30s, but you were just out of your teens, I gather.

HUNT: I shot this film when I was 18. I was the same age as Anna.

SIMON: Oh, mercy. So, as a terrible generalization, how do you think teens are often portrayed or misportrayed in films?

HUNT: That's something I talked a lot about when I'm - in talking about Anna because I am really passionate about how young people are represented. So often, you see teenagers that are bored out of their brains, only look at their phones, don't want to speak to their parents. And I didn't feel like that was quite honest of my experience as a teenager. And although Anna has those things of being bored with her small town and her school and she wants to get out of the conventional cog of expectations put upon her by her dad and her friends alike, she's so much more than that. And I was so excited to get to play with that.

SIMON: Is there something about teens and zombie stories?

HUNT: I think there is an appeal of zombie stories to a lot of people. I think zombie stories and horrors in general are quite funny breeding grounds for talking about things without really talking about them. And, for us, the zombies were a metaphor for the violent world we're leaving for our kids. And the film talks about loss and connectivity, too. And I think what people have been responding to is, yeah, it's all these crazy things, but it's also this film that has a darker, more thoughtful message to it as well.

SIMON: Kind of continuing joke in the film - your character gets up in the morning and she's singing about...

HUNT: Being miles away?

SIMON: Yes.

HUNT: It's a brand-new day (laughter)?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE")

HUNT: (As Anna, singing) Hey, I am miles away, I am miles away, and it's a beautiful day.

SIMON: That's the one. And, of course, all around her, zombies are taking over the town chomp by chomp. The message of that is what? Teens can be a little self-absorbed?

HUNT: I think that scene is not so much saying that teens can be a little self-absorbed as it's a scene about hope and the joy of waking up in the morning and being able to shed the skin of the day before and go, OK, I'm starting something new this morning. And...

SIMON: Even if zombies are biting heads off?

HUNT: Even if zombies are biting heads off. Well, she has no idea.

SIMON: Yeah.

HUNT: She's just determined to have a great day. And then, when the zombies do start biting heads off, she's totally in denial. She's like, it's not zombies. It's definitely not zombies. There's no such thing.

SIMON: I do happen to - I do want to ask about Ryan McHenry...

HUNT: Yes.

SIMON: Did you know him?

HUNT: I unfortunately didn't get to meet Ryan, and I didn't know the entire backstory of the project until I was attached and came up to Glasgow. And I remember going out for dinner with the producers. And they started right from the beginning about Ryan watching "High School Musical" and being like, this is rubbish, but it'd be great if Zac Efron was eaten by zombies. And I thought they were telling me a really happy story about how the film came about. And the more they talked, the sadder it was that Ryan passed away before he got to make this movie. But hearing that story, I was so determined - and all of us were - to use this incredible idea that this awesome young creative had and to take on the baton and do his story justice.

SIMON: Yeah. He was 27, I gather, and died of bone cancer...

HUNT: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Before he could see this film be made. You've been working, professionally, for almost a decade, I gather.

HUNT: Yes.

SIMON: I do want to ask if becoming a working actor so young, at the age of 11, got in the way of a normal adolescence.

HUNT: I think my adolescence never would have been normal because I come from quite an unconventional, crazy family. I spent the majority of my teens just wanting to get out of my teens. A lot of young people, they chastise and tease other young people if they have aspirations or if they care about things. And I cared about things. I had stuff I wanted to do, and I was so over being bullied for being an aspirational, hard-working kid. So, yeah, maybe it got in the way of having a normal teenage experience, and I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, but I also think that, so often, teenagers are encouraged to pursue their backup plan. And, to me, that's a foolish thing to encourage a young person to do because I think you're going to succeed in the thing that you're passionate about because you're naturally going to work harder at something that you enjoy doing. Or, at least, that's my perspective on things. So whenever I had teachers in school tell me to pursue a backup plan, I was like, nope. I'm going to do what I want. I'm going to be an actress...

SIMON: Yeah.

HUNT: I'm going to be a musician. I'm going to be happy, and I'm happy.

SIMON: How do you feel about people reading the theme into this Scottish zombie Christmas high school musical...

HUNT: Well said.

SIMON: ...That friends will get you through?

HUNT: I love that. I love that this film glorifies teenage friendship and not teenage romance. To me, it's a much truer thing to glorify.

SIMON: Ella Hunt - she stars in "Anna And The Apocalypse." Happy holidays and thanks so much.

HUNT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.