Little Monsters: How Zombies Can Teach Us Kindness

Lupita Nyong'o's Little Monsters is a bubbly zombie comedy. We chat with director Abe Forsythe to discuss the life lessons he imbued in it.

Given the current, maddening state of things, it is easy to think things are never going to return to “normal.” That the world’s problems are too big. But if you fear you’re giving into such misanthropy, please consider checking out Little Monsters.  For here is a movie convinced that no matter how big things may seem, there’s always a chance to fix it all, including with a song.

One of the big hits at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Little Monsters follows the story of Dave (Alexander England); a man whose life doesn’t seem to add up to much, especially after his long-time girlfriend breaks things off, once and for all. In an attempt to garner favor with his nephew Felix’s kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), Dave volunteers to chaperon Felix and his class to a local petting zoo. While things seem to be normal at first, with the kids being thrilled to see their TV hero Teddy McGiggles (Josh Gad) filming his show at the same location, things spin out of control when a zombie attack starts at the friendly U.S. Army base next door.

While the premise is the launch pad for a funny and outrageous trip in a zombie infested park, the origins of the film’s creation come from a much humbler place. We had the chance to sit down with the film’s writer-director Abe Foresyth while he was in town and speak about the more serious tones behind his breakthrough hit. 

Can you tell us how this idea came to you? Did it start with you wanting to specifically tell a story about a man coming to grips with his personal issues or did you aim to just make a zombie film?

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With this movie, it helps to have a little bit of context. It really does help how people approach it, because it has a lot of unusual elements. It’s a very personal movie too, for me. When it was at Sundance, and I was intro-ing the movie, I would say, “It really helps that you know this is about my son and this is about me, and everything he’s taught me.” 

I’ve liked zombie movies in the past, but honestly it is just a handful of them. I’m a big fan of genre, but specifically the zombie movies that get it right, really get it right. So I had no reason to think that I could make a zombie movie that was better than the “zombie movies” that had already been made; nor would I attempt that. Especially when it comes to zombie comedy, because of films like Shaun of the Dead.

I never set out to make a zombie movie, it kind of just ended up happening, but it happened in a really organic way, because it just fed into this stuff about my son, and his first year of kindergarten, and everything he’s taught me. That’s the type of particular genre that I really love, when it is used as a platform to say something else, something I can relate to in one way or another, and maybe you can relate to in another way. But we get to enjoy it in an indirect way through this fantastical world. Talking about it actually reminds me of Midnight Special, the Jeff Nichols movie. I don’t know why people don’t talk about it more, it was fucking awesome, and for me it was so special beause it is a move about saying goodbye to your child. That’s the kind of genre stuff that I really respond to, and as I’ve gotten older, I really dig into those types of movies. 

You mentioned that you’re not trying to compete against Shaun of the Dead

God no, I’d be an idiot to.

But I am sure there will be plenty of people who say, at the center of both these films, is a similar idea; a man who can’t get his priorities straight, till the end of the world is in his face. 

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When I realized it was going to be a zombie movie, I made sure to not revisit Shaun of the Dead. I don’t want to be influenced by Edgar Wright. He’s a fucking great director, but I don’t want to conciously take on any of the things that he’s done. I avoided it like the plague, and interestingly, after we finished shooting, I went and rewatched some of and thought, “Oh wow.” I was spotting problems that we had working with zombies… I mean, technically, he’s a wizard as a cinema technician, but it’s hard to get tons of zombie’s in one shot together because of budgetary reasons, and you always do these things with how you layer frames, et cetera.

So while I actively avoided the film, one thing where I knew it would be different is that Little Monsters has a lot of heart and a lot of truthful interaction between certain characters in this movie, whether is is Miss Caroline and the kids or Miss Caroline and Dave, or vice/versa; it is a movie that is so personal to me that I wanted to embrace and put a very truthful experience of the world, into the movie. 

As an example, my son does have some very severe food allergies. I wanted there to be at some point a real sense of danger, and I didn’t think that should come from the zombies since zombies are not real. That’s why the one proper tense sequence from the movie, that run to get the epipen, is there. That was an incredibly hard sequence for me to shoot.

What I loved about that scene, is that while it was foreshadowed, so many other films would have really hammered it to death before it happened. When you present it, I had almost already forgotten it was a fact, so I was actually shocked when it happened. Did you have to work to find the right balance for how it would be presented?

When Felix mentions his allergies to Dave, Dave is very dismissive of them, initially. It almost feels like a joke, so you think to yourself, “Oh, that isn’t going to come back.” Same thing with how we introduce how the epipen is going to be misused. We set that up in a way that things are kind of just flying by.

… You know the rule of the epipen is, “Blue in the sky, orange in the thigh.” That tells you the right away you have to stab it in. So when he says it the other way around, “Orange in the sky, blue in the thigh,” every screening I’ve been at, you hear people gasping straight away. So I’m like, “Oh cool, you fucking rememebered that!” That for me, going back to the Shaun of the Dead question, I knew I wasn’t doing Shaun of the Dead, this is my version of a zombie movie. As long as I am telling the truth about how this is about my son, that sets it apart.

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Like you said, you’re going out there and telling people this is a personal story, but are you worried some people might think you were literally Dave?

Yes, that is a worry, if they do. The thing is Dave represents a particular type of male personality. I certainly had elements of Dave in my life before I became a father. Initially, in the first half of the movie, he’s a pretty extreme character. I was taking commonalities that other people might have had or shared with my experience, but just pushing them to an absolute extreme. The whole point for me was to make a character that I could push as far as I could, so that when he swung back around–which I am sure most viewers can predict at some point–I wanted it to happen in a way like the epipen scene.

That is the most significant scene for him, actually, in terms of him starting to grow and starting to change. That’s because he is being faced with something real in his life. It was using the extremities of the particular types of personality traits that a male can have and just seeing how far I could push them. That’s also why, when Teddy McGiggles comes in later on, he’s way worse. He’s doubling down on all of Dave’s bad behavior. Where Dave does have moments of empathy and understanding where you can go, “Okay, he’s broken for a reason and maybe he does have the capacity to change,” Teddy McGiggles does not; he’s welly gone and past the point of no return.

There is a point where we learn that maybe the zombies do still have some semblance of their actual humanity still in them. To me, I was thinking that maybe that was specifically you trying to make a point that no matter what, maybe even for those who are seemingly too far gone, have a chance of regaining something?

Completely! Yes, and sort of extrapolating on the Shaun of the Dead conversation from before; I did want to do something different with zombies. So If i am doing a zombie movie, I would like to do something that we haven’t seen before. I was fortunate that the idea we had to use singing, and [the zombies] responding, ended up tying in thematically. It just wasn’t doing something for a stunt, it does have everything to do with us having the capacity to change, as human beings. We do have the capacity to change as a society. Dave literally says to the head of the U.S. Military as they drive past on the tractor, “You’ve just got to sing them a song.”

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That’s the key, music is the key, in a really direct way of us getting through this. Music is the common language that can bring us all together, but the reality is, when you’re dealing with the military in those sorts of situations, they’re not going to listen to any sort of nuance or be prepared to explore something when they have guns. That’s why it flips around and becomes way more extreme. Though I will say though, with the character of the U.S. General, he does give you the idea that maybe in the future, this might happen in the same way again. And of course, he does have that line which we won’t give away for those who haven’t seen it, but it was a bit of a contentious line when we were going through it and showing the movie, because some people were turned off by the subject matter, but others did see it in regards to the idea of growing and changing.

I appreciate people who are willing to keep those kinds of issues in their films. If we aren’t going to be able to talk about real life issues it in every way possible, then we’re wasting our time.

Exactly, and there has been comments lately about how “woke culture” is destroying comedy, which I disagree with entirely. One thing is that it might make it harder, but in a good way. The comedians and filmmakers that I always admire–Sacha Baron Cohen, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Taika Watiti–those filmmakers that are working now and working in that extreme comedy sphere… if you have a risky joke, you need to make sure that the logic of it makes sense and that is it saying the right thing, and if you’ve worked that out, then you’re justified in having it there.

There will always be people who will be offended by anything and everything. Don’t worry about the people that will get offended, they’ll get offended, regardless. If you can stand up behind everything you are putting up on screen, then you feel the audience really respond to that, because they can recognize that it is coming from the right place. Certain filmmakers will struggle with that because they don’t have anything to say with their comedy, but the ones who actually do are the ones I respect.

There are plenty of films that were once a very big part of the mainstream that you couldn’t make today.

Yeah, it’s funny, I’ve actually been looking into trying to remake Drop Dead Fred.

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Oh yeah, that would be one of them.

It’s just, Rik [Mayall] and Phoebe [Cates] are both great. You know, I grew up on Rik Mayall, and there’s a difference in watching that movie now, with him gone, as I’m sharing his work with my son. There is something about Rik’s spirit, it’s Rik’s spirit in that movie that makes it work. 

It’s funny, because while I think there are plenty of American audiences who would recognize his face, that really was the attempt to bring him Stateside, and it didn’t work.

No, no, it didn’t. He’s still a bit of an anomaly over here. You know, without going too much into details, I did have a way of making it work in fixing the more problematic elements and turning them into a reason why we can do this. I think it’s seen as a problematic property by the people who own the rights to it, so I don’t think it will see the light of day.

read more: George A. Romero and the Meaning of His Zombies

You have so much going for you with this film, from its cast with Lupita, Josh, and Alex, and getting the rights for using Taylor Swift and Neil Diamond songs. Was this a case of things just falling into place, or was it tough getting it all together?

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Even if you could say that everything fell into place, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Managing the time and the balance, it was all hard. But Lupita, Josh, Alex, the kids; everyone gave me everything I needed to work with. The reaction we got at Sundance, and everything that has happened since–I’ve never really celebrated, but I’ve just felt relief. This was a hard movie to get right, and we seemed to have gotten to the place where people are connecting with it, and I just feel relieved, because for a while there, I thought that maybe I was never going to be able to work again.

So yeah, just relief more than anything else. And the response has been great. The stuff I see that my son has taught me that is in the film, I see people responding to in their own personal way and that has been a real beautiful thing, because it has made me realize the truth and humanity that a five-year-old has, is something that is universal.

Little Monsters premieres on Hulu on Oct. 11.