Writer-director Abe Forsythe spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Little Monsters, playing one nightly only before launching on Hulu this Friday.
Little Monsters stars Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, and Josh Gad. Neon and Hulu will have one-night-only screenings in theaters on October 8, 2019. The film will start streaming on Hulu on October 11, 2019.
Little Monsters was quite the success when it premiered at Sundance in January. How did you first get the idea for the film?
Abe Forsythe: The idea for Little Monsters is actually about my son’s first year of kindergarten. Not only that but sort of everything that he—at that stage when I wrote the script and still continue to—but everything that he taught me about the world. The character of Felix in Little Monsters has, similar to my son, a number of very serious and severe food allergies. It’s especially terrifying to me to have to hand him over to someone else to look after him and actually sort of look after him for his very specific health needs. He was just extremely lucky as was I when he went to kindergarten. His kindergarten teacher not only did that she also opened up his eyes to the world for the first time—the world outside of me, his dad. That was all the back story to when I had the idea. When I had the idea, we were actually at the petting zoo, where we stumbled on the movie as well. Spike, my son, and 24 other five-year-olds, and the kindergarten teacher. We were driving on the tractor train something stopped the tractor train. I remember the driver getting off and going to investigate it. It was just one of those ideas that just popped into my head where what if that was a zombie. Next thing you know, everything else just kind of fell into place—the whole notion of how would you protect a kindergarten class children from a zombie apocalypse. How would you stop their brains from being eaten but also from being corrupted by the horrors of what was around them? It was my son but also this kindergarten teacher and everything they do by being around our children.
Can you talk about bringing this cast on board?
Abe Forsythe: As for Alexander, who plays Dave—he was the first one that I attached. I attached him because he and I had a prior relationship from working together. I had done a film with him before. I just knew that he was right for the character but also being on set with all these kids.
Lupita was the next one and that was such a swing for the fences. I mean, it was literally a swing for the fences. My US casting agent said at one point, we had a little bit of time. And she said, if you just want to take an unrealistic swing, now is the time to do it. Lupita is the only person to play Caroline and there was no sort of doubt when she said that that Lupita would have been the best person. She’s the one that can embody absolutely everything—what that character meant to my son and me but also she’s a smart enough actor to play all the different sides of her. I don’t think any of us thought it would happen. I just happened to be with the same agency—not with the same agent—that she’s with in LA. That ensured the script at least made it to her agent. Then her agent put it in front of her and coincided at a time when Lupita was looking for something different, challenging, and she hadn’t done before. She just responded to the script. Next thing you know, I’m having a Skype with her and 24 hours after that, she was she was on board. It was crazy and very unexpected but also a real validation to me and my crew because Lupita responded to the truthful—what this movie says about childhood and the state of the world. That was why we made this movie. We didn’t set out just to make a zombie movie. We made a movie about all of the themes this movie has but it just happens to have zombies in them.
Then with Josh—in my mind, there was no one better than Josh. When he shows up as Teddy McGiggles, he’s so believable in the role because genuinely, Josh is Olaf. He’s one of those people. You don’t see the switch then when he becomes the most horrible character in the movie. He was able to play both parts equally and I really needed that for that character to work as well as he made it work.
Lupita really kicks some ass in this film as Miss Caroline—not unlike her character in Black Panther but in a much different way. Her character is worthy of joining the kick-ass heroines on screen!
Abe Forsythe: That’s what I would say. I think when I was initially pitching this movie overseas and we were looking for the money—and this is pre-Lupita being involved obviously but my touchstones for me were Sarah Conner and Ripley from Aliens, specifically Alien because in Alien, she really is the protector of use. The character, particularly with Sigourney Weaver playing Ripley—it’s not like their just a superhero or they’re all one thing. The characters have many sides to them but that mothering side—the protecting side that comes out when they’re under pressure or moments of stress, that’s what makes them such interesting characters. Is Caroline going to be the ultimate manifestation of that? Because that’s what my son’s kindergarten teacher did for my son and me.
Going back to your earlier question, when I had that thought about the zombie apocalypse, I remember going, “Yeah, I feel safe. I feel actually okay with my son’s kindergarten teacher if she had to defend him during this sort of crazy kind of horror movie.” When I was thinking about who was playing Miss Caroline, that was one of the first things that popped into my head when I was thinking about Lupita. If Lupita was looking my son, I think I would be comfortable.
I found myself laughing up a storm when Josh Gad’s character, Teddy McGiggle, goes off on this F bomb tirade in front of children. How much of this was improvised?
Abe Forsythe: The great thing about Josh is that Josh certainly hits all of the beats in my scripts. It was just that he would then sprinkle on these other things on top, which would take it further and sometimes too far as well, which is what’s so great about working with him, too. He has a very similar idea of comedy, which I do as well, which is it has to go too far and then you bring it back to find the right place. He certainly was not afraid in pushing it as far as he could. There is a whole other cut of this movie with Josh’s character, which was way more extreme then what’s in the movie. I feel like we were able to find the place where it’s just offensive enough and just not tipping over to the point where you just don’t want to be—there’s a point in the movie that Lupita’s laughing at him. In every screening of the movie, there is a very shared experience with the audience cheering and enjoying that moment. I credit that Josh actually in giving us enough material to work to be able to make it exactly where it is with the right level of offensive.
How long is this other cut and is it ever going to see the light of day?
Abe Forsythe: No, it will never see the light of day. I’d be worried about for Josh with his employment opportunities with Disney.
Can you talk about incorporating Taylor Swift’s music into the film?
Abe Forsythe: I thought I was writing the first draft of the script. After the excursion that I had with my family, my son was doing a recital at school. My son was dressed up in an animal suit on stage and this ukulele band came out. They were probably about 3-4 playing the ukulele and they were playing “Shake It Off.” I wasn’t familiar with the song. I had to ask one of the other parents, “What is this song?” They said, “Oh, it’s ‘Shake It Off’ by Taylor Swift.” It sounded so beautiful with the ukulele band and all these little angelic voices singing it. I was listening to the lyrics, too.
These lyrics are absolutely perfect for what I’m writing at the moment so I went home and wrote it into the script, realizing as I’m putting it in that it was very likely that this would never turn into the finished film because it’s not going to be cheap. But it was one of those things—there were two things in the movie that I really needed to be in there. One was the song and the other was Darth Vader. Those were two very key things to the story both personally but also just in terms of making the story work as well as I knew it had to.
We tried for—no joke—probably about six or seven months trying to work out to get the rights. We contacted everyone that we could think of that had access to Taylor or access to giving us the rights. I think we spoke to the record label at one point or the management company at one point. They quoted us a huge fee. It was fraction of our budget.
And then also, there was no guarantee because Taylor would still have to approve. It wasn’t looking good. One of the things that appealed to Lupita about script was “Shake It Off” and the way that “Shake It Off” was used. It was a very key song for her at one point in her life. I remember when Lupita came on board, I expressed to her that we were really struggling to get the rights to this. She was horrified that the prospect of making the movie without that track as I was. She went to write Taylor a letter and she was not going to give her the opportunity to turn us down. Then she wrote Taylor an email and in a very short period of time after that, we got a call from Taylor’s management saying that we have the right to the song. We had very affordable rights compared to what we thought it was going to be before.
The only reason that song is in the movie is because Lupita came on board and one of the reasons Lupita came on board is because of that song, too. The only reason that the song is in the movie is because I heard my son’s kindergarten class sing it. It’s just a very nice kind of trip that makes me feel very happy and relieved at the moment with the way people responded to it.
Little Monsters played both Sundance and SXSW. What did you make of both experiences?
Abe Forsythe: When I was at Sundance, that was the kind of cliché experience where everything just needed to go right for us. For me, I was so relieved more than anything because as you know and having seen this movie, this is not your normal run of the mill zombie movie. It’s not your normal run of the mill movie.
It tries a lot of times to be a tonally risky thing. I had no idea how it was going to be received. The fact that it did get received by such an appreciative audience and ultimately, we sold it; it was the start of the continued journey that it had. I wasn’t running around celebrating. I was just so monumentally relieved before we got to that point. When we went to SXSW—because we had the experience at Sundance, I was actually able to enjoy it. The screening that we had at the Paramount theater—that was just the best screening that I’ve ever sat in on in my life. I knew that it found its home and knew that it found its audience. I really enjoyed that. Part of the joy of this movie has been traveling the world now to all different countries and different places to different people and different cultures. I’m really looking forward to heading home.