Director Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters is certainly a worthy addition to the zombie-comedy canon alongside classics like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Fido—but it’s also a master class in how to swing for the fences with next-to-zero clout to back you up.
Little Monsters centers around Dave (Alexander England), the consummate man-child who finds himself having to grow up real quick when a chaperoned trip to a petting zoo with his 5-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) turns into a hellscape of blood and guts. Turns out, right next to the farm is a government facility housing zombies—until there’s a security breach and they escape and transform all the unassuming tourists into the undead. As the zombies circle in, Dave and Felix’s teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), have to fight their way out with a whole class of kindergarteners in tow. In addition to trying to stay alive themselves, Dave and Miss Caroline are also tasked with a) keeping the kids out of harm’s way and b) trying to make it all seem like a game to ensure they aren’t traumatized beyond help.
“I was trying to articulate everything children can teach us about the world and ourselves,” Forsythe says. “And that worked above and beyond any small things that might not have met what was initially in my head. I’m so incredibly proud of what this movie says and how it says it.”
Forsythe had two feature films under his belt prior to Little Monsters, and although he’s managed to carve something of a name for himself in his native country of Australia, he had yet to gain any true notoriety outside of the local indie scene. That, however, didn’t stop him from coming into Little Monsters and going for it. As a relatively obscure filmmaker, Forsythe managed to secure the A-list Oscar-winning talent of Nyong’o, the seemingly cost-prohibitive (and highly protected) rights to a Taylor Swift song that he wrote into the core of the story, and clearance (maybe?) for an equally important Star Wars reference—not to mention the separate headache of navigating the tried and true no-no’s of filmmaking: handling little kids and animals.
Here’s how Forsythe did it.
Nyong’o is a-go
Forsythe had already cast the part of Dave and knew the perfect foil to his slovenly and selfish man-child ways would be the embodiment of propriety and patience in Miss Caroline—and he felt Nyong’o was the only actor who could pull it off. Forsythe’s casting agent, who worked within the same agency as Nyong’o, encouraged him to give it a shot. Nyong’o had just finished Black Panther and was apparently looking for a role to push her in a new direction. As it turned out, Forsythe’s zombie-romcom was exactly the challenge she was seeking. Just one day after having a Skype conversation with Forsythe about the film, she was in and Forsythe had an invaluable ace in his pocket—talent-wise, sure. But also some much needed clout.
How to ‘shake off’ exorbitant music licensing fees
One the most essential parts of Little Monsters is Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit “Shake It Off.” Whenever the kids need to be entertained, Miss Caroline whips out her ukulele and strums out an acoustic version, not unlike a real-life scenario Forsythe experienced.
“I’d heard ‘Shake It Off’ for the first time during my son’s kindergarten recital. A school ukulele band had played it accompanied by these little voices singing it,” he says. “It had perfect resonance for the story, and I immediately wrote it into the [the film].”
For Forsythe, “Shake It Off” was essentially Little Monsters‘ theme song. The song goes from just being a fun sing-a-long for little kids to taking on the film’s message of pushing past any obstacle: It’s what Dave sings to his nephew Felix after a potentially deadly food allergy episode in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. It also factors into the film’s heartwarming (and absurdly comical) ending.
Forsythe worked for months to get the rights to “Shake It Off”—with no luck. When he finally did get someone from Swift’s camp, they quoted a fee that was far beyond what was in their meager indie budget. Luckily for Forsythe, Nyong’o was just as big a fan of the song for the film as he was.
“The song was an integral part of the script for Lupita when she came on board,” Forsythe says. “She didn’t want to make this movie without the song as much as I did. So she wrote Taylor Swift an email, and we had the rights in a matter of days.”
May the Force (of a convenient merger) be with you
An equally important cultural reference in Little Monsters is Felix’s obsession with Darth Vader.
“Darth Vader holds a special place in me and my son’s world. He sleeps with a 7-foot-tall Vader cutout over his bed,” Forsythe says. “He found a certain level of confidence from dressing up as Darth Vader and that’s exactly what happens to the character of Felix in Little Monsters.”
It’s clear early on in the film that Felix is the weak link in his grade, with his classmates taunting him for his food allergies. However, Felix, outfitted in his Vader finest, manages to summon the Force to fend off a brood of zombies—sort of.
The idea for Little Monsters started with Forsythe’s son who does in fact suffer from multiple, life-threatening food allergies. Even the premise for the action taking place at a petting zoo came from attending a similar field trip with his son. Forsythe knew he wanted to keep the story as close to his heart as possible, but there was, of course, the looming menace of Disney’s legal team.
“We knew we would never get the rights to use [Vader’s] likeness if we asked Disney. So we took insurance out just in case we were ever sued by Lucasfilm or Disney,” Forsythe says.
However, one thing that worked in Little Monsters‘ favor is the fact that Disney is now the majority owner of Hulu, the film’s distributor, after its colossal acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Little Monsters was released at Sundance this year in January, roughly three months before the deal was formally completed.
“We’re probably safe now,” Forsythe says.
“Follow the truth—embrace the chaos”
Little Monsters has a high degree of difficulty for Forsythe, in part because the film balances a multitude of tones: horror, romance, comedy, action. But also because of the unpredictability of working with kids and animals. With a cast of children anchoring the film, Forsythe had to corral the attention of 11 5-year-olds in the limited time they could be on set. Not to mention, much like the film itself, there was the obstacle of trying to shield them as much as possible from excessive gore and profanity.
“The thing it taught me was that if you keep following the truth of the characters and the story, it will guide you through everything else,” Forsyth says. “Lupita and I had a saying to help us deal with the kids during the shoot: follow the truth—embrace the chaos. That ended up being our mantra to help us deal with every crazy, unpredictable thing they threw at us. But is also ended up being my mantra during post-production. And also my life.”
Little Monsters is available on Hulu now.