Director Colm McCarthy talks about his new coming-of-age thriller ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’

Since it’s based on a bestselling novel written and adapted for the screen by Mike Carey and a lot of people are already familiar with the source material, I guess I feel comfortable enough telling readers that the British made coming of age horror thriller The Girl with All the Gifts (opening in limited theatrical release this weekend and also available on VOD) is a zombie story. I almost don’t want to say that it deals with the sometimes shambling, bloodthirsty undead because like many details in Scottish director Colm McCarthy’s big screen adaptation, these details emerge subtly and carefully over time. Much like the fungal outbreak that has caused an apocalypse throughout the UK in the film, The Girl with All the Gifts continually evolves in new and surprising ways that should delight genre fans and casual viewers alike.

Film and television veteran McCarthy’s film revolves around young Melanie (played memorably by newcomer Sennia Nanua), a little girl who has been raised in an underground military bunker by a bunch of scientists who want to study her and a bunch of army grunts who can’t stand her. Beneath Melanie’s relatively genial exterior, however, lies a deadly secret. Unlike most adult zombies, which were created by a fungal outbreak that has ravaged the world, younger people infected by the fungus have developed a more symbiotic relationship to the virus. They’re capable of learning, speech, and human thought, but they go crazy at the scent of human blood and become feral and almost unstoppable, hence the fear, security, and desire to study other children like Melanie. The smartest and most curious girl in her class, Melanie draws the attention of both a kind hearted teacher (Gemma Arterton) and a doctor (Glenn Close) intent on finding a cure, while maintaining the ire of a skeptical, biased military sergeant (Paddy Consadine). When the military base falls to a zombie attack, the teacher, soldier, and doctor are forced to go on the run with Melanie, who might hold in her DNA the cure to the outbreak. Melanie, excited to not be cooped up for a change, ends up becoming the biggest protector of her adult handlers in this strange and dangerous new world.

The Girl with All the Gifts, which made its Canadian premiere last fall at TIFF in the Midnight Madness programme and opened in the UK the past September, has earned McCarthy a wealth of critical and commercial accolades. We caught up with the director while he was in town for TIFF to talk about how The Girl with All the Gifts is more than just a standard zombie film, the lengthy casting process to find Melanie, how the film acts as a metaphor for growing up, and making an epic looking apocalypse on a small budget.

This is a really creative riff on a genre movie that we don’t usually see, and even though the secret is kind of out there already because of the book at the trailer, I almost don’t want to give away that there are zombies in this film because when we find that out in the film about twenty minutes in, it’s done via a pretty great reveal and not immediately.

Colm McCarthy: That’s cool that you think that, but you’re right, and I think that’s out there. The trailer makes it more obvious than maybe if you picked the book up and started reading it cold or just walked into the film not knowing much about it.

I like that at the start of this film, for the first twenty minutes or so you don’t fully know what’s going on or why this bunker exists and why all these children have been kept under lock and key. What’s it like creating a story like this where you can lull the audience in without immediately giving away where the story is headed?

Colm McCarthy: It’s really cool that you say that, and I do think that in a perfect world people would see this movie without knowing much of anything about it beforehand. Obviously, we designed the story to be constantly surprising, and hopefully it’s consistently evolving throughout all of the reveals. I think there are some people who will see this hopefully from buzz or word of mouth and interviews instead of having seen too many trailers or too many clips or whatever. Hopefully, it also works for people who have seen bits and pieces of the film going in because I know there’s still a lot that can’t or won’t be shown via those clips. I love things that are surprising and sometimes also inevitable in stories. I think you should always be trying to do things that surprise people but still make sense in the context of what they know about a story. For me, that’s one of the most fun things to do with an audience.

Colm McCarthy

There’s a new wrinkle every step of the way in the journey of the heroes. There’s something drastic or game changing every fifteen or twenty minutes between the character beats and plot developments that take the story in a new direction, and that’s exciting to watch. I think you’re right about what you just said because while I was watching the film I could feel exactly that: like I was watching a surprising story that still made sense within this world. I didn’t know the book or anything about this story outside of the title and that it was somewhat of a horror-action film.

Colm McCarthy: I hope that’s how a lot of people see it, knowing just that and not a whole lot more, even though I think it works for whatever people know or don’t know going in. I think what’s most pleasurable as a filmmaker is connecting with an audience emotionally, and I think that the emotional impact that the film seems to have had on people has been really gratifying and important. Even people who know it’s a zombie film or a horror film, their expectations often don’t have them expecting to go on an emotional journey in such a film. It just lands for people in a certain way. It’s awesome to show this film in a place like Toronto and to a Midnight Madness crowd because they have been so kind to us, and the Q&A after our film was incredible. There were so many people waiting around to chat afterwards, and there were a lot of people with whom I had really touching conversations with people who were clearly affected by the film. That’s the best for me. That’s worth a trip anywhere for me as a filmmaker.

I think what’s going to surprise a lot of people is that this is a film that escalates in terms of action, suspense, and horror, but it also builds to an emotional climax that will catch people off guard because this is really a film about an intelligent little girl who is reasoning out what her purpose in life is and where she wants to go. That’s hard to convey in a straight-up genre film, and not what people usually expect from this type of film.

Colm McCarthy: It’s tricky. I think any good story written for the screen usually has a central protagonist who goes on a journey to discover something about their world or themselves, but usually that’s done in a sometimes glib, mechanical sort of way, and hopefully we managed to do something that was a bit more challenging within that. The best films always make you think a little bit, and if the film works for viewers,  think that’s a real testament to how Mike, [producer] Camille [Gatin], and I riffed with each other for a long time about the things that were personally important to us emotionally or intellectually. Everything in the film that we were interested in came as a result of those talks that we had about the story. We wanted to give viewers a film that works, but operates more muscularly than just mechanically. It was a really rewarding development process that I hope people think we all delivered a good film at the end of it.

Also, I’d be hard pressed to think of four leading actors more interesting to watch travelling around together than the cast you have assembled here. Which came first in the casting: was it finding the adults or finding the girl at the centre of the film?

Colm McCarthy: The process of finding Sennia started before we had any of the principal cast, but it actually didn’t end until after we had everyone else, so it was really a bit of both. (laughs) I met the first girl that we met with before we had met with any of the adult principals. We cast Paddy, Gemma, and Glenn before we got to the final round of girls that we were looking at for the part of Melanie, and we had our final choices all chemistry read with Gemma. For most of them, this was a fourth stage of auditioning where I had already met with them, then they came in and read some scenes, and then from there they came in and we did some improvisation.

There was also a level in there where we sent the script to their parents and talked with them in front of their parents about what the film was about, because the business of casting a child in a leading role like this is a life changing experience that can be very positive, but it isn’t always. In the history of filmmaking, there have been a lot of negative experiences for some people at that age, and we never wanted to make it that with this film for anyone.

Then after all that we got to the chemistry reading, and Sennia actually fast-tracked her way through that whole process because she was literally the last person we met with. I met anywhere between 500 to 1,000 kids from the start to the end of the process. Sennia was the very last one of that, and this was a week before the chemistry reading with Gemma, so we had to rush the process, but we still went through every step of it, just at an accelerated pace to get her through the same process of casting. Her second or third session was with Gemma.

Sennia really gives a rare kind of performance for a child because usually characters of the age of Melanie don’t have this much depth and melancholy to them. She also has to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Paddy, Gemma, and Glenn who are all phenomenally gifted and possibly daunting actors to work alongside.

Colm McCarthy: Sennia is amazing, and it really now seems like one of those “no one else could have ever played this role” moments, but it’s also a testament to our main adult actors. What I talked to all of them early on was that part of their role was to elicit that kind of performance from Sennia because that was what the whole film was going to hang on. They all, in very different ways, showed a great amount of generosity towards her. There’s a funny way in which the production kind of reflects the narrative of the film. She learned a lot from each of them in the same way that the character learns a lot of different fundamentals from each of the adult characters during the film.

We also spent time in advance with Sennia. We had three weeks of preparation before shooting, which was just her and I sitting and going through the script, and basically just talking about the scenes and the journey her character went on and where Melanie was from minute to minute. We wanted to make sure she knew all that before she was thrown into this process of film shoot so she could focus on her own work and not just focus on the cameras and crew and the whole “run away with the circus” bit that always goes hand in hand with making a film.

Also, where most zombie films are allegorical about societal fears on some level, this story also works as a natural sort of progression into adulthood or a more mature understanding of the world around this character. Melanie starts getting more and more responsibility by these authority figures around her, especially with Paddy’s character who also has to mature and learn to trust someone for the first time in a long time. I think a lot of people have similar reflections of life with their own children, so did you see this story in a kind of similar light?

Colm McCarthy: Yes, definitely. That’s in there, for sure, right down to the notion that emotionally each generation of children has to destroy the one that came before and how each generation is defined in opposition to the ones that came before. Absolutely, there’s also that process of growing up and learning from the other characters, but also learning what not to do and learning that what you learn isn’t always right. Melanie has to become a parent in her own way to some of these characters, and it’s not only an allegory about growing up, but also one that shows how imposing your own free will and reasoned thoughts is a huge part of that maturation process.

The first time you have to let your child go is when they climb behind the sofa, and you know there’s nothing behind the sofa, so every parent wants to pick that child up and put them back in the centre of the room so they can keep an eye on them. Even though one knows there’s nothing behind that sofa, it’s difficult to let a child find out on their own that there’s nothing back there. That’s why teenagers are so difficult for parents because they want to break free. We definitely thought a lot about the notion of free will and when it comes time to do things for yourself instead of having to do something everyone else tells you to do.

Another thing that kind of arose from that was the discussion of the fungus that’s the conceit behind our zombies. It was such a good metaphorical way of describing that. In doing our research, we watched a TED talk where someone reckoned that migratory instincts in birds might be partly caused by microbiotic creatures that are living symbiotically with the birds. It’s not the goose that might want to go to the lake in Africa, but the bug that’s living in its brain that wants to get there. There’s a lot of scientific research to back this up, and the fungus that we use as the conceit for our zombie movie is in some ways a very real thing. We actually saw this documentary where ants are controlled by this kind of fungus, and they’ll find a big tree, sit down on a branch, and the fungus will just spread from them in that moment. That’s a real thing out there in the world, and that’s also a great metaphor. When do I grow up and start thinking for myself instead of obeying my parents or blindly turning into them?

The adults in this situation also – especially in the cases of Gemma and Paddy’s characters – have to learn to have faith in this next generation, and that’s true in how the older generations are always fearful and skeptical about the younger generation.

Colm McCarthy: Absolutely. They end up relying on her more than they can rely on themselves. That was the other thing about the casting process. When you’re casting, you’re casting not just for the ending of the film, but also the beginning of it. The cinematic tropes and arcs of a young child are usually ones of a slightly brighter, smarter, and more charismatic version of an innocent, but we wanted someone who would end up being a leader and a warrior and someone capable of making that big of a journey in the film.

The scale of this film is also a lot larger than I expected.  I can’t imagine that you had a ton of money to make a film like this, but as the film heads into the climax and the world of these characters gets bigger, it becomes massive in scope. How were you able to recreate this dingy, run down version of a city. How creative did you have to get in terms of making a film that in its second half grows so large on the budget you had to work with?

Colm McCarthy: We had to get QUITE creative. (laughs) We had a brilliant Visual Effects Supervisor by the name of Seb Barker, and he was so committed to the film and the vision, and he was a great collaborator. The combination of Seb and Kristian Milsted, our production designer, were intrinsic to pulling all this off as well as we did on the small amount of money we had.

One of the things we did was send Seb to Pripyat, which was the site of the Chernobyl disaster, to film some drone material, so what you see in some parts of the film is a combination of our vision and that. They have this style of brutalist architecture that’s not unlike some of the stuff that you would see on estates in London. We combined that with photogrammetry and matte paintings and a whole load of visual effects trickery that was employed in smart ways. We knew we couldn’t just throw a load of money at it, but we also never wanted to make a film that felt like a CGI driven spectacle. I quite like the recent Planet of the Apes films and they have this aesthetic to them that’s defined by the VFX being used in smart ways, and we wanted something that felt real and photographic. We wanted the effects to have a truth to it.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.