Some offers and roles are too unique to pass up for an actor, and when performers Sarah Swire and Christopher Leveaux were given the chance to appear in something as strange, hilarious, and fun as the crowd pleasing Christmas/musical/zombie movie Anna and the Apocalypse (opening in select Canadian cities on December 7), they both seized upon such an opportunity. The British produced cinematic musical – which comes across like a cross between George Romero and George Cukor working together on a boozy eggnog bender – has literally no distinct point of comparison, so why not do it?
Anna and the Apocalypse began its life in 2011 as a BAFTA winning short film created by late writer-director Ryan McHenry (perhaps best known around the world as the person who came up with the viral sensation “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal”), who passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 27. The feature comes courtesy of Scottish director John McPhail and writer Alan McDonald, and tells the story of Anna Shepard (played by Ella Hunt), an antsy high school senior who can’t wait to leave the small and sleepy town of Little Haven. Feeling little seasonal spirit as her school prepares for their big holiday musical, all Anna can focus on is her desire to skip university next year and do some travelling. The lives of Anna and her friends are upended, however, when a previously unremarkable viral outbreak has become a full blown zombie apocalypse. With her loving father (Mark Benton) and several friends trapped inside the school – not only by the threat of zombies, but also by the school’s increasingly unstable headmaster (Paul Kaye) – Anna must make her way across town and help everyone to safety.
In the film, which took the Audience Choice Award at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in October, Canadian born actress/musician/dancer Swire, who also serves as the primary choreographer for Anna and the Apocalypse’s intricate musical numbers, plays Steph, a frequently put upon and underappreciated American transfer student who takes her job at the head of the school’s floundering newspaper rather seriously. Leveaux takes on the role of Chris, a kindhearted budding filmmaker seeking to rescue his beloved girlfriend (Marli Siu) and ailing grandmother who are trapped in the same place as Anna’s father.
We caught up with Swire and Leveaux over drinks on an unseasonably rainy fall afternoon to talk about the film’s unique blend of horror, comedy, music, and holiday cheer and how wildly different it is from anything they’ve done before.
It has to be unique to be approached to be a part of something like Anna and the Apocalypse. When you guys first got a chance to see this material, were you approached by someone telling you that this was a Christmas movie, a musical, or a zombie movie first?
Sarah Swire: I really think it just came to me as a surprise. You tend to get pitched a lot of weird things as a performer, and this one definitely came across as one of the more bizarre ones, but it was also such a unique audition opportunity that it was kind of impossible to pass up. Why not take advantage of something like this? (laughs) Especially when it seems like something that could be really unique and fun.
Christopher Leveaux: You never really know how weird it’s going to be just by reading it. You never know until you actually start doing it. (laughs) You can’t really overthink it because there’s nothing else you could really hope to compare it to, which is both freeing and kind of daunting at the same time.
For a lot of the people who made it, Anna and the Apocalypse is a passion project. One of the people who was most instrumental in coming up with the idea, Ryan McHenry, passed away. Is there an additional sense of responsibility to material like this, even though it is this sort of lighthearted and comedic romp?
Christopher Leveaux: It definitely moves you to do the best you possibly can. I know that we all felt that sense of responsibility. Not knowing Ryan McHenry myself, I got to get a sense of who he was by working so closely with so many of his friends. It was a remarkably supportive environment that always wanted to encourage us and to never undermine us, and there’s always this sense that it’s what Ryan would’ve wanted this to be like. Often when you’re in creative environments, there are these clashes of confidence and egos that come into play, but that wasn’t the case here. We knew that his friends wanted to honour his memory through this work.
Sarah Swire: It creates an incredible feeling on set when you know you’re working on something that means so much to the people working on it. It’s infectious, and we’re so indebted to Ryan because we wouldn’t be where we are right now without his original idea. Now, we’re close friends with his closest friends, and there’s this environment of mutual care and support for one another, and it really shows in this film that we all made together.
It also has to be helpful when you’re doing a movie that’s indebted to something like High School Musical to play around with characters that aren’t stock archetypes that people recognize from previous musicals. What’s it like to get a chance to play around with these sort of popular musical conventions?
Sarah Swire: They were just the kinds of characters one doesn’t immediately associate with this style of musical, and we were also free to include whatever our perceptions of the characters were into our performances. Alan McDonald, the writer, wanted to make the film about people who were real teenagers and not stock characters. Those archetypes exist in high school because those are the ones that people most readily refer to, but there aren’t people in reality who will ever fit those characteristics 100%. There has to be this balance in something like this between what we’ve experienced in cinema and what we come to and witness naturally, especially when it comes to realistically recreating a tense high school situation.
But more fundamentally, you always have to ask yourself the question of how a high school student might actually try to overcome the apocalypse. You’re not going to want to have scenes where a girl in a horror film goes into a basement and gets killed because this isn’t the kind of situation where you could have those stock kills and characters. People like to laugh at and be scared by things they think are real. You have to believe that they’re going to do what they need to in order to survive, and you need to believe in the ways that they’re going to help, compliment, or collide with each other along the way. That’s how you turn characters in something like this into real people.
I think that the Christmas element might be the one thing that will keep people revisiting Anna and the Apocalypse year after year, perhaps even more than the songs and the zombies. What’s it like being a part of something that has the potential to be a perennial seasonal favourite?
Christopher Leveaux: (laughs) It’s great because when you’re in a zombie apocalypse, you don’t really think about how it’s Christmas because of everything that’s going on. At the same time, Christmas can be such an oppressively jolly holiday that it’s also inescapable. (laughs) It just didn’t pop into my head most of the time. I think it was the same for the zombie element, actually. When you’re afraid for your life, you just sort of go to this other place and the surviving of it all takes over your instincts. Again, it’s kind of like the holidays for some people. (laughs) While you’re filming, you don’t think about it, but then you watch it and you get a bigger look at what was around you and the Christmas songs that are in it, and you suddenly realize that part of it.
Sarah Swire: And a lot of the film’s Christmas spirit is a testament to Roddy [Hart] and Tommy [Reilly]. I think almost half of that holiday vibe comes from their score. It’s kind of like a nod to John Carpenter mixed with all of these tinkly, more traditional holiday sounds that makes this unique vibe. They did such a great job mashing up these two genres, and I think that’s what really carries the holiday spirit throughout the thing. Them and the art department.
Christopher Leveaux: The art department was absolutely amazing to work with. I’m still in awe of what they accomplished. And the costumes. There’s so much attention to detail that I think we realized more once we sat down and saw the film, but it’s so incredible. The more you watch it, the more you realize. There was so much care and attention that every department put into the look of the film, and it made our work as actors so much easier and joyful on something this complex. There wasn’t this big budget, so they didn’t get to do everything they could’ve possibly wanted, but the things they did do were done with such care, attention, and wit.
Sarah, you had a harder task on this film since you were also a choreographer for the musical numbers, and I don’t think I can name many films like this where one of the main leads had such a task on the side. What was it like for you to be able to add to a lot of those visual details that Chris was just talking about?
Sarah Swire: It was awesome. There’s nothing better, I think, than constructing those kinds of performance while participating in them at the same time. It’s great to be an actor on something as unique as this, but being able to infuse some of your own spirit onto the actual movement and look of the film is such a rare opportunity. I worked really closely with EmmaClaire Brightlyn, who was our extremely talented fight director and is actually my roommate, to come up with some of the more elaborate moments where we had to blend fighting with the dancing.
The hardest thing on something like Anna and the Apocalypse was accuracy. Not only do you have to lip-synch to the songs perfectly and dance while you’re doing them, but sometimes you have to fight at the same time. That’s an added layer of emotion that you have to portray not just through the song, but through physicality. It’s not just about hitting your mark, but everything you do if you have a weapon has to be at a near perfect angle. It’s like juggling. It was fun and we all got pretty good at it towards the end. (laughs)
It was all done in an old school, MGM sort of way. The director talks to our cinematographer, Sara Deane, then the cinematographer talks to the choreographers, and then we all work in tandem. We all have the same goals, but we all have our own ideas, and we have to keep asking each other what’s absolutely necessary. You just take all of that into consideration and make it happen.
And I wouldn’t say that anything we did was particularly difficult because a lot of it was the stitching together of those ideas. You just kind of slow the pace down to a point where you can execute what you need as precisely as possible, and then you break it down into bits and pieces. I think “Hollywood Ending” was probably the toughest number in the film, mostly because it required the most corralling of people, and it was mostly adrenaline and caffeine fuelled getting through that. That one was tough because if one little thing didn’t work – like some lighting or even a piece of jewelry – you might have to change your whole idea. But even then, we remained playful with our execution of it. Nothing felt impossible or like it was hard to accomplish. It was just a bunch of close friends having a laugh everyday.
Christopher Leveaux: I feel lucky that I didn’t have to do a lot of the complex dance fighting. (laughs) I basically just have to run around with a racquet. Most of my scenes consisted of singing OR fighting. (laughs)
One of the first days of shooting found you guys launching into one of the biggest and most complex musical numbers of the entire film. When you have something like that so early on in the shoot, is it hard to keep up that same level of energy throughout or was it like clearing a huge hurdle early on?
Christopher Leveaux: It’s not hard when you’re surrounded by people that you genuinely like working with and the environment is such a supportive one. Every day was like going to school, even the ones where you would be getting up at 6am and working through the night. This was a case where the material was fun, but it was also a lot of fun just being there. There was never an issue for me.
Sarah Swire: It probably also helps that Chris and I actually had some days off. (laughs) Ella Hunt really worked harder than the rest of us actors combined for this film. She was always in it, and always guiding whatever action was happening. Some of the rest of us were actually able to go for a hike at one point. (laughs) But overall, this was the best case scenario for a production of this size that takes that much dedication.
The soundtrack for Anna and the Apocalypse is something that I think will also live on for quite some time, and because it’s a musical it naturally lends itself well to other people trying to adapt to to the stage. What is it like for you as performers knowing that you guys are getting the first crack at this material?
Sarah Swire: It’s funny that you bring that up, because we just did Elsie Fest in New York not that long ago, which is a really big deal when it comes to musical theatre and movies. And we all went there to perform some of the numbers from the film, and everyone was thinking “Oh, man! This is going to be so much fun!” And then when you get there it starts setting in that this thing is a big deal, and all these fans of musical theatre are there to see some of their favourite performers take the stage. And the world of musical theatre is very supportive and inclusive, but it’s also very critical. It had better be good. Chris and I both have musical theatre backgrounds, so I feel like we knew what we were in for when we went, and we clued in pretty early on what this would mean for all of us and for the material. We knew that New York performance had to be great, and that it would help that live on, and it went great!
Christopher Leveaux: It’s a total privilege to be the first people to work with material like this. Having done musical theatre and having grown up around it, I would listen to countless cast albums and dream about what it would be like to work at that level or sing some of those songs. I had always dreamed about being able to do something like that, and to be among the first people to sing these songs was absolutely fantastic.
Anna and the Apocalypse opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, December 7, 2018.