Sundance horror comedy ‘Little Monsters’ inspired by a kindergarten field trip
January 30, 2019
In Abe Forsythe's horror comedy "Little Monsters," a kindergarten teacher, played by Lupita Nyong'o, has to defend her students from a zombie apocalypse in Australia.
Forsythe, the film's writer and director, got the idea while on a school field trip with his five-year-old son's class.
"The the tractor train we were riding in broke down, so the woman who was driving went to investigate what went wrong," Forsythe said. "I thought, what if that thing she went to investigate turned out to be a zombie? How would we go defending these children in that situation?"
The filmmaker started to explore those thoughts, while waiting for the tractor to start again.
"Not only would we have to stop the kids from being eaten, but we also have to stop them from being scared of the reality of things," he said. "We would have to keep them from being scarred for life."
Once the screenplay was written and Forsythe had his team in place, he began thinking about the cast.
Nyong'o's character was inspired by the filmmaker's son's real life teacher.
"My son has a lot of food allergies and some underlying health problems, so his teacher has had to look out for him above and beyond the call of duty," he said. "She has really been amazing."
Although Forsythe didn't write the role with any one actor in mind, he knew they would have to convey a practical mind, play the ukulele and give a truthful performance – Lupita Nyong'o fit the bill.
"As well as being strong, she needed to be vulnerable, and it's a role that requires the actor to use every tool they have to make it (work)," he said. "There were only a few actors who could be the ultimate manifestation of this character and we knew Lupita would the only person who could do it. It was a long shot, but the movie would really open up with her in that role."
Luckily Nyong'o, who is known for her roles in "12 Years A Slave," "Star Wars" and "Black Panther," agreed to play the teacher.
"When she signed up for the movie, she was looking for something she hadn't done before," Forsythe said. "I still can't believe she is in the movie. Many people who hear she is wonder why she's in a zombie movie."
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 11:45 a.m., the Egyptian Theatre
Thursday, Jan. 31, 12:30 p.m., the Ray Theatre
Friday, Feb. 1, 11:59 p.m., Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City
Another character is Teddy, a popular children's TV show personality played by Josh Gad.
"Josh needed to be someone who could have the kind of nature to connect with the kids, which would make it that much more shocking to the audience when it finds out about the other, very dark side of the character," Forsythe said.
Gad was able to shift between the two attributes seamlessly, according to the filmmaker.
"I have problems with characters who are there for just shock (value)," he said. "As a performer, Josh has an incredible grasp of his playfulness, even when he's playing someone dark and screwed up. He manages to help us understand why he is how he is."
The real nightmare of producing the horror comedy was working with the children, Forsythe said.
"The film is really about how to introduce children to the reality of the world without fear and give them confidence to navigate through things," he said. "We made the conscious decision to cast actual five-year-old kids, rather than cast eight- or nine-year-olds and have them act younger. It was horrible."
Forsythe clarified that the children weren't the problem – it was the six-month process of selecting the actors, as well as adhering to Australia's child labor laws.
"We saw hundreds and hundreds of kids and narrowed the group into workshops that lasted for weeks," he said. "We selected 11 kids, which included additional kids as backups, because some of the kids couldn't commit once we started filming."
The law would only allow the kids to work five hours a day for four days a week, Forsythe said.
"They also couldn't be exposed to the more horrific elements of the film, namely the violence and gore," he said. "And through all of that, we had to let them be themselves."
Still, casting the five-year-olds was effective, Forsythe said.
"Kids at that age see the world through an optimistic lens, and the only way you can convey that truthfully is to cast kids at that age," he said. "The film is about the very best and very worst of human behavior. We do it in a way that is little playful, but make a comment of what's going on in the world, and remind people how we looked at the world when we were children."
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