Alexander England on Little Monsters, working with children, and the popularity of Zombie movies.
Little Monsters had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. The film debut in the Midnight section and was one of the most talked-about films during the festival. It was so popular that I believe the film screened about seven times at Sundance which is more than any film that played at the festival this year.
Neon and Hulu bought the rights to Little Monsters the day after it premiered at the festival. The film has since gone on to play at SXSW amongst other festivals. I recently got to speak with actor Alexander England who plays Dave in the film. He spoke to me about the response the film received at Sundance as well as what it was like to work alongside children.
Alex: Hi Scott, nice to meet you.
Scott: Nice to meet you as well. I am excited to talk to you a little bit about this movie.
Alex: Have you seen it?
Scott: Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I go to Sundance every year, and that is where I saw this film. And seeing a movie get such a big reaction is always a fun time, especially at a film festival. For you, what was it like seeing this sort of reaction from the Sundance audience?
Alex: I mean, Sundance itself, was just something. It was just an extraordinary experience, but I was blown away by the response. I don’t know if you saw it earlier in the week, or later in the week. We had about seven screenings or something, so it was truly special especially with that midnight crowd. I think a few were a bit more inclined to have a couple of beers and as a result, we’re excited to see the film. But as the week went on, we just got a bigger and bigger reaction each time. I think as word got around about what kind of film it was and what to expect from it. But it was incredibly satisfying to hear that Sundance crowd respond so audibly to something that we’ve worked so hard on.
Scott: Yeah, I think I went to the second, or third screening. It was the one at the Marc. It wasn’t the midnight showing, but it was the one in the early evening.
Alex: Yeah that was a good screening and we really felt so embraced by that audience.
Scott: Yeah. So, I’m someone who always believes in going to the movies, and one of the best things about going to see a movie like this is actually the reaction and seeing how others respond to it, which is why the Sundance Film Festival was such a fun place to see this movie. My question for you is, how do you personally feel about the fact that this movie is only getting a limited theatrical release and then this being released on digital?
Alex: Look, I definitely think that this film works really well in a cinema. And having sat in a cinema, just as you have, and hearing the crowd reacting, it’s a really satisfying communal experience. And I think that’s why people will always see things in cinemas. But my understanding is that going digital meant that most people were going to see it. In this instance, it’s Hulu, and their event, Hulu-ween, gets something like 25 million people streaming their content. So, I’m really glad that it’s going to mean that we’re going to get the numbers of people actually seeing this film, and I think it is a film that will appeal to a whole bunch of different people. Zombie movies might not necessarily be their thing, but also, there’s a huge amount of heart in the film and humor I’m happy if people are seeing it, but I do feel lucky to have seen in the cinema because it does and has worked very well. I feel lucky to have been able to catch it in the cinema before it went digital. We had to do a Q&A after each screening at Sundance, but I went to every screening just to sit amongst everybody and just hear them respond. And yeah, it’s great. It works on repeat viewings too, so if you watch it again, you won’t be bored.
Scott: Awesome. So, I like horror comedies more than I like horror movies. That said, there have been some great horror movies over the last couple of years with films like Get Out, Quiet Place, Hereditary, and Us. So, sort of tying into that, what do you think it is about zombie movies that really speak to an audience?
Alex: I think one of the big advantages of a zombie film is that it’s so well known. The genre is so established that I think the strength of a zombie film in that sense is that the zombies aren’t necessarily a scary thing. The Walking Dead definitely made its name on that. It’s not actually the zombies that are terrifying, but the other people. I think in this instance, the zombies represent danger. But zombies have become more of a setting, I think, in a lot of these films. It’s more of an environment in which to watch a story play out, rather than the zombies themselves actually being the driving force. And if you think back even to Romero’s original zombie films, something like Dawn of the Dead, where it was clearly a comment on consumerism and capitalism as much anything, and the zombies represented these blind consumers wandering around a mall in droves. So, zombies have always been a bit of a placeholder for whatever the story is you want to tell. In Little Monsters, a big part of it is that the zombies are a threat to the children literally. But in terms of what the film is saying, the story is about keeping a place for kids to be kids, keeping space for children to grow up in their own time without being exposed to the nastiness of the real world. And so, as we watch Miss Caroline and Dave try to keep the kids safe from the zombies and keep them thinking it’s safe and all a game and all a joke, that’s really about allowing kids in society to maintain their innocence for a little while and just be children. So in this instance, the zombies are a placeholder as well.
Scott: That is a great explanation, and I think bringing up George Romero is a good way to start with that because he always had something to say with his movies.
Alex: He did.
Scott: So, your character is great. I love the whole setup of this film. I mean, it’s ironic, right? He doesn’t really care about the kids and just wants to hit on their teacher. And one of the things that he thinks is going to woo her is his music. Did you actually know how to play guitar or was it something you learned for the film?
Alex: No, I had to learn for the film, which I’ve got to say was very intimidating, but I knew that there was some safety to be found in the fact that Dave is stately a bad musician. So I thought if I can get in the ballpark, it will be okay. We did lessons, we did a bunch of stuff, but I knew that I didn’t have to play Rachmaninoff or something like that. I thought I was singularly equipped to play very badly and singing as well. I mean, Lupita was a bit of camaraderie as she stated that she is also a terrible singer and no good at playing instruments. And then I heard her do it, and she was amazing. She’s got the voice of an angel, so that did instill fear in me once again. But near enough is good enough in this instance.
Scott: She does have a good voice. By the way, I love the fact that the film pays tribute to Neil Diamond, Taylor Swift, and heavy metal. It’s kind of funny but at all the same time you can appreciate every aspect of that.
Alex: Absolutely, they all serve different purposes. And Taylor Swift music was really important. I know it was important to Abe. It was important to the film, because Taylor’s music does have this ability to really connect to the children and has this really positive message, so we were so lucky to get her music for this film.
Scott: Yeah, I love that story that was floating around Sundance where Lupita was responsible for making that happen right?
Alex: That’s right. Yeah, that’s the beauty of being an Oscar-winning superstar is that when it was looking like getting the music was getting a little bit difficult, Lupita was able to say, “Oh, I’ll just contact Taylor directly.” And I believe within 24 hours, we had the rights to everything. So thank you, Lupita.
Scott: I like Taylor Swift. I’m actually a big fan. I’m looking forward to the next tour.
Alex: That’s great. Go for it, man. Own it. You must be excited as her new album has just dropped.
Scott: It is great. So, I was wondering, was Shake It Off always the song of choice, or was there another Taylor Swift song that was up for discussion?
Alex: Shake It Off was always the song. I don’t want to speak for Abe, but I believe that it was. I think it was a song that Abe had heard his son’s schoolteacher play, and seeing the way that the kids reacted to that. And so, in the very first version that I read it was definitely Shake It Off, and it was important that we hold onto it. Thankfully, we were able to get it in there.
Scott: Awesome. So obviously, you had to work with a lot of children when filming this movie. What were the challenges of working with children?
Alex: I mean, no one was going in blind. There was no ignorance around what it was going to be like to work with the kids. A huge amount of energy went into thinking how best to utilize our time with the kids, making sure it was a really safe environment for them, figuring out what kind of camera techniques and tricks we could use to ensure that the kids didn’t hear any cursing, or see anything too awful. And also, making sure that the kids were all comfortable in front of the zombies, which were very convincingly made up by Odd Studios, who are just so incredibly talented. So some of the zombies were real works of art. But yeah, amongst all of those kinds of potential snags, the kids were able to have a great time and really enjoy themselves. And not a single one of them was exposed to a curse word, or anything too gory.
Scott: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. When you have a movie like this that has some really ballsy and risky topics being discussed in the film, I know you’re not the director, but I’m sure you’ve had to be part of some of the conversations that occurred. How is that all pitched to say a parent? Like, “Oh, hey, in this scene, this is going to happen”
Alex: Well, all the parents had access to the script, so they did know what they were getting themselves in for. But I think they could see how serious the production was about looking after the kids. It was central to the film from the get-go and central to the structuring of the shoot and how we were going to go about it. So I think they must have just been confident we were going to do what we said, which is, yeah, which is the way that it happened, yeah. And the film was ultimately about, yeah, protecting the kids. The kids are central to the story, and it was going to be a great showpiece for them, for all these beautiful children, so un-self-conscious. It was a great reminder as an actor as well as how powerful that can be.
Scott: Okay, the last question, since the movie is a love letter to teachers, did you have a favorite teacher and why?
Alex: Yeah, I did have a favorite in second grade, I had a teacher who I really fell in love with as a kid. I remember having a strong impulse to go up and hug her, but felt safe, encouraged and nurtured by her. But, yes, the film is a real love letter to teachers and everything they do from the responsibilities that they hold to acknowledging their responsibility to raise those kids.
Scott: Okay. Thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking the time out to talk. Thank you.
Alex: Thanks, man. I’m really glad you enjoyed it so much.
Scott: Yeah, man. Have a great one.
Little Monsters is now streaming on Hulu.