Two years ago, writer and director Abe Forsythe had a dream. He was making a horror comedy about zombies breaking loose at a theme park that happened to be hosting a bunch of kindergarteners on a field trip, and his moon-shot casting picks were Lupita Nyong’o in the role of a teacher named Miss Caroline, and … Josh Gad as the secretly sociopathic kids’-show host Teddy McGiggle. At this point, Nyong’o had an Oscar firmly in hand, and Gad had established himself as a bona fide Disney star thanks to his turn as Olaf in Frozen (and later LeFou in Beauty and the Beast). With some time to kill during preproduction, Forsythe decided to ask the highly in demand actors — as arbitrary as the pairing seemed — if they were available. Why not?
As you might already know, Forsythe’s dream came true, which is why you can now watch the duo both maniacally quibble and effortfully collaborate to wipe out the undead in the new movie, Little Monsters, now streaming on Hulu. The film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and it follows a ne’er-do-well named Dave (Alexander England) who tries bouncing back from a devastating breakup by nursing a crush on his nephew’s kindergarten teacher. So when the charming Miss Caroline needs help chaperoning a school trip, Dave leaps at the chance, despite being utterly unqualified to care for anyone, including himself. As soon as the kids get to their destination, however, a nearby military facility bursts at the seams with zombie test subjects vying for the outside world. They overtake the park, turning Nyongo’s kindly teacher into a commando, Dave into an unlikely hero, and Teddy McGiggle into a cursing, boozing bastard. Vulture spoke with Forsythe just before his movie made its streaming debut about how he secured these casting coups for a bloody Australian zom-com.
Lupita and Josh seem like really great gets for a zombie comedy. Were they your big casting swings, or did they get your script and just want to do your movie?
They were both top of the list for me. We cast Lupita before we cast Josh. We’d started preproduction, and there was seven weeks before we were due to shoot. My casting agent had assembled this really great list of eight names of all the people we were considering for Miss Caroline, and any one of them would have done a really great job, but the casting agent just said, “We’re definitely gonna get one of these people, so now is the time if you just want to take a swing for the fences and go for someone that is your ultimate version of Miss Caroline — someone who may never consider doing it.” To me, it was Lupita. Without a doubt. She’s the type of actor that has so much truth and I knew she would be so believable in this role and take it incredibly seriously as well, which was really important to me, because this whole movie is actually based on my son’s first year of kindergarten. It’s an incredibly important story for me to tell. So, all the producers and the casting agents — I mean everyone — was like, “You know there’s just no way she’s ever going to do this movie, let alone even consider it.”
“Good for you. You want Lupita Nyong’o to star in your movie. How nice for you.”
Exactly! But we’re both with CAA. We’re not with the same agent there, but that at least ensured the script got put in front of her. She’d just finished Black Panther, and she was looking for something different. She was looking to get into comedy, so timing-wise, it landed just right. Within 24 hours she’d read it and I was talking to her over Skype. Then the next morning I woke up to find out she was onboard. It happened very fast, and it was incredible — for myself and my crew. It was a real validation of why we were making this movie. We weren’t making this to make a zombie movie. We were making a movie to say something about what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a child. Lupita coming onboard was big endorsement for us and the type of story that we were telling.
Then with Josh, he was on the list, too, but he was unavailable when we were initially going out to people. We’d offered it to a couple of others and luckily it ended up swinging back around to him because suddenly Josh became available again. We couldn’t actually think of anyone else that would do Teddy McGiggle in quite the way he does because he is so in the Disney space as a performer — along with all the other things that he does. He’s completely believable as the children’s entertainer before he makes the switch into that horrible other character that he is. When the kids all met Josh, they knew him as Olaf and he’s getting into the Olaf voice, and the next thing you know he’s shouting in their faces and yelling that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus don’t exist. Although, we had tricks when we filmed things like that so they didn’t actually hear any of the horrible language, but they still saw him losing his mind and covered in blood and drinking from hand sanitizer bottles. You get the best of both worlds with Josh. It’s obviously very meta with him being Olaf from Frozen, but he’s also got a very subversive side to his personality. Look at Book of Mormon. I don’t think he’d done a comedy for a while either, so he was really letting off some steam playing this role.
He introduced the movie when I saw it at Beyond Fest and joked that he took Little Monsters because he wanted to “commit career suicide” and then called it his “palate cleanser.” How much of Teddy’s freak-outs were on the page and how much did you just let Josh fly off the handle?
Everything that Teddy does in the movie is definitely in the script, but Josh is a very adept improviser and he would just sprinkle the sort of magic little things on top of everything that pushed it a lot further — even than the version we ended up with in the finished film.
So what we didn’t see of Josh is even more out of control?
There is a whole bunch of other cuts of the movie where Teddy McGiggle is even more extreme. Josh gives you more to work with and then it’s up to you to kind of bring that back and work out what is actually the acceptable level for that character. In some ways, he is actually the biggest monster in the movie, and you’re meant to question whether or not the kids are actually safer outside the souvenir shop with all the zombies, rather than being stuck in there with that man.
Also, as a way of trying to work out who he was as a character, I kind of based him a little bit on Mel Gibson. There’s a lot of little things in there where I’m thinking of a celebrity going through a very major meltdown.
So how was it directing Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o to decapitate zombies with a shovel?
Her coming to make this movie in Australia when she had never worked with anyone on the production before, had never been to Australia before, taking a huge gamble in terms of making a low-budget horror movie with 11 5-year-old children — it was a movie of so many extremes, and for an actor of the caliber, an Oscar winner, that’s a crazy thing to do!
Since you hadn’t seen her in Black Panther yet as this warrior princess, what was it about her that said “zombie-slaying teacher” to you?
My son’s kindergarten teacher was incredible. [My son] has practically the same food allergies that Felix (Diesel La Torraca) has in the movie, and my son’s kindy teacher really went above and beyond to look after him and make sure he was gonna be okay. And I went on a school excursion with her and 25 5-year-olds to the farm that we shot the movie at actually, and that’s where I had the idea for Little Monsters. If there was a zombie outbreak, how would you protect 25 little kids from having their brains devoured but also from having their minds corrupted by the horrors that surround them? I remember thinking at the time that if he had his kindy teacher looking out for him during the zombie apocalypse I would actually kind of feel okay about it. I had a similar way of kind of looking at who I wanted to play Miss Caroline, and certainly with Lupita, for me, I was like, I would feel comfortable with Lupita Nyong’o watching out for my son in a zombie apocalypse the same way that I would his kindy teacher.
And she was also instrumental in securing the rights to the song “Shake It Off,” which is a real mantra throughout the movie.
I had the idea of using that song because my son’s kindergarten class was doing an end-of-year recital and they had a ukulele band of kids from a couple of classes above him that came out and played “Shake It Off.” I had never heard of that song before, but I went home and wrote it straight into the script because it sounded beautiful. Thematically that song just worked so well in the movie and for Miss Caroline. We tried for months and months and months to get the rights to it with no luck. We tried reaching out to Taylor herself; didn’t get through. We tried her management. We tried her record company. Management I think came back at one point and said, “It will cost this,” and it was like completely unaffordable for the type of movie we were. Anyway, when Lupita came onboard, “Shake It Off” was one of the things that appealed to her about Little Monsters, too. The song played a really particular role in one part of her life, so she really resonated with that being in the script. She was like, “We can’t not have this in the movie,” so she told me she was going to write Taylor an email and not give Taylor the opportunity to turn her down.
The only reason that song is in the movie is because Lupita is in the movie. I wouldn’t have been able to make the movie that we made with anyone else.