Given their considerable gravitas, it would be intimidating to approach any of the actors that eventually signed onto “The Girl With All the Gifts,” but director Colm McCarthy had extra reason to be cautious when submitting the script to the likes of Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close.
“Glenn’s agent responded to the script, [saying] “It’s a good script, but it’s a zombie film — I’m not sure Glenn’s going to be into that,” McCarthy recalled recently with a laugh. “Then Glenn read it and she loved it.”
A chicken-egg situation, the involvement of actors as illustrious as Close can be credited as a major reason why “The Girl With All the Gifts” separates itself from other films in the genre, but then again, they surely were intrigued by the opportunity presented by McCarthy’s adaptation of Mike Carey’s crafty post-apocalyptic novel in being able to make a thinking person’s zombie film by introducing a simple idea – what if the zombies could think too?
That’s what drives Close’s Dr. Caroline Caldwell and a motley band of survivors, including Sgt. Eddie Parks (Considine) and Helen Justineau (Arterton), to protect a young girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who wasn’t so lucky, as they roam the remnants of a world run amok in search of a cure for those plagued with a fungal infection – i.e. “Hungries” – that they have to fend off along the way. In Melanie, an exceedingly polite 13-year-old with exceptional recall and an unnatural taste for flesh, the others take hope – some more than others – in her dual identity that can perhaps lead to a scientific breakthrough. Though Melanie may not be braindead like most of her ilk, that doesn’t stop McCarthy from creating a mind-blowing thriller around her, swiveling around with abandon during attacks to convey the full thrust of the threat to the remaining humans and building suspense with one revelation after another about the characters and the new reality they inhabit.
Constantly upending expectations of what a zombie film could be – or horror in general, “The Girl With All the Gifts” quivers with tension, but with such a strong cast and a steady hand in McCarthy, a go-to director in England for prestige television shows such as “Sherlock” and “Peaky Blinders” following his 2010 feature debut “Outcast,” there is no question as to why it so effectively gets under the skin. After leaving a mark globally with premieres at Locarno, Toronto and Sitges last fall, the film is arriving on American shores this week and McCarthy graciously called in from London to talk about envisioning a world in which humans were no longer the primary lifeforms, figuring out a new way for zombies to move, and why he was so happy to see his cast in tears.
How did this come about?
I knew Mike a bit from his comic work — I’m a big fan of “Lucifer” and he’d written this short story, which Camille Gatin, the producer, showed to me, and it was basically the first five minutes of what became the film. We loved the short story and we met and talked about trying to figure out a way of making something longer out of that. At some point, the idea for the end of the film came up and then it was like, we’ve got a movie because we’ve got a beginning and an end, so we needed to work out a way to join those dots. We thrashed it out and came up with a story outline, which we then went off to try and get some development money to turn it into a film script, but [Mike] was so pumped up about the idea that he started working on a novelization of that treatment, so we got the money to write the script and he was then in this very unusual process of writing both the film and the novel at the same time. The novel was actually ready for publication just a month or so before the script was ready to start going out to actors and financiers, and it became this cool word-of-mouth hit — Joss Whedon was tweeting about it — and that made it an awful lot easier for us to finance this independent, unusual, eco, feminist, road movie zombie film about a wee girl.
Did you have immediate ideas about how the zombies would move?
We had a guy from the English National Opera who had done a lot of animal workshopping because what we wanted to do was develop a unique physical language for the Hungries and we worked on both the static movement as [the Hungries are] in rest mode, the attack mode, and then the transitional journey in between the two for waking up. Quite a lot of workshops went into that with a bunch of dancers and physical performers and we taught that to both the adults and the children. It [was even] part of our work in terms of casting people to be the featured Hungries and kids [to] execute those movements and [participate in] movement workshops.
We wanted to create the rest mode as something that was reflective of nature — this theme of nature taking over — so we worked on looking at how grass moved in the wind and [for attack mode] we looked at the way cats react when they see insects and small birds. If you’ve got a cat, they do this weird clacking movement with their jaws that’s very staccato when they see insects or birds. Actually, I’d found these videos on YouTube of cats doing it and at one point during the financing process, I found myself at Warner Brothers in London to raise finances for the film with these YouTube videos with these cats doing this weird clacking thing with their mouths, which was a new place for me to be in my career. [laughs]
That idea of nature taking over seems to be embedded in the way you use green throughout the film in all its shades. How did that become a defining color?
In our art department and our production office, we had thousands of images of different urban exploration from around the world that people had taken within ruins and exploring derelict places. We made a decision that we wanted to go and film in one of the great world sites for that stuff, so we decided to send a drone crew to Pripiat, which is the town of Chernobyl. A lot of the cityscapes that you see at the end [of the film] are actually shots of Chernobyl that we then inserted London buildings into and [layered] them with derelict textures that we found around the west Midlands where we were filming. But the palette was developed with those colors that you find when nature takes over – these kind of soft, dirty greens and dirty oranges.
You have numerous shots in the film where you’re filming 360° around a situation – does that create logistical challenges when it comes to lighting the scenes and having other machinery out of sight?
Simon Dennis has been my [cinematographer] now four times, and I hope we continue developing our relationship together creatively because it’s been a really good collaboration. We’ve both grown up a bit and Simon knows that I like to have the sets 360° a lot of the time. I like to follow the movement of a scene and rather than just shoot a sequence of shots and re-light for every shot, so he’s prepared for that as a general thing, but we did have some places in this film where I [wanted to push] a little bit further. The base break sequence in particular was an example where there was quite a bit of visual effects elements within those shots and we also had this [situation] of a young child actor in the center of it, doing stuntwork and movement action work, being a monster, so that was a little challenging and required some preparation.
We had a seven-week shoot because of the child working hours, and Sennia [Nanua] had to be in every scene, so we had quite short shooting days. We had Sennia with us for rehearsals from three weeks prior to the shoot and we started straight-away doing those movement workshops with Dan [O’Neill, the movement director] to find the Hungry attack language and stunt rehearsals with Mark Mottram, our stunt coordinator who’d worked on “The Jungle Book.” We developed her confidence in executing the two big action sequences that required long, interrupted takes — the big fight with the feral kids and the base break — so that was just building layers. She learned the movement and how to use the blood and then we introduced a full day of rehearsal where we didn’t film at all on the set, so all the extras would be introduced into the action, and then we filmed on the last day. There are some hidden cuts in some of that stuff, but it’s mostly long, flowing takes and then we carted in elements to fill the base with visual effects. All the gunfire is VFX additions and that was a big part of making those sequences work and making them possible, especially with a child involved.
You’ve said you actually had to work with all the actors differently, and since it’s a diverse ensemble, is a big part of your job getting a sense of cohesion or did it happen naturally?
It was a very unusual film in terms of thinking about the tone of all of the performances and these very, very different kinds of actors that were in the film. Glenn [Close] has obviously had enormous critical success as an actress over the years and Paddy [Considine] is the doyenne of independent, social realist cinema in the UK and Gemma [Arterton]’s been in these big blockbusters and has done musical theater. I knew that they all had the thing that was right for them playing that character, but the thing I really needed all of them to do was to help engender a performance from Sennia Nanua, who’s effectively a non-actor. She had done one tiny, amateur short film before and didn’t have any formal training in acting because she’s a kid and I needed her to be the lead character in the movie. The whole story is told from Melanie’s point of view, so everybody’s job became about getting this convincing, naturalistic performance from this child.
In a way, that was good because it took any kind of ego out of that equation. Everybody became incredibly supportive and knew that they were on the same mission and could see over the course of the filmmaking Sennia grow from this person who was very uncomfortable and not used to being on set to somebody who could own the screen. I remember at one point, a couple of weeks in, Gemma, Glenn and Sennia were sitting on the side of the set and they were talking about how you cry when you’re acting. They had kind of a cry-off, all trying to get a tear out of their face — and Sennia got there first. It was like, “Alright, we’ve got something now!” [laughs]
I may be wrong about this, but this seemed like the largest-scale project you’ve worked on to date – did it feel any different?
The money was actually quite tight on the film. We made the film for £4.4 million and I think it feels like a bigger movie than that, but it’s not a crazy amount of money more than I’ve had on “Peaky Blinders” or some of the television stuff that I’ve done. But it was very ambitious, so the scale was more within the vision than the budget, and that was quite exciting to do. Everybody on it had some experience with what they were doing and had faith in the project so we were able to do things and be quite bold about some of our creative decisions when it would’ve been easier to maybe compromise. That was gratifying in [seeing] everybody’s willingness and ability to make this thing happen in spite of the circumstances rather than because of them.