by Alan McDonald
There’s an inevitability to Anna and the Apocalypse having its UK premiere at EIFF. I remember a meeting, very early on in the film’s development, on a sunny summer’s day in the capital. Ryan McHenry, Anna’s originator, and I hadn’t known each other for very long, but we were becoming good pals as well as co-writers on this mad coming-of-age horror musical. We talked through story ideas, discussed how the songs would work and then lay back on the grass laughing about how loopy and fun the whole thing was. There was also a very funny segue into his night with an inflatable shark full of vodka… but that’s not really for here.
Ryan, still studying in Edinburgh at that point, pointed out how great it would be to go and see our film in one of the big cinemas close by. Now here we are, 7 years later, and Anna is due to debut in the local Odeon, before a wider release across the country (and the world!) this Christmas. Ryan was right.
Sadly, he’s not here to revel in that with the rest of us.
It was an odd thing at first, to be a co-writer on someone else’s idea. I was a High School teacher at the time, working on my own writing projects in whatever spare moments I could scrape together, but was still very raw. A mutual friend recommended me to Ryan, mostly based on my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the fact that I unashamedly loved Glee. I read his first pass at the feature late one rainy night and utterly fell in love with it. A week later I was on the project.
Ryan was a wonderful creative partner, full of visual flair and enthusiasm, and a director to his core. It was his reason for being on the planet. I think that was why we worked so well together – he could see that the way he felt about directing, I felt about writing. We were defined by the passions which chose us and Anna was where those passions met.
When he was diagnosed with cancer and the project paused, I still believed we would be together on the other side of it all, posing stupidly at the premiere. When we lost him in 2015 and it became clear that would never happen, I worried myself sick about how I could carry the story forward alone.
My first solo pass at the script wasn’t received well – too grim, too dark, lacking the optimistic sparkle that had attracted people to the project in the first place. But of course it was. I had lost my writing partner and friend. I was writing about the end of the world and it was hard to find the cheeky smile that had previously leavened the darkness.
But then my wonderful, wonderful collaborators – producers Naysun Alae-Carew and Nic Crum, script development exec Gillian Christie – reminded me of why I had fallen for the project in the first place. The love, the humour, the optimism. And central to that was one particular scene Ryan and I had worked on intensely for a long time.
It’s a scene of two friends talking about their lives and the world… whilst lying out in a park.
If you’re looking out for it, it’s the snow angels scene. The whole film, everything Ryan and I wanted people to feel, is in there. That became my Rosetta Stone, a way back to the joy we can felt creating this story in the first place.
From here, things got better. Naysun and Nic were able to find the money to actually make the thing. Gillian guided me through draft after draft and stopped me from losing my mind along the way. Our phenomenal composers and songwriters, Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, kept cranking out one genius song after another, driving me to make the script as good as their music. Working alongside them to tell our shared story was a massive highlight of the project – I can’t wait to do it again. They are truly the other co-writers of the film.
And then came the missing piece that could have gone so wrong: director John McPhail. Faced with shepherding someone else’s idea to the screen alongside a team which had suffered such a profound loss, and still expected to bring his own vision and flair to the table, John threw himself into Anna’s world. Quickly it was like he had always been there. I’ll always be grateful to him for the kindness he showed me, the access he gave me to the production and the friendship we formed while prepping the script. There’s a whole lot of John in the final film, just as there is of everyone who worked on it.
Because what I have realised across this nutty life-changing journey is that every single one of us has a park story. A moment, a series of moments, that contributed to this beautiful-mad thing we created together. That’s what I think has resonated with audiences across the world, from our breakout debut at Fantastic Fest in 2017, through Sitges and the distribution deals with Orion-MGM and Vertigo. People are at the heart of this movie.
Every department, every individual, gave themselves over to Anna. It’s sad that Ryan never got to meet the tireless crew who would turn his premise into reality. To talk to John about how those wacky action and gore sequences that made Ryan cackle would look like in the end. That he didn’t get to see the electrifying performances of Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Marli Sui, Christopher Leveaux and Ben Wiggins. That he didn’t get to share my thrill in finally meeting Anna herself in the powerful, funny, moving form created by our brilliant Ella Hunt.
That he wasn’t there to see the entire cast and crew see out the wrap party screaming “Hollywood Ending” at the top of our voices on the dance floor. All those people, so in love with this movie.
Anna and the Apocalypse has been around for 8 years of my life. I’ve spent more time with Anna, her friends and those zombies than I have with many people about whom I care deeply. Over this period I have got married, changed career, realised a life-long dream, lost dear friends and family. But one constant through all the turmoil and change was Anna herself…
…and a moment shared by two friends in a park.
Ryan and Anna changed my life. Because of them, and everyone else who helped get this story to the screen, I get to tell stories for a living, just like I always wanted to. And how beautiful that we get to introduce it to our home country at EIFF in sunny Edinburgh, where so many of those early chats took place.
I hope you enjoy the movie. It was made with love and optimism in the face of great challenges and disappointments. It’s the lasting legacy of a wonderful person whose trust helped me to realise my own dreams, even when he didn’t quite get to realise his own. It’s a story that says bad things will always find us but we have to find a way through it all with our hope intact.
We have to appreciate those days in the park.