The central conceit about the struggle between being innocent and being a monster, in much the same kind of way as what Frankenstein’s monster represents, was the narrative we wanted to investigate.
Colm McCarthy’s ambitious second feature The Girl with All the Gifts opens in disorientating fashion as we see a young girl being restrained at gunpoint—face mask and all, like a diminutive Hannibal Lector—before being wheeled off to a dystopian classroom by military personnel. This is our introduction to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), one of many other seemingly normal but shackled children whose confinement deep inside an underground bunker is at first entirely inexplicable.
A strange variant of a fungal infection has reduced humanity to ravenous zombies—or rather, “hungries,” as they’re called here—that are thrown into teeth-chattering frenzy at every blood opportunity. But these children, discovered as newborns at the outbreak’s onset, are unlike other “hungries.” Despite feral hunger—Melanie eats a cat, blacking out like a Trainspotting junkie—they show partial immunity to the pathogen. Their cognitive skills are intact. They express human qualities, like emotional warmth. Now they’re locked up, holding the key to unlocking a cure.
When the army base is besieged by hordes of “hungries”—in a rather spectacular way—Melanie is smuggled out by a tense, bickering trio of archetypes: a dangerously affectionate teacher/mother figure (Gemma Arterton), a morally suspect sergeant (Paddy Considine) and a single-minded mad scientist (Glenn Close), who’s forever itching to wield a scalpel to our hero as she ever so closely nears a vaccine. Melanie gains the trust of this warring rag-tag group of uninfected humans as a scout, engineering distractions to clear their path through a derelict and overgrown London.
On this journey, Melanie’s true nature is always questioned, fought over and gradually revealed. The threat within her is always present just beneath the surface. She learns from those around her, for better or worse, and as her awareness blooms, so does the scope of the film. As she grows more confident in her understanding of the threat around her, she begins to take control in ways her human sidekicks can’t anticipate, and her defiance creates a complicated moral base for the story.
The Girl with All the Gifts is in select theaters and available On Demand on February 24.
Hi, Colm. How are you doing, and what are you doing?
I’m doing well. I’m just up in Glasgow right now. I’m in my car on the way to the airport.
The Girl with All the Gifts is great fun. You started this journey after reading Mike Carey’s short story, which expanded into a novel and a feature film simultaneously. Did you know what Mike was planning to do with the novel, as much as the screenplay, from the get-go?
What happened was that Mike had already been thinking about writing a novel and we both loved the short story. The initial development conversations we had together was the starting place for both the novel and the film. We put our first treatment together for the film in trying to get some development funding to pay Mike to write it, and while that was getting processed, he started working on the novel. So that initial treatment was Mike’s foundation for the novel in a “I’m keen to get on with it” kind of way. Once the funding came through and before we started working on a draft for the screenplay, we revisited the treatment and talked about some things that we wanted to change for the film. I guess that was the point at which the genesis separated. Mike was very much into both processes because it gave him an opportunity to explore the original conception of the novel and the more collaborative nature of the screenplay to be told within a cinematic context.
What were some of those bigger changes that you wanted to make for the film initially?
The big differences came quite early on. Films usually work when there’s a central protagonist and you tell a story predominantly from their point of view, so we made a decision to make Melanie the central voice. That was probably the biggest initial change, while other things happened as we moved along. I actually haven’t read the novel yet, which is something that I promised to do as soon as we finished the film. But I wound up getting Krypton and went off to work on the pilot straightaway, which overlapped with the process of mixing The Girl with All the Gifts. I’m still looking forward to having that quiet bit of time where I can sit down and enjoy the novel and kind of see the different paths that Mike went down with it. I’m sure, given Mike’s genius, it’s brilliant.
Although it’s widely recognized as a zombie film, at least for the sake of easy categorization, it’s a character study with a lot to say about human nature. How did you decide what to embrace and to leave behind in terms of the tropes we’re all so used to seeing in that genre?
It’s funny because a lot of people do ask about that in terms of how to use the genre or something. The central conceit of the very opening of the film and the story, which is about the struggle between being innocent and being a monster, in much the same kind of way as what Frankenstein’s monster represents, was the narrative we wanted to investigate. We were able to reinforce that by enjoying some of the familiar territory found in zombie films, where we get to see monsters be monsters, in order to cast light on Melanie’s unusual predicament in the film. So the tropes were useful from that point of view and also useful for scenes in the film that are obviously meant to be scary. But, as you say, it wasn’t really the fundamental thing that the film was about, if you like.
It’s a great set-up because Melanie creates so much tension in the group. You bring up Mary Shelley’s Frankensten, where the monster is a monster only at the hands of its evil creator. It calls to mind AI. Despite her sincerity, there’s a fear that Melanie might know too much.
Absolutely! It was definitely something we thought about. We talked about, well, what is it that makes us human? Is it genetic makeup? Is it the physical dangly bits? Is it the ideas, the poetry, the storytelling, and the music? I think AI is quite likely to be the next step in our evolution. The real evolution for humanity would be the continuation of that consciousness and of that shared knowledge and culture, rather than the continuation of—we’re physically, incredibly different to what any people were like 10,000 years ago. They were all short! [Laughs] For a start, you know?
There are many references to gods and mythology. One of my favorite lines in the film is when Justineau says, “She looks at me like I’m Jesus.” I wonder if much of that’s in the book.
I don’t know, but I do know that a lot of the storytelling came out of the original short story. One of the things that we were interested in and definitely talked about together was the idea that storytelling has a sort of value in the evolution and understanding of people. I’ve always been a massive Neil Gaiman fan. One of the things that I loved in my own musings on The Sandman is this idea that stories and dreams are related in a fundamental way. People individually dream to sort out their consciousness and maybe society, or humans together, have stories that function in a similar way for the larger spectrum of people outside the individual person, if that makes sense.
In one interview, you talked about a parasitic fungus that’s known to borrow inside the bodies and minds of ants to control and wipe them out. I had remembered seeing that on Planet Earth. That was a visual reference point in your world-building for the “hungries”?
Definitely! Very early on, Mike had the short story and the thing I brought to the conversations was a real desire to build a world—not a world at the point of a zombie outbreak—that had been taken over for a long time. When Mike talked about Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, [Camille Gatin, the producer, and myself] had the same reaction. We’d seen that video clip of the ants somewhere. One of the great things about that is seeing these weird spores bursting out of the ants. It was this sense of nature overcoming, like, the flora overcoming the fauna. That plays into the idea of urban exploration and a derelict world reclaimed by nature. It was definitely a big thing we were looking for. We wanted to find real derelict spaces that weren’t lush, but shockingly overwhelming in the way that they’re presented. Then with the “hungries,” we looked at a lot of real fungal infections. People know about athlete’s foot, but there are really hideous whole-body fungal infections that we’ve mostly gotten control of in this part of the world and occasionally see images of from the developing world where they’ve been allowed to run riot. They really are pretty gross. [Laughs]
In my research, I found it interesting that Melanie is blonde and blue-eyed in the novel. This is all the more noticeable in the film because we see her in a classroom full of kids that are otherwise white male. Also, Justineau is black in the novel. Were these changes you made?
They weren’t is the short answer. [Laughs] Quite early on, I asked there to be no references to ethnicity in the script and we adopted a process of casting that was color-blind. Mike had made a decision in the book about the ethnicities of his characters. The only character that was ever referred to in any draft of the script by color was Melanie, who was mentioned as being “pale-skinned,” and I asked that to be taken out. We saw and considered actors of all different ethnicities for every part. That was quite important to me. In development from early on, we wanted to be different in our approach to gender politics of the storytelling. Similarly, I wanted to have a casting process that was going to be as ethnically diverse as possible. I don’t think race is, especially in the context of a world turned upside down and ten years after the event of a holocaust incident, how relationships are forged or based on who you are in that situation. But I did find out about the racial thing because people responded on the Internet about it. It’s very difficult to have a talk with the public about the casting process on a film work because it’s disrespectful to the actors that have been chosen and are in the movie. I never made a decision to specifically change anybody’s race.
It’s interesting that you bring up the kids in the classroom as well because exactly 50% of the kids were female. It’s just that all prepubescent children, when you cut their hair short, look like boys. That’s what we do. [Laughs] Everyone thinks the first kid who freaks out in class is a boy. She was much younger than most of the other kids. When we did the initial casting and physical workshopping to identify the “hungry” behavior, she was the best at the biting and we picked her. Unfortunately, because she got the haircut, everyone assumes she’s a boy. I think it says quite a lot about how we perceive gender as a society: all it takes is a haircut for little girls to become boys.
The ending hints at a potential sequel. Mike has also since written The Boy on the Bridge, a prequel novel due this May. Have you expressed interest in adapting it for the big screen?
We’ve discussed other film projects in this realm, actually. Mike, Camille, and I have two other projects now that got more exciting for us to talk about. At the moment, the idea of doing a prequel or a sequel is a little bit further away than the other things we’re working on. But it’s not something I’d be against doing. There’s actually a sequel short story—top, top secret—that nobody has read apart from Camille, Mike and myself. It’s a cool story, but not really a film in and of itself.