I interviewed Mike Carey, writer of zombie film The Girl With All The Gifts, for The Quietus website…
Zombies, the undead, the living dead, the damned, walkers, biters, rotters, PDS sufferers… and now ‘hungries.’ We’re obsessed with walking corpses – or at least writers of books, screenplays and graphic novels (and Mike Carey is all three) are. The human race is simply too important to stay dead, and our obsession with death makes zombies all the more appealing as a narrative device; as a threat, an opportunity, a monster, a mirror. Of course there were a few B.R (Before Romero) zombie movies, but he was the one to hit upon a craze and run with it, turning Night of the Living Dead into a franchise, infecting cinema, TV and video games with shambling, brain-hungry, flesh-poor creatures. But audiences get bored easily, so they mutated. Now zombies can run, become pets, some can think or fall in love, some even co-exist with ‘normal’ humans. Creepy video games like The Last of Us have even created sub-species of zombie and, like us, they come in all shapes and sizes. In Carey’s deliciously dystopian future Britain, they look like kids.
The Girl With All the Gifts started out as a 36-page short story in a 2012 anthology edited by Charlaine Harris (of Sookie Stackhouse fame) and Toni LP Kelner, which Carey then developed into a best-selling novel. It follows a young, second-generation zombie girl called Melanie, who’s grown up in a high-security facility under the watchful/fearful eyes of soldiers and scientists, and under the tutelage of a kindly teacher named Miss Justineau. When the facility is overrun by hungries (though in the novel it’s ‘junkers’ – scavenger folk who live by their own laws), Melanie, her beloved teacher and a few lucky others hit the road and must survive in what seems like a doomed world. The Quietus had a few minutes to pick the brains of the man that created this dark and brutal world…
You’ve written for DC/Vertigo and Marvel, you’ve written books and now screenplays. How do these formats compare?
Mike Carey: I think writing comics probably improved my visual storytelling, but the first screenplays I wrote were basically comic strips that I called screenplays! The two things work in really different ways even though the scripts look similar. Comic-book storytelling can be very discursive and it doesn’t matter how long the script is – I mean look at Alan Moore’s, they’re as long as novels – and it’s fine for the writer to do that and over-specify for the artist, but you can’t do that in a screenplay. You have to work in a more imagistic way, a less prescribed way. And writing a screenplay is more collaborative than writing a novel – when you write a novel you go into a room and live with it for nine months and nobody bothers you until you’re done. In movies every stage is overseen and there are regular conversations with all the stakeholders.
In adapting your own book for the big screen, did you have a say in casting?
MC: Camille Gatin, the producer, kept me in the loop with the casting and we talked about it, but I didn’t have direct input. But I was very, very excited as the cast firmed up – in many ways it was a dream cast. It’s hard to think of a better set of actors to incarnate those roles.
With Glenn Close as Dr Caldwell, Paddy Considine as Sgt Parks, Gemma Arterton as Miss Justineau, and newcomer Sennia Nanua as Melanie, who surprised you the most?
MC: Sennia surprised me, for sure! It’s an awful lot to ask of a 12-year-old girl, because you have to love Melanie and be concerned about her – our emotional engagement is essential. She has to be a character you can warm to, but then she also has to be quite scary and alienating at different points as well. I think being able to hold those two different aspects of her nature in balance is really hard, and Sennia manages brilliantly.
Melanie is definitely an interesting character and it’s refreshing to see a young girl as the protagonist. Do you think audiences now expect to see alternative heroes, e.g. an anti-hero, a monster, strong females?
MC: Actually, the reason Melanie is a young girl is because when I came to write the story I was coming off two collaborations with my wife and daughter and I was in a certain space, and it seemed interesting to carry on in that space. I wanted to write a story that centred on relationships between female characters. And I think it is easier now to tell stories with female protagonists; there’s a shift going on in perceptions, which is a positive thing.
Essentially, Melanie is a monster, and in the movie you manage to pull us in different directions with regards to who to root for…
MC: The conceptual core of the story is that you have a monster who’s also an innocent. I think that lurking in the DNA of The Girl With All the Gifts [GWATG] is Frankenstein. Mary Shelly’s monster is only a monster because of the appalling way he’s treated by his creator, and it’s a novel that looks at the relationships in society between the young and the old, the rich and the poor and the various ways we’re responsible for each other’s moral development.
Was it a deliberate device to have the adult characters represent authority in three different ways; the army guy, the scientist, the teacher?
MC: Yes, in the end you judge all of the adult characters by their ability – or inability – to see the human in Melanie, to respond to her as a person. In a way, the logic of that relationship determines all their fates. From the beginning it was a story where the apparent monster is not the real monster, and in the end you’re invited to decide for yourself who the monsters actually are.
I hear Joss Whedon is a fan of GWATG.
MC: [Laughs] Joss Whedon tweeted about the novel, he described it as ‘a little bit perfect’! I was sitting at home on a Sunday night and my phone was on the sofa next to me and it started to vibrate violently, and did so throughout the rest of the evening as friends contacted me to say ‘check out what Joss Whedon’s just said about you.’
So is there a collab on the cards?
MC: Oh, I would love that so much! We’re very much a Joss-friendly household. We’ve been with him through Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse and Agents of Shield and all the Avengers movies… Actually Buffy is a great example of a strong female protagonist, she paved the way.
Speaking of likes, do you watch/read a lot of zombie-related material? What were your influences for this story?
MC: I watch a lot of horror, sci-fi, fantasy – it’s my comfort zone. As a writer, I discovered a long time ago that I can’t write realist fiction, when I try it doesn’t come out right, it sort of feels like I’m painting in monochrome. There has to be some element of the fantastic about it, and what I watch and read for pleasure is in that same vein. My biggest influence in terms of zombie narratives is 28 Days Later – a brilliant film. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel though. Zombieland is pretty amazing. Warm Bodies did something bold and original and unexpected with the genre clichés. I mean, writing in genre is all about taking a set of expectations and tropes and then doing something with them that audiences haven’t seen before.
Where do you think the zombie genre is shuffling to next?
MC: I think the zombie genre is evolving, I think what we’re seeing now is ‘second-stage zombie.’ The canonical texts are all about when the world changes, and when the zombie apocalypse happens, the impact it has on a group of protagonists. But now we’re seeing more and more stories that take that stuff for granted – the zombie apocalypse is happening in the background and something else is happening in the foreground. For example, there’s a Scandinavian short called The Unliving where zombies are being used like robots, as factory workers with chips in their brains. The Death House by Sarah Pinborough looks at the possibility of living with infection and what that does to you psychologically. So yeah, I think the genre is still evolving and it’s doing so in really exciting ways, going from sort of big, broad-strokes storytelling to smaller, intimate, human stories.
Why are we so obsessed by dystopian stories right now? It seems everywhere you look the world is ending…
MC: I think the world is ending! People are fascinated by end-of-the-world stories when their own lives feel precarious. I think that’s part of it. But I think that in a time when the pressures of life feel very intense and a lot of people are living with degrees of uncertainty, stress and unhappiness, end-of-the-world narratives can feel like a holiday. If the zombie apocalypse really did happen then a lot of the things that worry you now would cease to matter – you wouldn’t have to worry about jobs and mortgages and all the things that make life complicated. All it would come down to is surviving. There’s something appealing about that I think… in a weird way.
So what is humanity’s only hope?
MC: I’m not sure we have a hope. I don’t think we’re facing an extinction event but I think this global civilisation that we’ve built – which is like this vast, complicated, fragile machine with a million parts – is gonna fall apart. Not within our lifetime, maybe not within our children’s lifetimes, but within the next century or so. And the people who survive will live in a very different world.
Yikes. Assuming that we do have a future, what are your next projects?
MC: My new novel is called The Boy on the Bridge and it takes place 10 years before GWATG. It’s a completely different cast in the same world but it’s filling in some of the back-story, and changes the way we might view things that happened in GWATG. I’m also working on a lot of screenplays at the moment, including a movie based on [his latest novel] Fellside. And I’m still doing comics because that’s were where I started, and I never want to completely lose contact with that world, so I’m working on a book called Highest House with artist Peter Gross, which comes out in January.
The Girl With All the Gifts is in UK cinemas from Fri 23 Sep
View the feature online here.