GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH OLIVER MILBURN
Based on the novel from the long running Afterblight Chronicles series, School’s Out Forever brings the plague ravaged world and its survivors to the screen, telling the story of Lee, a teenager who finds himself taking shelter at a boarding school that comes under violent threat as society begins to crumble all around him. Written and directed by Oliver Milburn the film is also the first release from Rebellion, the British video game company and publishers of 2000AD who are now looking to bring their extensive stable of game and comic properties to the screen. Oliver, whose credits also include VFX for the French and British co-production of WAR OF THE WORLDS and PARTICK MELROSE, discusses his long journey of adapting SCHOOL’S OUT FOREVER and its spookily timely arrival to the screen.
FRIGHTFEST: When did you start filming School’s Out Forever and did you ever imagine it being released at a time like this with such an eerily familiar setting?
OLIVER MILBURN: No! We started filming in the summer of 2019, and it was a four or five-week shoot in the summer of 2019. It was a very self-contained shoot really, and then post-production was going on when the coronavirus hit and ironically halted production for quite a while. You would think that post-production would be the bit you could do remotely, but it was in that early stage where no one was expecting it. We hadn't figured out all the systems to do remote editing and remote sound work, so we had to shut down which obviously while working on this film was strange. It is wild that what is going on is going on because we started developing the film ten years ago with the vague idea that a pandemic could become an apocalyptic event but obviously with no idea about what would happen. Coincidence is almost too small a word for it.
FF: Did it ever give you pause to hold back on the release, to wait until this was over?
OB: I thought about it. To be honest, that kind of decision would not be in my hands anyway because whilst you direct a film you don't own it unless you happen to have paid for it yourself. I hope that no one thinks we're making fun of the tragedy occurring now in the real world, but I believe that the film is kind of detached itself enough in its scenario. The only corollary is that A, it is a virus that is a bit like the flu but is a much worse scenario and B, the tone is such we're not using it for voyeuristic thrills about people getting viruses and being ill. That's very much a background to the story itself. I hope that nobody is offended by it.
FF: How did you come to the world of Afterblight, the series of books from which School's Out Forever is part of?
OB: It was as simple, as I was studying at film school with my producer Emma Biggins I was working part-time in a library and I found the book and I love reading and thought this looks good, and I read it. We had worked on many projects over the years, but back then, I must have been 23, handed it to Emma, said: "This would make a good film one day." And she agreed. We bought the rights to it from Rebellion that long ago, just the option rights so year on year nobody else could make it. Given where we were as people there was very little chance of making it then, but we just kept developing the script, kept trying to get it made and eventually we did as you say with curious timing!
FF: Of all of the books, why choose School's Out to adapt?
OB: As it happens, it was the first one I read, but also I think it resonates with me as a story much more than the others because it is very relatable. I didn't go to boarding school or private school, but I certainly recognise the feeling of developing your group of friends there and that affecting your decisions. I like the story because although it has this hard-edged apocalyptic skin on the outside, its core is very soft. It is about a boy missing his mum. That is what drives a lot of Lee's decisions, and I found that quite a beautiful and soft thing to put at the centre of this film. It is not something at the centre of many teen films and is worth exploring because I think we can all relate to that because even as adults we all miss our parents; it is a universal thing. That was what stood out for me, the setting of this one was so relatable and so exciting. It was such a fantastic way to explore that apocalyptic environment.
FF: The characters are very well written and well rounded, especially the villains. Were there any real-life or fictional inspirations for them?
OB: I am glad you feel that way because this is not to dump down on the book I loved, so I wanted to make it into a film, but they are more archetypal in the book. In the sense that Mack is a bully from the start, Lee does not like him because he is one of the nerdier kids. So, we made that change for that reason. I think it is as you say particularly with the character of Mack, I knew people like that at school, and there is something about a figure like that, a sporty all-star figure that everyone loves where even if they are a bully when you are in their beam, in their favour, when they are talking to you and joking around with you it can be quite an intoxicating feeling.
I am sure people have that feeling about Trump when you are in their tractor beam it is like wow you are funny and likeable. I remember distinctly at school thinking that about some people and then later being either bullied by them or falling out with them or whatever then thinking that you’re a dick. It is that contradiction to paint them too simply is a lie as to how it feels to be at school.
With Samantha Bond's character, I always try to have villains that I don't think that anyone is evil intentionally. I know that I am not the first person to observe that, not some great insight. Still, I believe it is essential to take that when you write a character and always find a reason to why they are doing what they are doing which in her case I think is very understandable if slightly psychopathic in the way she goes about it.
FF: The class system in the school seems to be a part of the story here. Is that an aspect that interested you from the beginning, and is that something you want to explore further in the future?
OB: Very much so. I think that with anything British I think it is hard to ignore. There was no greater lie told than "we are a classless society". We are so inherently a class-based society; it is just not explicit anymore. Just look at who is in power in this country and what schools they attended. There is no pretending that it is an open society with equal opportunities for all. I think that is at the heart of anything British, and it is something that I will always explore. I believe that coming from somewhere in the middle, not specifically middle class but state-educated but also not from poverty and feeling like a mongrel right in the middle of all of that. It is interesting to observe those types of people and how they respond to each other. I think a lot of that is at the core of Lee's character. Compared to the book we invented the fact that he was expelled and that he was a scholarship student because I thought that made him a more interesting cypher to be caught in the middle of all these different voices saying how things should be.
FF: I was surprised at how dark the film was. Was there anything that you had to tone down or cut out?
OB: Intentionally it is a very multi-tonal film. I wanted it to go from the first scene with Anthony Head in the office to be quite funny with a sense of fun and take this gradual downhill trajectory with little spikes of humour to get to this very dark place. There is one sequence where we had to cut some grimmer stuff in terms of cutting stuff out. In the book, there is a rape sequence which we didn't include in the film but we sort of alluded to a little bit with Claire being tied to the bed and the boys taking her into the shower. It's not much, but there is a slight suggestion verbally that they might do something like that. There was also an extended section where someone's hand is put on her throat, that just went on a little longer. We cut it as a group, with Rebellion, deciding that it just was not necessary. You get the point of what will happen, and it just confused matters, so it wasn't so much a case of being censored as a case of censoring ourselves. You sit there with a sequence in an edit, and you see a spectrum of how dark it can be and, in that case, we decided it didn't need to go right to the end. It made its point without it.
FF: How did you get the cameos from Anthony Head and Steve Oram?
OB: With Steve Oram, who is a lovely, lovely man, and a dedicated actor, he just wants to see good stuff being made. He came and did a promo for us. We shot an earlier version of all the things at Lee's house before he comes to the school as a proof of concept for Rebellion. And Steve came and played the dad. In that case, all that required him to do was lie on a sofa dying because that is all he does in those bits. He liked the script, and it was to prove that we could get some names and he very kindly came and of course when the whole film came around, we cast him as Lee's dad. And with Anthony Head, he just liked the script and agreed to do it, and it was a joy to work with him.
FF: Can you say what you have planned next?
OB: I am working with Emma Biggins, the producer, on several scripts. I have got something ready that we will eventually take on. Still, I am particularly hoping to work with Rebellion again on something soon, but I couldn't possibly say what that is. It's so cool to have a British stall like that, there is great stuff in there, and they have got many people working on it, but I look forward to it whatever it is.
School's Out Forever releases on digital download on 15th February and is available on DVD & Blu-ray on the 12th April