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Interview: Alex Macqueen, Oscar Kennedy talk School’s Out Forever

Written by Arthur

Don’t you hate it when the world descends into an apocalypse and the only place you’ve got to go is school? That’s the starting point for School’s Out Forever, a horror comedy coming-of-ager based on novel by Scott K Andrews.

Written and directed by Oliver Milburn, the film follows 15-year-old Lee Keegan, who is expelled from his private school just as a pandemic spreads around the globe. He is given one instruction: go back to school. But safety and security at St Mark’s School for Boys is in short supply. Its high walls can’t stop the parish council from imposing marshal law, while inside the dorms, the end of the world is having a dangerous effect on his best friend – not to mention the teachers who have managed to survive.

Starring Oscar Kennedy (BBC Three’s Ladhood) as Lee and Alex Macqueen (The Thick of It) as Lee’s teacher, Mr Bates, not to mention Anthony Head as the headteacher and Samantha Morton as a militant local politician, the result is a mix between The Lord of the Flies and The Maze Runner, with some Shaun of the Dead thrown in.

With the film out now to buy and rent online, we sat down virtually with Alex and Oscar to talk comedy, horror, surviving the end of the world and what’s on their watchlists:

Alex, were you approached to play Mr Bates?

Alex Macqueen: I was, yeah. Because normally, obviously, you have to sort of go through an auditioning process. And they can be very straightforward. They can be just one audition, and you’ve got a large or small part. But sometimes it can be six or seven months worth auditioning. But in this instance, it was because I worked with the casting director Colin Jones on a previous film called Horrible Histories. So it was an offer and I was very grateful. It was a great, fun shoot.

This is your one of your first forays into kind of horror territory, isn’t it?

AM: I did a film called Slaughterhouse Rulez – I’ve not seen it, but I was on reshoots towards the end. But yes, I have done something involving monsters. I can’t tell you much about it, but there is a link!

There’s a nice thin line between comedy and horror…

OK: They’re always good bedfellows, totally.

The the tone of the film is interesting – it’s dark but also genuinely funny. How much of that was on the page and how much came through when delivering a line?

OK: That’s very much Oliver Milburn, his direction played those notes in a way because as you say, it can be played dreadfully seriously or very funnily. So it was the director’s vision that allowed that combination to work for the best, really. It’s his decision as to how he wants the music, as it were, to be played.

Oscar, your character Lee’s going through this formative trauma – you ground a lot of the film and bring out those serious notes…

OK: Yeah, it was nice to have a big range of stuff to kind of go through – there are the funny moments when he’s hanging around with the lads or, you know, he’s being brought into the headmaster’s office. And then Mr Bates walks in with some unfortunate news for Lee. But it was nice to, you know, do some of the more dramatic stuff.

How did you come to be involved?

OK: I was contacted by an agent, she emailed me a copy of the script, and I read it and instantly wanted to do it. I said to myself there and then, “I’m just going to do anything I can to get this.” I was just constantly asking for feedback with tapes and stuff. I probably got quite annoying!

AM: Which you don’t really get – you’d think we get second or third chances, but it’s very rare. You normally do the tape and then if you’re going to be involved, you hear – and if you don’t, that’s it. You should almost basically put the tape down at the end of the audition, because they’re often done from home now, and just assume you will never hear again! [Laughs] If your agent has, they’re on the phone with you in seconds. Chasing parts is a fool’s errand, I’ve learned that but it’s taken me 20 years to learn it!

Oscar you were on set with Alex, Anthony Head, Samantha Morton – is that intimidating? Exciting? Do you seek out advice on how you’re going to try a line, that kind of thing?

OK: I tend not to kind of quiz people on what, what their opinions are of the best way of doing things. It’s exciting to work with people like Alex and Anthony and Samantha, they’re all amazing what they do and it was such a privilege to work with all of them. But in the same respect, they’re all just people…

AM: Yeah, none of us have got any particular insights, really! It’s just watch people and just steal it from them, really. That’s my advice!

Was there much room for improvising on the set? Or was Oliver guiding the tone very closely?

AM: We shot it a year and a half ago. so I genuinely – I know this sounds nuts – can’t remember the detail of the day to day on set. I have the impression that no, there wasn’t lots. On The Thick of It, you would shoot it then be told to do your own version, but that’s bpartly because it was filmed a s a documentary. With this, there was pressure for time, and Oliver had a very clear vision.

What about you, Oscar?

OK: I would completely agree. I think Oliver knew exactly what he wanted after seven years of working on it. To put in that much time, it would probably be difficult not to know exactly what word you want said where and how. Knowing that you had full kind of trust in his own words. There were certain things like modern maybe modernising a term here or there, but it was a very co-ordinated end of the world.

AM: With a highly, highly engineered structure.

How do you prepare for something something like this? I mean, the film not the end of the world. Do you go back to your own school memories?

AM: I can say that, you know, when I was at school, I was very rarely present in the classroom – my mind was often wandering and this sort of material would have been thrilling to think, “Oh, I’d love one day perhaps if I could take over as headmaster!” That’s where my mind was at.

OK: I think I’m fairly similar to Lee in in my school experience other than, you know, an apocalypse taking place and people trying to kill me – but yeah, I think towards the beginning of the film I share a lot of similarities and probably wasn’t liked by all of my school teachers.

I like the way the script leans into the idea of learning survival tips from your schooldays, whether it’s school, Call of Duty or movies – like turning a deodorant can into a flame thrower.

OK: Yeah, every teenage boy has been on a field somewhere trying that with a can of deodorant!

What would be your your household or classroom weapon of choice in the event of a zombie outbreak?

OK: I don’t BMX or skateboard or anything, but I think a scooter – purely based on the fact of how much damage they can do to your ankles. I imagine that they would be a pretty good defensive weapon, and it’s transport as well.

AM: I’m going to say a race horse – no, a police horse – because they’ve got the build to frighten and to destroy, and the ability to belt away from things. I’m sure that’s not a weapon… [Laughs]

There’s a great line early on, “Can everyone please stop pretending that things are going to get back to normal?” It feels oddly timely now to release this – what’s the past year been like in terms of production for you guys?

AM: The first six months of last year, it was completely shut down. Until the government, I think, put an insurance scheme in place for production companies, there was nothing. So a huge amount was cancelled. But now it’s all restarted. There is stuff happening, not everything – there are various different risk appetites – but I’ve been on a job about Queen Elizabeth I, so I’m filming that at the moment. It’s a very different way of filming, we’re tested for Covid-19 every three days, there’s very little mixing, staff can’t mix on sets or the costume team have to go in to do checks, then leave, then the make-up team, they leave, and so on. So it’s a very different way of working. It’s not as fun because you just don’t have that camaraderie. I barely know who I’m talking to in terms of the crew, because they’ve all got masks on, so it’s an odd experience. But I’m incredibly grateful to the fact that it’s actually occurring at all.

OK: I got some good news that that BBC Three has commissioned Season 2 for Ladhood, so I’ve got that to look forward to!

AM: The most comforting thing about all of this is never actually the work itself. The nicest thing is when you’ve got a job coming up in, say, two months, you can then have these next two months, which are quiet, but just enjoy them knowing that you’ll be able to pay the bills, etc. It’s when there’s nothing on the horizon that’s very chilling. That’s the most difficult part of being an actor. It’s never the acting – that’s frankly, easy, compared to the mental struggle you have to deal with in not working!

OK: I completely agree.

AM: But it’s great that stuff is now definitely occurring.

There are more books in the School’s Out… series – would you return for a follow-up?

OK: I want to see Mr Bates’ experience at St Marks, I can imagine him being a student there.

AM: If there are sequels or prequels, it’d be great to be a part of it because it was a really fun experience. Really nice, ace team, it was great.

What was the last thing you kind of remember seeing in the cinema?

OK: I went to go see Tenet – and then I went and saw it again, claiming that it was just because I was gonna go with my other friend who hadn’t been yet but it was really just to try and actually understand what was going on!

AM: I’ve not been to the cinema for a year and a half, I reckon. I did go to the theatre bizarrely, just before Christmas. The distancing and the tests were all there, but it was great. There was a bar that was operating and it was a it was a charity fundraiser event, but it was packed. It was like, “Oh, great! Things are gonna get back to normal!” And then unfortunately, things didn’t.

What have you been streaming?

AM: I’ve been watching The Dig on Netflix, which I really liked. I watched Get Carter, the old 1971 version. I’ve been watching 1960s things, The Ipcress File and old stuff like that. It’s been great fun and comforting to see the world as it was 50 years ago.

OK: I can’t remember! As soon as I finish watching, obviously, it’s gone out of my head. But the only thing I remember watching recently that’s kind of a series is the Star Wars prequels, which I think are amazing.

How are you finding doing press virtually for a film?

AM: Because everything has been so peculiar, this is not more peculiar or less than anything else! [Laughs] This is a very convenient way of doing it. It’s probably more fun obviously to be with other people. So that aspect of the industry, all the fun of the premieres and screenings, that’s gone and it’ll come back, but this is no more peculiar than the last year really.

OK: This is my normal because I’ve never really done this before! [Laughs] I think if I’m ever given the opportunity to do press when the world kind of gets back to its normal state, I think that will be the weird version of this for me!

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