Not long after 15-year-old Lee Keegan been expelled from his private school than a pandemic spreads like wildfire around the globe in School’s Out Forever. With his father dead and mother trapped abroad, Lee 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 local parish council from forming a militia and imposing marshal law, while inside the dorms the end of the world is having a dangerous effect on his best friend and his unrequited crush on the school nurse isn’t helping him concentrate on staying alive.
Based on the novel by Scott K Andrews, School’s Out Forever has been written and directed by Oliver Milburn and stars Oscar Kennedy (Hunted), Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey), Alex MacQueen (The Inbetweeners), Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Steve Oram (Code 404), Liam Lau Fernandez and Jasmine Blackborow.
We spoke to Oliver about making the film, his love of the books upon which it is based on and working with the young cast…
How did it all begin for you for School’s Out Forever?
It began a long time ago; over ten years ago, when I read the book. I’d just met with the producer of School’s Out Forever, I’d made my grad film at uni with her, and we were looking to make feature-length film, which we did with the abandon of people who have no idea how soul-destroying that would be as as a thing to do with no money [haha]. But we managed to do it and we were lucky enough to get it released in a DVD version in the UK and in America.
We were thinking: ‘Well, what are we going to do next?’ I’d read Scott’s amazing book while I was working part time in a library, and I was like, ‘well, let’s do this’. We sort of thought, ‘oh, we’ll probably be shooting this by this time next year’, and then, ten years of development later, we shoot it [haha]. Then of course, as it happens, it’s ten years of development, and then we happen to shoot it just before a real pandemic, which is very odd!
What was it about the books that inspired you to create a film based on them?
For me, it was the combination of stuff that I liked; it was this bizarre mix of Mad Max and Hot Fuzz or Shaun Of The Dead. It was a post apocalyptic thing, but it was very British. It felt very hyper-real. It felt very believable – just a fun version of an apocalyptic story that I’d never seen before. I [also] liked the use of the virus, rather than zombies or a bomb or anything because it allowed rural England to become the Wild West. Everything wasn’t scorched. There weren’t these zombies everywhere, but there was this lawless land was which was much more sparsely populated, in which you didn’t know how people were going to react or behave. I loved all of that, I love the setting and genre mashup.
Then on a more artistic level, there are loads and loads of books [in the Afterblight Chronicles series], but I love the story of School’s Out because to me, it was a lot about growing up and learning about right and wrong. I’ve made the film more about masculinity and what that is and how I think you develop it.
Where did you shoot School’s Out Forever?
We were based out of Eltham College, which is in South East London – that was all the interiors for the school. Then a couple of days we ventured out to Swanley, in Kent and [the scene] when they sit there on the hillside and look at it through the binoculars is in the town next to it in Eynsford, Kent.
Were there any elements of the books you wanted to make sure you retained for the film?
I thought there was something quite sweet about doing an apocalyptic movie and teen movie but focusing the emotional narrative on a boy missing his parents because I think that’s quite unusual. To have a boy missing his mum, which obviously ties into going to boarding school, but [also] ties into the concept of that detachment from your parents and growing up. This idea that when you grow up, you have to fly the nest and make your own decisions.
I thought that was a really clever way to explore an apocalyptic environment, especially with the overarching feeling of a school, of authority, and the lack of right and wrong. It just tied in really well to me thematically, as a thing that would be fun, but also good to explore. I think that feeling of wanting to stay connected to your parents and feeling the pressure of making the right decisions by them is pretty universal, I think that’s a very relatable thing to have at the core.
School’s Out Forever is a mixture of horror and humour, without going overboard on either – how did you make sure you kept that balanced tone throughout the film?
I take that as a big compliment because that’s what I really love in films. That’s what I will probably always try to do with my films. I mean, obviously, I don’t know what films I’m going to go on and make but I’m not that interested in staying within the boundaries of a specific genre or a tone.
Obviously, there was a big pressure on delivering that because it can just become a mess, and I try very hard not to let it do that. For me, that’s what life is like… it’s tragic one minute and it’s funny another minute. It’s not this constant, stylised thing.
I’m a real planner as a director and I think if you’re doing something more experimental or if you’re doing a kitchen sink drama or even a genre piece that’s more singular in its tone, you have the room to experiment with the actors and with the action [but] if you’re trying to do something like this, where there are a lot of things going on…. I was just very careful to plan and then stick to that plan on set.
People would say to me: ‘You sure don’t want to do it like this?’ and in the maelstrom of tiredness and production and stuff, I would look at my notes and I’d go ‘no, but there’s definitely a reason because I’ve written, I’ve underlined it here that we should do it like this!’ [haha]. Then when you get it all together in the editing, it works. You go, ‘thank God, I did that because I’d forgotten completely at the time what the point of that was!’.
What was it like working with the young cast?
They were amazing. I know every director in every interview says the cast is amazing, but there was something particularly energising about working with such a young, fresh, new cast that had no kind of jadedness. They had no egos really, they were just so up for it.
I’ve seen stunt performers do amazing action, [but with] Liam [Lau Fernandez] and Oscar [Kennedy] (who play the two leads), I’ve never seen two actors throw themselves into action like that. Obviously, we had the stunt coordinator for safety but they just really went for it. Like when they’re running across the courtyard in the final action scene… I mean, I can’t even run that fast when I’m not acting! They were amazing.
The atmosphere in that sense was just great. They were all really up for it. It was really nice to bring a sort of History Boys-esque thing to production. Finding a cast of young, new talent and working with them. It’s my first feature with a budget and it’s their first feature for a lot of them at all. There was a nice feeling of love. We were all learning. I mean, obviously, I was supposed to be in charge, but I was learning as much from them as they were from me!
What can audiences expect from School’s Out Forever?
I want them to be entertained. I don’t consider that a dirty word. I think the film is very entertaining and gripping and it tells a good story. That’s my first priority. Then I suppose secondly, there’s a very subtle level of digging at masculinity. There’s a lot of agenda talking in the public conversation at the moment and obviously, as a person, I can’t talk to what it’s like to be a woman but I can talk to where I think masculinity comes from, which is mostly school I think. Obviously our parents as well but how that develops and how masculinity is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy with characters like Mac (Liam Lau Fernandez). But mostly [I want people] to just have a good time and experience a good story!
School’s Out Forever is available to own on DVD & Blu-Ray from 12 April.