A film lives many lives before it ever hits the screen. A script is usually revised multiple times (sometimes dozens) before a single foot of film is exposed (or the digital equivalent thereof). I’m not just talking about smaller stuff like dialogue polishes and the addition or deletion of scenes. Many times the core story is reworked in profound ways. Sometimes it’s downright shocking how different the final film can be from the initial drafts.
In this new (semi-regular) feature for Bloody-Disgusting, I’m going to take a look at some early drafts of scripts for horror films that you may have already seen and discuss the differences, whether they took a turn for the worse, better or just different. There are also a handful of scripts for sequels and remakes that never happened that are worth checking out – just to see what might have been.
These aren’t script reviews, and only rarely will I be breaking the stories down on a beat-by-beat basis. I’m just going to point out some cool, interesting and/or disastrous choices that happened along the way. Each installment will be different, and each installment will be fun. I’ll also be including sample pages (when available)* so you don’t have to take my word for it!
*This applies only to older and previously released films that are already part of the culture. We’re not in the business of leaking or sabotaging projects in development.
Reese was also kind enough to talk with me a little bit about the differences between the draft we’re looking at today and the finished film as it appeared in 2009 – so you get to hear a lot of this straight from the horse’s mouth. In case you didn’t guess, almost every single word below the jump is a spoiler.
In Zombieland, OCD and high strung Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is paired by circumstance with gun-toting wild man Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) on an eastbound road trip through a zombie infested wasteland. Along the way they encounter a pair of sisters who have survived the onslaught. Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) are more than fairly matched with our heroes as far as wits are concerned, and they very quickly become central characters as this makeshift family tries to carve out some kind of happiness for themselves (and hopefully a Twinkie) in a destroyed world.
It’s actually one of my favorite horror comedies. It has great characters, tons of replay value, plenty of gore and a warm heart. Zombieland was also successful in forging its own tone and identity in a time where seemingly every other horror comedy was aping Shaun Of The Dead (and almost always missing every ingredient that made that film so special).
It also pulls off the neat trick of being both broad and smartly written. Many films settle for just one side of this fence, but for every zombie burping or Deliverance banjo joke, there’s an unexpectedly nuanced character beat. My favorite of these is an incredibly well crafted reveal that manages to render a funny, over-the-top flashback from earlier in the film almost heartbreaking when a key piece of information is changed. It’s always sad to think that Tallahassee lost that cute little puppy, but it provides an incredible amount of pathos and justification to the character’s affectation when you find out the it was actually his son.
That scene is fully intact in the draft we’re talking about today (September 18th, 2007). So is the film’s general tone. But there are many, many differences. For starters, the characters’ names are all different. Columbus used to be Flagstaff, Tallahassee was named Albuquerque and Little Rock once went by the name of Stillwater. Wichita, however, was always Wichita.
This isn’t an uncommon occurrence as films make their way through development, but the fact that the leads are so deliberately (and geographically) named made me wonder if there was something more to the decision.
I asked Reese about this and he responded, “The bulk of the movie was originally set in the desert southwest (Arizona and New Mexico), but we ended up shooting in Georgia for budgetary reasons, and Georgia couldn’t double for the Sonoran desert. So we had to place the early scenes in Texas instead. The characters’ home towns had to change as a result. We got out an road atlas and made it all work. For instance, ‘Flagstaff’ was headed home to begin the movie, but we needed him to travel from west to east, so he became ‘Columbus.’”
Another change in this draft is that we get to see Harrelson and Eisenberg’s characters at their former jobs. In this draft, the Flagstaff/Columbus character is older (late-20’s) than in the film – but his job kind of fits with the image of him that you may have in your head.
Harrelson’s character, on the other hand, takes a pretty humiliating hit that might conflict with your image of the character (it would certainly conflict with how the character sees himself). See below.
While this draft takes the male leads down a notch in regard to their lives before the apocalypse, our heroines are just as smart and resourceful as they appear in the film. Their various schemes (pretending to be bitten, the scam at the gas station) are intact.
As I said earlier, the tone of the script is fairly similar to that of the finished film. The “rules” are all there (albeit some of them differ slightly) as is the quest for the Twinkies. And the deeper stuff is present as well. It’s apparent that Reese and Wernick truly do feel compassion for their creations. If they didn’t, it would be nearly impossible to make fun of them as relentlessly as they do and retain the film’s warmth.
Zombieland was originally going to be a TV Series (and may still become one) so I asked Reese if the big picture of the project had always been the same. “Zombieland’s tone remained consistent from start to finish. The original pilot became the first half (or so) of the movie. When we expanded the pilot to movie length, we simply added plot and resolution. The pilot ended on a cliffhanger; the girls stole the guys’ truck and drove off. So we picked up the story from there, adding various things we’d intended to fill episode 2 of the series.”
Our first major change is the character of “Detroit”, a female On-Star employee whose presence is felt throughout the September 2007 draft as a sort of beacon of hope – hope that something else might be alive out there.
She’s completely absent from the finished film, but her character is intermittently present in this draft in some significant ways.
She’s woven fairly tightly into the story presented in this draft, and the film makes total sense without her. But, according to Reese, her omission was actually very late-stage. “Detroit’s scenes were [actually] shot, but were ultimately cut to the make the movie tighter.”
This brings us to the celebrity “cameo” in the draft. If it can even be really called that. The segment at Bill Murray’s house in Zombieland actually takes up a significant portion of the film’s 88 minute (including credits) running time. It’s almost more of a supporting performance, and it’s a credit to the film that it feels completely organic to the story.
Originally, Reese and Wernick had someone very different in mind. Patrick Swayze. Another legendary badass.
A particularly funny moment has Eisenberg’s character becoming “the Demi” in an iconic clay-molding embrace.
Swayze’s character is already undead and aggressive at the time they arrive in his home. So instead of partying with – and accidentally killing – this guy…
… they have to fight and take down a fully zombified Swayze.
Of course, by the time the film was getting close to pre-production, the severity of Swayze’s illness and diagnosis was well known. The filmmakers never had a chance to really get close to any kind of actualization for the cameo. Per Reese, “Sadly, we never got the chance to talk to Patrick about the role.”
The bulk of Zombieland‘s third act takes place at an amusement park that Stone and Breslin hold as a dear memory from their childhood and have been pining to return to the entire film. Their nostalgia for the park and the lies they tell themselves about it somehow being safe place them in an untenably dangerous situation that Eisenberg and Harrelson must rescue them from.
The idea of a theme park is often referenced between the characters in the September 2007 draft. But they never actually get there. The climax of this script occurs outside a mini-mart on Interstate 10. I asked Reese about the change, “The theme park was our director, Ruben Fleischer’s, idea. It was originally called ‘Thrillville.’ Ruben’s biggest note on the existing script was, we have to make the end bigger and more memorable. So we tried to accomplish that.”
Also, at the end of this draft the gals do the guys one last kindness – toss them a Twinkie – and take off again. I asked Reese if this was a vestigial element of the pilot script and if they were intended to be recurring characters on the show, “Yes, that end was vestigial from the pilot. We decided that the ending needed to see our characters end up together, because there wouldn’t be a later ‘episode’ in which to make that happen. And yes, we intended the girls to be series regulars.”
All in all, this draft feels remarkably similar to the Zombieland we know and love despite some fairly major differences. I tried to think of the element I missed the most, which was fairly easy to pinpoint.
One of the prevalent themes of the finished film is that of family, whether it be blood or makeshift. We love the four leads and are gratified that they at least found each other – and remain together – in this wasteland. That element isn’t as much a part of the text in this iteration.
I asked Reese how they settled on gelling this unit more cohesively, “It just became clear that we had to wrap things up in a tidier fashion, and the best way to do that was to create a ‘family’ – dysfunctional, but still a family.”
Check back in another couple of weeks for the next Script To Scream.
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have GI Joe 2: Retaliation hitting this summer. Reese’s novel, “Anxiety”, whose protagonist at first glance bears some similarities with Eisenberg’s character in Zombieland, can be found here. I’ve only started reading it but I can’t wait to finish.