In theaters February 1 from Summit Entertainment is Warm Bodies, a new kind of zombie film from All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and 50/50 director Jonathan Levine.
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, John Malkovich and Analeigh Tipton, “The story centers on an existentially tormented zombie who begins an unlikely friendship with the girlfriend of one of his victims and starts a chain reaction that will transform him and his fellow zombies.”
Back in October of 2011 I visited the set in Montreal and really dug what I saw. I’ve been a fan of Levine’s work for some time, but have to admit that I was iffy on this particular concept. But between reading the book and seeing what the cast and crew were up to, I’m very optimistic that this movie will be a lot of fun. Plus, I got to be a zombie (along with several other journalists)!
Head inside for Part One of my set report (if you’ve already read it, here’s Part Two)…
Someone asks, “In a vampire story the romance is more obvious, there’s something erotic about biting someone’s neck. Eating brains is less erotic…”
Nicholas Hoult smiles, “You haven’t seen how I eat brains.”
Directors, of course, say this all the time. After every take of every scene. Nothing unusual. What is unusual is hearing it and knowing that it was you who screwed up.
To be fair, it wasn’t just me who played the scene wrong. Several of my fellow journalists are guilty as well, not to mention most of the army of extras behind us. But we should take it easy on ourselves. After all, we’re zombies. We’re supposed to be slack and slouching, but in this case we’re preparing to fend off a horde of “Boneys” (extra mean and extra dead zombies to be added later in post-production) and we’re not used to this whole business of crouching down to be ready for a fight.
Rob Corddry, who plays ‘M’ in the film, turns around and cracks up at the sight of us. It’s all good though, because we’re being directed by the relaxed and capable Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane). Earlier in the day we’d spent over half an hour with him going over the genesis of the film and his infectiously funny and genuine energy had already seeped in, so we’re in good hands.
Levine approaches his AD, the fellow in charge of corralling us undead, and tentatively reenacts what there was too much of in the last take – and it looks not unlike a slow-motion, vampy crouching ‘jazz hands’. The AD lets us know that we’re free to play it more “realistic” in the next take, and by the third time the camera finishes rolling we’ve gotten close enough to what they need.
But the day’s not over yet (nor has it just begun). Our time in the semi-defunct Montreal stadium will be one long 11 hour blur of makeup, “acting” and talking to the real talent behind Warm Bodies . Based on the surprisingly emotionally engaging and lyrical book by Isaac Marion, the film is understandably being positioned by Summit as the next Twilight. But with the talent involved (and the superior source material), it has the potential to be a lot more.
Nicholas Hoult plays ‘R’, a zombie who falls in love with Theresa Palmer’s ‘Julie’ after consuming the brain of her (very recently deceased) boyfriend ‘Perry’ [Dave Franco]. Corddry plays ‘M’, R’s sidekick and simultaneous “best friend and worst enemy.” The premise sounds a bit ridiculous, no? I thought so too. But after checking out the book and seeing Levine and his actors in action I’m confident that this tonally tricky piece of material could actually emerge as a fun and poignant spin on the zombie genre.
Why Levine? After the critical success of 50/50 why would he be attracted to this almost teen-centric journey inside the mind of the undead? “Summit had the book and I’d wanted to do a movie with them for a while. They were fans of ‘The Wackness’, this was before I did ’50/50’. And so I read the book and I just fell in love with the world and the ideas of it and the characters. It’s not something I ever really imagined myself doing but it was very specific to these characters and specific to this world that there was an opportunity to create something unique that I don’t think you get to do much in movies these days on this scale.”
Or to hear producer Bruna Papandrea tell it, “I love the way Jonathan grounds his humor, which is a super important element. The fact that he’s a brilliant writer is a huge plus, so obviously when he came in and pitched his take, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
The morning started with us being shuttled in a van from our hotel to the stadium. From there we were guided into the hands of our makeup artists and through three separate processes – makeup, hair and dirt. I actually found the whole thing rather pleasant. I’d heard horror stories about spending hours upon hours under piles of latex, but here we weren’t doing any prosthetic work. So what could have been an epically miserable experience was instead a quick and efficient 90 minutes or so in the makeup chair (and being pelted on the dirt mat).
From there we are loaded onto golf carts and herded down to set. Jonathan Levine is about an 1/8th of a mile down the concourse directing Nicholas Hoult and Theresa Palmer through a small, quiet moment that leads up to the bigger scene we’re doing later in the day. We’re settled in sort of a secondary makeshift video village and, before I can really get a bead on what’s happening on the monitors, a small twenty-something makeup girl sits in front of me and starts re-touching my makeup. Apparently there has been a slight communication issue with some of the new makeup artists brought on set to handle all of the extra zombies and I have way too much blood oozing from my nose. Zombies don’t bleed so this needs to be fixed.
After watching Levine work for a bit we are guided into our makeshift press room for the day – a small ticketing booth right off the stadium’s interior concourse. It is here that we are greeted by a zombified Rob Corddry for the first time, looking vaguely normal in slacks and a sports coat but most definitely dead. Even though they’re a month deep into shooting he seems to be in high spirits.
It is indeed an unusual situation. A corpse being interviewed by a group of corpses. It looks and feels weird, to say the least. But we all proceed as if it’s business as usual. What makes it especially unusual for me is that my temporary personal makeup artist has followed me into the interview. Many of the journalists on the trip will be right in front of the camera and it seems as though my veins lack camera-ready nuance. If you’ve never been a part of an undead roundtable while having makeup applied, well… it’s bizarre.
So what’s his character’s trajectory in the story? “I play ‘M’ and like most best friends in movies, he is the guy that is there to at first to be sort of the foil to the main character. To support him and yet also be his worst enemy. To remind him that there is a ticking clock and we have to get to the 3rd act. And generally act as the opposite to the main character. The only difference is, in this movie, I mainly do that mostly with grunts.”
The whole concept that Zombies have best friends and personal relationships, we’ve never explored that before. “Yeah! The way I wrapped my head around that was I guess because ‘R’ and I, ‘R’ is like the most advanced zombie, are sort of coming out of it. And I’m sort of in the next wave, that we must have some kind of feeling for that kind of thing instinctively. But also in the book, my character is a sex fiend. He tries to have sex with women in a bathroom and like just bumps up against them naked. You’re definitely going to want to put that in your [piece]. Summit’s gonna love that. It’s not in the movie. So they do, they don’t remember, but they have some kind of gut instinct for what it’s like to be human. Ultimately it’s frustrating for them. They don’t really remember what it is, but they do follow these patterns. For instance, I don’t know if we’re going to do this but I suggested to Jonathan that when we first meet my character, he’s just standing and staring at the airport bar. Because he just knows that this is somehow very significant to him at some point in time. So he just sits there and stares and tries to figure it out. We haven’t shot that scene yet, Jonathan goes ‘That’s a great idea. It’s probably about a $25,000 idea’. Because we have to build the bar. So we’ll see exactly how much he liked it.”
What’s the physicality of ‘M’? Is he shambling? Is he running? Is he limber? Is he falling to pieces? “It’s interesting because you, and you guys will be faced with this later today, you don’t want to be the George Romero Zombie with their arms out and they can’t bend their knees. But also don’t want to be the ’28 Days Later’ rage virus zombies because they’re just like wild animals. It’s sort of somewhere in between. It’s really like, they don’t feel pain, right? They don’t feel really anything. So just imagine what your body would feel like if you couldn’t feel anything. You’re not going to spend too much time, we spend so much time holding up our shoulders and making sure that we’re breathing. We don’t even do it consciously. So they’re just pretty slack, everything’s kind of slack in the face. And, if anything, the two choices I made – one is motivated, one is not – because I tend to walk duck-footed in life, I just made ‘M’ very pigeon-toed and that alone changes my entire kind of body language. So that was kind of enough.”
Did you go through any major effects or makeup besides what you have on now? “No, not really. See because this is a move and I’m so godd*mn pretty. I’m so pretty that they wanted to retain this. Because this right here is the money [he points to his face]. You can’t scratch it up because the girls will be like “nuh-uh. No. Where’s the Rob Cordry we’ve come to be slightly repulsed by?”
Was there any type of zombie training camp or school? “Yeah actually. Nick and I spent an afternoon with this guy from Cirque Du Soleil and we kind of bounced around a room about this size for a couple hours and then went outside and ran. Because zombies can run. When we’re looking for food, they run. He actually helped me a lot. He had us lean up against a wall and sort of put all our weight on the wall and then sort of pull yourself slooowwly off the wall, [French accent] ‘As if the wall is giving birth to you”. It really appealed to my pretentious college theater training. And then we just walked around, stared at each other and grunted for a few hours.”
You seem pretty well informed about the Romero zombies and the ‘28 Days Later’ zombies. Are you a zombie guy? “Very much. Very much so. Before I even got this movie I was very fond of saying I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad zombie movie. And, really I’m hard pressed to think of one. Even the bad ones are pretty great I like all the ‘…Of The Dead’ movies. I like all of them. Even the worst George Romero one is the one that’s like in the 70’s with the army. It’s ‘Day Of The Dead’ and even ‘Day Of The Dead’ it’s like, ‘bright’. It’s daytime. It’s not his best but it’s still great. Oh and I’d have to say I think that the first ones I ever saw were those mid-80’s kind of comedic, campy zombie movies -”
Return Of The Living Dead? “’Return Of The Living Dead’.”
Jonathan Levine has some comedy chops and obviously you’re a comedian, how comical does this film get? “It’s less of a comedy than I thought it was, to tell you the truth. Like any good script it has its funny moments so it’s not just a dirge all the time. Dirge and romance. And my character is largely I guess at times the comedic relief. But that’s being very generous to say. I would say that it’s only funny in the way that a lot of these kinds of movies are. Like, young kind of romance. That’s what it is. Young romance with this kind of elemet to it.”
In the book ‘M’ was a sex fiend. Do zombies get boners? “Do I think zombies can get boners? Uh, no. Absolutely not. But I think that towards the end of then movie when they start becoming more human, I think ‘M’ is probably the first to experience one.”
What about the scene we’re doing today? What’s ‘M’s role in that? “Yeah, this is sort of my action badass scene. Which I love. I’ve got a couple of those, [Eastwood voice] ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll go get ‘em” type of lines! And, ‘Take care of the girl I’m gonna go kick some ass”! I’ve got a couple of those lines in the movie and today I’ve got two of them. So that’s what I’m doing today. I’m being a badass zombie.”
JONATHAN LEVINE: PART ONE
After Corddry and before our belated lunch, we are ushered back onto set for an extended chat with Jonathan Levine. After watching him work for a few hours it’s readily apparent that he’s having a great time. He’s engaged with the material and is doing a good job of hiding the stress and strain that come hand in hand with helming his largest project yet. As we start talking about the film and wriggling around the various thematic elements that differentiate it from standard zombie fare we’ve begun to learn that it’s a rather unique love story as well.
“I like the love stuff, man. I like zombie movies and I like genre movies a lot. To watch. Less so to make, I think. But I grew up on that stuff. I would just grow up watching a lot of horror movies, a lot of slasher movies and then zombie movies.”
What was it about Nicholas especially [for this part]? “You’ll see. If Nick didn’t work, the whole movie’s preposterous. With every line he has to find what it means to be a talking zombie. There’s not that many historical references for talking zombies so he’s essentially creating it. He was interested in the role and he came in, and I really liked him from “Skins”, so we essentially did a workshop session together. It wasn’t so much an audition as much as it was trying to get it up on its feet and see whether it sucked or not. And he was just really really good right off the bat. Which is remarkable because the degree of difficulty of what he’s doing is incredibly high. And he immediately had a take on it that was great.”
Levine is asked about removing himself from video village while shooting earlier in the day and setting up camp against a pole, cross legged on the ground. Is that his style? Very laid back and chill? “I guess? People tell me I’m pretty mellow but I’m super stressed out the whole time. I mean sometimes I just go with a handheld and just like, sit. It’s nice because around here No video there’s 2,4,6,8,10 chairs. It’s nice to kind of get away from it. I like a pretty relaxed, fun set. Everyone knows they can bring whoever they want and hang out. That’s something I sort of learned from Seth and Evan on ’50/50’, because it was always kind of a party there and it shows onscreen when people are having a nice time. So yeah, it’s certainly laid back. I don’t know if you guys were here before lunch but we had to f*cking move and we made sure we did. But in between those kind of things it’s pretty mellow.”
How is he able to inject his typical irreverence into a bigger budget film aiming for a PG13 rating? “The PG13 thing is interesting because I’ve only ever done R-rated movies but it’s not a big deal because this movie’s not meant to be ‘R’. It’s not like I wish I could get that one extra ‘F*ck’, you know?. We have our ‘F*ck’ and we know where it is and we’re good with it. Yes, we like to push the envelope with the gore and the violence, but this movie’s about heart. It’s not about the gore and the violence even though we’ve shot some of the most disgusting things you will ever see. Eating the brains is pretty bad. I don’t think it will ever fully make it into the movie because it’s pretty hardcore.”
So it’ll have an R-Rated DVD? “R-Rated DVD. Exactly.”
In terms of zombie films, is he pulling from anything in particular? “Not really. ’28 Days Later’ to me is like my favorite. We watched both the Snyder ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ and the Romero ‘Dawn Of The Dead’. I watched all of the Romero ones. I watched ‘Return Of The Living Dead’, that one’s cool, man. I like that one. But as far as references it’s more of a ’28 Days Later’ or even ‘I Am Legend’ type reimagining of the mythology. I watched pretty much all I could. ‘Dead Alive… what else did I watch?”
You’ve got talking zombies, so Day Of The Dead? “’Day Of The Dead’, yeah that had talking zombies. But also ‘Return Of The Living Dead’ had talking zombies.” He shifts into a zombie voice, “Send more cops.”
That’s it for today. Be sure to check back later for PART 2 of our report, where we finish up the interview with Levine, watch a scene from the movie and have extended chats with Nicholas Hoult and Theresa Palmer.