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)!
On Friday I shared Part One of my set report – which you should really read first. After that, head inside now for Part Two!
JONATHAN LEVINE: PART TWO
In the middle of our interview, Levine shows us a scene from the film. It’s a rough assembly but it comes to life rather well. R has already eaten the brain of Julie’s boyfriend and she awakes on the abandoned commercial jet he calls home. Knick knacks and collectibles that vaguely remind him of his past life litter the place (either that or they’re trophies collected from lives he himself has ended). Frightened at first, she relaxes as R’s slackly emoted intentions become clear. He doesn’t want to eat her, he wants to be her friend. He delicately places a slab of vinyl on his beloved turntable and drops the needle in the groove. In the book, it’s Frank Sinatra. On set, it’s “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses and it fits the vibe pretty damn perfectly. Depending on how the rights issues shake out the song could be something else entirely by the time you see it. Either way from this scene alone it’s clear that while this film may be partially geared toward teens, it speaks in a remarkably more intelligent emotional and visual vernacular than the Twilight movies.
Levine flicks off the monitor and takes a few more questions.
Sucking somebody’s blood is sexy. Eating somebody’s brain is incredibly invasive. How does he, for the audience, bring that around? That here’s a guy who ate her boyfriend’s brain? “You know, it’s challenging. I think that makes it fun. And it’s a lot about the actors. For Nick we’re looking more at ‘Edward Scissorhands’ instead of ‘R-Patz’ or whatever. Hopefully he’s endearing enough that people will overlook the eating brains part. Everyone has some negative things that they bring to a relationship!”
Are there other zombie elements to differentiate him from somebody that might be severely brain-damaged? “When you see them going to hunt and going to eat people and stuff, they go in a pack. You don’t forget that he’s a zombie. And then hopefully in a scene like this you might forget for a second that he is. But yeah, when they’re all together, you get it. They do zombie sh*t.”
What about the whole apocalyptic aspect of it? Does he explain what happened or is it just kind taken for granted that this happened five or six years ago? “We know what happens. And we know we have the option to explain what happened because a lot of it is going to be told through found footage or things that are playing on monitors in flashbacks and stuff like that. I think we’re going to play with exactly how much we’re going to explain and how much we’re going to leave to the imagination once we have the big picture of the movie. We’re going to see how much it feels like people need that explanation. I think audiences these days like the explanation whereas before you could get away with nothing and it was almost more mysterious. I err on the side of explaining more, but we’ll see.”
Since this is a slightly bigger budget than ’50/50’ –
“Five times the budget.”
And certainly bigger than The Wackness or All The Boys Love Mandy Lane does that afford him time to work with his actors more closely? “It’s interesting, no. I actually have less time to work with the actors because there’s more going on. On ’50/50’, even though it was 8 million dollars, it was all acting intensive. So we would sit down and talk about it and really [get into it]. And with Nick and Theresa we had a lot of rehearsal time so we were able to talk about it, but on the day we just have to do it. We started with this airplane chunk of stuff which is the more intensive acting stuff so they could kind of track the arcs of their characters. So that really helps kind of ground us in what they’re doing, since we shoot everything out of order [it helps them] track their characters. And beyond that, it’s really about just kind of doing it. They know what they’re doing. Ideally for me it’s like they know what they’re doing, and then we just go do it. And if things change on set it’s less about performance and more about the mechanics of something not working or stuff like that.”
How is it working with special effects on this film? “The biggest thing with this job is you gotta pick the right people. I really liked the effects in ‘Black Swan’ and a lot of the Aronofsky movies so we picked this guy Dan Schrecker, who’s our visual effects supervisor who is doing a wonderful job. And he’s teaching me, I don’t really know much about it. But it’s really about having the right personnel. It [also] hasn’t happened yet. All I see is guys in green suits running around. And you know, at the end of the day I’ll be able to watch it and control it but… what David Gordon Green told me is that you just have to be like, “it’s not good enough. Do it more, do it better. It’s not good enough.” That was really the advice.”
The stadium interior is covered in elaborate graffiti. What’s the purpose behind that and why are the characters here at this point? “The graffiti is something Martin, our production designer, and I really liked. It’s kind of something we saw in ‘Children Of Men’ that we really liked which is the world, in spite of the fact that everything’s going to sh*t, people are still doing the things they would do in an anarchic society and a society where things just fall apart. So that’s what the graffiti’s about. There’s homages to Bansky, there’s some homages to Shepherd Fairey. As far as where we are, this city is amazing because it has a defunct stadium and a totally empty airport. So we’re able to go into these places that used to be teeming with life and have them be completely empty and able to do kind of interesting things with them. So that’s part of why we came to this city and part of why we set this scene here. As far as this scene goes [on the particular day we were there] it’s kind of in the beginning of the third act when things are really ramping up and it’s zombies and humans fighting each other, zombies fighting these creatures called ‘Boneys’ and this is sort of where everything hits the fan. And yesterday we were shooting on the field which was amazing.”
How close is it to the book? “It’s pretty faithful. In the 3rd act we changed some things. In the book it’s all told from his perspective. And we had to kind of split the point of view a little bit in the 3rd act in order to tell the whole story. As the tension ramped up we wanted to be in the adventure movie mode and less of the existential movie mode. So that’s why we had to kind of splinter the point of view a little bit and do more stuff like that. And we also had to change things to accommodate our budget and accommodate the city we’re in and stuff like that.”
Talking about the different movie modes, this is a romantic movie. There’s comedy. There’s obviously some action happening. The balance of those tones, is that something being done on set or is that saved for the editing room? “This is another thing I sort of learned on ’50/50’. You always give yourself options. Even in the first scene we were doing, we had Corddry and it’s kind of a serious scene but once we had it the serious way I asked him to throw something in at the end. And he’s so funny that he can just light up the whole scene. And once he did that, that was the funny take. So that was a little too funny. Then by the fourth and fifth take we had a good combination of the serious and the funny. So I will have the option in the editing room to do any number of those things. Within reason, you play on set. To do a serious scene completely funny would be silly, you know what I mean? But you still give yourself little variances.”
Does Nicholas become more human as the story evolves? “Yes.”
Does that affect his makeup and walk? Do we start seeing the evolution of man, so to speak? “Yeah.”
John Malkovich is in this movie, playing General Grigio (father to Theresa Palmer’s ‘Julie’). Was he intimidating? “Yeah, I was intimidated by Malkovich. I was intimidated by Malkovich for like a couple of days and then I wasn’t. He’s awesome. He’s so cool. He was so wonderful to work with. He has a lot of scenes with Theresa and he really kind of took her under his wing and was very nurturing to her. I just find him to be so incredibly funny. I would like to do a comedy with him too. He’s such a funny, nice, unbelievable guy. I met him for a drink and he’s halfway through a 2,000 page book about Casanova because he’s doing I think an opera about Casanova. He’s picking swatches for his fashion line that is made out of Italy. It’s like insane. Now he’s doing an opera and then he’s directing a version of ‘Dangerous Liasons’ in French, he speaks fluent French to everyone on the crew. It’s unbelievable. Yeah, so he’s cool. Even though he’s not intimidating, it’s like that voice that’s really kind of intimidating, you know. He’s wonderful, we all loved him. ”
Does this movie have a potential for something beyond what we see in this version? “I think you could take the story that way, yeah. It’s not really something I worry about. I think there are further stories that could exist with these characters. I think Summit probably feels the same way.”
After our chat with Levine we head back to our press room where we greet Nicholas Hoult, who is naturally in zombie mode as well. It’s odd to think how the cherubic kid from About A Boy has transformed into the tall, thin and angular adult from A Single Man and X Men: First Class. He looks much the same as he did in those films, only dead. And with a hoody.
In person Hoult is relaxed and eloquent. It seems odd to apply “erudite” as an adjective describing someone in their very early 20‘s, but it fits the bill. Perched on a folding chair a few inches above his decomposing interrogators, he speaks softly about the challenges of playing his character. “What happens to him at the beginning of the story is he can’t communicate with anyone, he’s lost the power of speech, he’s trapped. His life’s quite dull and worn down, that feeling of dragging yourself through life. We had a zombie school, funnily enough. Not doing too much, I suppose, is important.”
The frames of reference for this movie are Romeo and Juliet and Edward Scissorhands, but it also seems like Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy. “Yes. The thing I really liked about the script is it’s about someone trying to retain his humanity. Through killing Julie’s boyfriend and eating his brains he falls for her and then regains that through being with her. That’s the great thing about Theresa: She’s such a lively, bubbly person anyway and it’s that spark she brings to the character.”
What’s eating brains like? “Eating brains is fun. It’s kind of like a cold, wet sponge they made the brains out of. The idea that Jonathan came up with is that because these brains are memories it’s kind of like being alive again, it’s kind of like a drug to the zombies. There was one day where there was a scene where I crack open Dave Franco’s head to eat his brains. We used a dummy, and I actually pulled some of the dummy’s hair out and it was on the brains so I ate a load of fake brains and the dummy’s hair which wasn’t the most pleasant experience.”
In a vampire story the romance is more obvious, there’s something erotic about biting someone’s neck. Eating brains is less erotic… “You haven’t seen how I eat brains.”
After the audience has seen you eat someone’s brains how do you keep them on your side? “You can hear the voice-over of my character, which is very eloquent. It’s partly the way Jonathan is shooting it as well. You can’t see some of the more violent, gory stuff. You see it from his point of view because it’s something he has to do. The fact that it’s shot beautifully makes it less about killing someone’s boyfriend, which is never a good start. The tricky aspect of it is tracking the “getting better” aspect of the story. Me and Jonathan tracked the key points when he would develop and become more human. The speech was something we worked on, because people have difficulty understanding me anyway, just the way that I talk, so making it more zombie-like and turning that groan into words was difficult. There’s a lot to think about, but that’s what excited me about the script, that it was unconventional.”
Is there a backstory to the character prior to becoming a zombie? “No, that’s the whole thing, he’s forgotten who he is. He calls himself “R” because he can’t remember the rest of the letters that make up his name… I’ve never really been on a set before where the director told me to tone it down. It’s always been “pump it up.” It makes a nice change. I trust Jonathan from the first time I met him and saw how he adapted the screenplay.”
Are there any zombie films that inform this performance? “’Return of the Living Dead’ was the first one where zombies spoke, “Send more cops.” We had a spoof of that one day where I picked up the radio and said, “Send more brains.” The more recent ones like ‘28 Days Later’ and ‘Evil Dead.’ Picking up movement from those films but not completely copying. When zombies first started running they were serious sprinters… and [being attractive as a zombie] is tricky. I know you asked Rob earlier if zombies get boners. In the short story that was first written there’s a line that said, “My penis fell off two weeks ago.” That’s kind of how I’ve been playing it. Went method on that.”
Next up is Theresa Palmer, who plays Julie in the film. She’s the only actor we’ve spoken to the entire day who isn’t dressed up as a zombie, so it’s a bit awkward to be dressed as one in front of her. Sure, she’s got a bit of blood wiped across her cheek, but it isn’t quite the same.
One of the film’s primary goals for her character is to create a female lead that isn’t as co-dependent as someone like “Bella” from Twilight. And, by the way Palmer carries herself, you can tell she’s up to the task.
How does the relationship between your character and Nicholas’s character begin, him being a zombie and you, clearly, being not a zombie?” Well, as you can imagine, I’m very wary of him. For the last few years since the apocalypse, all we’ve known is that zombies try and attack humans and eat us. So it’s very much a strange dynamic between them. I’m absolutely terrified and petrified of him at the start, and then he starts to show this super-sweet and endearing behavior. He has feelings and he listens to Frank Sinatra and he collects little intricate pieces and he has a heart. She can’t quite believe it; she doesn’t really know what she’s seeing. But she realizes that they’ve been wrong about these corpses this whole time. They’re not just these dead people without feelings and hopes and dreams. They don’t want to be dead. They want to be just like us… It’s really sweet; you see their relationship develop. He sort of has her held captive, I guess you could say, on this airplane where he lives with all these really cool little things that he’s collected and their friendship blossoms.”
Does she know that he ate her boyfriend’s brain? “Not at this point. Later on in the film she discovers this.”
You say your character knows how to take care of herself, she’s kind of badass. So, when she gets taken by R, does she try to fight back or keep finding ways to escape? “She does, yeah. There are some funny scenes where she starts to plot this idea to get him out of the plane. She pretends that she’s hungry and she wants him to leave. Then as soon as he walks out you see her get up and sprint to the window to make sure he’s gone and then she just legs it and she’s out of there. But, sure enough, she’s in this area where there are just hundreds of zombies who just start attacking her and, again, he’s forced to save her life. I think she realizes she’s kind of powerless. There’s not much she can do. It’s funny though, I think, after the first few days she realizes, ‘This is my situation and I’m going to make the best of it.’ When she lets down her guard like that, that’s when the friendship and ultimate relationship starts to blossom. ”
After all of our interviews are over there’s still work to be done. There’s several shots we appear in that take place before and after the one that allowed for our “Jazz Hands” incident and not all the bases are covered. There’s even talk that if we don’t finish on time some of us will have to stay an extra day for the sake of continuity.
In our scene, we stand behind M as the undead army he presents to R and Julie. Assembled under a glass dome in the stadium concourse, imaginary Boneys rattle above us. R and Julie approach tentatively as M informs them that we’re “ready for a fight.” Julie responds, “I can see that.”
We’re told to react against the crashing of the Boneys above as we part like the Red Sea allowing our protagonists to escape right before the big melee. After just a couple of tries and the last “Cut!” (of our shooting day at least) is called. As it turns out us journalists are wrapped with time to spare.
After washing our makeup off we head back to wardrobe (sadly we’re not allowed to keep our zombie duds), grab our clothes and change in the wooden makeshift stalls that we undressed in earlier.
Only moments after we look vaguely normal again, Jonathan Levine comes zipping up the concourse in his golf cart to say goodbye and thank us for our time. He doesn’t have to do this and while it would seem manipulative for most other directors to squeeze in one last pow wow like this, from him it comes across as 100% legitimate. There’s no damage control happening, there’s no damage. I leave the stadium that night feeling enthusiastic and optimistic about a project that was barely on my radar before the trip.
A potentially disastrous concept, the book Warm Bodies transcends almost every pitfall its premise throws at it. And from what I’ve seen of Levine at the helm of the movie, I can’t help but think that this special little story is in really good hands.