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[Interview] Director Jonathan Levine On Eating Brains And Melting Hearts In ‘Warm Bodies’

WARM BODIES

Summit Entertainment releases All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and 50/50 director Jonathan Levine‘s Warm Bodies (check out Part One and Part Two of my set visit) tomorrow, February 1st (actually, it’s technically out at 10PM tonight if you’re so inclined).

I recently had a chance to catch up with Levine after seeing the film (which I really liked). We talked about his take on the zombie allegory, shooting an NC-17 level of gore for a PG-13 film and using horror as a forum to revisit the John Hughes template of emotions.

The film “is a poignant tale about the power of human connection. After a zombie epidemic, R (a highly unusual zombie) encounters Julie (a human survivor), and rescues her from a zombie attack. Julie sees that R is different from the other zombies, and as the two form a special relationship in their struggle for survival, R becomes increasingly more human – setting off an exciting, romantic, and often comical chain of events that begins to transform the other zombies and maybe even the whole lifeless world.

Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, John Malkovich and Analeigh Tipton all star. Head inside for the interview!

When you’re approaching something like this that melds so many tones, what’s your main though line?

It’s the same thing as 50/50 except there’s more shit that could go wrong in this one because in 50/50 I could rely on Seth Rogen to tell a funny joke or whatever. Not only is the new one a scary combination of tones, there’s a lot of it where it’s just two guys grunting at each other. So I focussed on character and, not the romance per se, but the central concept that Nick’s character is a guy like any guy. A shy guy.

For me, the allegory of being a zombie [in this film] is like you’re trapped in your own body. So I compared it to being a teenager, or young person or whatever, who is trapped in their own body and shy around a girl. That’s something I can totally identify with. If I ever had the opportunity to be around a girl who looked like Theresa Palmer I wouldn’t be able to say a thing.

I focussed on those simple things, because there’s so much to worry about in a movie like this. From building the world to balancing the tones. If you just focus on character and character motivation and the things that attracted you to it in the first place, that’s a good guidepost.

And you’re having to calibrate how the zombies look in this kind of movie. The brain eating has to be tricky for this rating!

All of the violence, I went hard with it. I shot a lot of coverage and I knew I would have to cover it up. There is a version of this movie that’s a Hard R, if not NC-17. I didn’t want to self-censor during shooting. I knew that if we had the material and cut it out it would feel like we had the material, you’d feel the impact. I think we all needed to feel like we were doing the balls out version of it in a way, and you still have some core of that onscreen. I hope so.

It’s also the biggest thing you’ve shot, particularly the climax.

It’s interesting. There’s a bunch of different sequences and you’re not doing it all at once. You kind of do a little bit in the first week and a little bit in the 5th week. You always have the opportunity with CG to change things or fix things, so if you fuck it up you have a chance to fix it. One of the things that interested me about this movie was the opportunity to broaden the scope of what I do.

But in some ways it’s still the same. You’re relying a lot on your collaborators and the precepts of how you execute something cinematically don’t really change. So the only thing you have to really be careful about is showing up on set and seeing 100 extras and seeing the amount of work you have to do for the day and not to be completely terrified. You have to manage your own stress levels. But if you manage to make something like Mandy Lane, where we stretched every dollar and had to think about every shot, that prepared me to do this. Because I had greater resources here. I had more time to cover scenes and more time to fuck up covering scenes. I felt OK with it.

I really dug the music in the film. It has a lot of great John Hughes moments.

That’s funny, I always viewed this movie as a revisionist John Hughes thing. To the point where Psychedelic Furs was in it up until a few weeks before we locked. In reading the book, the music thing was something I really gravitated towards. I’ve always gravitated towards being able to really use music in my movies. With The Wackness it was a very hip-hop driven thing and with Mandy Lane it was very indie. I like the ability to juxtapose sound and image and here it’s telling a story about something that’s lost.

It was a very meticulous process picking it, and it wasn’t always easy. But I did gravitate towards a lot of 80′s music. Because the power ballads are these operatic, almost comical, expressions of deep feeling. Hopefully we turn people on to stuff they don’t know about. Obviously they know Dylan and Bruce, but some of the other stuff they may not.

So you’re guiding Nicholas Hoult through this –

He guided me a lot! Go ahead.

It’s just interesting because there are a lot of different stages to his Zombie, and you couldn’t film in sequence.

No, that was just something where I used the 50/50 trick. On 50/50 we worked out with the AD team that we would have different stages of cancer. And Joe [Gordon-Levitt] and I worked on it, we spoke to a lot of people who were going through, or had gone through cancer. So we decided “Stage 1 is you just had chemo yesterday and you’re nauseous. Stage 2 is this, Stage 3 is this” and so on. So we just had a shorthand at the beginning of every scene and I would just be like you’re at “stage whatever” and we would both know what we were talking about. And with Nick we sort of did the same thing.

And, I’m almost embarrassed to talk about this, we also did this thing where it was just “Less Zombie/More Zombie.” “Eh, do a little less Zombie in this take.” And we just had different versions of those takes that we could use. And Nick was the one who was on top of that. He really nailed it.

When we spoke onset you said you probably wouldn’t be up for a sequel –

Did I say that?

Yeah, if they made another one. Did you reconsider?

Dude, I don’t know [laughs]… onset is probably the worst time to ask me something like that because I probably didn’t even want to show up the next day. Isaac [Marion] is writing a sequel, I love these actors and I had such a good time making the movie.

My general feeling is let’s wait and see if anyone goes and sees the fucking movie. But it’s like a Jewish superstitious “everything is going to go horribly wrong” feeling that allows me to not even think about that stuff. But to hang out with all of these guys again would be amazing.

Do you have anything else coming up?

I have something I’m writing and there’s a script Will Reiser [50/50] wrote and there’s a few things in various stages of development. But I just did two movies really quick back to back, so what I’m really going to do is hang out with my girlfriend and my dog for a while. And then hopefully I’ll pick something to do in June.

And hope that 35MM still exists then.

Dude, I know. We shot this on 35MM and I just have too… I can’t not do it. I know Tarantino is like, “I’m only going to shoot on 35.” But I don’t think I have the pull to do that! Hopefully if enough people see this movie! But I can’t imaging not shooting film. I should start stockpiling it.