After a nine hour flight, an hour train ride, and a shameful amount of time trying to navigate the Underground, I arrived at London’s Langham Hotel looking, for lack of a better word, like a zombie. Thankfully, the doorman didn’t try to stab me in the head when I passed. Instead, he tipped his top hat in greeting and my adventure visiting the set of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had begun.
Adapted from Seth Grahame-Smith’s humorous reworking of Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” director Burr Steers’ film version has had a tumultuous history coming to the big screen. Following years of multiple filmmaker, writer, and star shuffles and a complete halt to production, PPZ is coming to theaters February 5 – just in time for Valentine’s Day. Awwww.
Back in November 2014, Sony was gracious enough to invite Bloody Disgusting to England for a late night set visit. After punishing my hotel room’s mini-bar, I was whisked away for a long drive south of London to the foggy rural village of Old Basing. It was a cold, wet night and the other journos and I spent most of it huddled close to a heater, surrounded by zombie corpses. Hell, it was kind of a perfect evening.
Over the course of several hours, we got to watch some filming take place and talked with many of the film’s stars, producers, effects people, and writer-director Steers. They talked the establishing the tricky tone of the film, their approach to zombies, and more. If there’s one major nail all of them hammered home, it’s that there will be absolutely no winking at the camera.
Steers stated, “My mantra on it was the big wink of the movie was not to wink. Was to play it straight, which is what I’ve tried to do with it.” He explained that PPZ is set 70 years after a zombie pandemic decimated a deal of the population, particularly affecting the lower classes. In Austen’s novel, the Napoleonic Wars are a central backdrop. In Steers’ film, it’s the zombie wars, in which men are trained to fight against the undead hordes while some women – like the Bennet sisters – fight at home. Steers added, “The class themes and issues that (Austen) had, class and money, but also young women being empowered, were things that we kept in.”
Okay, okay. But you have beautiful young women in corsets stabbing zombies. That’s a difficult visual to play straight. “The ideas was to create this sort of alternate world where this pandemic has taken place and then to stage Pride and Prejudice in it,” Steers continued. “That doesn’t sound very funny, but it is because ultimately it’s absurd but you pay it straight. No one’s paying it hitting punch lines and things like that.”
Producer Allison Shearmur expounded on this, “The biggest thing with this movie was always going to be the tone…Steers did a phenomenal job with the screenplay and the screenplay seems to integrate an emotional story that follows the classic beats of Pride and Prejudice but there are zombies.”
With the current zombie craze all over TV and film, the makers of PPZ knew that they had to take a unique approach to their undead to stand out from the pack. Steers explained, “One of the big influences on this for me was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and having (zombies) see themselves as a race that was competitive with the human race and to have them more cognizant and more formidable. They’re not just wandering around waiting to be decapitated.”
Actor Sam Riley, who plays Mr. Darcy, added, “People have been able to begin to hide the fact that they’re zombies. There’s a new breed of neo-zombie who try and keep up the pretense, and until they feed on human brains they can more or less get away with it.”
As far as the look of the zombies go, special effects supervisor Chris Reynolds joined us to explain their period appropriate approach. “It’s quite difficult to do something completely different because there’s been so many zombie films done before. What really differentiates it from any other film is the fact that it’s period zombies. So we’ve concentrated on creating looks that go with the costumes and the hair styles of the period.”
Being that it’s a zombie virus pandemic, the filmmakers created a sort of zombie CDC guide for their undead. “The idea is that it’s a disease and there are four stages of the disease. We have four stages of it, so you’d be infected and then you’d become a full-blown zombie and then you’d start deteriorating from the point where you were bitten. And then you have crypto zombies who are the zombies that haven’t fully gone over, they’re sort of in between.” He added, “The ones that are able to maintain more of their human intelligence are the ones that are becoming the leaders amongst the zombies.”
Standing in the way of a full-blown zombie orgy takeover of Pemberley are the Bennet sisters – played by Lily James, Belle Heathcoate, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, and Ellie Bamber. Like in Austen’s novel, the societal pressures to get married to a suitable suitor weigh all of the sisters down. On top of this burden there are, you know, zombies to kill.
And each Bennet sister takes her own approach. “I’ve got my daggers,” Brady says. “I’m all for the dagger business. We’ve all got our different weapons…different styles. Bella is very elegant. She’s quite reserved but very beautiful when she does it. Ellie is so energetic, and Sookie is straight in there and quite deadpan and I’m very aggressive. Lily’s very aggressive as well.”
Leading actress Lily James may be aggressive in the film, but she wasn’t familiar with the source parody novel when she was sent the script. “When I saw the title I thought what the hell is this? And then I read the script, which I thought was really brilliant and funny…I think that period drama just needs zombies!” When it comes to her ass kicking skills, Lily explains, “Liz Bennet is a dagger/sword ninja. I always fight with two, but she has a dagger on her at all times. I think we always have a weapon because there could be a zombie at any moment.”
When she’s not fighting off zombie scum, Liz Bennet is fighting off the advances of Mr. Darcy. Their riotous relationship is a legendary one of literature and in PPZ, it gets a little more violent. Lily says, “We had the proposal scene, where I suddenly start beating the shit out of him and I just get sucked away in the moment. Even though they’re plastic swords, they really hurt if you jab them at someone.”
For Riley, stepping into the shoes of such a famous character meant bringing his own flavor to the role. He based his sword-carrying, leather coat-wearing version of Darcy on a stew of “Colin Firth, Sean Connery from Dr. No, and the voice of James Mason.” Riley, who has a voice like warm tar, talked about the tricky tone of the film. “We’re trying to avoid it being too camp. We want people to feel the romantic elements of it and believe this is 17-whatever and society is more or less unchanged, because the British like to pretend things aren’t happening around them, but there’s this horror going on that people have become accustomed to as well.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the concept. “Yeah, they’ve been trained enough to protect themselves. And there’s also the army, who’s now used to primarily deal with the zombie…(laughs) Oh it’s all fucking ridiculous. But that’s why I liked it.”
Riley also gave the best answer to our question about how the cast would survive a real zombie apocalypse, “I’d drink myself stupid and hopefully the zombies would think I was one of them.” Perfect.
Amidst the roundtable interviews, producer Shearmur treated us to a sizzle reel featuring work from the first four weeks of shooting. Though she warned us it was hastily cut together, the footage we saw showed that despite my misgiving about the tone, it appears Steers and co. may have nailed the damn thing. What we saw was super fun and well-shot for both a period drama and action film.
Despite the cold of the night, the atmosphere on set was a warm one, with the cast goofing off in between takes and the crew being incredibly courteous to our American asses. Ultimately, I left England with a strong sense that PPZ is going to shatter many expectations and bring a wholly unique vibe that mixes period drama and horror action.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies opens everywhere February 5.