Interview: Jonathan Levine, writer/director of 'Warm Bodies'
The unusual zombie/human love story was the #1 film in America this weekend
The first feature that Jonathan Levine wrote and directed, “The Wackness,” starring Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, and Olivia Thirlby, won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and became an indie favorite. His next film, “50/50,” was his first mainstream hit. The dramatic comedy starred Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a 25-year-old who gets diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. Now the talented filmmaker is back with his most unique story yet. Based on the book by Isaac Marion, “Warm Bodies” depicts a post-apocalyptic world where some kind of plague has killed most humans and transformed them into marauding zombies, while the remaining population barricades itself in domed enclaves, determined to smite the undead. The film stars Nicholas Hoult as a zombie who only remembers that his old name started with “R.” While on a killing spree, R meets a human named Julie, played by Teresa Palmer. Julie’s father, General Grigio, played by John Malkovich, is leading the fight against the hordes of the undead. True, R just devoured Julie’s boyfriend’s brains, but that only contributes to the bond he feels with this woman who, despite all the odds, comes to care for him, too. And just as R experiences human emotions, he starts to change in other ways as well.
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I had the great fun of joining some other journalists a while back on the set of “Warm Bodies” in Montreal and appearing in the film as a zombie extra. When I sat down with director Jonathan Levine just before the film opened (it was the #1 movie in the United States this weekend), I had to admonish him for cutting my biggest scene. When a dog is running away from the “Boneys,” skeletal creatures several steps beneath the decaying zombies, I was positioned in the scene so that the dog—and Nicholas Hoult—walked right by my brilliant zombie shuffle. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Levine.” Alas, the whole scene ended up on the cutting room floor.
MSN Movies: So what happened to that scene? We spent hours on it and I thought the dog was brilliant!
Jonathan Levine: It was a great scene but I’ll tell you what happened—you need to be mad at the dog, not me. He was just too happy! The dog had a huge smile on his face!
Well, he had all those yummy corpses to munch on!
At the end of the day I’m happy the dog had fun, but I’m sorry it affected your screen time. My editor was really upset—she didn’t want to kill the dog! But making up you guys as zombies was a really cool idea. Next time we do it—no dog!
This is such an unusual story—did you see it as a risky follow-up to “50/50?”
It’s weird because when I took it, it wasn’t a follow-up to “50/50,” it was a follow up to “The Wackness.” What happened was that I got this movie and then a few weeks later the director who had been attached to “50/50” dropped out. “Warm Bodies” was a more long-term thing, I had to write the script, who knew if it was every really going to happen, if I’d find the right actors, and so on, so I grabbed “50/50” because I just fell in love with it. Then Summit picked it up and we developed a great working relationship and they were doing this film, too. I was actually shooting “Warm Bodies” on the day that “50/50” came out which I don’t recommend to other filmmakers because I was sort of a wreck. Actually, it was good for me, because I had work to do so I couldn’t obsess all day and be checking how “50/50” was doing! So in the end I looked at both films as my follow-up to “The Wackness” and just hoped at least one of them would do okay—you’re always trying to figure out a way not to get fired in Hollywood!
I thought it was pretty amazing that Isaac Marion’s book was set in this abandoned airport and there just happened to be the most perfect abandoned airport in Montreal!
I know, that was incredible. I think the airport was this big political nightmare so it never got used. I was also thrilled that Montreal happens to be such a great city, I completely fell in love with it during the shoot.
And there seems to be so many talented people there. I remember talking with the amazing costume and make-up people who were all French Canadians.
It’s true. I think Adrien Morot, who ran our special effects makeup department, is one of the best in his field. He’s based out of Montreal but he's so fantastic that everyone wants to use him. There is a lot of great talent up there.
After reading the book and being on the set, I have to say that I was surprised when the trailers came out and I saw that it was being pitched in such a comedic way. When I saw the actual film I thought the tone was just right but the trailers, which I liked, made it seem like so much more of a comedy.
I know, it's a little odd, but I don’t think it’s disingenuous. I think the thing we were most worried about was that people might think this was some kind of cynical ploy to capture the “Twilight” audience or something. So what we really wanted to convey to people was that we were in on the joke, we were not going to pretend that a girl falling in love with a zombie was a completely serious thing. I think in the trailers we had to go a little further in that direction than the movie actually does in order to really hit that home and I’m glad we did. I like the irreverence of the trailers and it makes my heart swell when I see one of those posters, I love what those folks at Summit are doing! It may not be 100 perfect reflective of the movie but it’s sort of a hard story to convey that quickly!
Do you worry at all about how people—and critics—will respond to the unusual tone of the film?
You do worry about that stuff. I used to obsess on critical reactions to my films and it's really not a healthy way to live your life, so my new take on it is simply, “I hope people like it!” I’m not going to be looking at the tomato meter for at least a year! I was very lucky on “50/50” that most critics really liked it. I honestly don’t know what they’re going to say here but I do think that we made something unique that you don’t see every day and I’m very proud of that accomplishment.
I thought the film was perfectly cast, that’s reeally how I imagined those characters when I read the book! How thrilled were you to get someone like John Malkovich for the part of Colonel Grigio?
We knew we wanted someone of a certain stature for that role and I’ve been a huge fan of his forever. He’s not only one of the greatest actors of his generation, he’s also this amazing Renaissance man who is an incredible collaborator. I remember one particular scene where I just sort of stood back and watched him keep making it better and better. That is an incredible gift.
Were you worried about having all these zombie characters who can’t really talk?
Oh my God, I was so fucking worried! Up until the point where I got Nick and Rob (Corddry who plays R's best friend M) up in a room in Montreal, I was like “we have to cut out all this zombie talk!”
Because it easily could have turned into Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein character on “Saturday Night Live.”
I remember you talking on the set about how you viewed them more as people with brain injuries rather than your typical standard-issue zombies.
Yes, we talked about that a lot. I remember the first day that Nick was on the set I wanted us to watch “Night of the Living Dead,” and he’s the one who said, “Let’s watch ‘Awakenings!’” I thought, wow, that’s such a great way to approach it. So we also watched films like “Being There” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
I do like how everyone takes their characters very seriously, despite the humor. This definitely isn’t a parody.
Thank you—we didn’t want to be campy at all or to delve into parody. You know the line to walk when you’re on set—you want to be as funny as possible without making fun of yourself. You need to take the characters and the stakes seriously. I think everyone was on the same page with that and that’s something I learned from “50/50” as well.
I was actually amazed by how much emotion R conveyed with so little dialogue.
That’s the greatest thing about Nick. Not only is he a very technically adept actor but he always understood the core concepts of the scene and had such a fantastic sense of humor. He was always willing to go for a joke but then step back and say, “Oh wait, I don’t think that works, let’s not do a joke in that scene.” I had such a great experience working with that guy.
Well, thanks so much, and good luck with the film!
Thank you! And again, I’m sorry about that fucking dog—I promise we’ll get you in the DVD!