Zombie for a Day: Visiting the set of ‘Warm Bodies’
Making my film debut as one of the undead in Jonathan Levine’s new film
Practicing my zombie stare on the set of “Warm Bodies” with fellow journalist Perri Nemiroff
It’s always fun visiting the sets of big movies, that’s one of the perks of writing about the film industry. But it’s a very rare treat when we get to actually be IN the movie—especially as a glassy-eyed, rotting-fleshed, blood-spattered zombie in Jonathan Levine’s upcoming “Warm Bodies,” starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton, and John Malkovich. When a group of journalists and I arrived at the abandoned airport just outside of Montreal that was serving as one of the primary locations for this post-apocalyptic love story, we hardly knew what we were in for.
Hustled into a huge airport hangar that was serving as the makeup and costume headquarters for the multitude of zombie extras, we were led to the talented French Canadian costumers to begin our transformation. They had received our sizes in advance and had deliciously grimy zombie ensembles waiting for us in a bank of dressing cubicles. In the story, some sort of catastrophe had decimated the earth’s population several years earlier. The dead were transformed into a flesh-eating band of zombie amnesiacs who couldn’t remember their previous identities. The only clues to be found were in their clothes—everyone was still wearing what they died in. I liked my zombie duds—maybe I was some kind of hipster artist when I caught the fever, sipping an $8.00 latte made from rare Sumatra beans. Hell, I hadn't worn pants that nice since my wedding! True, everything was covered in filth, but hey, washing machines were hard to come by after the apocalypse! Once we were dressed, we were sprayed down with more dirt and scum, with eager costumers liberally applying a substance that looked remarkably like dried vomit.
We then each got our own makeup person, one of the army of French Canadian artists who were responsible for creating the zombie hordes every day. I was able to speak French with my makeup maven who first covered my face, neck, and hands with the pallor of the undead, and then went to town adding darkened veins, dried blood, and general rot to every inch of my exposed skin. I loved it, and if I say so myself, I was one of the scariest-looking zombies of the group. “I had a lot of canvas to work with,” the makeup guy said proudly in French after surveying the gruesome artistry he performed on my bald head.
Newly transformed, our pack of rotting journalists headed over to one of the main sets for the day—the old airport’s baggage carousels. We were given instructions on how to shuffle around (no stereotypical arms out in front, please!) and were placed in between the other extras as shooting commenced. I was particularly proud of my zombie gait, my left arm hanging down a bit paralyzed, my blank eyes looking off into the distance, occasionally glancing up at the “boneys” who darted through the scene. In “Warm Bodies,” the boneys are the skeletal bloodthirsty creatures who are several stages past zombies and have have even less resemblance to humans. During the shoot the boneys were played by a group of quick-moving stunt men wearing skintight black body suits dotted with electronic studs that will allow for computer-generated skeletons to be inserted later.
In between takes we were able to talk to director Jonathan Levine and the talented cast members who were shooting that day including Nicholas Hoult (the lead zombie known as "R"), Teresa Palmer (human survivor Julie who is strangely attracted to R) and Rob Corddry (R's best friend known as "M"). It was an odd experience gathering around these people in full zombie drag. We asked Levine why he chose this film as a follow-up to his popular “50/50” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. “I fell in love with the book immediately,” the writer/director said, “and I thought it would be something exciting for me to work on, kind of a bigger palette, you know? I think that you have to always keep pushing yourself so that people can’t put you in a box. I thought this was a great opportunity to create a world and work within a mythology and to be able to push the visual envelope.”
We met up with Australian actress Teresa Palmer ("I Am Number Four," "Take Me Home Tonight") who was sort of like the Marilyn Munster of the set—while everyone else was decked out in various stages of decay, the human Palmer looked stunningly beautiful as one of the only humans we would get to talk to that day. I told Palmer she was just what I imagined when I read the character of Julie in the book. “Really? That’s so nice, I find that such a compliment,” Palmer said. “I think Julie Grigio is such an incredible character, she’s fun and she’s full of spirit and fire but she’s also vulnerable and so complex and layered. It’s an honor to be playing her.”
Was the actress at all disappointed to not have the fun of being a zombie? “Oh, absolutely,” she laughed. “You guys have had that experience and I haven’t! I think it’s such an amazing transformation to see Nick in the morning looking like Nicholas Hoult and an hour later he steps out and he’s all blue and he’s got all the veins going on and the blood. It’s incredible, I mean, they’re artists, these makeup guys, they can really transform you and it looks so real and scary!”
“Warm Bodies” relies on the chemistry between the human Julie and the zombie R. Julie explained how they managed to pull that off. “Well, R, as you know, is such an endearing man…um…or corpse! Obviously he’s stuck in this world where he can’t express his feelings, but he listens to Frank Sinatra and he’s a romantic and he’s just trying to shine through this decaying flesh, and I think Julie sees something in him that she hasn’t seen in people in a long time—a kind of hope. We’ve been living in this bleak world for a long time and that light in us has been dimmed. The love that they end up having for each other has really breathed life back into her and also into him. I think for me it’s a very organic relationship how it happens, and we both really help each other!”
Meeting up with funnyman Rob Corddry ("The Daily Show," "Hot Tub Time Machine," "Childrens Hospital") in a huge airport corridor where we were about to shoot another scene, he talked to us about the challenges of developing a character with so little dialogue. “I’ve spoken more in the last two minutes than I do in the film,” Corddry said. “We have one scene that’s about two pages of dialogue when we’re starting to recover more. We just shot a scene which is about five minutes of us grunting. Mostly it’s just a word here, a word there!”
Corddry was able to use some of his experience in improv comedy. “I had one idea at rehearsal, which was actually the scene we shot earlier today,” he said. “It’s the scene where we grunt at each other where you first meet me, and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you meet my character doing some semblance of what he used to do all the time so it’s strangely familiar to him, but he can’t figure out why? So we shot it at the airport bar—I’m sitting there just staring at a bottle of alcohol like, ‘this used to mean something to me, what is it?’”
Following our chat, we were called back on set to continue shuffling along in another scene. Then lunch was called, and it just killed me that we weren’t allowed to have any cameras on the set because the image before us was not to be believed. Seated in the old decrepit food court of this abandoned airport were hundred of French Canadian zombies eating the catered meal with gusto. What were they serving in those chafing dishes—human brains? It was a real “Twilight Zone” moment!
Back in the baggage area, we spent a few more hours shooting another scene involving R, a stray dog, and the boneys. What a bummer that this scene didn’t make it into the final film since I was placed very close to Nicholas Hoult and the well-trained dog ran right by me as he tried to escape the terrifying skeletons.
Our last interview of the day was with Nicholas Hoult ("About a Boy," "X-Men: First Class," "Skins"). For someone with very little dialogue, the actor does an amazing job of conveying his character's emotions on the screen. “This was the first script for a while that I’d sat down and read through in one sitting,” Hoult said. “It made me laugh and I cared about the characters a lot. I’ve got the challenge here of playing a character that can’t really communicate through speech particularly well, but also someone who feels trapped and wants to regain his humanity as best as possible. All those were fascinating things to me.”
Did Nicholas watch any old movies for inspiration? “Yeah, we sat down and we watched ‘Return of the Living Dead,’ we watched ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Being There.’ and lots of films in that kind of vein—‘Awakenings’ with Robert De Niro. We watched a real mix of things. We watched classic zombie movies and saw a lot of things that we didn’t want to do!”
Hoult loved working with Teresa Palmer and Rob Corddry, even if Rob’s on-set antics created their own challenges. “Rob’s just very funny, and that made it very difficult for me because we have scenes where we’re just grunting to each other and he’s so funny when he makes stuff up. There’s been quite a few times where I’ve lost it!” One of Nicholas’s favorite scenes to shoot was when he devoured Julie’s boyfriend (played by Dave Franco). “It was a really great sequence in the lab where I grab Franco and crack open his skull and then eat his brains. And then we go into his memories to this beautiful point of view of all the things he’s experienced and as I come out of that, I see Julie, across the room and I kind of zone in and that’s my new mission in life—or death!”
Called to do one last scene, we trudged en masse for the last time under Levine’s expert direction. I was sort of sad to remove my zombie makeup—at least as much as I could get off at the airport, I was a little black behind the ears for a few days afterward. I felt sorry for the women in our group who had long flowing tresses. Their hair was coated with so much dirt and clay-like gunk to simulate their zombie lack of hygiene that I heard it took them hours under a hot shower to get it out!
Jonathan Levine managed to achieve a very interesting tone in this film, more humorous than I anticipated and with moments that are alternately sweet and terrifying. I couldn’t be more thrilled to make my zombie debut under his direction! Take a look at the first four minutes of “Warm Bodies.”
Summit Entertainment's “Warm Bodies” opens in theaters on February 1, 2013.