Interview: Novelist Isaac Marion on bringing his zombies to life in 'Warm Bodies'
The writer still lives in his trailer in the Pacific Northwest and has no plans to become a Hollywood diva
The success of “Warm Bodies,” Isaac Marion’s debut novel, is an increasingly rare tale in publishing these days. The unusual zombie romance, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States where some kind of plague has attacked most of the human population, transforming them into zombie hordes, began as a short story called “I am a Zombie filled with love.” The story attracted a lot of attention on the Internet, and when Marion expanded it into a full novel, he soon found himself taking calls from movie executives. Happily for the novelist and for moviegoers, writer/director Jonathan Levine (“50/50”) was brought on to adapt the book into a screenplay and to direct the all-star cast that includes Nicholas Hoult as the undead narrator who remembers nothing of his former life except that his name began with an R, Teresa Palmer as Julie, the human girl who strikes up a relationship with R following their deadly first encounter, and John Malkovich as General Grigio, Julie’s father who rules the domed enclave where the human survivors are busy fighting off the rampaging zombies.
I was a fan of Marion’s novel “Warm Bodies” even before I got the incredibly fun opportunity to fly to Montreal and become a zombie extra in Levine’s film. I wrote about that very unique set visit here but check out my zombie pallor and rotting duds in the photo at right. I was one bad-ass zombie, if I say so myself. I kept up with a few of my zombie brothers and sisters in the months that followed and when I saw Isaac Marion on one of their Facebook pages admitting how nervous he was about the upcoming press junket for the film, I admired his blatant lack of jadedness. “What exactly is a junket, anyway?” he asked. That did it—I had to talk with him on the film’s press day. I sat down with the Seattle-based author at a hotel in Beverly Hills.
MSN Movies: So how has your first movie junket been so far?
Isaac Marion: Oh, much easier than I thought it would be! The first press thing I ever did was at Comic-Con the year before last—it was actually the first in-person interview I ever did in my life! I walked out and there was this massive table of journalists and I felt like I was the President addressing the nation, I was so unprepared! So this feels very mild by comparison—and I have a lot more interviews under my belt at this point.
I remember when we were zombie extras on the set, they were all excited because you were coming to do that a few days later. Did you make it into the final film?
Yes, I’m in it but you’d never be able to spot me, I’m pretty far in the background. They put a lot of effort into my make-up—I got the whole works, even the contacts which were excruciating! It took like 20 minutes just to get them into my eyes, I’ve never worn contacts before—it was horrible!
You know, I read your book a while ago and was on the set of the film, but I have to say that when the trailers finally started running, I was stunned that they were pitching it as a kind of comedy. For some reason I didn’t see that coming at all. Were you surprised by that marketing approach, too?
I had assumed, even before anything started with the film that it wouldn’t be as dark as the book. I didn’t think they’d be able to get people on board with a very serious zombie drama, that would have been a pretty hard sell! Not that the book is completely serious, there is some comedy—but I had no idea how much they were going to play that up until I saw the trailer. So yeah, that approach was a little bit of a surprise! But by then I had already seen an early cut of the film so I knew what the tone was and I was very happy about it. Yes, it’s lighter and funnier than the book but it’s definitely not a straight-up comedy! But that happens all the time with trailers. If you watch the original trailer for Jonathan’s last movie, “50/50,” it also looks like a straight-up comedy, you don’t see any of the big emotional beats of the film. But the movie itself made me cry, it’s very intense!
The success you’ve had with your first novel is a pretty amazing story these days. How soon did you get a movie deal after publishing the book?
Pretty soon! It was all primed to go at that point, I had people who had been following me for a while and were interested in my writing. This freelance editor I was working with sent it around and that’s how it first got to a producer.
Were you worried about what they might do to the book when you made the movie deal?
Yeah. I had no idea what they were going to do with it—they might’ve just turned it into a spoof for all I knew. And it's not like I had any control. I knew I couldn't say, “You have to rewrite the script—I don’t like it!” But I was very lucky!
To get someone like Jonathan Levine to adapt the book and direct it?
Yes! Jonathan was the first person they hired. From the very beginning they were looking for a writer/director which was a huge relief to me because I was afraid it was going to get shuffled through ten different hack screenwriters. It set my mind at ease from the get-go that they wanted an “auteur!” And I had high hopes when they hired Jonathan because I was a huge fan of “The Wackness.” I was so happy because I knew the script wouldn’t be mangled! Even if you have a really good director, if the script is worthless the movie is going to be crap!
Did you meet with Jonathan early on? Did he consult with you as he was writing the script?
Yeah, when I first met with him I was relieved right away because he started talking about movies like “Children of Men,” not “Friday the 13th!” We’d talk from time to time about the script when he was writing it and sometimes we’d have conference calls with the producer Bruna Papandrea about different approaches they were thinking about and different visual ideas. They consulted with me but it’s still very much their movie with their own unique style that’s different from the book.
Were you worried about how R would appear on film with his grunting and all?
Yes, that was biggest concern! How anyone could carry off this character who barely has any dialogue! It’s really a fine line you have to walk—to make him sound like a zombie but not have his speech be so slow and belabored that you can’t stand it—
Or funny like it’s part of a “Saturday Night Live” zombie sketch!
Right! I wanted it to sound like somebody who was struggling to speak—more like a person with a brain injury than the clichéd version of a zombie!
Did you have any say over the casting?
They let me now who they were considering—and they did a great job. I don’t know if I had any veto power because it never came to that. They never suggested anyone who I thought would be terrible.
Justin Bieber as R?
Ha ha! And then to get John Malkovich for General Grigio—that was a great find!
Can you be objective about the characters? How do the movie versions of R and Julie compare to what you imagined as you wrote the book?
To be honest, the two leads (Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer) are uncannily similar to how I imagined them. I mean, R dresses differently, and Julie doesn’t have short hair, but other than that, they and the chemistry they have with each other is very close to how they were in my head!
“Warm Bodies” opens nationwide on February 1, 2013. Isaac Marion’s prequel novella, “The New Hunger,” was just published by Zola Books.