Warm Bodies is a teen romantic comedy about a confused zombie, named R (Nicholas Hoult), who falls in love with Julia (Teresa Palmer), the girlfriend of one of his victims. Their romance starts a chain reaction which will forever change the lives of the living, and the undead.
Recently I had a chance to sit down with Jonathan Levine, writer and director, and Dave Franco, who plays Julia’s boyfriend Perry, to talk about the movie.
WC: Jonathan it seems like you’ve made a modern day fairy tale. It doesn’t feel like a zombie film. I mean, this movie was… sweet.
Levine: It’s really interesting. The book this film is based on took a fairy tale and looked at it through the lens of modern pop culture. There was always a tension between the script and the execution of this film; between the Disney “Beauty and the Beast” version and the violent, pop-culture laden take. I wanted to do a fairy tale in this bleak, post-apocalyptic world. What was really interesting about the book was all the weird juxtapositions. I wanted to see how the juxtapositions would play out.
Franco: It was a very ambitious feat because it could have gone horribly wrong trying to combine so many different things.
Levine: It could have got horribly wrong. At many points in the edit I though it was going horribly wrong. It really is one of those movies where you have to be willing to try different things and not scared if something sucks for a couple days. If necessary you change it to find a balance. 50/50 was very much the same way. It’s all a balancing act.
Franco: It’s scary, but that’s why you take these risks. If it comes out well you come out with a final product that feels fresh and original.
Levine: If you take a risk I think audiences, either consciously or subconsciously, respect you for it. And give you a little more leeway as well.
WC: Not only a fairy tale, this movie is also a take on society today.
Levine: Isaac wrote a social commentary into the book. I think the zombie genre has always been about reflecting us back on ourselves. It brings up questions like: What does it mean to be alive? Are you really living your life? As part of “are you really living your life” I wanted to examine some of the trivial things that people do today. Like when all the people on their cell phones at the airport. Or when you see R reading the Us Weekly with Kim Kardashian on the cover. I tried to put a lot of those little things to show the absurdity of how we live. I think that stuff is very important to the movie.
WC: Since this movie takes some very serious detours in the zombie mythology. Are you scared this will hurt the movie? At the same time, how can this divergence work?
Levine: I am a fan of zombie movies. I’m a fan of slasher films. I’m a fan of every kind of movie, but especially zombie movies. So I knew that there were going to be people who thought what I was doing was the end of the world. I knew people would be really upset with it. That’s scary, but once you know that you can accept that those people were never going to like it. I can’t worry about that.
At the same time, as a fan of these films, I wanted to be very respectful and try to convert some people. There’s nothing I’m doing that Romero hasn’t already done. That’s why zombies are so cool. The metaphor of the zombie is so resonant and smart that it allows for a lot of different shades of grey. Romero was the first to do a talking zombie. He continually pushed the mythology in new directions. I looked at this as a trope to be played with. I know that people think zombies are mean and they eat people and I’m an idiot. I thought it was clever to take the genre and all the tropes people bring to it and use it to tell a story that’s not unlike E.T. or Wall-E or something like that—a story about tolerance and change. That’s how I justified it in my own mind. I loved the book and I love Return of the Living Dead, so surely a few other people will feel the same way.
What I really liked about what Isaac changed in the book was eating brains allows you to access people’s memories. I had never heard of that in the zombie mythology, though I have heard recently that other people have done it. I think that’s a smart and clever way to make things that much more interesting. That and the fact that zombies can change. I love to see someone fight something and change. Maybe it is because I’m sentimental and cheesy at heart, but I love the idea that love can change you.
I’m hoping it can change me some day.
WC: In what ways do you identify with the main character R?
Levine: I identify with what it means to be young, around a girl and thinking your gross and she doesn’t want to be with you. You’re trapped in your body. You’re afraid she thinks you’re a creep or a loser. That was really important to me. Here is this young guy who is around this pretty girl who doesn’t know how to handle himself. That helped me think about his character.
WC: What was working with Rob Corddry like? Did he just read lines or did he ad lib his lines?
Levine: Corddry had a little more leeway that anyone. I would say, “Do your funny thing, Corddry.” Not like that. This is how it would work. We would do the scene normally. We’d get it there. Then, with Rob, I would say, “All right, try something.” Rob is great because he is used to having creative control of his own stuff. So, once I felt like I had something I would say, “Do whatever.” That’s where some of the funniest lines in the movie came from.
Levine: The one that kills is when he says, “Bitches, man.” That was all him. If you watch that scene closely you’ll see Nick’s back shaking because he’s cracking up. To his credit he never broke character.
Franco: Yeah, there’s a scene towards the beginning where I’m giving this inspirational speech to my troops. The way I was initially playing it was as a very confident, cocky leader. Jonathan came over and reminded me that this kid, although he is hell bent on ending this zombie apocalypse, at his heart he still is this wimpy kid we see in the flashbacks. He is still a sweet guy at his core. So, he wouldn’t be such a confident leader. He would doubt himself a little bit. He would stumble over his words.
WC: Can you talk about the settings? Where did you find an abandoned airport? And that desolate neighborhood. Are they digital?
Levine: Montreal, which is the amazing, vibrant city, has these great empty spaces. For the Olympics they built a bunch of stuff that wasn’t used as much as they anticipated. I think they built the airport ten miles too far from the city. They ended up building another airport recently. So this airport basically sits empty. Spielberg used it to shoot The Terminal. A lot of movies shoot in Montreal because Canada has amazing tax credits. Most films shoot on sound stages because the weather is super volatile in Montreal. If you want to shoot a location movie you generally go to Vancouver or Toronto. We went to Montreal for this airport and for this Olympic stadium where the Expo used to play, which is also empty.
The desolate town with the track homes was a new development subdivision. Some people were living there, but they hadn’t filled all the houses yet. We threw our crap on the ground and flipped some cars and had our abandoned town.
WC: It makes the film look big.
Levine: Yeah. And while the film looks big to me, I just went to the movies and saw the trailers for the Tom Cruise apocalypse movie, and the Will Smith one. Those movies cost ten times what this one did. We had to make due with what we had.
WC: What was the hardest aspect of making this movie?
Levine: It’s always hard when you’re balancing tones. Even though, as I’ve said, I’ve done it before. This was the hardest one. Not only was I balancing tones it’s a balancing act of creating the Boneys, which are CG characters, and creating the environments. There are many things, and I don’t want to call them distractions because they are part of my job, but how do I weave funny and scary and adventure and romance and all this stuff. That’s the hardest thing.
The best thing is when you have wonderful actors. Like Dave and Teresa and Rob and Nick who help you figure out the tone. I relied on them just as much as they relied on me.
Franco: It’s very hard to make a funny PG-13 comedy. It’s very hard to make a scary PG-13 horror movie.
Levine: Yeah. I always wanted my first cut to be rated R. I wanted to get to PG-13 by making them tell me exactly what I needed to do. I wanted it to feel like an R rated PG-13 movie. We would shoot the grossest stuff. There was more profanity than they would have allowed. It was important to push the limits, and the only way to do that was to go over the limits.
For instance, when poor Dave’s brain is eaten—
Franco: It’s gross. He’s like ripping the brain. Blood dripping down his face.
Levine: It turns out that people don’t want to see that so much.
WC: Can you talk about your coverage when shooting Warm Bodies?
Levine: From The Wackness and 50/50 I got into coverage that let the actors dictate the scene. Especially in 50/50 because people were making up so much. I loved everything that came out of that. In those circumstances there’s a typical way you shoot. You have two cameras; one is wider, one is tighter. You see what you’ve got and what you like and you supplement around that. That’s the general way you shoot if you want things improvised. Or you can shoot across. A lot of DP’s don’t like to do that because it messes up their lighting.
This is an actor driven movie, but I wanted to compliment it with some more stylistic things. So I would do a big crane shot but have the second camera doing something else. I tried to cover myself. I wanted to let some of the shots play out and do more cinematic stuff. It was a balance of the 50/50 style with cinematic style.
WC: How long were you working on Warm Bodies?
Levine: I read the book, right before I made 50/50. So, I’d say it was 2010. So about two years, which is not that long.
WC: What’s next?
Levine: There are a couple things I’m looking at right now. I shot 50/50 and Warm Bodies very close together. In fact, when 50/50 came out I was on this set. I started writing some stuff. There’s a few scripts I’m looking at. I also want to chill out for a second. Maybe? We’ll see if I get to do that. I hope so.
Franco: As a director, when you sign on to something, that’s a commitment. I’m sure you want some down time.
Levine: It’s your life. It’s crazy. I don’t know how it is for you [speaking to Franco], but when I do something it takes over my life. It’s the last thing I think about before I go to sleep and the first thing I think about in the morning.
Franco: It’s the same thing for me, but as an actor you go on location for two or three, months and then you move on to the next thing. Everyone else goes on to post production. You must weigh your options a lot more when deciding what your next project will be when you know that you’re going to be on it for years.
Levine: And you only get to do maybe ten or fifteen movies in your life, if you’re lucky. So you don’t want to waste anything. It is a conscious thought process.
Whatever I decide it will be awesome. I promise.
Warm Bodies will be in theaters February 1, 2013.