With the upcoming “World War Z” following dozens of recent big screen zombie films and “The Walking Dead” dominating water cooler conversations in offices allover the world, what more can be done with the undead genre?
Summit Entertainment and “50/50” director Jonathan Levine are attempting to take the genre in a new direction with the upcoming “Warm Bodies.” I paid a visit to the elaborate Montreal set late last year, where I saw firsthand the film’s undead mayhem and the romance at its core. They even turned me and the other visiting journalists into zombie extras.
“Warm Bodies,” based on the book of the same title by Isaac Marion, is working hard to evade the “‘Twilight’ With Zombies” moniker that some are using to describe it. After visiting the set, it sounds like “‘Romeo & Juliet’ With Zombies” is more accurate (or would that be “Romero & Juliet”?).
“X-Men: First Class” alum Nicholas Hoult plays R, a recently zombie-tized young man who eats the brains of Perry (“21 Jump Street’s” Dave Franco) and falls for Perry’s former girlfriend, Julie (“Wish You Were Here” actress Teresa Palmer). With the help of his undead buddy M (Rob Corddry), R leads an army of semi-concious zombies against the mindless “boneys” (zombies who have devolved to the point where the lack any human elements).
Along the way, R tries to convince Julie that not all zombies are heartless killers, and, in a rough-cut scene we were shown on the set, uses music to communicate his feelings to her. A very unlikely romance ensues.
Palmer attempted to illuminate the strange onscreen pairing. “For the last few years since the apocalypse, all we”ve known is that zombies try and attack humans and eat us,” she explained. “So it”s very much a strange dynamic between them. I”m absolutely terrified and petrified of him at the start, and then he starts to show this super-sweet and endearing behavior. He has feelings and he listens to Frank Sinatra and he collects little intricate pieces and he has a heart. She can”t quite believe it; she doesn”t really know what she”s seeing. But she realizes that they”ve been wrong about these corpses this whole time. They”re not just these dead people without feelings and hopes and dreams. They don”t want to be dead. They want to be just like us.”
Trying to get the audience to sympathize with a reanimated corpse who eats people’s brains is no easy task. “It”s challenging,” Levine explained with typical understatement. “I think that makes it fun. And it”s a lot about the actors. For Nick we”re looking more at ‘Edward Scissorhands” instead of RPatz or whatever. Hopefully he”s endearing enough that people will overlook the eating-brains part. Everyone has some negative things that they bring to a relationship!”
“It”s really just about a guy and a girl and the guy is trapped in his own kind of shell and can”t get out of it,” he continued. “That part of it really appealed to me. I like that kind of stuff a lot. And the opportunity to kind of explore this world that we”ve created was really exciting and the zombie stuff was kind of an added bonus to that”.
Hoult — all grown up from his “About a Boy” days — plays R as a sympathetic underdog type. He think viewers will eventually see things R’s way. “You can hear the voice-over of my character, which is very eloquent,” he explained. “It’s partly the way Jonathan is shooting it as well. You can’t see some of the more violent, gory stuff. You see it from his point of view because it’s something he has to do. The fact that it’s shot beautifully makes it less about killing someone’s boyfriend, which is never a good start.”
He further explained how the human elements drew him to the project: “The thing I really liked about the script is it’s about someone trying to retain his humanity. Through killing Julie’s boyfriend and eating his brains he falls for her and then regains that through being with her. That’s the great thing about Theresa: She’s such a lively, bubbly person anyway and that spark she brings to the character.”
However, Hoult still got to indulge in some classic zombie activities. “Eating brains is fun,” he revealed. “It’s kind of like a cold, wet sponge they made the brains out of. The idea that Jonathan came up with is that because these brains are memories it’s kind of like being alive again, it’s kind of like a drug to the zombies.”
We glimpsed a rough cut of a scene on a monitor depicting R taking Theresa to his hideout in an abandoned commercial plane. At first terrified, Theresa becomes merely confused when R seems to go through the motions of an awkward (and awkwardly wordless) first date, even playing her a vinyl copy of Guns n Roses’ “Patience” to set the mood. The song may not appear in the final film however, depending on cost.
As one of the few fully human characters in the films, Palmer found her role challenging. “It”s hard because I”m leading all of the scenes,” she confessed. “My character, she”s very high-spirited; she”s got a lot of energy. It”s almost as if I”m doing huge monologues after monologues. But Nick is so expressive with his eyes. He gives me so much without having to say anything. I really can just play off of him and I feel what he”s feeling. He honestly is the perfect casting choice for this role; he”s just beautiful in the movie.”
However, “Bodies” will still deliver plenty of visceral thrills. “When you see them going to hunt and going to eat people and stuff, they go in a pack,” Levine explained. “You don”t forget that he”s a zombie. And then hopefully in a scene like this you might forget for a second that he is. But yeah, when they”re all together, you get it. They do zombie shit”.
Montreal proved to be the perfect place to shoot the bulk of “Warm Bodies” for two key reasons: It is home to the abandoned old Mirabel airport, as well as the massive Stadium Olympique (also, conveniently, abandoned since the Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals). Visiting the largely empty arena felt a quite a bit like actually being in a zombie film, aided by the heavily made-up extras walking around. It was also a constant source of amusement to see zombified extras casually texting, having a smoke or even trying to pick each other up.
As an added bonus during the set visit, all the journalists were made up as zombies to appear as extras in a key scene.
Read about my transformation into a member of the undead on the next page.
After arriving on the vast, efficiently-run set, we went through all the usual rigamarole of being an extra, but also underwent a surprisingly lengthy and very thorough zombie process. The costumes we wore were casual clothes made up of solid colors and small patterned items (no logos and no bright colors), and had been carefully torn and wrinkled to look old and worn, along with some battered old shoes that were actually pretty comfortable even by the end of the eight-hour day. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to keep anything worn on set.
Here’s a shot of me being turned into one of R’s rotting pals:
The makeup process was akin to getting your haircut at a barber school — a dozen or so chairs were lined up, each with a mirror and a collection of brushes, make-up and utensils in front of it. The professional make-up artists (mostly local) then used what seemed like ordinary women’s make-up to turn nerdy entertainment writers into sallow-eyed, pale-skinned — and, of course, blood-splattered — warriors of the undead. The dirtification of our hair and clothes followed, resulting in a small gang of journalist-ghouls.
When Corddry got at look at us during his group interview, he laughed, saying, “It smells like marketing in here! Clever marketing!”
Here’s a look at yours truly after the makeup was applied:
The assistant directors wrangled us into a large, graffiti-covered room, topped with a glass dome. Here, Levine directed the climactic scene in which M presents an army of zombies to R and Julie. M and his zombies are “ready for a fight,” as M says. We journalists, along with 150 or so other extras, were instructed to stand still, until we got in battle stance to face a group of imaginary boneys descending from the dome overhead (the CG boneys would be added in post, unfortunately). Although you may not see me for more than a split-secondin the final cut (or maybe just my arm or something), it was still a treat to be part of the undead army without having to go through the whole death thing first.
As Palmer explained, “Basically, this is the last act of the movie and there”s a battle going on between zombies and this other group of zombies who are super-ferocious. They”re sort of at the later stage of being zombified. They”re called the Boneys. I”m sure you can use your imagination there. It”s this huge battle between zombies, the Boneys and then, my father, played by John Malkovich, he heads up the military. So they”re also in on it and they”re trying to find me and R. It”s very chaotic. This is the first time that I come up and I see that there”s literally 150 zombies waiting to help us out.”
During the shoot, the make-up crew were constantly zig-zagging through the crowd of zombies, searching for anyone who needed a touch-up. They worked as fast and as professionally as a NASCAR pit team.
Levine is a casually dressed and very young-looking director who has a reputation for being easy-going on set. At roughly $40 million, “Bodies” is his priciest film, but it’s still a relatively low-budget enterprise. Levine previously helmed “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” “The Wackness” and 2011’s cancer comedy “50/50,” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick and Seth Rogen.
“People tell me I”m pretty mellow but I”m super stressed out the whole time,” Levine revealed. I like a pretty relaxed, fun set. Everyone knows they can bring whoever they want and hang out. That”s something I sort of learned from Seth and Evan [Goldberg] on “50/50”, because it was always kind of a party there and it shows onscreen when people are having a nice time. So yeah, it”s certainly laid back.”
Levine looked at previous zombie films, but was careful to not fall into parody or theft. “”28 Days Later” to me is my favorite. We watched both the Snyder ‘Dawn Of The Dead” and the Romero ‘Dawn Of The Dead.’ I watched all of the Romero ones. I watched ‘Return Of The Living Dead’ — that one”s cool, man. I like that one. But as far as references it”s more of a “28 Days Later” or even ‘I Am Legend”-type reimagining of the mythology.”
“We create our own mythology,” he continued. “There”s voiceover in the movie so the degree to which it will be explained is still being determined, but we definitely have our own rules. You still have to shoot them in the head, stuff like that. But we [also] have our own.”
Hoult and Corddry discuss the difficulties of being undead on the next page.
Hoult came to the film immediately after wrapping his role on Bryan Singer’s epic “Jack the Giant Slayer” in the U.K., and pointed out the difference between the two roles. “That one [‘Jack’] is a young farm boy who gets taken off on an epic mission and ends up being a hero. With this there’s a lot of room to try things out and have fun. Jonathan’s a great director to let you try things out, ‘more zombie, less zombie.’ We have fun in that sense, especially when Rob Corddry is around ’cause he’s always adding funny lines.”
Corddry is best known for comic roles in fare such as “Hot Tub Time Machine” and his own Adult Swim show “Children’s Hospital,” and was able to bring some levity to the largely silent role of M.
The actor expanded on the zombies’ lifestyles. “They have some kind of gut instinct for what it”s like to be human,” he explained. “They don”t really remember what it is, but they do follow these patterns. For instance, I don”t know if we”re going to do this but I suggested to Jonathan that when we first meet my character, he”s just standing and staring at the airport bar. Because he just knows that this is somehow very significant to him at some point in time. So he just sits there and stares and tries to figure it out. We haven”t shot that scene yet. Jonathan goes ‘That”s a great idea. It”s probably about a $25,000 idea”. Because we have to build the bar. So we”ll see exactly how much he liked it.”
Corddrey and Hoult even trained a bit with a Cirque du Soleil performer in order to master the body language of a zombie.
When asked if he would be recognizable under layers of make-up, Corddry joked, “No. See because this is a movie and I”m so goddamn pretty. I”m so pretty that they wanted to retain this. Because this right here [pointing to his face] is the money. You can”t scratch it up because the girls will be like ‘Nuh-uh. No. Where”s the Rob Corddry we”ve come to be slightly repulsed by?’”
Some pundits are prematurely labeling “Warm Bodies” as a zombie spin on the “Twilight” formula (it’s also from the same studio), and Marion recently announced that he was working on a book sequel. However, from the set visit and the recent trailer and released footage, “Bodies” seems to have a life of its own — one with much more humor and, possibly, more heart than the “Twilight” franchise.
Levine sees how the film could be the starting point for a franchise.”I think you could take the story that way,” he revealed. “It”s not really something I worry about. It”ll be cool to get the check. But yeah, it”s not something I worry about. I think there are further stories that could exist with these characters. I think Summit probably feels the same way.”
Watch the trailer here:
“Warm Bodies” opens February 1.