In October 2011, I was lucky enough to visit the set of Jonathan Levine‘s Warm Bodies. The film follows R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who falls in love with the non-zombie Julie (Teresa Palmer) after eating her boyfriend’s brains. Judging by the trailers, it looks like Levine has crafted a sweet, funny rom-zom-com.
In addition to getting zombified on the set, I got the chance to speak with Levine during a break in filming. During our conversation, we talked about influential zombie films, creating their own rules, working with his largest budget to date, what he learned from 50/50, balancing the horror and romantic elements, and much more. Hit the jump to check out the interview. Warm Bodies opens February 1st.
JONATHAN LEVINE: Summit had the book and I’d wanted to do a movie with them for a while. They were fans of The Wackness, this was before I did 50/50. And so I read the book and I just fell in love with the world and the ideas of it and the characters. It’s not something I ever really imagined myself doing but it was very specific to these characters and specific to this world that there was an opportunity to create something unique that I don’t think you get to do much in movies these days with everything people are doing on this scale, even though it’s not a huge movie.
Did you gravitate towards the genre aspect of the zombies? Or as Theresa was saying the Romeo And Juliet –
LEVINE: I like the love stuff, man. I like zombie movies and I like genre movies a lot. To watch. Less so to make, I think. But I grew up on that stuff. I would just grow up watching a lot of horror movies, a lot of slasher movies and then zombie movies. But no, I’m a little more pretentious about that shit. So no.
Why the love story?
LEVINE: I like the allegorical significance of it. 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. 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.
Did the actors come with the project?
LEVINE: No, they didn’t. We cast them both. They both auditioned and we cast them both.
What was it about Nicholas especially?
LEVINE: You’ll see. If Nick didn’t work, the whole movie’s preposterous. He’s essentially playing, with every line he has to find what it means to be a talking zombie. There’s not that many historical references for talking zombies so he’s essentially creating it. He was interested in the role and he came in, and I really liked him from Skins, so we essentially did a workshop session together. It wasn’t so much an audition as much as it was trying to get it up on its feet and see whether is sucked or not. And he was just really really good right off the bat. Which is remarkable because the degree of difficulty of what he’s doing is incredibly high. And he immediately had a take on it that was great.
LEVINE: I guess? People tell me I’m pretty mellow but I’m super stressed out the whole time. I mean sometimes I just go with a handheld and just like, sit. It’s nice because around here there’s 2,4,6,8,10 chairs. It’s nice to kind of get away from it. 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 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. I don’t know if you guys were here before lunch but we had to fucking move and we made sure we did. But in between those kind of things it’s pretty mellow.
How were you able to inject your typical irreverence into a PG-13, bigger budget arena?
LEVINE: The PG-13 thing is interesting because I’ve only ever done R-rated movies but it’s not a big deal because this movie’s not meant to be ‘R’. It’s not like I wish I could get that one extra ‘Fuck’, you know?. We have our ‘Fuck’ and we know where it is and we’re good with it. Yes, we like to push the envelope with the gore and the violence, but this movie’s about heart. It’s not about the gore and the violence even though we’ve shot some of the most disgusting things you will ever see.
LEVINE: Eating the brains is pretty bad. I don’t think it will ever fully make it into the movie because it’s pretty hardcore.
LEVINE: R-Rated DVD. Exactly.
[In terms of] zombie films, are you pulling from anything in particular?
LEVINE: Not really. 28 Days Later to me is like 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. I watched pretty much all I could. Dead Alive… what else did I watch?”
So talking zombies, Day Of The Dead?
LEVINE: Day Of The Dead, yeah that had talking zombies. But also Return Of The Living Dead had talking zombies.
“Send more cops”.
LEVINE [zombie voice]: “Send more cops”.
LEVINE: We create our own mythology. 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 have our own.
What about the whole apocalyptic aspect of it? Do you explain what happened or is it just kind taken for granted that this happened five or six years prior?
LEVINE: We know what happens. And we know we have the option to explain what happened because a lot of it is going to be told through found footage or things that are playing on monitors in flashbacks and stuff like that. I think we’re going to play with exactly how much we’re going to explain and how much we’re going to leave to the imagination once we have the big picture of the movie. We’re going to see how much it feels like people need that explanation. I think audiences these days like the explanation whereas before you could get away with nothing and it was almost more mysterious. I err on the side of explaining more, but we’ll see.
Since this is a slightly bigger budget than 50/50 –
LEVINE: Five times the budget.
And certainly bigger than The Wackness or All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Does that afford you time to work with your actors? Does it change the process at all?
LEVINE: It’s interesting, no. I actually have less time to work with the actors because there’s more going on. On 50/50, even though it was 8 million dollars, it was all acting intensive. So we would sit down and talk about it and really [get into it]. And with Nick and Theresa we had a lot of rehearsal time so we were able to talk about it, but on the day we just have to do it. We started with this airplane chunk of stuff which is the more intensive acting stuff so they could kind of track the arcs of their characters. So that really helps kind of ground us in their knowledge of what they’re doing, since we shoot everything out of order [it helps them] track their characters. And beyond that, it’s really about just kind of doing it. They know what they’re doing. Ideally for me it’s like they know what they’re doing, and then we just go do it. And if things change on set it’s less about performance and more about the mechanics of something not working or stuff like that. But yeah I don’t have as much time with them, nor do I feel like I need it. 50/50 was a really actor driven thing and this this movie still lives or dies on the performances, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on besides performance too.
LEVINE: The biggest thing with this job is you gotta pick the right people. I really liked the effects in Black Swan and a lot of the Aronofsky movies so we picked this guy Dan Schrecker, who’s our visual effects supervisor who is doing a wonderful job. And he’s teaching me, I don’t really know much about it. But it’s really about having the right personnel.
Are you able to be as hands on as you would like with that stuff given that you’re kind of a novice at it?
LEVINE: It hasn’t happened yet. All I see is guys in green suits running around. And you know, at the end of the day I’ll be able to watch it and control it but… what David Gordon Green told me is that you just have to be like, “It’s not good enough. Do it more, do it better. It’s not good enough”. That was really the advice.
Can you tell us a little about this set? I notice the graffiti. Can you talk about what this location is and why the characters are here at this point?
LEVINE: Yes. The graffiti is something Martin, our production designer, and I really liked. It’s kind of something we saw in ‘Children Of Men’ that we really liked which is the world, in spite of the fact that everything’s going to sh*t, people are still doing the things they would do in an anarchic society and a society where things just fall apart. SO that’s what the graffiti’s about. There’s some homages to Bansky, there’s some homages to Shepherd Fairey, and it’s a really cool aspect of what we’re doing. As far as where we are, this city is amazing because it has a defunct stadium and a totally empty airport. So we’re able to go into these places that used to be teeming with life and have them be completely empty and able to do kind of interesting things with them. So that’s part of why we came to this city and part of why we set this scene here. As far as this scene goes [on the particular day we were there] it’s kind of in the beginning of the third act when things are really ramping up and it’s zombies and humans fighting each other, zombies fighting these creatures called ‘Bonies’ and this is sort of where everything hits the fan. And yesterday we were shooting on the field which was amazing.
When you were doing press for 50/50, you said for that movie you really wanted to service that material. That you were there to help bring that material to life. This is much more your material, you adapted this book. Do you feel like this is much more your vision this time around?
LEVINE: I feel like with this there’s a lot more on my back. But I feel like 50/50 was my vision too. It’s just as much as that was a more collaborative vision, whereas this is more of a personal vision. But this is vision based on Isaac Marion’s vision, who wrote the book. So very little of it is invented from scratch. In that way I’m sort of helping facilitate someone else’s vision.
How close is it to the book?
LEVINE: It’s pretty faithful. In the 3rd act we changed some things.
What did you find that you needed to change?
LEVINE: In the book it’s all told from his perspective. And he had to kind of split the point of view a little bit in the 3rd act, in order to tell the whole story we couldn’t be in that one person’s specific point of view. And as the tension ramped up we wanted to be in the adventure movie mode and less of the existential movie mode. So that’s why we had to kind of splinter the point of view a little bit and do more stuff like that. And we also had to change things to accommodate our budget and accommodate the city we’re in and stuff like that.
Talking about the different movie modes, this is a romantic movie. There’s comedy. There’s obviously some action happening. The balance of those tones, is that something you’re doing here on set or is that something you’re going to do in the editing room?
LEVINE: This is another thing I sort of learned on 50/50. You always give yourself options. Even in the first scene we were doing, we had Corddry and it’s kind of a serious scene but once we had it in the serious way I asked him to throw something in at the end. And he’s so funny that he can just light up the whole scene. And once he did that, that was the funny take. So that was a little too funny. Then by the fourth and fifth take we had a good combination of the serious and the funny. So I will have the option in the editing room to do any number of those things. Within reason, you play on set. To do a serious scene completely funny would be silly, you know what I mean? But you still give yourself little variances.
LEVINE: Oh come on!
Can you talk about your restrictions on budget? What were some of the things you wanted that you couldn’t afford?
LEVINE: Yeah. Isaac wrote a stadium into the end, in the end they all kind of live in a stadium like they’d built a shantytown. And we couldn’t do that. I think the limitation forced us to rethink it in a way that’s better. But the thing you always want is more time. I feel pretty good about the scope of the movie, but more money equals more time to play and change things. But there’s never anything where I fell like we’re lacking. So I don’t know. I may disagree with James Cameron, but Avatar is pretty cool.
How do you work with Nick? Because I assume over the course of the movie he begins to be able to talk more and probably begins more mute. How do you work with him to find those things that work onscreen and tell his emotional story?
LEVINE: That’s one of those things… he’s pretty good. He tracks himself so well that he doesn’t really need me but every once in a while I’ll just be kind of like give me 20% more zombie or 20% more person. And it really works. The good thing is, if you have a good relationship with an actor it’s nice because they’re your friend and you’re comfortable being “eh, that wasn’t so good”. Whereas if you have a either not comfortable relationship with them or are intimidated by them you cannot, you can’t talk to them like they’re normal people. With Nick, he’s such a down to earth guy and so egoless and so wonderful it’s super easy to be like, “I don’t know man, this isn’t quite working.” But that’s very rare because he’s taken the responsibility of tracking that himself. But yes, he does have a progression.
Does he become more human as the story evolves?
Speaking of actors who might be intimidating, John Malkovich is in this movie.
LEVINE: Yeah, I was intimidated by Malkovich. I was intimidated by Malkovich for like a couple of days and then I wasn’t. He’s awesome. He’s so cool. He was so wonderful to work with. He has a lot of scenes with Theresa and he really kind of took her under his wing and was very very nurturing to her. I just find him to be so incredibly funny. I would like to do a comedy with him too. He’s such a funny, nice, unbelievable guy. I met him for a drink and he’s halfway through a 2,000 page book about Casanova because he’s doing I think an opera about Casanova. He’s picking swatches for his fashion line that is made out of Italy. It’s like insane. Now he’s doing an opera and then he’s directing a version of Dangerous Liaisons in French, he speaks fluent French to everyone on the crew. It’s unbelievable. Yeah, so he’s cool. Even though he’s not intimidating, it’s like that voice that’s really kind of intimidating, you know. He’s wonderful, we all loved him
Does this movie have a potential for, I don’t want to say a franchise, but beyond what we see in this version?
LEVINE: I think you could take the story that way, yeah. 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.
LEVINE: It’s interesting, you know. I think, to me, it’s a movie about love. So I think girls are more willing to [be open to] that. Hopefully it has enough for guys that it’s appealing and hopefully guys can open their hearts to it and no worry about the romanticness of it. I think it’s certainly for younger people. It’s supposed to be fun and accessible and I think hopefully a lot of people will enjoy it. As we’re making it, my editor is a woman named Nancy Richardson and she’s very attuned to the love aspects of it and I’m kind of getting really into that. I hope that all audiences will fall for these characters and that it doesn’t get too sappy and that they’ll be into it. I should show you guys the scene.
[Levine shows us the scene, which you can read about in my set visit.]
Sucking somebody’s blood is sexy. Eating somebody’s brain is incredibly invasive. How do you, for the audience, bring that around? That here’s a guy who ate her boyfriend’s brain, in fact.
LEVINE: You know, it’s challenging. 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 than ‘R-Patz’ or whatever. Hopefully, and I think he is, he’s endearing enough that people will overlook the eating brains part. Everyone has some negative things that they bring to a relationship!
People make mistakes.
LEVINE: Yeah, everyone.
Do you also bring in other zombie elements to differentiate him from somebody that might be severely brain-damaged?
LEVINE: When you see them going to hunt and going to eat people and stuff, they go in a pack. 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.
Here’s more from my visit to the set of Warm Bodies:
- Matt Visits the Set of Warm Bodies and Gets Turned into a Zombie
- Nicholas Hoult Talks about Eating Brains, Playing an Unconventional Hero, Communicating without Words, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Teresa Palmer Talks about Her Favorite Zombie Movie, Having a Relationship with a Zombie, the Influence of Romeo and Juliet, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Rob Corddry Talks about Learning Zombie Moves from Cirque du Soleil, His Love of Zombie Movies, Children’s Hospital, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Producer Bruna Papandrea Talks Working with Director Jonathan Levine, Aiming for a PG-13 Rating, Zombie Sex, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies