Exclusive: Jonathan Levine Talks WARM BODIES, LITTLE GIRL LOST, LEGEND, and JAMAICA

     August 16, 2011


The other day I got on the phone with director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) to talk about his great new film, 50/50.  Since our conversation covered so many subjects, I decided to break it up into two parts and I’m starting with everything he said about his future projects like Warm Bodies, Legend, Jamaica, and Little Girl Lost.  Here’s the highlights:

  • Warm Bodies is up next for Levine.  After that, he has three projects to choose from.  The scripts for Legend and Jamaica are still being written.  Michael Bacall has finished the script for Little Girl Lost.
  • Teresa Palmer  stars alongside Nicholas Hoult in Warm BodiesThe story “follows an existentially tormented zombie named R (Hoult) that begins an unlikely friendship with the human girlfriend (Palmer) of one of his victims. The blossoming relationship starts a chain reaction that will transform him, his fellow zombies and maybe the whole lifeless world.”
  • Levine says his script for Warm Bodies is “probably 75% faithful to the book,” but he enjoyed the freedom of creative license.  No “big changes.”
  • The Warm Bodies zombies are somewhere between fast and slow.  They can run fast when they are really hungry, but otherwise don’t.
  • Levine will begin a 9-week shoot in Montreal in about five weeks.  Montreal was chosen in part has an abandoned airport that will serve as a major setting, in part because Levine likes the architecture of the city.
  • The biggest challenge will be satisfying zombie purists: “It is very different, and while it’s trying to work within the framework of the genre, it’s also trying to kind of do something unique with the genre too, and I’m sure we’re violating a lot of zombie rules and I’m going to have to beg for forgiveness and hope that everyone likes it.”
  • It will be PG-13 because there is a romantic, magical tone to the story.  Levine says “we don’t need heads exploding to tell our story.”
  • There will be a lot of voiceover by Hoult’s character, but it will be nontraditional, since Hoult plays a zombie.  Levine compares it to the locked-in syndrome perspective of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
  • Warm Zombies will be a “music-heavy movie.”  Levine wrote several songs into the script, pending rights clearance.

Hit the jump for the part of the interview on his future projects.  Warm Bodies sounds like it could be very cool.

Collider: What’s the status of the films that you are prepping right now?

jonathan-levine-imageJonathan Levine: There are three movies I’m prepping right now, also a movie called Little Girl Lost at Universal. The status of all those is that, with Legend we have two great young writers who are writing a script, and I’m looking forward to reading it when they’re done. Jamaica, of course [50/50 screenwriter] Will [Reiser] is writing the script based on his personal experience, and that would be reuniting all of us in Jamaica which is a pretty compelling thought for me, I think it would be really fun. And then there’s Little Girl Lost which the script is written, Michael Bacall wrote a really great script, so that’s something that’s also really intriguing. So I feel lucky to have like three really cool things on the horizon.

Do you envision one of those three being what you do after Warm Bodies?

Levine: I mean there’s so many different things that go into getting a movie actually made and having it all come together. Between The Wackness and 50/50 I spent basically a year and a half kind of trying to maneuver and figure out what the next thing is. So yeah, you stack the deck with things you’re interested in, and then if something comes together great, and then if not you have three times the choices as you did before. I do envision one of those three being my next movie, but then again, I do really wanna write something else. The good news is that I will get to make a next movie, that’s always the good spirit. You just wanna be able to keep making them (laughs).

Is Warm Bodies your script?

Levine: It is my script, but it’s based on a book. A young man named Isaac Marion wrote a fantastic book, and Summit hired me to adapt it about a year and a half ago, so yeah I’m the only person who’s written any dialogue or any words on paper in Final Draft form on the movie, which is exciting and terrifying at the same time.

I met Marion at Comic-Con and he seems super nice, and he’s super excited that the movie’s getting made. How faithful is your script to the book? Is it like Harry Potter or did you take some liberties?

warm-bodies-book-coverLevine: I did take some liberties because, you know I really liked the book but one of the great opportunities with it is the book had not come out yet, and I loved the idea that I was not kind of handcuffed by peoples’ expectations. I loved the idea that I didn’t have to be faithful to it and I could use it as inspiration. That said, it is probably 75% faithful to the book, but it was very nice to not be married to the exact things that happened in the book, because it allowed me to be a little bit more creative.

Are there a lot of little things that you changed or did you have to make a big dramatic shift to make it all work?

Levine: Not really, no I wouldn’t say I had to do any big changes. It’s kind of a lot of little things that kind of alter the big picture slightly. There was nothing broken about the book, that was part of why I liked it because I’ve tried to adapt broken books before and it’s very, very frustrating.

Big question: fast or slow zombies?

Levine: They’re gonna be both, man. They’re not gonna be George Romero guys, they’re able to run but they don’t really run unless they’re hungry. But I’d say they’re fast zombies. They’re kinda like, have you seen that scene in Jungle Fever where Wesley Snipes goes to rescue Sam Jackson from the crack house? They’re kinda like that until they get hungry, then they just bug out.

You’re filming in Montreal, what was the motivation for filming up there?

Levine: Well a lot of the movie takes place in an abandoned airport, and Montreal had an abandoned airport which is where they shot The Terminal. So that was one of the main reasons to come here, but it’s also a wonderful city, the people are great, the crew is great, the guy who drives me to my house who’s setting next to me is wonderful. No, it was essentially for that specific location, but we really liked the architecture of the city and we’d heard great things about shooting here so that’s why we’re here.

jonathan-levine-image-03Can you talk a little about the cast you put together?

Levine: For Nicholas [Hoult] and Teresa [Palmer], I think they’re very, very exciting young actors and they’re both very technically talented, but they both have a good sense of humor and levity to them. I’ve really, really liked Teresa for a long time, ever since she actually auditioned for The Wackness I thought she was great. As far as Nic goes, I loved him on the British version of Skins, I just thought he was such a unique screen presence and very charismatic and very sweet, so I was really excited that we cast both these guys. And then we have some more awesome people that I can’t talk about yet because their deals aren’t closed, I’m sure it’ll be announced within the next couple of weeks, but it’s gonna pretty sick.

What’s interesting about the project is that it’s unlike any other zombie I’ve ever heard of. Could you talk about what the project is about and the interesting take on the material?

Levine: You know it’s an existential zombie romance, which I think on paper sounds maybe really shitty (laughs), it just could go either way. But I read the book and I fell in love with it, and I just thought it was this magical realistic thing that included social commentary and adventure and love and action, but also allowed you to address slightly more serious things. So yeah, it’s really unique. The challenges of it are getting you to care about this protagonist, he is suffering from this plague and he is essentially a walking corpse, but over the course of the movie, through this girl and stuff, he sort of re-learns what it means to be human. I think probably the biggest challenge is keeping the zombie purists, because it is very different, and while it’s trying to work within the framework of the genre, it’s also trying to kind of do something unique with the genre too, and I’m sure we’re violating a lot of zombie rules and I’m going to have to beg for forgiveness and hope that everyone likes it.

I think the only way to be creative is to sometimes break open a door that maybe most people didn’t even think to open.

Levine: I often think about it because it’s in the back of my head, and then I have to tell myself not to think about it because it’s not really one of the main things you need to be thinking about when making a movie, I think in the world of blogs and twitter and stuff as a filmmaker you’re very aware of all different types of opinions, and it’s your natural instinct to try to please people, but it’s never what’s best for the movie so you have to kind of learn to ignore it.

Are you going for PG-13 or is it going to be R?

jonathan-levine-image-04Levine: No, it’s PG-13. It’s a movie that, for me, doesn’t need to be dark in tone, it’s really a romantic kind of magical movie and while we don’t wanna pussy out on the violence, we also don’t need heads exploding to tell our story. From my perspective, a big portion of the audience would not be able to see it if it was R, so I’m happy to have it PG-13. I’m a little daunted by the challenge, I’ve never made a PG-13 movie, so everyone’s just gonna have to resist the urge to say “fuck.” We only get two nonsexual “fucks.”

I thought you only get one “fuck?”

Levine: I think you get one “fuck” if it’s sexual, like as a verb. But if it’s like “fuck that” or something, I think you get two. I could be wrong.

I think it might just be one, and I cite the example of X-Men: First Class.

Levine: Yes, that is true, but then again they didn’t really need another “fuck.” If they had another “fuck” it would’ve taken away from that one. That’s the best PG-13 “fuck” in the history of cinema.

I was just about to say that to you, that one use was absolutely magical.

Levine: I think in fact, it convinced people the entire movie was good.

I don’t know about that, I think the movie was pretty good.

Levine: Look, I liked the movie but that one scene I was like, “That’s just brilliant,” the whole thing just came together for me in that one scene.

On Warm Bodies I’m assuming there’s gonna be a lot of voice-over for Nic’s character.

Levine: Yes.

So, the voice-over is pretty much how we get everything from him?

Levine: He can get by a little bit, he has a limited vocabulary. The idea is that these guys are kind of trapped within their zombie form, their brains are sort of still working but it’s almost like a Diving Bell and the Butterfly-type thing, it’s almost like a locked-in syndrome. So he can start to formulate thoughts, but he doesn’t get very far. So yes, for the vast majority of the beginning of the movie, it’s all voice-over.

jonathan-levine-image-05When do you start filming and when do you wrap?

Levine: I start filming in five weeks, and then we wrap nine weeks after that I think. I’m here until like November 22nd.

That’s a healthy amount of time. Right before Thanksgiving.

Levine: Yes, I think it’s almost twice the amount as I’ve ever had for a movie.

A healthy amount of time.

Levine: Yes, I’m very very happy to have a healthy amount of time. We were just going through the schedule today and it’s still not enough time. Maybe it never is.

You’re obviously really into music. Have you already started formulating the soundtrack to the film in your brain?

Levine: Yeah, man. We got a lot of it actually on the page. Since I was lucky enough to be able to write it, I wrote a bunch of stuff into it. Whether we get it or not or whether it ends up being that song or not, there’s a lot of songs that are kind of guidelines for us, so that’s fun. It’s definitely a very music-heavy movie, which is cool because I know a lot of people have done that within this genre, cool music adds kind of a backdrop for it.

Did you give Teresa and Nic mix CD’s?

Levine: Not yet. I gotta put that on my list, they’re gonna get here in a couple of weeks, I’ll have something for them.

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