The world has been so overrun with zombies on screens big (“World War Z”) and small (“The Waking Dead”), it’s hard to imagine a safe zone still exists containing conceit that hasn’t been sucked dry and picked over by the current invasion of undead entertainment. And even though “Warm Bodies,” based on Isaac Marion’s debut novel, isn’t the first paranormal post-apocalyptic romance to unite a dead-eyed otherworldly creature (Nicholas Hoult) with a plucky red-blooded survivor (Teresa Palmer), writer-director Jonathan Levine was determined to transcend any superficial similarities to a certain vampire empire by casting the story as an archetypal ‘80s narrative about a pop culture-savvy loser who wins over a girl way out of his league on the rock-solid basis of their friendship. In other words it's a John Hughes-George Romero mashup movie.
Levine, best known for “The Wackness,” his exuberantly druggy coming-of-age story that took home the Audience Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, he approached the adaptation with a strategy to avoid the tired tropes littered throughout the undead canon: He wrote the film as if it were a straight up love story about an outsider who gets the girl -- just add zombies and a wild array of pop culture references. Signature spoke with Levine this week and came away with some insight into a few of those touchstones and his high-aiming ambitions for his contribution to the zom-com genre and the sudden fascinating with all things zombie.
Signature: You’ve assembled quite a diverse body of work in a short period of time. Was that something you set out to do?
Jonathan Levine: It was kind of by design. I learned some big lessons on my first film, a horror film which was never released in the US, even though we sold it to Harvey Weinstein for a lot of money. I had done the film because my friends were working on it and I liked the script but mostly because I didn’t have anything else to do and I was twenty-something and I wanted to make a film. It wasn’t my passion in life to make that movie. And then I made that film and all of a sudden people were like, ‘Do you want to do “Saw V?” I was like, ‘No!’ I found a piece of material I liked and I found a way into it; but I’m not going to let you tell me what I’m going to be.
So then I wrote "The Wackness” and that helped bring in things and then “50/50” was an amazing opportunity to work with people who I admired and who were my peers and it was a wonderful script. I do think there’s a thematic through-line with my other stuff but "Warm Bodies" stemmed from a conscious desire to grow and work with a bigger palate as a filmmaker.
SIG: You mentioned you saw a through-line, I’d be curious how you connect “Warm Bodies” to “50/50” and “The Wackness.”
J.L.: Can I connect it to “The Wackness” because I’m not really comfortable comparing it with what the writer went through. Comparing zombies with cancer is not something I’m comfortable doing. But all three have these young male protagonists who are, for whatever reason, lost. In the same way “The Wackness” deals with social pressures and first love, "Warm Bodies" deals with that too, only through the metaphor of being a zombie.
SIG: The zombieness of it all was kind of incidental.
J.L.: Right. The best way for me to access the material was to think of as a story about a guy and a girl. That’s not to say it wasn’t a really clever device. In order to make sure the characters were really grounded, I approached it as a story between a boy and a girl.
SIG: How did the material find its way to you?
J.L.: There was a producer who was eager to work with me after “The Wackness” and he had already bought this book and I read the first two pages in one of the executives offices at Summit and I thought, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ And then I finished the book, which was important to do. It wasn’t like they handed it to me. This was before “50/50” so I still had to audition for the job. So I went in with a bunch of references and tone and talked about how I would adapt it and luckily they gave me the opportunity to do it.
SIG: What were some of your references? What was your take on it?
J.L.: Everything from “Edward Scissorhands” to Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” There were tons of zombie movies and post-apocalyptic movies. But we always liked the “Edward Scissorhands” thing. I think I also showed them “Being There” as well as a reference to a protagonist who can’t really express himself. I talked a lot about how I loved the humor of the book. The great thing about the book is I was able to cherry pick from all these movies I loved and feel as though if I could come with the right alchemy it would be something unique.
SIG: “Edward Scissorhands” is a classic outsider story. But “Romeo + Juliet” really roots its narrative in pop culture and how that animates the film. Was that on your mind?
J.L.: Yeah. In the book music was always really important to him and pop culture was always used as this shorthand for what we lost before the world ended. So I think the way Baz Luhrmann was able to do that, it has this pastiche feel to it and it was refracted through the lens of pop culture. One of my favorite moments in the film is when the zombie is reading Us Weekly. I liked to send little cues to the audience to say, 'this is how this song makes you feel.'
SIG: It was a tough needle to thread because you also had to make the romance viable.
J.L.: That was the hardest part -- to make it believable. I remember we tested the film and one of the questions was, 'What did you think of the relationship?' And most of them said, ‘realistic.’ And I was like, 'What do you mean realistic? One of them’s a zombie and the other is human. It’s not gonna happen. Zombies don’t exist! How can it be realistic?' And I realized what they meant was that they believed the way that relationship unfolded. That made me happy because it’s hard to understand why she’d fall for him. One of the greatest things was that they become friends before they become romantic. And I think that’s really interesting and I don’t think you get that a lot in modern teen romances. They fall in love from the first moment they’re on camera.
SIG: That used to happen more in ‘80s teen movies.
J.L.: Yeah, and that’s what I was going for. Really this guy is our Anthony Michael Hall or our Jon Cryer. The point being those John Hughes movies were incredibly influential and I wanted this to be a throwback to that type of movie.
SIG: Did a lot of that come from the book? How many liberties did you take in the adaptation?
J.L.: The movie is pretty consistent with the book in terms of tone. But the book is a little more lyrical and almost metaphysical, which I think shifts the tonal balance less toward comedy. All the elements of it were there in the book. The book gave a lot more real estate to the central themes and metaphors. The tone of the romance in the book was always the same, always with a slight wink and a nudge. But the book did spend more time working out the central allegorical conceits, which is what it means to be human.
SIG: What’s the appeal of zombies? Why are we obsessed with them all of a sudden?
J.L.: I think it’s cyclical. Zombies have been around for ages and vampires have run their course, we’ve had so many vampire movies. Zombies have always had a lot of built in social commentary. But I think the biggest thing is that we’re living in a day and age where for whatever reason we feel like we’re on the precipice of the apocalypse. We like to explore that in our stories. Whether it comes from listening to the news or what we’re doing to the planet or what. I just went to the movie theater and saw previews for two post-apocalyptic movies, one was a Tom Cruise movie and the other was M. Night Shyamalan movie. That aspect of it – how are we bringing ourselves to the precipice of self-destruction – that seems to be fascinating to people.
SIG: Your musical choices were intriguingly incongruous, like the scene where Tom Waits is playing as a zombie eats someone’s brains.
J.L.: That was my editor who found that. I really just loved it. There’s the John Hughes connection to it and I had written a lot of ‘80s music into the script. Only two things I wrote into the script made it into the movie, “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Patience” by Guns and Roses. But I had written a lot of music into the script. But you need to see if it works for the cut and it’s a lot about tempo. The John Hughes teen movies were always really important to me even to the point where there was Psychadelic Furs song in the movie for a while but it was a little too on the nose. But what I loved about the book was that he used music to communicate and that I could use some great album rock. I love the way music becomes a shorthand for what everyone has lost. We have a spotify playlist you can buy.
SIG: Are you looking at other books to adapt?
J.L.: Yeah. I always look at myself as kind of a work in progress. I hope that’s not always the case. But for me, every film is a learning experience. So you learn so much from adapting a book and there are so many books out there. I like to go where the material is. But the next thing I’m doing is writing an original screenplay. But I’m open and available to adapt books as well.