Is it Twilight of the Living Dead, or does the new rom-zom-com Warm Bodies have brains in more than just its victims’ heads? That’s the main question fans have been asking, and starting tomorrow they can judge for themselves. As the first four minutes released online already reveal, it’s considerably wittier and less self-serious than anything involving the names “Bella” and “Edward,” but the way it plays fast and loose with traditional zombie rules could still rankle purists: end-stage black skeletons called Bonies are the alpha dogs of the undead, and the zombie condition can be reversed if the right amount of emotion is stirred within. It’s not quite Romeo and Juliet with dead and living replacing the Montagues and the Capulets, but that’s definitely a name-checked starting point in the story of a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult) who protects a human fighter named Julie (Teresa Palmer).
Director Jonathan Levine’s last movie was the cancer comedy 50/50, which expertly balanced the tones of sad and silly. I was anxious to get his take on this night of the loving dead.
Luke Y. Thompson: Like many critics, I’m a huge fan of 50/50. Do you see a common thread between potentially curable cancer and potentially curable zombiedom?
Jonathan Levine: Well, I don’t like to compare them, because obviously one is a very serious thing, and one is just a silly thing. But I think the common ground between the two of them – between the tones of the two movies – is that you’re taking the circumstances that are not great, whether it’s Adam in 50/50 or this guy, just the absurdity of this situation just overwhelms him, Nick’s character – you’re using it as an opportunity to create humor. I think that’s a common thread between the two of them. And I think that I am attracted to protagonists who are very isolated by their circumstances.
Obviously, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character feels so isolated from the world in that movie up until the very end, when he learns to kind of re-embrace his friends, and to come out the other side better for having had that experience. And obviously R’s affliction is that he physically is trapped, and he can’t connect with other people. So I do think that that’s a common ground between the two of them, but I would hesitate to compare the two! (laughs)
LYT: Was the isolation what drew you to the book in the first place?
JL: Yes, what drew me to the book was kind of the central conceit of zombie-ism as almost shyness, you know? And the idea that if you’re sitting opposite Teresa Palmer, and you’re a dude, you’re going to have a hard time getting any words out whether you’re a zombie or not! And then this idea of this plague as something that affects all of us, as a metaphor for what it means to be alive, and what it means to truly be living your life. I found that really, really interesting. Are you really living, even if you’re alive? I think Nick’s character lives more than a lot of the characters who are alive, who claim to be living their lives. I love that moment in the movie where everyone is walking through the airport looking at their phones, and he’s like “It must have been so much better before.” Everyone is isolated in their own technological bubble.
LYT: When they put that first four minutes on line, I was happy to see the Romero-style satire. This movie gets it.
JL: Yeah. We were very much – I think that’s what kind of made all of the Romero movies so vibrant; it’s social commentary. And what (original book author) Isaac (Marion) is doing is also social commentary. Even though he’s definitely changing some of the rules, or tweaking some of the rules, it all comes from the same place. Hopefully we can get George Romero to come look at our version of it! I don’t know.
LYT: You mentioned the metaphor from the guy’s side of being awkward and tongue-tied, but also from the female’s side, you’ve got the whole “I can tame the bad boy” type of thing.
JL: Yeah! Wow, I never even thought about that. Is that something that girls like to do? I guess so. Someone asked me earlier today if that’s what being in love means, to want to change someone. I said, “I don’t think that’s exactly what being in love means!” I think what being in love means is giving someone enough support to let them be the best version of themselves. I think that’s what Teresa does for Nick in the movie. But I guess there probably is that fantasy of taming – I always thought of Nick, we looked at all of these pictures of Sid Vicious for his character, so there was always a kind of punk-rock thing to him, so maybe there’s a little bit of that, too.
LYT: I think you actually just nailed the subtext of why women like the “taming the bad boy” thing – that it is about making people be the best version of themselves.
JL: I hope so, man! Certainly I hope it’s not just trying to change – you know, you get into relationships, and you think, “If only this person did this one thing differently!” I think that’s the bad version of it. I think it’s hopefully about making people be the best versions of themselves.
LYT: You talked about changing the rules. When you thought about the rules of this world, how geek-level did you go into, figuring out in your own mind how the zombie plague (or whatever it is) works, and the mechanics of the evolution into the Bonies and the evolution back?
JL: You know, it’s interesting – we had to walk a fine line, because on one level, I think audiences today crave a scientific explanation. Through the more recent version of zombies, whether it’s the Danny Boyle version, whether it’s I Am Legend, whatever – people need a grounded explanation. And on the other hand, there’s part of this movie that’s just magical. There’s part of this movie that does have that sort of, it was Disney and now it’s sort of Pixar…you just have to go with it. The soul of love affects everyone, you just have to go with it, and if you’re cynical, then you’re like “Fuck this, that’s stupid,” but for me, I kind of love that idea. I love the central metaphor of a good infection spreading, the same way that the zombie infection spreads.
So we went a little more, we geeked out a little more over the zombie rules. I definitely rewatched a bunch of zombie movies just to figure out what we could get away with and what we couldn’t get away with, but as far as the rules for the cure, we looked at it more like it was a plague, like if someone with a stroke had to relearn brain function, or had to reopen a part of their brain. That was how we grounded that. We had to kind of tweak it and look at it in a slightly different framework in order for it to really make sense within our own world.
LYT: For example, I know you have fast zombies and there are slow zombies. Is the idea that they get faster as they deteriorate, then they ultimately become the Bonies?
JL: It’s mostly that they get faster when they get around food. I think it’s mostly they’re the slow zombies, and then they have some sense of adrenal pulse when they get close to food. So they’re not running all the time, but they also have the capability of running. And yeah, as they deteriorate more, obviously the Bonies are a lot faster than the zombies. As they get more and more away from human, they do seem to become faster.
LYT: When he first has her in the plane, and he says it’s not safe for her to try to escape, how is it safe for them to start a car and drive around?
JL: Well, I can’t answer that! (laughs) That’s one of those things where in the script phase, we thought that would be a big question. But they’re in the car, so they can get away with it. This is how I justified it to myself. What I had to do – because listen, dude, they can’t be in the fucking plane for like five scenes in a row; it’s really boring! So I had to get them out there. So we were like, “They can be driving around, and they can outdrive the Bonies.” So that’s what we figured it was – it was something that definitely as we were screening it, people either went with it, or were like “No way!” But I think it makes sense. I think they could get away from those guys. I think he was trying to take her for a romantic ride, and they could outrun those guys in a car way faster than they could run.
LYT: I want to ask about a couple of changes from the book, while dancing around spoilers. There’s a moment in the book where he regresses, which could arguably be the “Romeo slew Tybalt” moment.
JL: When he eats the guard’s brains?
JL: We actually shot that. And what we found was that, I don’t know why it’s different in the movie, whether it’s because you’ve seen him come so far, or whether it’s just actually watching him do it, but it just didn’t work. You felt like he had gone too far, you felt like he had become too much of a human to go back in that way. And so we ended up having to cut it.
Also, in the book, it comes right after this wonderful scene where he’s been drinking, and in the movie, we needed this kind of ticking clock internal momentum, so we couldn’t have – in the book, they start drinking, and it’s this wonderful digression – but we couldn’t get away with it, it just lost the momentum of the movie. So now, without the justification of him being drunk, we can’t have him just eating guys’ brains, because then he’s just a total dick! Then everything that happened beforehand, he’s thrown it all away. So that’s why we took it out.
LYT: This we can barely talk about, but a certain major character’s fate is significantly different. Is it part of a general lightening of the tone overall that you were going for, or is there a specific story reason?
JL: I basically rejiggered the third act to make it more of a straight action movie. I think the third act of the book is much more metaphysical, more intellectual. I felt like we needed to push it more in a visceral direction, and that is the rationale for a lot of the changes in the third act. That doesn’t exactly explain that one, but it’s a house of cards, upon which all of that stuff relies. I don’t want to specifically talk about that.
LYT: When this project first became publicly known, people were saying it sounded like Twilight with zombies. Was that something you were glad to hear, because you can get a fan base that way, or were you not glad to hear that because there were people who hated it? How do you feel about that comparison, and is it something that you wanted to embrace or disprove?
JL: I think it’s a little bit of both. On the one hand, we fully embrace the Twilight audience, we think this is a movie that they’ll really enjoy, so I don’t want to completely reject that premise. There are things that are obviously valid comparisons between the two films. But on the other hand, it’s a bit of a bummer, because it’s not that. It got painted as this “We’re going to grab the Twilight audience, they don’t have any more Twilight, they have got to go see something!” That is SO not the case. This movie came from this pure creativity from this writer – it just came from him, he was not thinking about Twilight, he wasn’t thinking about The Walking Dead, he wasn’t thinking about anything except how to write a creative, fun story, and that’s the same way I was thinking, so I just want people to know it’s this unique thing, it’s not a cynical thing.
So it’s a double-edged sword. But I think when people see it, they will understand that it’s both for the Twilight audience and it’s for lots of other people, and I hope that lots of people embrace it, and know that our hearts are in the right place.
Warm Bodies opens tomorrow.