“Warm Bodies” is not your typical zombie movie. Directed and written by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”), this film adds a “Romeo & Juliet” element to this flick that is often associated with brain-dead, lumbering, soulless undead who crave brains and other body organs they can get their hands.
The movie is told from the first person perspective of a zombie named R (Nicolas Hoult) as he shuffles aimlessly through an airport as he contemplates his meaningless existence. One day, he falls in love with a human survivor named Julie (Teresa Palmer) and recues her from a zombie attack. As they get to know each other, they form a special relationship as R become more human through his infatuation with Julie. I had the opportunity to sit down with Levine and Analeigh Tipton (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”), who plays Julie’s friend, Nora, when they were in town promoting the movie a couple of weeks ago.
Having written two screenplay with “The Wackness” and now “Warm Bodies,” what would you say is the difference between writing an original to adapting a novel while directing the same project?
Jonathan Levine: “The Wackness” was more challenging in a way because it was a very personal story. Any time you are telling a personal story, you have to be careful because sometimes some of the stuff that happens to you in life are not that interesting. When it’s happening to you, it’s interesting, but when you are dramatizing, it might not be that interesting. One of the hardest things about writing is structure and one of the first drafts of “The Wackness” was 160 pages or something ridiculous. I had to go back and put a structure into it, but the great thing about adapting a book, if it’s a good book and if the structure is there, you can take the structure. You don’t have to worry about that. In this case and with this specific book, it was much easier because structurally, the book was in a great place. As far as directing it, it is also easier to direct something you adapted from a book because you have one degree of separation from it. As a filmmaker, the more critical and unbiased you can be about stuff, the better off you are. With “The Wackness,” I was so in it and it was so much about my life and all this stuff that it was really hard to take a step back and be like “That scenes sucks. I should not have written that scene. That scene was me trying to work something out with my mom or something. That scene is not about telling the story.” In this film, there was nothing like that. I always had a degree of critical distance, which is really necessary whenever you are doing something good.
Is it any different directing a film written by another screenwriter like you did with “50/50” and “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane?”
Levine: Same thing, man. That is also easier. The further away you can get, the better. What Seth (Rogen) and Evan (Goldberg) taught me because they come from the Judd Apatow world of no matter what, you keep throwing ideas after ideas. You are never lazy and you can always make the script and the scene better. That’s what I learn from them working on “50/50” and that’s a great thing to learn. You keep pushing yourself. The scene is never done even after it is shot. You have to do ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) and stuff to make it better.
With “Warm Bodies” being a zombie movie, what is your favorite zombie movie?
Levine: I would say “Return of the Living Dead” because (to Analeigh) I know you are going to say “Night of the Living Dead.”
Analeigh Tipton: You are right. It is “Night of the Living Dead” because it was the first zombie film that I have ever seen.
Levine: “Return of the Living Dead” is my favorite zombie movie because I think it is the most fun zombie movie I have ever seen. Have you seen it?
Levine: Wasn’t it awesome. The score was fantastic.
My personal favorite zombie movie is “Shaun of the Dead.”
Levine: I am just trying to come up with something different, but I think “Shaun of the Dead” is brilliant and Edgar (Wright) is an incredible filmmaker. “Zombieland “ and “28 Days Later” are also amazing movies. I’m lying about “Return of the Living Dead.” “28 Days Later” is really my favorite zombie movie.
Did you guys have a difficult time or day during the production of this movie?
Tipton: Honestly, I think finding Nora’s comedic balance might have been difficult, but Jonathan was really great at directing me through the spectrum. The hardest thing while I was in Montreal was being away from set because when I wasn’t on set, I would eat a lot of Montreal food, which was great, but I would miss being on set.
Levine: But you got to go to Moksha (Yoga)
Tipton: I went to Moksha and taught yoga. It was an interesting experience.
Levine: She was really good at teaching in this little yoga place. I had a couple of difficult days on set, but there was this one day where you’re out at night and we were up all night driving and it’s freezing and you’re making it rain and I would have to stand close to the rain towers. My Montreal crew told me “Dude, you should dress warmer” and I said I was fine wearing my jacket. I got soaked to the bone. I spent the rest of the night in wet clothes. It wasn’t fun.
Since “Warm Bodies” is a comedy, was there any room for improvisation during production?
Levine: Lots I think, right?
Tipton: Yeah. Jonathan gave us lots of freedom and he was incredibly open for ideas and bouncing ideas back.
Levine: I always thing that if you cast funny people like with Analeigh and Rob Corddry and for them to their best, you have to give them the freedom to be willing to deviate from the script. I love it when not a single line I wrote is in the movie. I love it when people take the idea of the scene and use their own words or add a joke. I think it’s really great.
I was reading portions of the “Warm Bodies” novel and without spoiling the movie, I noticed the character of General Grigio, played by John Malkovich, has a much different fate than in the movie? How did you decide to change his fate?
Levine: That happened very late in the screenwriting process and I think it is because we all started to sort of like him more. In the book, he represents something slightly different. As his character evolved in our script, the more we had a hard time writing in his original fate. It was literally just us, meaning the producers and myself , being “We like this guy too much to have him go out like that.”
“Warm Bodies” is now playing in Hialeah theaters. Click here for showtimes.