“Warm Bodies” is an amusing riff on every teen romance, especially since this time it’s a zombie who falls for the girl. R (Nicholas Holt) has to keep his zombie appetite in check after he becomes smitten with Julie (Teresa Palmer). Can a zombie in love make it in this post-apocalyptic world, especially when he is being hunted down by Julie’s father, Colonel Gigio (John Malkovich)?
In honor of today’s Blu-ray/DVD release, we sat down with writer/director Jonathan Levine about adapting Isaac Marion’s zombie romance novel to the big screen, keeping actor Nicholas Hoult as a sweet zombie, and how he got viewers laughing while scaring them at the same time.
MTV Geek: Tell me what interested you about Isaac Marion’s novel, “Warm Bodies?”
Jonathan Levine: When I read it, I was incredibly drawn to how clever it was. I thought it was a great opportunity to explore some of the themes on a bigger palette. It was funny and clever. I really loved the characters. It was unique. It was unlike anything I read.
Geek: Tell me about Nicholas Hoult, who starts out as a mumbling, slow zombie and slowly changes throughout the movie.
Levine: Yeah, Nicholas has become a really good friend. I think he’s one of the greatest young actors out there. What he was able to do with that character, I think is pretty remarkable. That’s a very difficult thing to do. Not only is it difficult technically, it’s also difficult for a young actor to have confidence to try something weird. He has this innate sweetness that radiates and a technical ability as his character slowly changes. It’s an amazing thing! I knew he’d be good, but I’m still blown away at how adept he was in creating that character.
Geek: Tell me about building the chemistry between Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult as Julie and R.
Levine: The first thing was that they needed to have an amount of chemistry before we decided to cast them. We already had Nic and a few Julies opposite him. Teresa’s energy really played the best off of his energy. We knew from the start that they were going to click in that way. In rehearsals, I like to create an honest environment that is kinda free and fun. And so, we took our time and I think it allowed them to build their relationship. We did the airplane scene first, so they had a grounding sense of the arc of their relationship from the very beginning. That was really nice to be able to do those meaty character scenes right off the bat.
Geek: Tell me about R’s voice-over narration and how that came about.
Levine: When I read the book, when I thought about adapting, I knew that was always going to be there. One of the great strengths of the book is the irreverence of the voiceover. As we progressed, we kept tweaking the voiceover more and more to give it hubris and to read quickly as possible, so that the audience knew the tone of our movie. We kept changing and changing the voiceover until the very last minute. But, I think it was very important to help you get into this guy’s internal monologue.
Geek: Tell me about Rob Corddry. There were scenes where he had to communicate with Nicholas Hoult through grunts and body language.
Levine: [Laughs] Those scenes were very scary! I remember at the beginning, before we rehearsed anything, I was really concerned about those scenes. Are they going to be boring? Is it just two people grunting at each other? Then we rehearsed them, I’m like, “Oh no, they’re really, really funny, compelling, and engaging!” It was the way they both played off of each other. Those are some of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Geek: Tell me about working with John Malkovich.
Levine: That was an incredible experience! Not only is he a genius actor, but a sweet, charming man. He’s someone I idolized since I saw him do “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Of Mice And Men.” He’s just a wonderful and generous actor. He puts the scene on his back in a way like I’ve never seen. He’s not only thinking about himself, he’s also thinking about the entire scene. He has a strong background in theater and storytelling. It was great having someone else around to help support me and I really appreciated it.
Geek: Tell me about the challenges of mixing comedy and scares.
Levine: I think the challenge, especially in this movie where you’re in his head so much, you can’t be scary in a traditional zombie movie. You know what the guy’s thinking and we’re humanizing this character. We decided to go pretty hard for the comedy and just have an atmosphere of dread, melancholy hanging over the comedy a little bit. It was more important for the movie to be funny than scary. I always knew there were limitations at how scary the movie could be. But within those limitations, we tried to go as far as possible, especially with the PG-13 rating. We tried to keep the gore within that rating. It is very difficult. It is also difficult combining romance and comedy as well. There are so many things going on in the movie. It is a very delicate balance you get.
Geek: Tell me about picking the songs for the soundtrack. The trailer rocked out to “Lonely Boy” by The Black Keys.
Levine: Some of the music was written into the script. Some of the music Isaac had even written into the book. It was always really fun to pick songs especially with a character who’s saying where he’s at internally throughout the movie. That was one of the things that also attracted me to the movie. It was the opportunity to juxtapose a post-apocalyptic world with zombie songs or 70s album rock. It’s something you don’t usually see. I really like it when movies take a song and use it to counterpoint a scene. We were able to do that a few times. It was cool!
Geek: You’ve done thrillers (“All The Boys Love Mandy Lane”), drama (“50/50″), and now comedy/romance, (“Warm Bodies”). Do you have a preference over which genre you’re working in?
Levine: No, I don’t really. It all depends on the material, the story. At the end of the day, it’s all really about telling a story with characters. Genre is a really great shorthand you can have with an audience. In the same way you can use music to create a connection with an audience, it brings so much of their knowledge of what genre really is to the table. You have a shortcut to connect with them. I really like that. I really like using genre to tell a story about characters, but also use it as Trojan horse to tell social or cultural commentary. That’s where the best stuff, especially in the zombie genre, comes out of. It uses genre to say something where we are today as people. Isaac spoke a lot about that and I tried to keep it in there.
Geek: What other projects are you working on now?
Levine: There’s a couple of things I’m working. Will Reiser of “50/50″ is writing a script, that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are going to produce. I’m writing something for them as well I’m hoping to shoot. A few other writing assignments and a couple of things I can’t talk about just yet. It’s really exciting stuff!
“Warm Bodies” hits stores on Blu-ray/DVD on June 4th, 2013.