Sneak attack: Jonathan Levine may have made one of your favorite movies. The young director (he's just 36) helmed the critically lauded films "The Wackness" and "50/50," not to mention a handful of shorts. This weekend, he's back, but with a decidedly different bent: He's not tackling cancer or mid-'90s pot dealing, but instead, the afterlife. More specifically, life after the zombie apocalypse. Enter "Warm Bodies."
Starring Nicholas Hoult ("About a Boy") as a young man afflicted with both ennui and zombieism, "Warm Bodies" examines what makes us human, young love,and whether zombies can still get in the mood for lovin'.
Levine took the time to chat with Film.com to discuss zombies, Valentine's Day movies, whether he's the next Michael Bay and much more.
I've read in other interviews that you were a big fan of Isaac Marion's book, but can you talk a little bit more about why you wanted to adapt and direct "Warm Bodies"?
Basically, I had a meeting with Summit, this was right after "The Wackness," and we really wanted to work together, and [Summit President of Production] Eric Feig was there, he gave me this book. I read the first couple pages and I was completely enamored with it. Just the irreverence of the tone, the point of view — I found it to be so wildly unique. I took it home and I finished it within a day. And I knew I wanted to do it. This was before "50/50" even came along, so I started adapting the script. It was kind of the tone of the book and sort of the core metaphor of the guy and a zombie as just a shy guy, and the question of what it means to be human within the framework of this almost John Hughesian narrative in this post-apocalyptic world, I found it to be so wildly unique. It's so rare that you get to read something that's this unique, so I was incredibly excited about the opportunity to adapt it.
You described your movie as Hughesian, but I'm seeing a lot of people simplifying it as "Twilight" with zombies. Not really how I'd describe it. Are there any movies comparisons you'd make?
You know, it's interesting. That's not a great way to distill it. I think there are elements of other movies in it. The great this about what Isaac wrote, is that it's all-encompassing, this kind of pop culture pastiche. There's elements of "Zombieland," elements of "Shaun of the Dead," elements of John Hughes. To me, there's a great reference with early [Robert] Zemeckis and these kind of great '80s movies that are really funny and also have adventure, or even "The Princess Bride." Then there's, like, "Edward Scissorhands" was a big reference for us, Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" was a big reference for us, and Pixar movies, especially "WALL-E." So yeah, there's a lot of — I have a wall in my office in pre-production where I put stills from all these movies, and for this movie, I have more movie stills, whether it be "E.T." or "Where the Wild Things Are," or any number of things. I don't know if any of those really made it into the DNA of the final movie, but they were all big touchstones for me.
There were a lot of fight scenes in this movie, and a lot of CGI. Did you find the action sequences more difficult to direct?
It's interesting, I actually would say — it's not like I'm Michael Bay yet — but it's not that hard! Not to be glib, but it's no different from anything else. You get so intimidated by these things that you haven't done before on other movies, but it's just like everything else. You hire the right people, you make sure they have the right direction, you listen to them, you collaborate with them, and then you push them to get the best work you can out of them. You know, any time you're doing something new, you're being taught what to do, but if you just listen and adhere to a certain rigorous logic, then you can learn to do anything on a movie. That's not to say that the next time I handle action I won't be a hundred times better because of having this experience.
It did teach me, just because you haven't done something, you don't need to be intimidated by it. If you know how to shoot a scene, then you know how to shoot an action scene. If you've seen an action movie and you watched it and you paid attention to how scenes are constructed and where the camera is and how the camera moves, then you know how to do it.
So now that you've ventured into genre, do you think you'd ever be up for a seat in the "Star Wars" director's chair?
Dude! That would be so crazy. That would be super intimidating. I think I'd have a panic attack every day. That's a big deal. I don't know if I could do it! That would be such a...You'd have very little time to focus on actually doing your job. I don't know, I'd love to be the person who says yes, but I think it'd be too overwhelming. There's too many other kind of scary things involved in doing that, so probably not, but I'd love to go see them. It's really hard! The original movies are so good, and they don't really exist anymore. Like, Harrison Ford can't be Han Solo, and if he can't, then it's not really the same. You know, it's just gonna be different. I think so much of those movies are through the lens of nostalgia that you have to blow the whole thing up to see what it as transcendent as those original three movies. I ignore the next three, but I'm a big fan of the originals.
"Warm Bodies" is coming out in time for Valentine's Day, as opposed to Halloween. Did you have any input in the release date? Was that your choice, to attach the marketing to the romantic side of the story more than the zombie side?
You have input, you obviously have discussions. At the end of the day, whatever the studio wants is what they do, but I'm fully supportive of this release date. I think that people have certain expectations around Halloween that this movie doesn't fulfill, and I think that the beginning of the year is a great time to release unique stuff, unique content. Last year, it was "Chronicle," and I found that to be incredibly unique and special movie. I think it's so rare to find a release date where you can be yourself and you don't have to pretend to be someone else, so I love this date.
So are you hoping it hits as a date movie?
Yeah, I hope so. I always thought of it as a romantic comedy, so I hope it's embraced by both genre fans and by people who enjoy romantic comedies. I think it's a nice date movie.
Music plays a really big part in this movie. R collects records, and there are some really awesome music cues. Do you use a music supervisor? How involved are you in the music selection?
Thank you. Yeah, we had a great music supervisor on this movie, a woman named Alex Patsavas, who was very instrumental in helping us pick the soundtrack. I am very into music. A lot of it was handpicked by me, but a lot of it is in collaboration with the music supervisor and editor. But I write a lot into the script as well. Like I wrote "Patience" [by Guns n' Roses] into the script, and a few others, and a bunch of stuff that we couldn't afford too.
Do you just hear songs and think, "I have to put this in a movie"?
Sometimes I do, and sometimes, you know, that new Bon Iver album that came out like a year and a half ago, I was like, "I'd love to use these songs in a movie." I'm very proud of that song ["Hinnom, TX"] in particular. But yeah, definitely. I have about 100 gigs of music and I'm always going through thinking about what song I can match to a scene and all that. But I don't always think about, when I hear a song, I'm not always like, "I wanna put this in a movie." Because frankly, putting a song in a movie kinda ruins it for you. Any time I hear certain songs I put in a movie, I have to not listen to them anymore because I associate them with that movie. They take on that association rather than the association I had when I first heard them. So it's kinda bittersweet to put a song in a movie, honestly.
Wait, you're not saying that "50/50" ruined "Yellow Ledbetter" for you, are you?
Yeah, you know, no. Not really, because we put "Yellow Ledbetter" in "50/50" the day we locked picture. It was like, score before that, then a Kinks song, and at the very last minute we thought of putting "Yellow Ledbetter" in there. So I have not really seen "50/50" with "Yellow Ledbetter" in it, but it was on Showtime the other night. I don't often watch something I've done on TV, usually I'll change the channel and watch something else. But it was the end of the movie and I was like, "I've gotta watch this." I love it when the music kicks in and it cuts to black. It just kills me. I wish I could take more credit for it, but that was a total collaboration and it just gives me chills watching that. I didn't get to see it very often with that. You watch the movie a million thousand times, but the day before we finished the mix, that song made it into the movie. So luckily that one's not ruined for me.
Anything on your list to use?
Musically? I really like the new Frank Ocean album. Maybe something like that. Although I heard [Quentin] Tarantino had a Frank Ocean song and he didn't use it. Which is really cool, did you hear the song? It's cool. So maybe!
Is it hard to direct someone to act like a zombie?
It was so much easier than I thought, honestly. I just cast those guys, talking specifically about Rob [Corddry] and Nick [Hoult], and they really just interpreted it in a way that they felt was appropriate. I watched them do it for the first time, and I was like, "OK. My job is done." I really felt like I kind of helped them monitor it, every step of the way, as it progressed. I was always really careful to be the bird on the shoulder being like, "a little too much, a little more." But it was not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I had pages and pages of the two of them talking, and I was like, "Oh my god. This could be a total disaster." And then when I saw the two of them do it for the first time in rehearsal, I definitely breathed a sigh of relief.
What did you use for the brains in the movie?
The brains were like, gelatin and tofu, I think. They were different combinations of different things. They were all edible and none of them tasted really good at all, but I was so impressed with how much they looked like brains. Maybe there was gelatin involved. I would eat them too. I didn't want to make the actors eat them without having tried them first. There were a few iterations.
This whole movie makes you wonder: How would you fare in a zombie attack? What would you do?
I'd be the first person to die. I would suck so badly. It's so interesting. Guys in our modern age just don't have the same survival skills that people used to have, so I'd be done. I'd be done pretty quickly. I'm too reliant on technology. I'd have to Google everything to do. My girlfriend would stock up on water and flashlights and all that stuff, but I would be terrible. I really hope that it's not something I'd have to deal with. But I did pick up some tips. I think the biggest thing is just like, stand still a lot. Don't move too much. Don't draw too much attention to yourself. Maybe do that move of putting the blood on your face would work. Maybe that's what I would do. Just find a lot of zombie blood and put it on my face, then sit and play and watch DVD screeners forever. Covered in zombie blood. It wouldn't be that bad. I'd need food and stuff, but I'd figure it out.