7 Behind-The-Scenes Secrets From 'Pride + Prejudice + Zombies'
On February 5, American audiences will finally get to take in the big screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 parody novel "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" (stylized "Pride + Prejudice + Zombies," for the film). Starring Lily James as martial arts master Elizabeth Bennet, Sam Riley as the aloof badass Mr. Darcy, Douglas Booth as the harmless Mr. Bingley and more, the film took roughly seven years to come to life, after multiple writer, director, and star changes (Natalie Portman was initially signed on to play Elizabeth, and is still involved as a producer) halted production.
40 days of those seven years were spent actually filming "PP+Z," and MTV News was lucky enough to be present for day 33. We drove 40 miles south west of London to a quaint little town called Old Basing, where most of the cast and crew were present for a night that involved a terrible zombie attack at a fancy estate ball. Here's what we learned:
The film will rewrite British history.
According to director Burr Steers, the action in "PP+Z" picks up 70 years after a zombie plague didn't quite wipe out humanity, but definitely changed things, especially for the lower classes. Instead of the early 19th century Napoleonic Wars that were the silent background of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," there's the ongoing zombie wars, and the men are trained from a young age to go off and fight against the hoards. Some of the women -- the Bennet sisters included -- are trained to fight at home.
“The class themes and issues that [Austen] had -- class and money, but also young women being empowered -- were things that we kept in this," Steers explained.
Steers, who also wrote the script, used the Black Plague as a model, as that Plague caused the upper classes to get out of cities like London and into "safe" countryside estates.
"[The film] really just exaggerates the themes that were in it, so far as the female/male dynamics, the class dynamics, the idea that you have this one percent that is controlling everything while the rest of the country is in jeopardy," Steers continued. "Truly, it is the British Revolution that never happened."
... But it will also maintain the romantic tone of Austen's timeless novel.
One thing that Steers, James, Riley, Booth, producer Allison Shearmur, and the rest of the cast and crew that MTV News spoke to made clear -- and this was evident in the scene we watched them film -- is that "PP+Z" has absolutely kept the witty repartee and sentimentality of Austen's original. Just, you know, with zombies hanging around to occasionally exacerbate some of Elizabeth and Darcy's emotions.
“It’s got humor," Steers said. "The idea was to create this sort of alternate world where this pandemic has taken place, and to stage 'Pride and Prejudice' in it. That doesn’t sound very funny, but it is. Because ultimately it’s absurd. You play it straight, no one is playing it hitting punch lines, and things like that."
"It’s not like winking at the camera," Booth added. "This isn't 'Shaun of the Dead.'"
Indeed, Booth added that some of the social issues in the book come through via issues like the Bingley sisters not approving of the Bennet sisters' fighting zombies like men, and of course, there's still the fiery central romance between Elizabeth and Darcy to keep Austen fans happy.
The zombies are getting smarter.
The makers of "Pride + Prejudice + Zombies" definitely realize that "The Walking Dead" exists, and with a PG-13 rating, they're not going to reach the iconically gory heights that Greg Nicotero's makeup team has when it comes to creating disgusting zombies. However, we did witness dozens of them in makeup and they are effectively scary, and a much different sort of undead than we're used to seeing onscreen.
Steers said he used Richard Matheson's book "I Am Legend" as inspiration to write zombies that have evolved past the original virus to maintain some of their humanity. However, instead of living their old lives "iZombie" style, these guys see themselves as "competitive" with humans, and many of them do their best to hide the fact that they are zombies for as long as they possibly can. (Shearmur said that a couple of beloved "Pride and Prejudice" characters are or will become zombies in the film, though we didn't get a chance to see which ones.)
"The ones that are able to maintain more of their human intelligence are the ones that are becoming the leaders amongst the zombies," Steers explained.
The Bennet sisters are bona fide warriors.
We were able to see all five Bennet sisters -- the group is rounded out by Jane (Bella Heathcote), who bashes a zombie with a candlestick, Kitty (Suki Waterhouse) who chooses swords over daggers, Lydia (Ellie Bember), still a flirty fireball, and Mary (Millie Brady) -- totally kick ass at the ball, all with their various weapons tucked into their period stockings. And of course, the actresses had fight training in real life.
"When I do 'Downton [Abbey],' I become sort of a pudgy little sludgy thing, because you don’t really need to exercise," James said with a laugh. "So it’s been really good getting back into getting fit... I feel like I could get into some fights now, and be a little bit more victorious.”
Also, besides money and estate, the biggest difference between the Bennet sisters and Darcy in "PP+Z" is in fighting style. Their father could only afford to send them to China to train, whereas "anyone who is anybody trained in Japan," according to Riley. This means that Darcy has a "much more brutish" manner of fighting, according to Steers.
James' Bennet is a new breed of heroine.
James, whom we spoke to well past midnight on a very cold and damp November night, is a rising star for good reason. The ball scenes took over five hours to master, with James completing each take in the frigid cold, with her shoulders bared, like a champ. She admitted that she'd never heard of Grahame-Smith's book until she read about the film, but after reading the opening scene of the script, she was down for the role -- even though her work on "Downton" and "Cinderella" had rendered her slightly tired of period fare.
"But there’s zombies, so who cares," she said. "You can see even [with] the costumes, there’s a slight edge, there’s... a sexier, kind of cooler edge, that sort of has an effect on everything. It feels so free.”
Shearmur, who worked on "The Hunger Games," added that it's thanks to Katniss Everdeen that James' version of Elizabeth is even hitting the big screen, since this "movie about five girls who kick ass" couldn't come to fruition without that particular blazed trail. And James, for one, is thankful to get a chance to beat up the boys -- and the undead -- as this iconic literary heroine.
"We have the proposal scene where suddenly I start beating the sh-t out of [Darcy], and I just get really swept away in the moment," she said with a laugh. "Even though they’re plastic swords, they really hurt if you jab someone. I had bruises all up my arm after that. I was kicking him in the shin and actually really near his face, so when we were rehearsing, I was like, 'I just can’t give him a black eye.'"
Riley's Darcy is a tough -- and damaged -- customer.
Riley -- who, like James, has a Disney background via his role in the Angelina Jolie-led "Maleficent" -- couldn't help but chuckle every time he tried to discuss the plot of "Pride + Prejudice + Zombies" with a straight face. He said he based his version of Darcy on a mix of "Colin Firth, Sean Connery [as James Bond] from 'Dr. No,' and the voice of James Mason."
His Darcy is also severely damaged by the death of his father, whom Darcy himself had to finish off after the man got bitten by a zombie. This has left him "particularly resolute in his hatred of them," which leads to a minor scuffle with Elizabeth in the scene at the ball. (Let's just say he's a shoot first, ask questions later kind of guy.)
Still, the undeniable attraction to Elizabeth is what ultimately fuels the character's arc in the movie.
"When I see how good she is at kicking ass, it sort of does something to Darcy’s insides," he joked.
It's meant to please fans of two genres.
Overall, the main theme we heard throughout our day on the "Pride + Prejudice + Zombies" set was that this is a movie that both horror fans and Austen fans should embrace with open arms.
“I’m keeping things that were awesome in [Austen's] 'Pride and Prejudice,'" Steers said. "The characters are already really extreme... My idea was to do everything as well as I possibly could. Do the zombie movie as well as I possibly could, and do 'Pride and Prejudice' as well as I could. Why not?"