Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness), scriptwriter and director of zombie romantic comedy Warm Bodies, talks humanity, musical shorthand and breaking zombie conventions…
You were initially resistant to doing a movie based on a young‐adult novel. What changed your mind? I identified with the main character, and the book Isaac Marion wrote really allowed for these incredible directorial flourishes and aggressive style. I was excited about the opportunity to push the envelope visually. And it was a great character piece, as well. It’s an adventure, it’s a romance, it’s got comedic elements, and it’s got horror elements.
Were you worried it would be hard to create a believable relationship between a zombie and a living girl?
The arc of their relationship was the most important thing to me to get right directorially – the push and pull of guys and girls, the way relationships start and people are nervous at first, maybe even repulsed, and then come together.
Zombie films often speak to the audience about humanity. Is that true of Warm Bodies?
The salient theme at the heart of it is that people have forgotten what it means to be human and, through the interaction of these two characters, other people re‐learn what it means to be human. Not just the zombies, but the humans, too.
What made you cast Dave Franco (21 Jump Street, Superbad) as the boy who gets his brains eaten?
He has to make a very big impact in a very short time and he really does it. He’s so charming and likeable, and so talented, that he sticks with you throughout the movie.
The most zombie-like zombies, the Boneys, were created using CGI based on the movements of stunt performers in motion‐capture suits. How was your first time using that kind of technology?
The great thing about CG is, not only can you create these characters, but you can do things stylistically that I feel like some people aren’t taking advantage of remotely enough. When we go into R’s dreams, for example, we do surreal transitions. At the very beginning of the movie, about the first 10 minutes, there’s a lot of really interesting, stylish CG that is used to tell the story in a way that people haven’t seen before. I’ve never previously had it as a tool in my arsenal. It allows for the editorial process to be as creative as the production process.
Aside from R’s relationship with Julie, he also has a lot of screen time with his best friend, M…
M, in many ways, is the heart of the movie. R’s change sparks everything, but M’s change is representative of everyone else.
Was it a challenge to have the zombie characters communicate?
They’re able to have conversations based on short, one‐word things and to interpret each other’s groans. That led to a lot of on‐set laughs. We were shooting this scene at the very beginning of the movie and it’s basically just two guys groaning at each other. The guys kept cracking up. By the time we got to take five, they were literally groaning and having conversations with each other.
There’s an interesting use of music in the film, too…
R’s use of records to communicate with Julie was a clever feature of Marion’s novel that helped draw me to the project. Music really does help set tone. It’s another way to have a shorthand with the audience. Music is, in a big way, how I access the world in a movie and the characters. It’s really nice that it was already written into the story.
This film has less gore and physical disintegration than many other examples from the zombie genre. Was that intentional?
I don’t even look at it, really, as a zombie movie. I look at it as a monster movie that turns into a love story. We’re working within the zombie mythology, but we’re using that mythology as a means to an end, as shorthand for something else.
Apparently your inspiration came from Depression‐era photos and images of coal miners, instead of traditional zombie movie references…
We wanted to make a movie that appealed to all ages, so we couldn’t necessarily get involved in some of the fun stuff that other zombie movies do. The process of designing the looks of both the zombies and the Boneys was a lengthy one that started early in pre‐production. We had people doing sketches, artists taking a picture of Nick Hoult from Skins or X‐Men, and tweaking and playing with it. It would be back and forth internally, and then we would take it to the studio and do make-up tests.
Are you worried horror purists might disapprove of the way the film plays with zombie‐movie conventions?
I have a great knowledge and love of films like 28 Days Later, Shaun Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead and Return Of The Living Dead. But one of the great things about making movies is you can use genre and mythology to tell different kinds of stories.
Warm Bodies, which stars Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Cordry, Dave Franco and Analeigh Tipton, opens in cinemas on 1 February in the US and 8 February in the UK.
Warm Bodies: Nicholas Hoult interview