Warm Bodies Director Jonathan Levine Talks Accessing The Zombie Mind
Making an adaptation of a book told in the first person is more than enough of a challenge, but as you can imagine that task is only made harder when the protagonist happens to be a zombie. Not only do you have to deal with widening perspective and creating a larger world, you also have to deal with the fact that from outward appearances the hero is a mumbling, stumbling, brainless bag of meat that spends every moment dreaming of devouring human flesh. This was the principal issue facing Jonathan Levine when he first came aboard to adapt Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies - and an important element of the story I recently had the pleasure of discussing with the writer/director.
Set in a world overtaken by the living dead, the movie centers on R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie leading a meaningless existence of boredom and hunger. But that all changes when he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), a beautiful live human whose boyfriend R has devoured. But as R and Julie get closer they both discover that something is changing within him, and that something could change the entire world.
Check out my full interview with Levine below in which he talks about not only accessing the mind of a zombie, the challenge of the film’s shifting tones, the wonderful, eclectic soundtrack, and the rule established in the editing room: if it’s funny it goes into the movie.
Right from the off-set this movie is entering unprecedented territory by having a zombie as your main character, which obviously has some extreme and unique challenges to it. So where do you even begin?
Well, it’s interesting because it’s not as scary as you might think, because you read the book and you’re not like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m so scared of this,” you’re like, “Oh, no one has done this before!” It’s so rare when you’re making a movie that you can be like, “Well, nobody has done this before!” I can’t think of things that nobody has thought of. So that’s exciting! Once you start from that place it’s actually more liberating than scary. But I think the bigger challenge is that in the book it’s all obviously internal monologue and it’s like translating that into a movie, so we had to get the voice-over – which we worked really long and hard on and I got a lot of help on – and it’s mostly in the screenwriting phase. Because once I cast Nick [Hoult] I was like, “Okay, that guy will take care of that. He’s awesome.” I just have to be there every once in a while to remind him of stuff, but he’s awesome. I don’t have to worry about that.
That’s the great thing about being a director. You have your list of things you have to worry about and things you don’t have to worry about. If you can hire someone or cast someone who equates to not having to worry about, it’s great! It’s like one of a thousand things you can check off [laughs]. You have so many things you have to worry about. But mostly it was in the screenwriting phase, getting that point of view down. In the book it’s so very deliberately in the zombie’s point of view, but in the movie you have to kind of break point of view a little bit. And you want to, because you want to get more of Teresa [Palmer]’s story, you want to get more texture of the world. So that was a challenge too: breaking point of view but still having the spirit of Nick’s point of view. And I think we were able to do that okay.
I actually wanted to ask you about the voice-over narration, because it is one of those things that’s really easy to screw up. There are so many films that just use it as a crutch for exposition or give up on it when it’s no longer useful – and one thing I loved about how you used it in your movie is that it’s always there, it never goes away. But was there ever a time when you tried to make it work without voice-over or was it there from draft one?
No, I always knew we kind of wanted it. Some people suggested we not have narration. Obviously this movie owes a great deal to Edward Scissorhands and that movie has no narration,. If you think about that movie having narration…it would have sucked with narration [laughs]. But to me it was always the idea that there’s the juxtaposition of what goes on in this guy’s head versus what you see, and voice-over is such an integral part of that. I think that finding the right placement of the voice-over and finding the right tone for the voice-over was really challenging. In the first draft the voice-over was very much lifted directly from the book, and Isaac [Marion] wrote this beautiful prose. But when you match it to the visuals we shot there was some kind of disconnect. So I learned that we had to take it in a slightly different direction in order to better capture the spirit of what Isaac wrote. And we also wanted to push it in a funnier and funnier direction because the biggest challenge of this movie is keeping it entertaining because there’s so much dead air – no pun intended [laughs].
So we wanted to push the voice-over in a more and more comedic direction while still maintaining the spirit of his book and also the social commentary of it. I just kept pushing it and I finally got these two guys who were around on 50/50, who worked with Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], and we sat down, the three of us – they’re thanked in the “special thanks” – and we watched the movie. It was almost like Mystery Science Theater. And sometimes we got to the point where I was like, “Nah, we’re making fun of it. We can’t do that!” We watched the movie and we just started riffing on it and they were incredibly helpful at the very last minute to get the voice-over to where it needed to be. So it’s really cool and they were super helpful.
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