Warm Bodies Director Jonathan Levine On Zombies, Humor, Music And Gore

If you're familiar with Isaac Marion's novel Warm Bodies, you know that the story infuses horror with humor and romance, and based on the recently released trailer, it seems the movie will take a similar approach to telling the story of R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who falls for Julie (Teresa Palmer), one of earth's surviving humans trying not to get eaten. We had the opportunity to speak with screenwriter/director Jonathan Levine about adapting the story for the movie. He shared his thoughts on the tone of the film, the soundtrack, the gore, Summit's choice to promote the movie with the last Twilight film, and the possibility for a sequel.

I know I'm not alone in loving Marion's novel or having high hopes that the movie would do the story justice. Warm Bodies is told from the zombie's perspective and follows R as he falls for - rather than feeds on - a girl named Julie. Their connection sparks a kind of awakening in him as he gets to know her. The story mixes humor, horror and an unlikely romance in its attempt to explore a bit of humanity in its post-apocalyptic state. Jonathan Levine demonstrated his ability to tell compelling and emotional stories with films like 50/50 and The Wackness, so he seemed like a great fit to take on the Warm Bodies adaptation. The trailer, which you can watch below, instills even more confidence that this project was in the right hands, as we're introduced to R and get a sense of the tone of the movie.

Now that we've gotten a look at what Levine has done with Marion's story, we were eager to speak with the director to talk about Warm Bodies, which arrives in theaters February 1.

I guess you could make some comparisons - as far as the tone of the trailer - with Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. Is that something you were going for with the movie?

Levine: I think certainly both of those movies were very successful in taking the genre and sort of twisting it on its head a little bit. And I think that, yes, they were both influences. But just as many, many other films were influences, including zombie movies that didn't have comedic elements. I think that the thing that was most influential about those films was just how unique they were. So it's sort of a contradiction in terms to say that they were influences, because we're trying to be unique as well. But certainly, tonally I think they helped lay the groundwork for what we're trying to do.

Before the trailer came out we'd seen some comments - just based on the premise of the book - people that hadn't read the book were making Twilight-zombie comparisons. How do you feel about the trailer being unveiled with the big Twilight release?

Levine: First of all, as a filmmaker, the most Important thing for me is that as many people see the movie as possible. My job is to get them to like the movie and the job of the studio is to get them to see the movie. I completely respect Twilight, I think those movies have such devoted fans. I think those fans would really like our movie. So I think it's great that we are going to be debuting on Twilight. I think it's a wonderful way to get people who would like the movie to see the movie. That said, this is not Twilight. It's very different in tone than Twilight, but I do think the Twilight fans will like it, in addition to lots of other people. So for me, it's incredibly cool because it's this opportunity to connect with hundreds of thousands of potential fans of the movie. And so, to me it's a wonderful thing.

The movie's coming out right before Valentine's Day. Do you think it's going to be a good alternative to the traditional rom-com?

Levine: Yeah, it's really funny. In a lot of ways, there's an element to this movie that's sort of a commentary on the romantic comedy genre and I think that's an aspect of it that I had a lot of fun with. So, yes, I do think it's a good date movie. I think it's a movie that's really different and fun for guys and girls to see together. It's not your traditional romantic comedy and yet it does have elements of all of that. And I think it's a really good date movie and something really good to do on Valentine's Day. I don't think you would necessarily think of a zombie movie as that.

On that subject, how gory does the film get in terms of the zombie attacks and that kind of thing. What can we expect from that?"

Levine: I went as hard as I could. So, essentially, I think for me, one of the more interesting things about the book and the more interesting things about the tone of the movie is you have this kind of irreverent tone, but it's very real, the violence. So I took it as far as I could and still have it be PG-13. I think when we were about to shoot, I watched The Hunger Games and saw what they were able to do with PG-13 and I was like, "Holy shit, cool! That's great. I can really push the envelope here." So we did. Certainly, we don't shy away from the fact that these guys like to eat brains and people.

One of my favorite moments from the trailer is that scene when R first sees Julie and that Troggs song starts playing. And we know from the book is kind of a music collector - a music fan. How much music are we going to see in the movie and can you talk a little bit about the soundtrack?

Levine: That's something I love, is the opportunity to play with music and to juxtapose songs with images. So, to me, that was a great thing about the book, was that to him, music is this connection to life before the apocalypse. So I played with it as much as I could. I love the soundtrack to The Wackness and 50/50. I think this is the best soundtrack we've put together. Everything from Guns N' Roses to Feist to M83 to Bob Dylan. It just runs the gambit. Essentially the only kind of thing I was locked into is, he's playing vinyl, so I had to keep it - a lot of the songs had to be from the vinyl era. But that's my favorite music and that covers a lot of music. But I was able to use lots of different genres, lots of different kinds of music and to juxtapose it against - whether it be a romantic scene or a violent scene, it's really a lot of fun for me to play the music in it.

The other thing about that scene that I noticed was the way that we see his heart beat, and that seems to be kind of a visual that you used to hint, maybe, at the change that's occurring. Because we see it later with M and the other zombies in the trailer. Can you talk a little bit about that, because I don't think that was in the book, right?

Levine: It probably wasn't in the book. The book - it's such a wonderful book, but it's also a challenge to adapt because it's so much in the point of view of the zombie. So, I had to take a little bit of artistic license and use different devices to sort of convey what was happening to the character of R and the other zombies. Just inherently based on the fact that we're - in a book, you're hearing all first person. In a movie you have to sort of do different things in order to convey what's going on. And this is my first experience also with CG. So what I tried to do throughout the movie was not just use CG for the boneys who are the antagonists and they're fully realized CG creatures, but also to use CG as much as I can to have these artistic flourishes of CG. The heart thing owes a great debt to Amelie. And that's a movie that tonally, I thought was a very appropriate analog for what we were trying to do. You know, these kinds of flights of fancied, kind of whimsical CG things that are talking directly to the audience are things that I really like to do. And I was able to do that a little bit here.

You know like that scene in The Wackness where he's dancing on the street and it lights up like he's in the "Billie Jean" video. Stuff like that, i was able to do a little bit, which is stuff that I find really fun.

Just the heart thing, I really liked that. There's also sort of a light-up moment with the watch, when he spots the watch there's a slight pause when he notices it. I thought that was good.

Levine: One of the things that the trailer doesn't go into, but that I think is a really interesting aspect of the film, is that what I think is done to the mythology of zombies eating brains, which if you've read the book you know, if you eat someone's brains, you kind of experience their memories. It's almost like you're tripping as their past. That was an opportunity to do a lot of cool stuff as well. It was fun for me.

After the jump, Levine comments on Perry, the other supporting characters, working with Isaac Marion and talk of a sequel...

We see Perry for a quick scene in the trailer. Is his story going to be explored as in depth as we see it in the book?

Levine: Yeah, absolutely. I think, to me, it was really important to stay faithful to those aspects of the book. And when you have an actor as wonderful as Dave Franco, you want to use him as much as possible. So, Perry is definitely a bit character in the film.

As far as the other supporting players, we had Analeigh Tipton and Rob Corddry playing up the humor, we saw that in the trailer. And then on the flip side, there was John Malkovich as Grigio being the severe, serious protector type. How much of their stories - did you develop them further or is it as it's portrayed in the book?

Levine: I think like with everything, we tried to remain faithful to the spirit of the book as much as possible. That said, one of the great things about making a movie and one of the great things about being a director is that you get to interpret the material in ways that sometimes diverge from the book, sometimes amplify what's in the book. So, yes these are all big characters in the movie and they're all true to the spirit of their characters in the book. They may not be exactly the same as they are in the book, but they are certainly true to the spirit of what they were in the book. And I think that everyone who enjoyed these characters in the book is going to like them in the movie. The one common ground that they have is they're all fantastic actors. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to work with them and I think they all did an amazing job.

Did you work a lot with Isaac Marion when you were doing the screenplay for this?

Levine: I would always go to him to consult with him. It wasn't like we were sitting in the same room writing together. Each kind of successive draft, I would send to him and get his thoughts. To his credit, he was able to give me his broad strokes thoughts without trying to micromanage what I was doing too much. Which I think is really important, whenever you're taking something that's so important to someone and you're kind of running with it. As a director and writer, you need the freedom to be able to go off and do your own thing, a little bit. I had the same experience with Will Reiser on 50/50. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone to not micromanage them. I think both of those guys, to their credit, gave me the freedom I needed to do my job as best I could. And they trusted me. And they trusted that I would be respectful to the stories that were so important to them. In Will's case, it was his own story. It was his words and his own life. And in Isaac's case, it's something that is so borne of his imagination and so close to him. I'm incredibly grateful that they granted me that freedom to interpret their vision. But yeah, I would show him stuff all the time.

One of the things I really love about the book is, you kind of get the sense that where humanity is, they're kind of on their last legs and Julie and R's story feels like the beginning of something, but the book feels self-contained at the same time. With that said, Marion has mentioned recently that he was going to be doing a sequel to the novel. Has there been any talk about a follow-up to the movie?

Levine: No, but I just hope if people go see the movie, I'd be very happy to have that conversation. I always hear about people talk about sequels to movies before they come out. And I'm like, "Why don't you guys just wait and see if anyone likes the fuckin' movie?" So, I'm really, really proud of the movie, and I really think people are going to like it. And I really love what Summit's doing with the marketing. So all of those things to me indicate that we're hopefully going to achieve some success with it. And I loved collaborating with all the guys I worked with on the movie. I love Isaac. I love his writing. So, if all goes well, yeah, totally. But, I'm Jewish and I'm superstitious so I don't get into that.

So you're not thinking that far ahead for now.

Yeah, basically. I think everything's going to be horrible and I just sit in my room and write.

Warm Bodies arrives in theaters February 1. More information, photos and video can be found in our Blend Film Database.

Kelly West
Assistant Managing Editor

Kelly joined CinemaBlend as a freelance TV news writer in 2006 and went on to serve as the site’s TV Editor before moving over to other roles on the site. At present, she’s an Assistant Managing Editor who spends much of her time brainstorming and editing feature content on the site.