The director of “Warm Bodies,” Jonathan Levine (50/50) sat down to chat about his romantic comedy zombie flick.
There are a lot of themes in this movie, obviously it’s a zombie movie but it goes to the root of the love story and towards the end it seemed almost fairytale-like, was that the approach you tried to take with it?
Jonathan: I’m not sure I tracked it that way, but that was probably my experience with the book, actually. What I really liked about it and the first thing that I gravitated toward was just the central allegory of it, it just being a guy who’s shy. Then there was the social commentary of it, how many of us are truly living, what does it mean to live? R has more life than all these living people combined. So those were two things I found interesting. Then, I found it interesting the way that Isaac had wove in all the pop culture references and all the literary references and all the genre short hands into this amazing kind of new thing. I think what’s interesting about the movie is that it takes your expectations and kind of shakes them up a little bit. It first says, maybe we’re making fun of this type of movie, then it says no, we are this type of movie, and then it says no, we’re both. I think that was really interesting to me, it’s all refracted through the lens of pop culture and expectations. I studied symbiotics in college which I’m still not sure what that means, but I think it means, I like shit like this.
What aspect or theme did you pay attention to most while you were filming? It’s such a sweet story but with so many other elements come into play with pop culture, zombie apocalypse-
Jonathan: It’s interesting because I feel like as director if you’re frustrated by one thing, one really important thing, you can be like, ‘let me look at your shirt, oh I don’t like your shirt.’ You can distract yourself with a hundred different things. I think what’s really important and I’m not saying I know everything, but I’m learning a lot, I think I’m getting better but if you can focus on the most important thing, which is to me is the greatest thing about this movie isn’t all the bells and whistles, it’s the two characters at the heart of the movie. The fact that it’s just a guy and a girl, if you can focus on that, it makes every decision very easy. So, you don’t have to really think about if someone comes up to you and says, ‘what color do you want this thing,’ you just say that color or you say it doesn’t really matter, you pick the color. The biggest thing in this movie is building the world and the way things look, that’s the biggest thing that can derail you but you also hire good people and you hire smart people and once you hire those people, you collaborate with them, yeah, but you trust them. Building the world was really collaboration between me and our production designer and our cinematographer and I trusted them and it allowed me just to focus on the core of the story. Even though it’s easy to get distracted, it’s also easy to re-focus your attention on stuff.
This is your fourth feature, correct?
At this point now, do you feel that there’s a style that’s synonymous with your name?
Jonathan: I feel like every movie I’ve done is to flex a new muscle and get better at that. It’s all kind of like going to the gym, which I don’t do very often. So now, I feel like I finally have all of the skills that I want to have in a way. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious or anything. For this movie, I really loved the characters and that’s why I wanted to do it but at the same time I also thought oh and I’ll get to do big special effects things and that’ll be really cool and I’ll learn how to do that. For the last movie, I was like, wow, I get to work with Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, those guys are going to teach me so much, all of these have been learning experiences and stepping stones. I feel like now maybe, I can just be like I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want, let’s see. Now, hopefully I can be like those people that I admire, like the great people. Or at least like half or a third of those people. With the exception of “Wackness” there was something about it that was so much, this is me but every movie I’ve done has been to help me get better at making movies.
What did you learn from this one then?
Jonathan: Oh my god, you can’t even say what-
When I go to the set in the morning, I feel like an idiot. You learn something every single day and then sometimes you forget it and you learn it again. You learn everything from technical things to how to handle certain situations with actors and how to better direct actors. You just learn better decision making and you have more information to make good decisions. You learn something every single day, every day and I hope I continue to learn something every single say.
This was great casting, how did you like working with everyone and John Malkovich-
Jonathan: Yeah, speaking of learning, when John Malkovich comes to your set, you’re basically a student. He doesn’t make you a student but you want to be a student. That guy is a director himself. There’s a scene in the movie where essentially I could give him credit for that specific scene because he helped me re-write the scene on set, he helped me block the scene and he taught me so much about filmmaking, just from being on the set with him that one day. It was amazing and there was never a point where I was like ‘Jesus, I wish this guy would just let me do my job.’ I just watched him make the scene better and better and better and it was an incredible learning experience. So, he was an amazing person to work with. And working with Nick and working with all of these other wonderful actors, I’ve had a great experience on every movie where I just get to work with these guys who are all just super happy to be there and super psyched and want to do the best work possible, no one has a bad attitude, it’s just this incredibly collaborative, creative environment. This set was incredibly vibrant and happy and creative.
Was it a long search to find Nick and Teresa?
Jonathan: It wasn’t super long. Nick was the one where, I can’t really tell how long it was for Nick because I was saying to myself, if I don’t find someone like Nick, I’m not going to do this. It’s hard because you don’t want someone too famous because you don’t want that to detract from… you want someone where Depp was at “Edward Scissorhands.” Not over exposed, but people are really intrigued by them, so that’s a tough little world to find someone who works there. I think for a long time, in my mind, I thought I should look into other shit to do because I don’t know if I’m going to find that person but as soon as Nick walked into my house, I was like, ‘oh, that’s the guy.’ I can’t quantify how much time I was in that limbo of not fully investing mentally in it because I knew that it was going to be so hard. I didn’t want to make it with the wrong person. I would’ve rather done something easier. So, once we found Nick, then finding Teresa was relatively quick. We auditioned a lot of people but she was the right person.
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