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With his acclaimed coming-of-age drama The Wackness, Jonathan Levine introduced himself to Hollywood in 2008 as a filmmaker to watch, a status cemented three years later with the dark comedy-drama 50/50.
Now the 36-year-old director and screenwriter is moving in a slightly different direction with Warm Bodies, the Summit Entertainment adaptation of Isaac Marion’s popular debut novel. While the subject matter – it’s something of a rom-com-dram from the perspective of a zombie – is something of a departure for Levine, his signature focus on an unlikely protagonist remains.
The film also boasts his proven ability to meld offbeat humor with poignant subject matter, buoyed by an epic cast of both up-and-coming and established talent: Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class) as the hero and narrator, a zombie named R; Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four) as R’s love interest, the decidedly non-zombie Julie; Analeigh Tipton (Damsels in Distress) and Dave Franco (21 Jump Street) in supporting roles; the hilarious Rob Corddry, playing it straight, mind you, as R’s BZF (best zombie friend) M; and John Malkovich as Julie’s father, General Grigio.
Spinoff Online recently spoke with Levine about his experience adapting Marion’s beloved novel, taking inspiration from everyone from George A. Romero to John Hughes, working with “superhuman” Malkovich, and the lengths he went to ensure his actors’ comfort (hint: it involved eating brains).
It seems to me there’s a thoroughfare between the characters in your films — they’re all these unlikely protagonists. Warm Bodies is certainly one of the first times we’ve seen a story through the eyes of a zombie.
Yeah, I do think there are similarities. I do think it’s reflective of a protagonist that attracts me. I like these young men who are, for lack of a better word, kind of trapped. They have a hard time connecting.
And you wrote the screenplay for this, using Isaac Marion’s fantastic novel. Is this your first adaptation?
I had adapted other things that didn’t end up becoming movies. [laughs] This is the first one that exists in the world, in a movie.
Was Isaac involved in the process?
Yeah, he was involved to an extent. I would say I was in touch with him once every couple of weeks. I would show him each iteration of a draft and he would send me back notes. It was certainly a collaborative process; I didn’t shut him out. But at the same time I think it’s important when you’re adapting something to maintain a level of critical distance, because it just helps make the movie better.
I had read and loved Isaac’s novel before I saw your film, and I went into it with the reality check that they’re both totally different mediums. But it seemed apparent that Isaac was a part of the process, because the adaptation really maintained the heart of what he wrote.
Thank you! I think two things: one, we definitely had a dialogue with him throughout. But also I think that what I really liked about his book are the same things that the fans liked and the same things that he liked about it. I think we were all kind of on the same page about what made the book great. That book has some big ideas in it. I tried to stay true to the spirit of that within the 90-minute framework that I have.
This seems a little full-circle, but back when I read the book I remember thinking it had a very Nick Hornby vibe to it. And your movie, to me, is reminiscent of High Fidelity and About a Boy‘s big-screen adaptation. The tone, the soundtrack — and, I swear this was a total afterthought — the casting of Nicholas Hoult.
I love those movies! I just think it’s funny that Nick was the kid in About a Boy and that you say that. [laughs] I loved him in that film, but when I cast him I was thinking more about the kid in Skins than the kid in About a Boy. But I love both of those movies. High Fidelity is to me one of my favorite movies ever.
Talk about a top-five movie, right? It’s up there for me, too.
It is! It really is! You know, I thought more about John Hughes than Nick Hornby, but it makes sense because I am such a fan of those movies.
Well, speaking of John Hughes, you really hit the jackpot with up-and-coming actors and assembling an epic cast in this — in a very Hughes-esque way. Aside from Nicholas and Teresa Palmer, you’ve got Analeigh Tipton, who was fantastic in Damsels in Distress, and Dave Franco, who absolutely crushed it in 21 Jump Street.
Oh, I still haven’t even seen Damsels in Distress!
You must — it’s fantastic and she’s so great in it! Did you see Dave in 21 Jump Street before you cast him?
It’s interesting, Dave had done Jump Street, but I hadn’t seen it. I really liked Dave, though, just through other stuff I’d seen him in. I like to also cast people who I think are going to be nice people, because you have to spend six months with them. So I did reach out to Seth [Rogen], who I think reached out to Jonah [Hill] and just confirmed how amazing Dave was in Jump Street, and when I saw the movie I was so thrilled for him because he’s the sweetest guy in the world and I think that character is just so, so funny.
Speaking of funny, it’s totally inspired that you cast Rob Corddry in a dramatic role.
You know, the Rob thing is that he came in and auditioned! Which I was shocked that he did! And he just made me feel for that character, which I felt was so impressive. I think there’s a lot of humor to Rob’s role, as well, but at the heart of it is. He really finds the sadness in this guy. I have to give him credit for a lot of the funnier moments in the movie, too, because a lot of them he just made up. Like the fact that he’s sitting at a bar when you first meet him — that was his idea.
That’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. And I have to admit I was wondering the whole time, “What did this look like in the script? Just, ‘Rob grunts. Nick Grunts. Rinse, repeat’”? Or were there actual scripted lines that they then had to act out in grunts?
No, they started to have their own conversation in grunts. I think they were having a conversation about something either both of them knew what they were talking about. or one of them was having one conversation and the other was having a different conversation. But I think in the script it basically said they kind of just grunt at each other.
Even with Nicholas, whose performance is really fantastic, considering most of it involves him not being able to speak, I wondered if the voiceover was scripted so he could memorize it, or if it was read aloud during his takes so he could coordinate his physicality accordingly.
The VO was there, and I think sometimes when we had to do it for timing purposes — like when he had to interact with the voiceover specifically — I would read it. But generally, no, I don’t think we would read it. The fact is, the voiceover changed so much. We had to come in and read and re-read and re-record the voiceover probably 20 times.
I have to ask one burning question: What were the brains Nicholas ate made out of? Please don’t say real brains, because I don’t think I could handle that level of method acting.
[laughs] No, they were made out of Jell-O. And then there’s food coloring for blood. They didn’t taste good.
You tried them yourself?
I did! I tried them myself, just to make sure that it was something he’d be comfortable eating over and over again.
That’s dedication on a new level! Actors: Jonathan Levine will eat brains for you!
[laughs] There’s a picture of me somewhere eating the brains.
That’s one for the holiday card! So tell me, am I way off in saying that the evil zombies in this, the Bonies, reminded me of velociraptors?
Oh, that’s so funny! We worked so much on their movement. My original conception of them was that they’d be these Ray Harryhausen kind of stop-motion creatures. That would’ve been cool, but I think it would’ve just felt like a joke. So then we worked with a concept artist and we came up with their look, and the movement was really, really difficult to get to. The tone of the rest of it is so light that I wanted to go even further in the direction of trying to make them scary just so you would really feel the stakes of the movie.
I’m not great with jump scares and you got me a few times in this, by the way. So thanks a lot!
Oh, good! I’m glad you jumped! [laughs]
I lost five years of life with those, I’m glad you’re happy. It was fun to read the set visit reports about this movie, where you put journalists into the zombie make-up. There’s a lot involved in becoming the undead!
Those make-up guys are so amazing; it kind of became this assembly line of extras who were going into the zombie change. But the coolest thing about it is that once they were in make-up and costume they were all really good at acting like zombies!
Zombies are so ingrained in our culture now. How else would you give direction to someone on acting like a zombie than to reference zombie films, right?
Yeah, at the beginning we looked at a lot of movies and then we had a couple guys from Cirque de Soleil come help us out, because we were up in Montreal, and we had them do some work with our core group of stunt zombies. And we taped it just to get the movement right, because we didn’t want it to look like “Thriller” or something like that. We wanted it to be kind of reminiscent of Romero, but we wanted it to feel like its own kind of thing, too.
I think this movie fits snugly in between Dawn and Shaun of the Dead.
I’m glad to hear you say that! I hope that zombie fans feel the same way. I know there are going to be people who are resistant to the idea. But for me it came from a place of love. not only for the Romero movies — Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and Fido and Dead Alive, all these movies that are pushing the mythology in new directions for both comedic reasons and to reflect something about our culture back to us, which is what zombies have always been about.
John Malkovich is such a renaissance man — he’s not just an actor, but he’s also a director, producer and fashion designer. Did he have any input or involvement in the film beyond his on-screen role?
He knows more about everything than anyone on the set, including me. But to his credit, when he’s an actor on a movie he’s an actor on a movie. I never ceased to be blown away by how incredibly talented he is. I don’t know how much he sleeps, but it can’t be much. Even when he was sitting in between takes on set he was sketching ideas for clothing. There are certain people who just seem superhuman, and he’s one of them.
Serendipitously, Isaac’s prequel to Warm Bodies, The New Hunger, just released today. Is that something you’ve discussed adapting or are you not quite there yet?
I think that’s a little too far in the future. We did exchange texts when he let me know he was doing it, and I can’t wait to read it because I love all his writing. But as far as that being a movie, I’m going to wait and see if anyone sees this movie first. [laughs]
What’s next for you?
There’s a few things. I’m working on a TV show that I just sold to Showtime. I’m writing the pilot for that, and that’s kind of about my experiences in film school — a soap opera in and around a film school in Los Angeles. And then I’m writing another script for myself that I’m working on with Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], and then there’s a couple other things I’m reading. I’m hoping to do some version of something in the second half of this year.
Warm Bodies opens Friday nationwide.