Interview: Zombieland Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
by Alex Billington
August 17, 2009
What do Joe Pesci, Mark Hamill, The Rock, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kevin Bacon, and Steven Seagal all have to do with Zombieland? Find out in our exclusive interview with the screenwriters of the upcoming zombie comedy - Rhett Reese (R) and Paul Wernick (L). You may not recognize them (this is their first feature), but they're going to hit it big with this movie, I'm sure of that. Although I haven't seen Zombieland yet, I was still able to talk with Rhett and Paul about zombies, screenwriting, 3D movies, and great action scenes. Here's another excerpt to whet your appetite: "It's sort of the Midnight Run of zombie movies."
Oh and if you haven't watched the first trailer or the most recent red band trailer for Zombieland, both of those are great primers for this interview, so fire them up first before diving into this interview headfirst! There is also a video version of this interview available to watch in its entirety by clicking right here.
I wanted to start with how both of you got into screenwriting and your history, so on and so forth, up until Zombieland and how you got onto that?
Rhett Reese: Well, we met in high school and our first project was a sugar cube version of Stonehenge, which didn't get us far, nor did the stop-motion G.I. Joe movies that we made, trying to use a video camera to make stop-motion. So that didn't go too well, but anyway, we actually went our separate ways and I started as a feature screenwriter and I wrote mostly children's stuff for awhile. I was the original writer of Monster's Inc. for Pixar and wrote for places like Disney and Nickelodeon. If it involved a talking animal and it was in the late '90s, I may have had something to do with it.
Paul Wernick: And I was a local news producer. I was a journalist for almost a decade in Phoenix, Tucson, Salt Lake City, and lastly here in Los Angeles at KCAL and made the jump into reality TV, just got burnt out on news, and was producing network reality for about a year. Rhett and I, being old friends, were sitting around one night while I was producing and said, "We should come up with a reality show idea." And we tried to figure out what the best way to combine his scripted and my non-scripted background was, and we came up with a show called "The Joe Schmo Show," which was sort of a hybrid scripted reality show.
Reese: Yeah, it's like The Truman Show in a reality setting. We took a guy and put him on a show that he thought was a real reality show and in fact everyone else on the show was an actor pretending to be a reality contestant and performing a parody of reality TV and it was a real kick. And we did a couple of seasons of that and then we did a show called "Invasion Iowa" with William Shatner where we fooled an entire small town in Iowa into thinking he was shooting a movie in their town. The movie was fake and he was surrounded by an entourage, a fake entourage, of improv actors pretending to be his employees working for him and they all acted completely crazy and very Hollywood.
Wernick: We did write a really bad third act of a sci-fi movie.
Reese: Exactly. It was supposed to be Shatner's passion project, or that's what it was purported to be.
Wernick: That he wrote back in the '60s right before Star Trek, with Leonard Nimoy, they partnered up to write this.
Reese: And it was the third act of a really, really bad movie called Invasion Iowa and it contained in, probably about 15 minutes of screen time, every cliché that was in every other science fiction movie since that time. And of course the claim from Shatner at that time was "they all ripped me off." So very much like the Terminator, Shatner arrives naked. He's been sent from the future and he arrives on earth and he's naked much like Arnold was in Terminator and we just ran with every fun cliché from there. Anyway, so we made that and...
Wernick: Then we decided to get into traditionally scripted stuff. We broke out and wrote Zombieland as a spec pilot, an hour long, that we sold to CBS in summer of 2005.
Like a zombie TV show?
Reese: Yeah, that's indeed why we wrote it, because we looked at the landscape and there had been a lot of zombie movies, but there had never been a zombie television show. And so we thought very mercenarily, wouldn't it be cool to see zombies on TV? And it was ironic that now we're headed into theaters where we weren't sure we wanted to go at the beginning, but now we're thrilled to be there.
How did it turn into a movie from the TV show?
Reese: Well there is an executive at Sony Television, Chris Parnell, who had a ton of passion for it, and when it died as a television show, he and Gavin Polone, our producer who also has a ton of passion for it, decided to try to convince Sony to allow us to, to pay us, to expand it into a back door pilot or made-for-television movie, or maybe a straight-to-DVD movie.
Wernick: And interestingly we sat in a room right at the onset of that with John Carpenter and he had read the hour long version, our pilot version, and absolutely loved it. I remember him sitting there saying -- Gavin said, "Well, what would you do with it?" And he said, "I'd go shoot it." And I thought, "Oh my god, how incredible!" Such an icon and he loved the script and we were so excited. And I think that was sort of the impetus that, once again, that was two years after Sony had passed, got everyone back on-board and excited, thinking, "My god, we may really have something here." And that sort of ignited this idea of turning it into this back door pilot or straight-to-DVD project, which we then went ahead and did. We took the first 60 pages of the pilot, essentially wrote episode two of the series.
Reese: Yea, what we were planning to be episode two, became the second half of the movie. And so that was a blast, but when we were finished Gavin Polone got the script and he thought it was too expensive now and he also thought, "Maybe this is too good to be DVD, we should take it over to Sony Pictures," which he did and they decided to make it. And they ultimately hired a director and then the writer's strike happened and then we came back on board after the writer's strike and did some rewriting and now we're sitting here. It was insane.
The obvious next question is if either of you are fans of zombie movies?
Wernick: Not so much me, but Rhett...
Reese: Yeah, I am and he's not.
I think there's certainly some good in that!
Wernick: Yeah. I mean, I think the good is sort of the idea that I bring a whole different perspective to the genre having no experience whatsoever in it. Obviously, Shaun of The Dead I watched and was a huge fan of, which everyone is comparing our movie to, which god willing it lives up that, we clear that hurdle.
Reese: It's a tough one, the bar is very high on that one, it's daunting.
Wernick: But Rhett was more so a zombie guy.
Reese: Yeah, I love zombie movies and I was particularly invigorated when Danny Boyle and Alex Garland created the fast zombies in 28 Days Later, because there is a certain visceral thrill to hordes of zombies moving slowly from every direction and slowly coming in on you. But that had played out to a degree, and suddenly they created zombies that -- a single zombie could be very scary because he was moving at very full speed and that breathed new life into the genre, it added an element of threat and of violence and horror that had grown tired. And then the new Dawn of the Dead did the same and it was about that time that we thought, "Geez, we should try to put this on TV."
It seems like, from the trailers, that there's a mix of fast and slow zombie? I guess that might have been director Ruben Fleischer's decision more than yours?
Reese: Yes, I think the decision that Ruben made was to treat zombie-ism like a disease that could go through progressions and it might impair some people so they would be moving a little slower. The zombies in our movie are not undead. They're living people with a virus so they don't have that shambling, shuffling thing going on. But I do think that the basic idea is that they're in some way impaired by the virus and so some are moving quicker than others. And other times it came down to the extra who was playing the zombie. If the person wasn't very fast, it was a slow zombie... Particularly in the grocery store, those guys were not moving at great speeds because they were rather large. [laughs]
Wernick: We were always the voice in Ruben's ears, trying to push them to move a little faster, and again, Rhett's right, we had all the extras. It was freezing cold in the dead of night in South Georgia at times, and we couldn't get them moving, couldn't get their muscles warmed up appropriately enough so that they would move as quickly as we wanted.
I wanted to address the idea of making a zombie movie unique and fresh in this day and age, because we've seen so many. We've come from, obviously the George Romero time up to the point where every up and coming every up and coming indie horror director tries to do a zombie movie. So how did you guys, going into Zombieland starting with the TV show, try to make this fresh and unique and different?
Wernick: I think more than anything we wanted to really look at it as a character piece, as elitist as that sounds. It was a story about this dysfunctional family traveling across a post-apocalyptic world. And the zombies, while being obstacles, were not the focal point of the movie, if that makes sense.
Reese: It's really a movie about a dysfunctional family. And you can't choose your family members and in a post-apocalyptic world you can't choose who you get to hang out with. You're going to be forced to hang out with some people who may not be the people you would have chosen to hang out with in regular society. And our movie has no human bad guy, which is rare for any movie, any action movie or any movie like this, there's no antagonists. So our protagonists had to serve as each other's antagonists. Their personalities provided that and we've got a really fearful guy and a really fearless guy, a guy who always wants to run from every bad situation, that's Jesse Eisenberg's character, and a guy who wants to run into every dangerous situation, that's Woody Harrelson. We thought that's a really fun push-pull. These two are buddies but one of them is always dragging the other one in the other direction and that creates conflict.
And then we have two women who have survived entirely by their wits and who don't trust anyone in the world except for each other, they've learned that the hard way. And so those two immediately are at odds with the two guys and the sparks flying between and among those four characters is what drives the story. So to us it was less about reinventing the zombie genre and more about creating a really funny, fun, emotional story among these four people and then also layering in all those scares and thrills and jolts.
What I've heard about it is that there are a lot of vignette moments, like the best zombie kill, as we saw in the first trailer. Are there a lot more of those sort of moments in it?
Wernick: It's very freewheeling. We didn't want to tell a linear story and it got more linear as it went through development from CBS into the feature world. But it is sort of a very freewheeling, storytelling...
Reese: Flashbacks, voice over, quick cutaways, a bizarre omniscient voice over from one of the lead characters that -- where he's allowed to talk about things that he wasn't privy to, interestingly, and yet it somehow works. So he can launch a cutaway to the zombie kill of the week, for instance, where a piano falls on a zombie's head. Or he can introduce us to a flashback of another character, despite the fact that he never experienced that. And bizarrely we were able to get away with it. No one's ever called us on it and said, "Wait a minute, he wasn't there, how would he have known about that?"
Wernick: Until this moment.
That's actually one of the things I really like about this and that I think makes it fresh, that sort of aspect. We've seen so many zombies, that just being able to play in that world in this fun way with these little moments, it's like if Left 4 Dead, the video game, were to be adapted, just because it's fun, you get to finally play in that world.
Wernick: And it really is a delicate balance of mixing of genres with -- it's horror, it's comedy, its got heart to it.
Reese: It's a road movie, it's a buddy movie, it's an action-comedy.
Wernick: It's a romantic comedy, it's a love story. So it really is a delicate balance of mixing a bunch of different genres and if done right, I think it could be absolutely great.
Reese: I think the challenge when you're dealing with a genre that people know a lot about is to be able to tell it in a compelling new way. We didn't want to start at the beginning. We didn't want to start with a General coming on TV and saying everybody stay in your houses and seeing scenes of riots in the streets and horses rearing up and balls of flame and all those things. We just didn't want to do that. So instead we jumped right into it and we used this device called the 47 Rules for Surviving Zombieland to help drive the beginning of the movie. And you don't even have to meet the lead character right away. You learn some of his strategies before you even meet him. It's just a different way to go about it and I think we were encouraged to do that because the genre was so well known. We needed to set ourselves apart.
That's actually what I wanted to get into a bit more regarding the story, since I haven't seen it yet. From what I understand, it's sort of a road movie where these two guys meet and they eventually end up at an amusement park. But without know why they get there, can you explain in more detail the bigger picture in terms of how they get on this path?
Reese: Well, every character has a different goal and I think everyone's theme is to find a home again, because everyone's home has been taken away from them. And Columbus, the Jesse Eisenberg character, wants to go to his traditional home, the home where he grew up, to see his parents and see if they're still alive even though that seems like a long bet, and a long shot, though I think he secretly knows that they aren't alive...
Wernick: In Columbus, Ohio.
Reese: So he wants to go to his traditional home. Tallahassee, Woody Harrelson's character, by contrast, is trying to get away from the place that he called home because its been destroyed, and so home for him is wherever the wind blows him and whatever latest whim strikes his fancy, and in this case it's to find a Twinkie. He's worried that Twinkies are expiring soon and that he wants to eat the world's last Twinkie. And then the girls really are -- the entire world was taken away from them. But they have found home in each other and in a moment from their past where they went to this wonderful amusement park in California and it's the last time they can remember a real trouble free, wonderful life, just the two of them. And they're trying to recreate that, so they're trying to go back to the amusement park that they think of in terms of home, even though it's not their physical home.
Wernick: I think the ultimate theme is that home is what surrounds them. It's the people, the company that surrounds them, so become a family in this home and comfort for one another.
I also wanted to talk a little bit about the road movie side of it. Was that always your intention or were there other ideas where they had other goals that wouldn't make it a road movie?
Reese: Well, we always thought a road movie was the best way for people to bump into each other. And it was also a way to open it up and not have it be too claustrophobic or insular. And America's a beautiful place, it's a big place, and we thought that could be a way to help set the movie apart, a lot of different settings - Arizona, Texas, California, it's pretty expansive.
Wernick: Interestingly, it was set up in the American Southwest and then tax incentives took us further East and we had to re-look at the geography of the movie and the character's names and we actually ended up shooting in Georgia, which took the place of Texas. So we pushed it further east. But yeah, it was always intended as a road movie. It's sort of the Midnight Run of zombie movies.
Did you rewrite any of the characters once they were cast for them to fit better with the actor?
Reese: No, not really at all. The one part that we rewrote a lot was the celebrity cameo. We have a celebrity cameo. We're not allowed to mention who it is.
I think I've heard...
Reese: We will neither confirm nor deny any name you throw at us. But it started with Patrick Swayze, we really wanted Patrick Swayze to be in our movie and play a zombie. And, a Patrick Swayzified or a zombified Patrick Swayze, I guess. Anyway, Patrick got sick and couldn't do it. And it was up to us to determine well, where do we go next? And so we wrote another version for Sylvester Stallone. Well Sylvester Stallone had...
Wernick: He was directing.
Reese: Yeah, he was directing something else so he couldn't do it.
It sounds like you just had a wish list of everybody you wanted.
Reese: Well, what we found was we had to rewrite it about 10 or 15 times, probably more like 10, but a lot, for different actors to try to attract them to the project. And so we went through...
Wernick: Joe Pesci, Mark Hamill, The Rock, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Reese: Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Bacon, a lot of names.
Wernick: Steven Seagal.
Reese: And every time we rewrote it, it was the same basic idea but we had to specify which person it was, so it was exhausting. By the end we just thought, "Are we ever going to get anyone and where is this going to end up?" And we wrote a version without any celebrity at all. And it came down to...
Wernick: We were three days away from shooting it... And Rhett and I walked up to Woody and we said--
Reese: "Do you know anybody?"
Wernick: "Pick up your cell phone and go through the address book and find someone." He goes, "Well, I could call this person or this person."
Reese: And we said "Yes."
Wernick: We said "Yes and yes."
Reese: But ironically, we ended up getting the best person of all. Someone who's better than any of the other names by far and the only reason we didn't go to him first or go to him earlier is because we thought we would never, ever, ever, ever, ever be able to get him. And so we just thought there would be no chance. So you do a lot of self-censorship in those situations. You say, "Wouldn't it be cook to have a Bill Clinton zombie?" Well, you're not going to get Bill Clinton to be in your movie. So you wonder to yourself, you know, can we get this person? And if you don't think you can, you don't bother writing it. We just hadn't gone down that path and it ended up coming true.
Wernick: A lot of people who read their draft and thought "Hmm, this isn't the right project for me," are going to see the movie come out and see who got cast and go, "Wait a second..."
Reese: Anyway, it was a crazy ride and it came down to the eleventh hour and again, we're pinching ourselves to this moment because it was really fun.
It sounds like it. You probably don't even need to answer this, but it sounds like the celebrity cameo has a very important role in the plot of the film?
Reese: Pretty crucial role, yeah.
Because I always thought it was just a cameo.
Reese: Pretty crucial role, it's bigger than just a cameo. I mean, it was a couple days of shooting so it wasn't, it wasn't like...
Wernick: It's just not a celebrity in zombie makeup who runs out and scares one of our guys...
Reese: There is definitely a lot more to it than that, otherwise we wouldn't have had to do all that rewriting.
Wernick: It's at least five to ten minutes of the movie.
Reese: Something like that, yeah.
I wanted to ask you about working with director Ruben Fleischer and the relationship you had with him and how integral was it. Were you on set most of the time shooting?
Reese: It was great. We were always on the same page from the beginning. He loved the script and we loved everything he showed us that he had done before and so it was a great match from the beginning. And he's also very, very inclusive. He really campaigned for us to be on the set which is not an everyday occurrence, necessarily, for writers. And so we were there every day and again, he was very inclusive. He was very collaborative. You never felt like you couldn't whisper something into his ear or make a suggestion. And he is absolutely phenomenal at getting the best out of everyone who works for him and letting people do their thing and its been great.
It seems like a great collaboration between everyone involved in this. Ruben being a first-time director, you guys being first-time feature writers, all of this coming together and the result just looks fantastic so far.
Reese: I think there is sometimes a little bit of a "lightning in a bottle effect" when you get people who haven't done it eight straight times. Like we were all -- and Ruben will be the first one to say, he was not a big zombie fan coming into Zombieland. He had watched a few of the films, but he was certainly not a zombie buff. But sometimes I think it can help to be coming from the outside in, because -- and the Star Trek guys might tell you the same thing. J.J. Abrams has talked about that with regard to Star Trek, that he was not a huge Trekker. But that gave him a window into it that maybe someone who was a huge Trekker wouldn't have had because of the insular nature of being a fan.
Definitely. Was it ever a considering to make Zombieland a 3D movie at all?
Wernick: Interestingly, it was not considered for Zombieland, probably expense was the greatest reason. It's a low budget, studio movie. It's a $25 million movie, so...
Reese: Also at the time, 3D was on the experimental side back when this thing was getting off the ground. I mean, Journey to the Center of the Earth was being done. But I don't think it had proven itself as a necessarily viable medium yet. But since then all these movies have come out, particularly children's movies and they're awesome. Monster vs. Aliens and Up took advantage of 3D wonderfully and I know James Cameron is after it with Avatar, which will probably blow everybody's minds. But my feeling on it is that it will ultimately provide a very, very compelling reason to go to a theater to see something. Nowadays home theatrical systems are so good that they can't replace a theater experience, but they can do a slightly poor-man's version of it enough that you may not want to leave your couch.
You may want to stay at home and cook your own popcorn and watch it cheaply at home. But that 3D technology is only available in theaters now and it won't come to the home for a long time, probably. And I think it represents: a) a way for studios to get people into theaters but then, b) a way for them to charge a little bit more for movies. You know it's like charge $13 instead of $10 or whatever they're doing and make a little bit more money. So I think it's going to be a pretty compelling economic force and I would guess that in two or three years this conversation is a ridiculously outdated one in that every action movie will be 3D and every children's movie will be 3D.
Wernick: Or Zombieland 2.
Reese: And the only movies that won't be in 3D are inexpensive movies or movies that clearly, don't need it, you won't see Howard's End in 3D or Room with a View in 3D, but I think it's going to take over.
As writers then, would you feel more inclined to write your scripts to cater to 3D? I think you guys have so much of a say in the direction and obviously the cinematographer is making his choices and the director, too, but how much would you change if you were writing for a 3D movie?
Wernick: It would surely open the imagination, I think. I mean we, when we write -- and Rhett specifically is very action oriented in terms of the script. And it's very specifically laid out, moment by moment, second by second of the action in our movie. So I do think, absolutely we would tailor an action scene specifically to 3D. I think it would really be cool and open the imagination, it would be a lot of fun.
Reese: You can take different approaches to writing an action scene. You can either write, "The guy gets chased down the hill by the army." Or you can talk through every moment of it. And I much prefer to talk through every moment of it because, to me, that's one of the reasons I'm in the business, is to write action and I love watching it and I love writing it. And if you can't free your imagination, run with those action scenes, I don't see any reason to write them. And of course when it comes time to shooting it, things change and that happened with Zombieland and that will happen with future movies I am sure, because there are certain realities of production and the director will have his or her own vision as to how a scene should play out. But when you read one of our scripts, you will be taken on a very blow-by-blow description of action. And if you are not into that, you may not enjoy it. If you are into it, I think it's really fun to dive into.
Wernick: It's a very director-friendly script that we write, I think. And that will be the reason why we, at sometime in the very near future, transition into directing, because we do have that vision. We do see it from the page to the screen and we really enjoy it.
Then I have to ask, what action scenes in the last couple of years, do you think, have been the most well-written? Or the scenes you have enjoyed the most?
Reese: Well, Wanted really blew me away. I mean The Matrix blew me away. But recently, Wanted really blew me away. I think Timur Bekmambetov has got a wonderful eye for it. I think, I've always felt like that in action movies, the genius is in the details. And I'm never sure when I go to a movie where a detail came from, but I know that I love it when I see it. Like in Jurassic Park, the tyrannosaurus is chasing the jeep and he looks in the side view mirror and it says, "Images in mirror are closer than they appear," as the dinosaur's face is right there. That's a great, great action moment, just a wonderful-- and it's those kinds of moments, you know, that bullet that's going around the people in Wanted and he's trying to make it move with his mind or in Matrix where he's suddenly fighting 400 versions of himself in the sequel. Those kinds of things just, those details really, really stand out and make an action scene great versus generic.
Wernick: And I don't necessarily think it's exclusive to action. Great movies, the details, it's the details that make movies great. The little, little moments that you point out and go "wow, they really thought about this moment." And we really like to, when we're writing, pay close attention and write smartly and pick out those details.
Reese: And the details make the characters great, too. It's the little things that make the characters great. It's often times the very smallest characteristic or action that they do or thing that they say that really defines who they are and makes them more memorable.
Thank you to Rhett and Paul for this great interview! I'm looking forward to finally seeing Zombieland sometime in the next month or so. It hits theaters on October 9th - don't miss it!