A Trip to Zombieland: Co-Creators Wernick & Reese

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Taking you on a tour through the gore & laughs

Every single movie starts with an idea and usually that idea comes from the writer. In the case of Sony’s horror-comedy Zombieland, that idea came from Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, two high school friends who co-created The Joe Schmo Show on Spike TV, then started to develop a show set in a world overrun by zombies. The idea for that television show is what would eventually become the screenplay for Zombieland, and as co-producers on the movie, they were probably the ones who knew the most about what people can expect from the movie.

We’d been on set watching Woody and Jesse shoot for a couple hours before it was time for lunch, and it was decided that would be the best time to talk to the film’s creators. You really couldn’t meet two nicer and cooler guys than Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and we got a full 45 minutes with them to talk about their movie and other things. If you really want to know a LOT about this horror-comedy then this is definitely the interview to read. (We also talked briefly about the Venom spin-off movie they’re doing for Sony and other things that you can read about here.)

ShockTillYouDrop: Can you talk about the origins of this movie?

Paul Wernick: Absolutely. It started, what? In the summer of 2005 as a spec we wrote. Coming off of reality TV, we wanted to break in at sort of traditionally-scripted stuff, and we wrote it as a spec, feeling that the zombie genre had not really been tapped in the TV side. We sold it to CBS, and went through a little bit of development at CBS, and we did not end up making the pilot. It sat at Sony TV, who we had been partnered with on the project for several years. With the passion of an executive at Sony TV, Chris Parnell, and Gavin Palone, our producer on the project, they presented us the option of turning it into a back-door pilot, a made-for-TV movie, which we graciously jumped at. And we wrote it what? About two years ago?

Rhett Reese: Yeah.

Wernick: Extended it out from pilot form into movie. Which interestingly, the pilot pretty much stayed the same. The first 60 pages of the movie are pretty much the pilot script, interestingly, and the second 40 pages are pretty much episode two of the pilot script. Right?

Reese: It’s really true, yeah. We did what we were going to do in Episode Two and put it in. No, that did change, because Ruben, when he turned it into a movie, wanted it to end really big, so we changed the third act to make it an amusement park and a big fight.

Wernick: It got bigger, surely, over the course of two years that it’s been in development on the movie side.

Shock: Was the show always called Zombieland?

Wernick: It was, yeah.

Shock: It’s great that you end the movie at an amusement park. Do we get to see zombies on a carousel or a roller coaster?

Reese: Oh yeah. Flying off every ride you can imagine. Woody, he incorporated all the rides into the action set pieces, so we’ve got zombies flying off one of those “Blast Off” things that shoots the seats up and down. We’ve got multiple roller coasters. What else? We jump a Hummer into a lake. There’s this great moment where this thing called The Rattler, which is this huge pendulum-type device that has all these seats around the outside and it swings back and forth and the seats turn. Columbus runs underneath it and it just misses him. And then some zombies are chasing him and it comes back and just knocks them all out of the way.

Wernick: An interesting side note: When it was still a TV pilot, after CBS had chosen not to make it, we were trying to get it off the ground, and we met with John Carpenter, who wanted to direct the pilot of Zombieland. Then ultimately, it transitioned into a feature and John Carpenter went away, but he read the script and loved it.

Reese: That was a cool meeting, to meet John Carpenter, really fun.

Wernick: Interestingly, though, it was late in the afternoon, because he doesn’t take meetings, what? Before five? We heard a fun sort of story, that yeah, he won’t…

Reese: He’s a night owl and he won’t take meetings until late afternoon. I hope that’s right. Like, I hate to say that and have him be like, “What?” [laughs] “You must die!”

Shock: What were your experiences with zombie movies before doing this?

Reese: Well, I was a little bit more of a fan than Paul was, interestingly, but to me, the thing I didn’t like about zombie movies was that they didn’t scare me because of the slow motion. Like, I always thought they were cool, but I never really felt like that huge urgency and threat. So for me, when they reinvented [them] with 28 Days Later that was where I felt it got re-enlivened, and then they did it again with Dawn of the Dead. So back to back, you’ve got these two really, really cool movies with fast zombies, and I just think that to me anyway, the visceral threat of something coming after you in a hurry is a little more engaging than the slow-motion masses slowly moving in on you. That’s a personal preference, but…

Shock: Your zombies basically have a shelf life? Is that correct, or is it not correct that after a few months, they die on their own?

Reese: You know, no. They don’t have a shelf life. But we did talk about, and this was mostly through the make-up artists, how the disease would travel through certain stages, like you would get worse. At first, it wouldn’t look too bad, and then over time the pustules and the pus and the vomiting, it would get worse. We never sort of took it to its logical conclusion, that they actually die at the end of that, because we anticipate eight sequels to this, so we don’t want them to die off.

Shock: So the other question is, does your movie sort of throw everyone into the world of zombies, like that’s just part of their lives? Or do you have some backstory that you explained how the disease came to be? Or is it sort of left mysterious?

Wernick: It’s left mysterious. We sort of wanted to be a little different than all the zombie movies that start with the governor or the police chief on the TV explaining that zombies have come and why they’ve come. We just wanted to get right into it, which we do in the script.

Shock: But there are flashbacks as well. What are you flashing back to?

Reese: We flashback to…

Wernick: More character stuff.

Reese: …some pre-Zombieland stuff, just character stuff ala Lost, where you’re just seeing a moment from a character’s life. We also flashback to the moment when zombies first attacked, or when one of our characters, Columbus, meets his first zombie, because we thought that’s a pretty visceral moment, so we did flashback to that. The whole point of this was to write a funny, entertaining character piece, make it scary, have some action, make it a lot of different things, but we weren’t really interested in reinventing the zombie genre. It didn’t feel to us like we had to come up with a great origin, or we had to make zombies different from all the other movies or anything. We actually sort of took comfort in the fact that we could use zombies, and that answered a lot of questions immediately for the audience in that we’ve all seen zombie movies, we all know that there are different variations, but we largely understand what the idea is. We just wanted to have that scheme in the audience’s head so that we can then not worry about that stuff and just jump right into these characters and what it means to them to be in the world of zombies. At the end of the day, I think that living in a post-apocalyptic world is strangely, at least for me, like this escapist fantasy of like, “What would happen if I was one of the most important people in the world by virtue of being one of the people left? And there’s this girl,” and it’s like, “Oh my God, and she’s hot. And oh my God, here we are and there’s no one else around!'” It’s like it’s almost this chance to explore people in a sort of escapist fantasy.

Wernick: Rhett’s trying to spread a virus, so be careful what you guys eat today.

Shock: Comedy is almost a piece of droll profanity to some people. Because you’re dealing with two very sacred genres, that are both hard to achieve. Where is this in the pantheon—is it slapstick comedy or more Shaun of the Dead-type stuff?

Wernick: It’s more grounded than Shaun of the Dead. That has its absurdity to it. It’s hilarious, but it’s absurd, and we wanted to make each moment very real, as if you take away all the zombies and this movie still lives.

Reese: Yeah, I mean, Shaun of the Dead is awesome, but it is absurd. They’re throwing records and chopping off zombies’ heads. That could never happen.

Wernick: Here we’re just banjos and…

Shock: It’s not like Dead Alive where’s he’s got like a lawnmower and he’s taking out hundreds of people, though?

Reese: Well, it is to some degree. I wouldn’t say it’s sort of the Sam Raimi… Essentially this guy who is full of phobias and fears. If that actually worked to his advantage in a post-apocalyptic setting. Because it’s like, those very things that would prevent you from succeeding in life, you’re a shut-in, you don’t have anything but the voices in your own head. Those things become useful in a land where…those things now really are dangerous, and they are going to kill me. So the fact that I’m used to avoiding things and being able to kind of think three steps ahead, and use my fears. Where those fears would have hurt you in the past, they’re now helping it, and then you pair him up with a guy who is…

Wernick: Just a kick-ass live-by-the moment kind of guy.

Reese: Then you see the sparks fly. You’ve got this fearless guy, who’s constantly wanting to kill zombies, it’s his joy, killing zombies, essentially. He’s finally found something in life that he’s good at. Like that’s sort of the joke with him is that he’s a f**k-up, but he has this amazing ability to just f**king kill. So when it comes time to do that, he’s able to do it. So you’ve got these two very different survival strategies that have served these two men well. And now you throw them together and you’ve got the fearful guy saying, “No, no, don’t go there, we can’t.” And then you’ve got the fearless guy just charging right in and saying, “Get on my hip, we’re going in.” So it’s a fun dynamic, it’s a character dynamic.

Wernick: Interestingly, as you say, horror-comedy. I almost classify it more of sort of an action-comedy with horror mixed into it. Would you say that, Rhett?

Reese: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like a horror film. It’s strange, it doesn’t…

Shock: Are there scary moments?

Wernick: Yes.

Reese: Yes. I don’t want to say “no.” It should be a scary movie and we want it to be a scary movie, but it’s not. At the end of the day, we’re trying to amuse you and entertain you from the comedy standpoint a little more than the other side.

Shock: Can you talk about the rules a little bit? I think a few people have mentioned rules and not really going into what they are or what their importance is, but I guess they must be important to this. Talk about what they are.

Wernick: The rules. We’ve got simple rules, like “Cardio” is a rule, for example. You know, stay in shape.

Reese: Zombies lead a very active lifestyle, so should you. [laughs] What are some other ones?

Wernick: Limber up is another one, and then there’s also just sort of more social rules. Like, what are…?

Reese: “Enjoy the little things.”

Wernick: “Enjoy the little things.”

Reese: Things to help you survive in this horrible situation. “Seatbelts” is another one. You know, it’s like it’s a goody two shoes thing, but “Wear your seatbelt, because you might be in a situation where it’s going to save you.”

Shock: Whose rules are these?

Reese: Columbus, the lead character.

Wernick: Jesse’s character.

Reese: It’s the 47 rules, and he keeps adding to his list as he goes. So as a new situation comes up, and these rules will come up on screen as he’s doing the various things. The whole movie starts with a montage, essentially, of rules, and why these rules are important. And you see people failing to live by these rules, and then you see the consequences of them failing to live by these rules. So you’re seeing the failure of other people to follow these rules and the horrifying consequences when they don’t, and then you see our heroes following the rules, and why it helps them survive. That’s a thread that runs through it.

Shock: Are Woody and Jesse’s characters together at the beginning of the movie?

Wernick: They meet up, basically on the road. Woody picks Jesse up. It’s the basis of who Woody’s character is, which he’s a live-for-the-moment kind of guy. He’s lost everything, and all he cares about is sort of the thought of the day, you know. “What does he want today? What will satisfy him today?” And he wakes up one morning and he’s like, “I want a Twinkie.” And that’s what he sets out to get the whole movie. It’s sort of the drive of the whole movie is this cream-filled sponge.

Reese: We’re pretty reverent of Twinkies. He talks about Twinkies very rhapsodically. He loves Twinkies. To us, thematically what that’s all about, is in a world where everything’s gone to sh*t, it’s those little things that keep you going. It may be a Twinkie – he’s got a speech in the movie where, tomorrow it might be…

Wernick: Women.

Reese: …swinging from the chandeliers in the Playboy Mansion, or skinny-dipping in the Yellowstone River, or whatever. But today, it’s a Twinkie. And it’s a remnant of things past, and it’s a reason to still want to live at the end of the day.

Shock: So I assume that when you talked about it earlier that there is room for more movies? I assume that at the end of this movie, they don’t completely get rid of the entire world of zombies. So would you basically have the same characters in a sequel?

Reese: We need a hit first, but we do see these same four characters hanging out together in the future, yeah. I mean, provided none of them die.

Shock: It’d be interesting if it spawned a TV show.

Reese: And we hope it does.

Shock: You talked about writing stuff into the script, and from what I saw, you guys wrote a lot of songs into the script. Can you talk about that a little?

Reese: Yeah, I mean, music is such a big part of films, and oftentimes it’s left to a music coordinator somewhere down the line. But we just love putting in thematic music that matches what we’re doing.

Wernick: And that almost sometimes turns it on its head. It’s the ironic choice that we always want.

Reese: We’ve got classical music in this. Now, whether we get the rights to all these things, I don’t know. We’ve got classical music, we have John Denver. We have Rage Against the Machine, we have Patsy Cline. There’s a really fun sort of a montage early on where we’re seeing people die all over the world, and it’s set to “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline. It’s a song about love, but the world’s falling to pieces and we think it will play well. Again, we have to get rights to stuff like that, so it can be frustrating. Because Woody Guthrie was an example, I was telling you guys earlier. It’s like, we may not get Woody Guthrie’s songs, which would stink.

Shock: So are you guys making changes on the fly on this movie, or are they sticking really close to the script?

Wernick: We’re getting our movie, believe it or not. They’re sticking pretty close to the script. We’re tweaking things here and there, production-wise, but…

Shock: We saw Woody doing an ad-lib today that seemed to make it into every take. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Wernick: Well, Woody had this great Deliverance [moment], the “pretty mouth” thing and it’s funny. I think Ruben, our director, has created such a safe environment for the actors and everyone feels very comfortable and collaborative that we get these great gems that come out of the day that we wouldn’t have expected at the start.

Shock: Going from this originally being for TV and now being a full-blown motion picture that it is, how different is the level of violence and horror?

Reese: Definitely gorier and more violent, yeah.

Wernick: It’ll be R-rated.

Reese: It will be a violent movie. I don’t think it’s going to be wildly…like a splatterfest. There will be some gore, but it won’t be over the top. That’s just not the movie we set out to make. I’m of the opinion that gore and comedy start to fight each other a little bit after a little while. At least with, I say my girlfriend because there’s a certain subsection of the population who starts to not get turned off by gore but finds it difficult to both see it and be laughing at the same movie. So I don’t think we’re going to wildly over the top, but it’s violent though.

Wernick: You’ll see some blood.

Reese: Yeah, it’s violent. It’s a pretty violent movie.

Shock: So that kind of raises the question of who did you write this for? Did you write it for a mainstream crowd?

Reese: Well, we wrote it for ourselves, really, but we did write it for television, and that’s a good point. We didn’t expect it to be a gory thing because, you know, CBS network television is what it was intended for. I mean, I shouldn’t say that. We didn’t expect to sell it to CBS, that was a surprise, but we did expect to see it on television.

Wernick: So when we sold it to them, we knew they weren’t going to end up making it. [laughs]

Reese: We had a terrible feeling. A sneaking suspicion you’ve sold this to the wrong people.

Wernick: We’re like, “Wait, CBS? Really? They know it’s Zombieland, right? They know there are zombies?”

Reese: But yeah, it was intended for a pretty mainstream audience, but it’s not going to exclude anyone who loves gore, it really isn’t. We really feel it to be a very, very satisfying movie for fans of the zombie genre.

Shock: What about the casting of Jesse and Woody?

Wernick: They’re such an eclectic group of actors that we really lucked in and the chemistry between all of them is fantastic.

Reese: We think, without hesitation, we can say this is the best cast ever to be in a zombie movie. We really feel like it’s a great… We have two Academy Award nominees, we have a very eclectic, as Paul says, group. And they all come from different backgrounds but they’re all phenomenally talented. It’s to say nothing against any previous casts, but every day we get blown away by what [this cast] does. And yeah, Woody’s never starred in action movie before. How amazing is that that we lucked out and he didn’t do it until now because now it’s going to open up a whole new world of Woody we think.

Shock: What does Zombieland bring to the zombie genre that we haven’t seen before?

Reese: That’s tough. I think it brings a level of depth and emotion and humanity that you may not have seen in zombie movies before. I also think it’s as funny as any zombie movie that’s been done. I hesitate ever to say, there’s so many classic zombie movies, great, great movies, so this is just slightly different. I don’t know, I’m not objective. I think it’s pretty funny, it’s really, really funny. But I think this movie could bring a tear to people’s eye. I’m not sure that’s necessarily happened in a zombie movie before, but maybe it has.

Wernick: We shot a scene yesterday that was just really emotional. And it’s just the mixture of genre with comedy with heart and emotion, it’s a delicate dance and I think it’s going to work.

Reese: We certainly hope so.

Shock: One of the things about zombie movies is there’s always a danger that someone could just die. You have these four characters who basically go through the whole movie, are there are other characters around them?

Wernick: You’ll have to see, but yeah…

Reese: You’re right. It’s easier to start with a bigger cast and then you can kill a bunch of them.

Wernick: There are unexpected twists.

Reese: There are definite twists. But I think with the four main characters, the bond of the four of them and the value of that bond outweighs the “are they going to live or are they going to die” suspense. One of them may die, I won’t say, but you’re right. We traded a little bit of the suspense of who’s about to bite it. And that’s a classic staple. And again, in some ways that’s one of the reasons we didn’t do it.

Shock: Are there any recurring zombies?

Reese: There are a couple of zombies that have much bigger roles and are more important, but not a zombie that keeps coming back if that’s what you mean. There’s no like super zombie, but that said there are a couple of zombies that have a more central role to the plot than most. No boss zombie. [laughs]

Shock: No zombies from other movies?

Reese: No. [laughs] That would be a good idea though.

Shock: Are there any throwaway gags or any actors, like might Ken Foree walk by in the background?

Reese: No, nothing like that. We probably should have. And I think a lot of more recent updates on genres have done a good job at paying homage or [giving] cameos to people who were like Battlestar Galactica, or there are various examples of that, or Starsky and Hutch. We never thought about that. We probably should’ve done it. Let’s have Bruce Campbell bite it somewhere.

Wernick: Stan Lee. Wait, that’s our other movie.

Reese: Stan Lee will be in Venom, yes.

Shock: Did you write that cameo already?

Reese: Oh, yeah. Stan Lee is in it, yeah. I feel like that’s the one thing we can say. He does appear in our script, and we’re very specific about where he is and why. May he live forever. Let’s hope he’s in many movies to come.

Shock: Do you actually write out action scenes very specifically?

Reese: Very specifically, yeah. Down to the moment. And I catch flack for that. For too much detail, but that’s the fun stuff. And it’s those little moments in action scenes that make them great. It’s like Jurassic Park: “The Tyrannosaurus chases the jeep.” That’s cool but it’s so much cooler the moment you see that mirror that says “Objects are closer than they appear to be.” It’s those little moments in action movies that make them better.

Wernick: It’s the little moments in all movies.

Reese: In all movies, yeah, and in any moment. But action, you can just write, “The zombies chase them across, and they have a big fight in the amusement park.” But that’s missing the entire joy of that scene. I’m trying to think of a moment from Zombieland, but writing the action is true joy. Maybe the director ignores it all. In our case the director is not, which is awesome, but just to get it down there so the reader of the script can visualize it is important.

Shock: How did you guys first team-up?

Wernick: We grew up together and we went to high school together.

Reese: Yeah, I gave him a wedgie after lunch hour one day and the rest was history. No. He was working in reality TV.

Wernick: I was a news producer and then worked in reality TV.

Reese: And I was a feature screenwriter. I was writing children’s movies, a lot of kids stuff. And I was over at his place one night and we were watching Big Brother 2

Shock: You really went to high school together?

Wernick: Yeah, we really did.

Reese: And he was working on Big Brother 2 and I loved Big Brother 2. I got hooked on the show, so I went over to his house to watch it. And that night he was like, “You know, we’ve got to come up with an idea for a reality show some time,” and immediately I was interested but also thought what could I bring from my scripted background to reality so that we could sort of do a hybrid of our talents. That’s the idea where Joe Schmo came from. We had the idea that night and we wound up selling it and doing it together, and then we’ve just been working together ever since. It was just sort of on a whim.

Shock: Was it the kind of thing in high school where you guys were like, “One day we’re going to write Venom together?

Reese: [laughs] Not really. No in fact, I went over to Paul’s house to do a stop-motion thing with G.I. Joe dolls with his older brother and Paul thought it was the stupidest thing. He was right. He was already giving me notes. I was trying to do stop-motion with a video camera. It’s truly impossible to do. Can you imagine? It’s like G.I. Joe is [makes jerky motion sounds]. It was the worst thing ever.


Source: Edward Douglas