A Trip to Zombieland: Director Ruben Fleischer

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The director is often the hardest person to get to sit still for interviews while visiting any movie set, because they’re always the ones with the most responsibilities. That was definitely true with Ruben Fleischer on the day we visited the set of his first movie Zombieland because they had built this amazing recreation of the interiors of a large supermarket, and they were only shooting there for two days. In the day we were visiting, they had a lot of scenes to shoot of Woody and Jesse taking on three obese zombies, and Ruben was very busy working with his crew to make sure they got all the shots and coverage they needed of each scene. In that respect, we only got a piece-meal interview on the day of the shoot, and then a few weeks back, we were able to get on a conference call to ask a few follow-up questions.

First up was just an informal meet-and-greet between Ruben and the visiting press where we got to talk a little bit about the zombies in the movie. We join Ruben Fleischer already in progress…

Ruben Fleischer: Tony Gardner, who did the zombie make-up is just a super-talented guy. He worked on the “Thriller” video, he worked on Evil Dead 2, he did Return of the Living Dead so he’s been doing zombies for 25 years or something, so we got super-lucky. You guys get to see a few of them today, but I think he did such great work just making them scary, but in the realm of the diseased zombie versus the walking dead.

Shock: With all the make-up they’re wearing, are you still able to get expressions out of the actors playing the zombies?

Fleischer: Yeah, that was the one main thing I really wanted – to never lose the person in the zombie. I feel like the Francis Lawrence movie, I Am Legend, that was CG and these other beings. I really wanted to really maintain the sense of the person they were before they got infected than try to see that behind the make-up. We have lots of prosthetics on them but they’re all wounds and sores and stuff like that so it doesn’t ever overwhelm the actor that’s playing the character.

Shock: These aren’t brain-eating zombies.

Fleischer: No, these are just voracious cannibalistic zombies that are infected with this sort of virus that makes them want to eat people.

Shock: They are dead, though?

Fleischer: Yeah… I mean, I think it’s open for interpretation. I mean, they’re zombies, so by definition they’re dead, but it’s that process of transformation once you go from a person to a zombie, do they die and come back or are they just infected? Yeah, it’s a tough one to call, but I think the key is that they need to be scary, so as long as they’re scary…but I’m really happy with the way they turned out. I’ll show you guys some footage later of just the massive zombies, like where we have 150 people charging and going crazy and stuff. It just looks really cool, but this is more of individual. They just come into this store and there’s only three zombies in the store when they show up.

Shock: Are they eating the food in here?

Fleischer: Yeah, that’s another thing. Our zombies don’t just eat people. They eat food, they’ll eat anything, and that’s kind of the joke. These zombies are all really fat because they’ve been living in the supermarket eating whatever they want. People might want to question that as well but I think that’s funny. It’s like all this stuff. I wasn’t a big zombie fan before doing this movie, so I’ve learned so much about it and really trying to respect the genre and making sure that no zombie audience can question what we’re doing. I just want to make sure we really do it justice, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work on the logic and just making sure that it all makes sense and looks right and their movement is correct and everything else.

Later on, after we were shown footage from the final sequence of the movie that takes place in the amusement park, and afterwards, we were able to grab Ruben for a few more minutes:

Shock: How hard was it shooting stunts on roller coasters? It seems like dangerous stuff to begin with, so was it as dangerous as it looked?

Fleischer: It was controlled, but it was like a controlled chaos. Definitely when you’re dealing with giant machines, you’re definitely waiting on them and the reset times and there’s a lot of security checks and making sure that everything is in place before you go. Our stunt guys are incredible and the rigging is incredible, and it ended up being not as scary as I thought it would be.

Shock: But these were the actual rides from the amusement park that you were able to use?

Fleischer: We scripted the sequence to the park. Like when it was originally written, there were all different rides in and once we found out the location, we had to basically go to that place, go through all the rides, play with it, see what would work well and then tailor the action to the location basically.

Shock: How did the script change once you came on board?

Fleischer: Well, there wasn’t an amusement park involved. [laughs] I don’t know if you heard about the genesis of the movie, but it was originally a TV show so it didn’t really have an ending because it was supposed to lead to the second episode, so it was kind of unresolved. I was just trying to picture what was going to be the most climactic place and sequence to the whole thing, and then in the original script, they had that the little girl wanted to go to Disneyland. I was like, “Well, we should just have them go to Disneyland and have it actually resolve there.” That was my big contribution and then little pieces here and there. I think maybe the biggest contribution I made was the casting. I really saw Woody and Jesse pretty much the whole time, so it was amazing that we got them to play the roles, because I cannot imagine anyone else as those characters.

Shock: So is this ending similar to them going to “Wally World” in National Lampoon’s Vacation?

Fleischer: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Vacation and this is like a buddy comedy. The whole time I’ve been saying this movie is like Midnight Run with zombies. It’s really more about this odd couple relationship between a sort of geekier guy and a badass guy, on the road, dealing with extreme situations and ours just happens to be zombies, but it’s really based more off an ’80s road movie like Vacation or Midnight Run or Planes, Trains and Automobiles or something like that than anything else I think. It’s definitely a comedy first and everything else second, I think.

Shock: What originally drew you to the script?

Fleischer: Just the opportunity as a first-time director, there was so much in there. Like I was saying, it’s five genres at once. When you’re a first-time director and you’re considering what the first movie you want to make, there’s often romantic comedies or teen humor high school movies or something like that. I had never shot anything with a gun in it before this movie and I had like machine guns and zombies and squibs and all these sort of things. It really was just a huge opportunity to do something I’d never done before. Like yesterday, we were doing a really emotional scene with the girls where they were crying and then we have big action stuff, we have broad comedy, we have romantic stuff, so there’s just kinds of all genres at once, so it’s a great opportunity to show what I can do.

Shock: What were you doing before this? Short films or commercials?

Fleischer: I did short films, commercials, music videos.

Shock: How did the producers find you to do this?

Fleischer: Through the ways guys like me get found, I don’t know. I have a website and I have an agent and people I think vaguely know who I am. I just met a lot of people and somehow I got lucky enough to get the job.

Shock: Can you talk about the pre-production process? How long were you involved in that?

Fleischer: Well I’ve been involved with the movie for over a year. December of last year [that’s 2007] I got it and then there were complications with the writers’ strike and the SAG strike threat so we couldn’t really shoot until all those things were figured out, but in that time, it really allowed us to work on the script, get it to the point where we wanted it to be, I scouted New Mexico, I scouted Louisiana, and finally ended up in Georgia. Things changed all throughout that process and then we were in Georgia for 12 weeks doing pre-production and that lends itself really well. I mean, the amusement park was better in Valdosta than any of those other places we looked at. The variety of environments in Georgia works really well. Originally, the movie was set in the southwest so that was a major change and then coming here, we set it in Texas instead of Arizona, just because there’s no way this was going to play for Arizona and New Mexico and California, so we’re playing it just strictly as Texas and then they travel to California.

So that was all we were able to get out of Ruben on set, but then a few months later, we were able to get on the phone with Ruben for a follow-up conference call:

Shock: So where are you at now on the film?

Fleischer: We are about seven or eight weeks into editing and we have a nice tight cut that we’ve had a couple friends and family screenings and it’s playing really well. People seem to be excited about it and the comedy’s working. I think Woody just shines as this kind of larger than life zombie killer, and Jesse and him have a nice chemistry and it’s all working. It will continue to improve considerably over the course of the next month or two that we will continue to edit, but I’m happy with where we’re at right now.

Shock: You seem to have been doing a lot of stuff on-set practically. Have you found that’s made it a lot easier or do you still have to do a lot of CG or post work?

Fleischer: Yeah, we have some. I’ve been told we have a really large amount of visual FX shots for the scale of movie we’re doing. I think we have like 400 FX shots or something like that, but I think half of those are green screen driving because we shot all of our driving just on a green screen. All that dialogue, every time we cut, its another shot. We have a lot of that. Then there’s a lot of gore stuff. We didn’t use a lot of practical squibs when people get shot. We kind of went away from traditional squibs and we’re going to be doing it digitally, so for all the zombies that get shot, we’re going to have to put some splatter in post. Even with the zombies that you guys saw, the fat zombies getting their heads smashed, we’ll have to help those out with some splatter, too, so really, it’s a lot of splatter. We don’t really have too many huge VFX shots. Our first shot of the entire movie is our biggest shot, and it’s a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. which we shot in a semi-green screen environment, and then just at the amusement park, the ride and stuff like that.

Shock: Is this still going to be PG-13?

Fleischer: No, it’s R. It was always intended as R. There’s so many headshots and stuff like that. I guess if you have somebody get shot in the head and brains splattering you’re in R territory no matter what, but the language isn’t too crazy. We have a fair amount of F-bombs but nothing that anybody’s going to be blushing I don’t think.

Shock: How far are you going in as you add the headshots to push the R-rating?

Fleischer: Not crazy. I think we’re trying to do justice to a zombie movie and keep it legit, but it’s not like Planet Terror or something like that, where they really went for it as far as the splatter. We’re keeping it more realistic.

Shock: The trailer shows action, comedy and horror, all these elements. Do you think the movie skews in one direction over another?

Fleischer: I gotta be honest. I think it’s a buddy comedy first. It’s about these two guys and their relationship, and they certainly run across a bunch of zombies along the way and battle, and I’m proud of the action we have in the movie, but I think what makes it special is that there’s a lot of character, a lot of heart and a lot of humor just in the journey. If I had to say if it was anything more than anything else, I would say it’s like a buddy comedy road movie first with the backdrop of the horror and the zombie and the action second.

Shock: Since we talked to you last, did you end up facing any really big challenges or anything that ended up taking a lot longer to do than planned? Or was everything prepared enough that that never happened?

Fleischer: Strangely, we shot the absolute hardest thing first, which was the giant finale sequence at the amusement park, so as a first time director, Day 3 I’m shooting machine guns on roller coasters, so it was definitely baptism by fire. I learned so much during the three weeks of nights we shot at the amusement park that everything else after that was relatively…not easy but we definitely took the bull by the horns out of the gate.

Shock: Are you able to get any sense of the sort of response to the trailer?

Fleischer: Yeah, I love looking through all the comments on websites or even if you go to Twitter and do a search for keyword Zombieland, it’s remarkable how much anticipation there is for this movie. It seems like the kids are really psyched on it, just from searching around comments and stuff like that. The trailer played with Year One and it got seen over a million times in three days online, so I’d say like a million and a half times in three days. It seems like it got passed around a fair bit. The good thing is that it’s been really heavily positive feedback whereas I feel people on the internet, especially when it comes to genre stuff, people can be pretty mean or dubious or protective or doubtful of things they hold precious like zombie movies. So far, the feedback online has been very positive and excited and anticipatory, as opposed to “It’s a ripoff of Shaun of the Dead” or whatever people say. I think from the trailer people get a sense that it’s its own movie. It’s not like other things that have come before it. It’s got a funny sense of humor, a little cutting edge. What’s awesome too is that people seem really excited to see Woody Harrelson back in a big starring comedy role. I couldn’t be more excited and it’s encouraging because I think the movie delivers on the trailer but doesn’t exceed it, so I feel if people are already psyched on the trailer, then they’ll be really psyched about the movie.

Shock: Have you figured out exactly what you’re going to do or show at Comic-Con yet?

Fleischer: Honestly, I don’t know. I know that Jesse and Woody and Emma and me will be there, and I’m sure we’ll show some footage and talk about it, but I don’t know much more than that. I think the footage at Comic-Con should have some really fun stuff. I think the scenes they’re pulling are going to be really cool and just provide a greater look at the world. The one thing that the trailer doesn’t fully convey is it’s really about these people and their relationship, and it’s not just pure action. It’s way more like character-based comedy, and hopefully the longer trailer and maybe some of this footage at Comic-Con will show just like the Midnight Run aspect to it. That’s my reference point that I always try to use, but it really is kind of just about these two guys and their funny relationship as they travel through this unusual landscape. Hopefully, people will see that it’s a little bit deeper than your average zombie movie and more relationship-oriented and definitely funnier than a Dawn of the Dead or a more straight-forward zombie movie per se.

Shock: A lot of times movies show too much in the trailer and clips before they come out, so are there any surprises you’re going to save for when the movie comes out?

Fleischer: Yeah, I think so. I’m one of the people that hates it when I go see a movie and all of the funniest jokes are in the trailer so I’ve been trying to work with the marketing guys to keep some stuff for later, because it just sucks when you see there’s a hilarious joke in the trailer and then you go see the movie and it’s not even that funny because we’ve already seen it on TV so much, so we definitely don’t want to exhaust our jokes before people get to go to the theater and see it. I think it’s inevitable. To make a good trailer, you got to have laughs in it so it’s a balance.

Shock: Having said that, can you confirm or deny that Bill Murray involvement in the movie?

Fleischer: I think there’s only one way to find out if he’s in the movie. [laughs] And that’s go to see it. It will confirmed or denied for sure upon watching the full movie. I think I can promise that nothing will be confirmed or denied at Comic-Con. Actually, I can’t even promise that but I would expect that nobody’s going to learn anything new there.

Shock: You talked about the marketing. Is this definitely going to continue going more the comedy route or will it venture more into the horror territory by having trailers in front of horror movies?

Fleischer: Yeah, this was just the teaser trailer and we’re going to do a bigger, longer trailer in August that I think is going to go on District 9 and another movie that Sony… I can’t remember which one, I think maybe a Halloween movie? Maybe that’s it. I’m not totally sure but definitely District 9, that will be a full-length trailer.

Shock: And that will play up the horror aspects of the movie more?

Fleischer: Yeah, I think this movie functions in both worlds, so I think it’s good to have it on Year One and I think that definitely set the tone that this isn’t just a zombie movie. Honestly, I think if people are only expecting it to be functioning as like a Dawn of the Dead horror-zombie movie t they’ll be disappointed, but if you go in looking for a comedy, like more in the vein of Shaun of the Dead or An American Werewolf in London then they’ll be pretty psyched.

Shock: While we were on set, the writers Paul and Rhett seemed to be there the whole time. Have you continued to get input from those guys the whole time while you’re cutting the movie and how do they feel about how the movie is coming together?

Fleischer: Yeah, for sure. They’ve been at the friends and family screenings and they have been there all along the way. Yeah, I feel like they’re pretty happy with it, and it’s a constantly changing, evolving thing. As television producers who were very involved in post, I think they would prefer to be sitting at the bay, but I just have to just have my own space to work, so they’ve given notes upon watching screens. Ultimately, in the edit bay, I got to just work with the editor and try to figure it out together. I think they’re really pleased. The stuff that works, works really well. I think it’s all working pretty good so far, so as we continue to edit, it’ll just get better and better.

Shock: Do you know if there are going to be any tie-ins to the movie, whether it’s comics or video games or video games. Have you been talking about that or working on it at all?

Fleischer: I hope so. I know that they’re working on a mobile video game that I haven’t had very much involvement with, but I know it’s in the works, which should be a really cool thing I think Sony has done that with a few of their movies. Let’s see what else. The movie, just off the trailer I think you can tell, it sets itself up so well for a video game that something to the effect of “Left 4 Dead” would be really cool, but specific to our movie and our universe. But comics is a great idea, and I would hope they would consider stuff like that. It would be cool to see some characters and stuff for “action figure-y” type things would be pretty cool. Yeah, there’s a lot of potential. We’ll see if people like it and if they do, I feel like we can take it to a lot of different places. The characters are so strong and they’re just really fun to hang out with over the course of the movie that I think they’ll lead to people wanting to continue a relationship with the story and with the characters, so we’ll see.

Shock: This may be putting the cart before the horse, but did you talk at all about sequels?

Fleischer: Rhett and Paul did for sure with the producer Gavin, on set, they were talking about it and stuff, but I think ultimately, it all depends on how the movie performs. It’s such a franchise-able world and concept that if the actors want to come back and do it again, the main characters are so strong and cool that I would love to see where it goes next just ‘cause it can go anywhere, and I also think we’ve learned so much in the process of making this that I think this is an instance where I can say that the sequel will be even better than the original. But yeah, I think it just has to do with whether or not audiences are going to show up to see the first one, and they feel like they’d be interested in seeing what happens next.

Shock: Do you see yourself as a sequel kind of guy? I know some directors like Len Wiseman will stay involved with a project even as a producer, so do you see yourself doing that or do you think you’d just do something once and then try other things?

Fleischer: I’m just trying to start a career, so whatever the great script and a great story that provides opportunity to make a cool movie, that’s exciting to me. I think the first script was Zombieland is so strong that I can only imagine that the second one will be better. I have no problem with it in concept, but I’m just trying to build my career and make cool movies that people like, so if the sequel seems like one that people will like then, yeah, I would be 100% behind it.

Shock: Besides possibly doing a sequel, do you have any other prospects or other projects you may do after you finish this?

Fleischer: Not yet. I love working and I definitely don’t want to do anything except get right into another movie, so hopefully people will like this film and give me a job. I think a lot of people are excited by the trailer and thinking that the movie could be good, but ultimately, they’re going to want to see it and see how it does I guess before opportunities start presenting themselves. But I’m definitely the type of guy that just loves to work, so I’ll be psyched to do something immediately afterwards.


Source: Edward Douglas