From the set of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
For readers who have never made it to Britain, outside of the big cities, the classic stereotype is quite accurate. The countryside is made up of quaint villages, tree-lined lanes roads, and buildings older than the USA. In many cases, if it weren’t for the tarmac and the occasional traffic light, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a horse-drawn carriage rolling down the street. Little wonder, then that so many period dramas are shot in the UK, and even less surprising that writer/director Burr Steers would chose the country to shoot his forthcoming movie, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on the Seth Grahame-Smith novel.
When ComingSoon.net headed down to the set, on an old estate in the aptly-named village of Old Basing about 40 miles South West of London, the sun was going down, and the crew was preparing for the most gruelling part of any production schedule – a night shoot. And even with all the clutter that comes with a film crew – lighting trucks, trailers, catering busses and hundreds of people – the 400-year-old barn that was to be the location for the evening’s filming looked picturesque. With all the extras in regency clothing, it could have been the location for Downton Abbey, or Great Expectations. Except, of course, that in addition to their costumes, many of those extras were covered in rotting flesh and bloody wounds – the zombies of the title.
“I used the Black Plague as a model and the people moving out to far, far country,” Steers explains, as he sets out the premise of the movie, “But it really just exaggerates all the things that were in it as far as the female/male dynamics and class dynamics, the idea that you have this 1% that’s controlling everything while the rest of the country is in jeopardy. It’s really a British revolution that never happened.”
The feature film rights to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies were secured by producer Sean McKittrick shortly before the book’ publication in 2009. As he recalls, “an agent called me and said, ‘We just submitted this book to the studios. And I thought you would like it.’ He emailed me the book. This is three or four months before it was going to be published. I just saw the cover of it that we all know now. I immediately called my attorney and said, ‘Just prepare an offer for the morning.’ I hadn’t read it. I read it that night.”
Since then, the project has gone through many iterations, originally with Natalie Portman in the lead, and David O. Russell due to direct. After Portman and Russell left the project, it went through several other creative teams, until McKittrick and producer Allison Shearmur settled on Burr Steers as writer/director.
“Each one had a different take on the material. And it never really came to fruition until Burr came on and was involved and took it upon himself to kind of steer a kind of difficult tone.” McKittrick explains, “Burr was the one who kind of brought it all together and made the tone, and the adventure, and the comedy, and the romance everything that it needed to be without steering off a very thin line.”
While the producers credit Steers with getting the project off the ground, neither of them had considered him for the project. Instead, it was a degree of good fortune that brought about his involvement, “Our kids go to the same school”, Shearmur reveals, “I’ve always thought that he’s a really talented guy. And we drop our kids off at the same bus stop before school every day, and he came up to me, and he said, “y’know, there’s a project you have that I’ve always been interested in”, and I was trying to do the inventory in my head, and the one project I definitely didn’t think was going to be on that list was ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.’ And I looked at him with some delight, because it had been on the shelf for a while, and he said, ‘jI know how to do this,’ and he was right.”
With Steers attached, the next job was to find a lead actress, and again this came down to Shearmur’s years in the business, and extensive network of contacts, “I knew Lilly [James] from Cinderella, so when Burr wrote the script, I’d had the benefit of being at work with her every day, and I knew what a big star she was going to become.” She explains, “I said, Burr, I know Liz [Bennet], and I showed him some images. And he said, “I’d really love to meet her.” And I sent her the script, and she loved it.”
Indeed, James recalls reading the script, and thinking it was, “really brilliant and funny and sort of within 10 pages… Actually, within the first opening sequence where Darcy sort of gallops up on the horse and gets stripped down and all that stuff.” As she puts it, “It shouldn’t work, but it does.”
And casting Lilly James as Elizabeth Bennet also led to the team finding their Mr Darcy. James’ agent represented Sam Riley, who Steers had already expressed an interest in for the role, so when the agent contacted Shearmur to suggest him for the project, things began falling into place very quickly.
The crew have been on the location for several days, making the most of what is a fairly small space. The two filming areas for the evening are the converted, brick barn, which serves as the location for a zombie infested ball, and the area behind it, where the battle with the ‘Manky Dreadful’ – the film’s nickname for the undead – continues. As the production team move out of the barn, we move in.
Inside, it’s a remarkable mess of set dressing for a dinner party, the severed limbs and heads of the aforementioned zombies, and production kit – lights, stands, heaters and monitors, where we can watch the filming taking place outside. On the screens, the differences between the film, and other adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice” become clear, as we watch a Dolly Wells as Mrs Featherstone turn toward camera to reveal her decomposing face.
Sam Riley, who plays Mr. Darcy, sums up the way this change impacts on the characters in the story, “this is 17-whatever, and society is more or less unchanged, because the British like to pretend things aren’t happening around them, but there’s this horror going on that people have become accustomed to as well.”
This strange status quo presents certain opportunities for the cast. For Millie Brady, who plays Mary Bennet, it means that her character has a lot more depth than the original incarnation, “I’m still a bit of an oddball,” she explains, “but… this book gives her and the script gives her the opportunity to have a bit more ‘pizzang’ about her. So she’s still there reading her book and she’s still that bookish Mary that everyone knows, but then she also gets down to business and also she’s funny. She’s a funny Mary and she’s sassy and it’s good that you’re not expecting it, because she’ll just come out of nowhere and in the fight scenes gets really aggressive and stuff. “
Of course, while the characters and setup have changed somewhat from the original Jane Austen novel, the cultural familiarity of “Pride and Prejudice” makes explaining those differences difficult for the cast. “I’ve been trying to explain it to my grandmother for weeks,” Riley laments, before launching into an impersonation, “Are you a zombie?”
“What is a zombie?”
His voice drops, “I now just tell people I’m doing ‘Pride and Prejudice.’”
As with any modern action film, the cast have undergone fight training to make the combat scenes more effective. Given that none of the primary cast have any experience with action films, this has been a novel and exciting, “That was what I was so excited about,” Bradley explains, “I hadn’t done anything like it before and we got in there the first day and we were like Bambi on ice. We were like, ‘How are we going to do this? We look ridiculous.’ We looked back at the videos of ourselves thinking, how is this going to work? But the stunt people worked out everyone’s styles really early on, and once you’ve got everyone’s styles it makes it so much easier to just go for it. So I think I have got a bit more sass about me now, after doing that.”
Given that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is on the smaller scale of Hollywood action movies – Shearmur estimates the budget at between $10 and $20 million – that training has been intensive. “When you’re doing lower-budget movies, you have to do a lot of cramming. We’re not given the luxury of three months.” Riley reveals, “When you read interviews with actors, they always seem to have been given three months to do something – get fat, get skinny, learn card tricks – we’ve had to do it all quickly. It’s a lot of fun.”
There’s a break in filming as the crew changes setups, and we move outside to watch the action first hand. Here the scale – and the intimacy – of the scene becomes clear. When filming starts again, the Bennet sisters, Darcy and Bingley, along with a few other party guests, fight off about twenty zombies. Even with the small scale of the fight, it’s kinetic and exciting, as the cast show off their fighting styles, lit by burning torches.
What’s really impressive about these action sequences, though, is that the cast is fighting while dressed in remarkably cumbersome outfits. The costumes are the work of Wardrobe Designer, Julian Day, who has somehow managed to marry authenticity and practicality. For Bella Heathcote, who plays the oldest Bennet sister, Jane, this has been essential, “It’s great, because I feel like if I didn’t have the corset… there’s something about it that keeps you in the period, even when you’re doing all the fighting and stuff, because otherwise I feel like it would just get far too modern, for me at least.”
To balance out the cast’s inexperience with action sequences, the zombies they’re fighting are trained stunt performers. This allows for the cast to improvise during fight sequences, without fear of causing harm, “The stunt people are so good because they’re amazing at reacting to something,” Brady reveals, “I had to stab this guy and grab his head and pull him over, and, you know, he didn’t know what was coming, but they just have to react like that, so it’s quite rare that we can hurt them, because they’re so good at just seeing where it’s going and getting out of the way and doing a reaction.”
While the cast did their fight training in the UK, in the story, the Bennet sisters trained to battle zombies in China. This is a reflection of the characters’ relative poverty, as the wealthiest members of society in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies train to fight in Japan. This is the film’s take on the social issues of wealth and gender that appear in Austen’s novel.
Indeed, the fact that the Bennet sisters can fight at all is another element of the film’s social commentary, as Steers explains, “With the Bennet sisters not having any brothers, their father, who is lower gentry, had to train them to defend the house because they had no options.
Heathcote elaborates on this, “I think in this the class seems to be more about where they were trained. Because Darcy is of the highest class and he’s still more than willing to get in and fight, as is Lady Catherine De Bourgh. So it’s more just… we chose to be trained in China, which is a sign, technically, of being slightly less elite, or thought to be. Having said that, the Bingley sisters don’t fight because they see it as beneath them.”
Ultimately, then, for all the zombies and the fighting, the film is still at its core a “Pride and Prejudice” movie, with all the elements of the novel in place – albeit with physical sparring augmenting verbal sparring. When it comes to the movie finding an audience, Steers is somewhat sanguine, explaining, “I’m aware of the demographic that each genre brings in. but I’m not pandering.” Meanwhile, Douglas Booth, who plays Bingley, has a much more mischievous attitude, “I really hope some grannies wander in and don’t know.” He confides, “They don’t bother reading to the end of the showing, and go, “oh, Pride and Prejudice, let’s go and see this”, and get the biggest shock of their lives.”
“I’m just excited because it’s a new way of telling this sort of story,” he continues, articulating the sense of excitement that seems to run through the entire cast and crew, “and seeing how these people try to survive in a world like this. Often zombie films are like, ‘run away, run away’, or one protagonist who’s got to get somewhere. There’s always running to or running from, whereas this is how people are living, and putting up with, and surviving. That’s what’s interesting, that’s what’s different, and that’s what I find engaging; seeing how, after 70 years of this plague, how people are getting on.”
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies opens in theaters on February 5.