I always seem to start these pieces the same way: "I don't normally do set visits," given my general distaste for air travel and a frequent disinterest for movie sets, but once in a while ... something fun and easy comes along, and I go for the ride. The friendly folks at Sony invited me to visit the set of a flick called (wait for it) Zombieland! Come on! If you know anything about me, then you know "Zombieland" is a place I want to visit, even if it is just a movie set! (Oh, and the flight was from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and that really helped to seal the deal.)
So I arrive in the surprisingly quiet but very charming section of Atlanta (a city I'd love to revisit soon) and am greeted by several gracious colleagues -- and ... what's this? Mr. James Rocchi, an old friend to Cinematical and one of my very best buddies? He was here for the Zombieland set visit too? Toss in a quick beer with some of my Signal pals ... and this turned out to be a smart trip.
But here's where I'll let you in on a little secret. Gather 'round, movie geeks. Ready? Here it is: movie sets are really boring! No, it's true! It's like wandering through a stunningly orchestrated construction site that also has a tiny little stage play taking place in a corner somewhere. If you're interested in the crafts of photography, fashion, carpentry, or electrical engineering, then a movie set could be pretty fascinating. (But you'd keep getting bumped into, believe me.) Luckily for us, "set visits" are just a bit more elaborate than a normal day on the set...
First of all, we're offered chances to chat with some very talented folks. Below you'll find some of the best snippets from our conversations, as I find that the long and drawn-out Q&A transcriptions can get a little tedious. But back to the story: Producers, production designers, cinematographers, FX masters, and (of course) the actors stop by to share a few words ... and here's a key point: You must have smart journalists at this sort of "impromptu round table," or all you're left with is a bunch of flaccid pap. And that's never a good thing.
Zombieland, as you probably know by now, is a post-apocalyptic horror / comedy in which Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin do all they can to stay outside the food chain. Comparisons to the already-classic Shaun of the Dead are, of course, inevitable -- but I doubt that Edgar Wright would claim to have invented the zom-com, after all. Based only on the set conversations and the scant footage I saw, I'd say that Zombieland seems to have a tone that's both ironically bright, but happily splatty. Have a second look at the trailer to see what I mean.
Luckily for me, one of the coolest things we saw on the set is something that also made it into the trailer ... which makes it fair game to talk about. Back in the trailer you'll see a bit where Woody rings the bell, a zombie comes lurching out of the door, and blammo -- no more zombie. Now ... we must have seen that bit staged, rehearsed, and shot at least a dozen times, and I knew it'd be a great "bit" in the movie if they timed it just right -- and then it pops up in the trailer and proves me right. It also proves why "one more take" can be pretty damn important, especially when you're trying to orchestrate humor, stunts, and exploding zombie brains at the same time.
But enough from me. Here are a few thoughts from the cast and crew:
From the gorgeous Emma Stone, regarding the Zombieland screenplay: "The script is just completely different from anything I've ever read. I mean, the zombie element, but it's not a satire at all. This is just a real reaction in a comedy sense of what these people would do if zombies took over the world, so that was a new take on a million genres, and that was exciting."
From the ever-cool Woody Harrelson, regarding his character's sawed-off shotgun: "It just jumps up the testosterone level the moment I put it on. It's a bad-ass feeling, yeah."
Woody talking about his character, Tallahassee: "For me, I really loved my character, Tallahassee. I loved the script – just generally, such a beautiful, well-written script, so funny – and Tallahassee's a lot of fun. He's just this shit-kickin' kind of guy who's really got this broken side to him."
From the laid-back and amusing Jesse Eisenberg, regarding his character's neuroses: "I have a list of 47 rules on how to survive Zombieland, and towards the end of the movie, I start either crossing them off or modifying them because they just make my life a nightmare, because I'm so stringent, whereas Woody's character is such a fun character and he has zero rules to survive Zombieland, so it starts to rub off a little bit. "
Writer/producer Rhett Reese, on the dangers of making a horror-comedy combo: "There's an inherent tension with all genre movies that we've gotta appeal to the nerds and then appeal to everybody else... Ultimately, you should just be thinking about how to make an entertaining movie, forget for who, and... there is a question when you're making a movie like this about, how do you market it? What would you guys do with this, would you market it as horror or would you market it as a comedy? ... It's just an interesting situation, because horror movies do great – The Haunting in Connecticut or whatever it's called just made $24 million – and then you have comedies like Superbad and Pineapple Express that does well as a comedy, so where does this fall?"
And some choice passages from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer...
"The movie is basically kind of the hybrid of 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, I guess. It's a comedic look at the post apocalyptic zombie world and it's a band of survivors that kind of met along the way. There's two sisters: Columbus who is our main hero and then Tallahassee who's Woody and at first Columbus and Tallahassee meet up and then they meet the girls and then they sort of all band together on this journey towards Los Angeles to go to an amusement park called Pacific Playland."
"Woody's definitely created a larger than life movie character with this Tallahassee character. He's like a real, weird cowboy kind of post-apocalyptic zombie bad-ass. He's great. And it was cool to give him the space to find it and now everyday he just lights up the screen."
"[Jesse's character] is just kind of the classic, video-game nerd just kind of a guy who has a little bit of phobias. He's OCD. His fears in the old world are what allow him to live in this new world because it's the true flight or fight and Woody's definitely the fight and Jesse's the flight. Like the reason he's alive is because he's just a giant coward. And at the earliest sign of trouble, he just runs. And he's really quick. And he's managed to survive the zombies just by avoiding them and just by running at all times. And so it's really two opposites that come together and go on this journey."
And then we ate, we watched a bank of video monitors for a few hours, and we poked our heads into the gore trailer for some Fx lessons. And as always, while I'm still not a huge "set visit" aficionado, I will say this: You don't have to be a movie geek to appreciate the monumental effort that goes into making a movie. (Any movie!) But once you see all that organized chaos shaped into an actual movie, you begin to appreciate the little stuff: The detail in the set design, the timing of a good joke, the application of a latex zombie bite ... and the simple common desire to make a really fun movie.
So while I'll probably continue to pick and choose my "set visit opportunities" in very selective fashion, I'd have to say this was a supremely enjoyable one. Short flight, good people, great conversations, and a few early peeks at a horror / comedy I was already itching to see. Thanks to our friends at Sony for extending an invite to Cinematical.
You can check out Zombieland for yourself on October 9. I eagerly anticipate my return visit.