Even though Warm Bodies features as a zombie as its main character, the makers of this film want you to know that really, you're the one who is dead inside. We talked to director Jonathan Levine about the strange and wonderful relationship between death and humor, pop culture and the apocalypse, and Shakespeare and the undead.
Find out why the director of 50/50 thinks sadness fosters hilarity, and why we're all secretly zombies. Warning: a few spoilers ahead.
This is the second movie you've made about death that leans strongly on humor. Do the two always go together to you?
Jonathan Levine: I think the answer would have to be yes. They're slightly different but similar. With 50/50, you have no choice but to laugh in the face of pain. With 50/50 we took it form a much more grounded, real place. But I think that a lot of the humor in Warm Bodies also comes from the overwhelming depression of [the zombie "R''s] depression. He has no choice but to find a little humor, especially in his voice over in his everyday life. I think that's also the situation for Joe's character Adam in 50/50. It's so ridiculously preposterous, the pain of what he's dealing with, that he has no choice but to laugh. Obviously, one starts off in a much more serious way than the other. But you're right, I hadn't even thought about it that way.
What is it about the worst of times that lends itself to humor?
I sort of learned it when one of my family members got sick and I spent time in the hospital. And I think it's also a Jewish thing. It's just an instinct. What are you going to do, cry about it? You really have no choice but to laugh. That's the only way you can face it.
Warm Bodies is basically Romeo and Juliet with a zombie. How did you keep it from becoming just a parody of the classic love story?
The Romeo and Juliet thing was central to Isaac Marion's book. And I definitely wanted to maintain the spirit of that as much as I could. I think what I was really attracted to about Isaac's book was all these mash-ups of all these pop culture, literary and music references, and how all that stuff represents something lost from the pre-apocalyptic world. For me, there's a whole history of pop culture and pastiche that goes into this movie. We didn't want to hit the Romeo and Juliet thing in the head, except in one scene where we thought it was a funny wink to Shakespeare. But it's all in there. Obviously R is for Romeo, Julie is for Juliet, and M is Mercutio. I thought it was very clever the way [the author] sort of wove those references in with the great music that R listens to, and it felt like relics of a lost world. In that way I think it works. Also, that sort of core conceit is reflective of the greater idea of the movie, which is a mash-up of all these different genres. It's a mash-up of horror, comedy and romance that I thought it was very clever in the book, and I wanted to maintain that in the movie.
The zombies in the film are shells of humans who congregate at airports and hoard seemingly meaningless knickknacks. They only remember the unimportant things. Why?
They're kind of these totems of an old world. He's reading an Us Weekly with Kim Kardashian. The absurdity of this movie allowed me to explore where we are and how we live today. There's a scene in it I really like where R thinks it must have been so great when everyone was able to connect with and could talk to each other. And it cuts to a past scene with everyone just wandering through and airport, just locked into their cellphone. To me, one of the core questions of this movie is, what does it actually mean to be alive? I think in many ways R is more alive than a lot of the people who you see on a day-to-day basis. I thought that was really interesting to explore, are we really living our lives every minute of every day? Are we really in the moment? For him, those tokens of that moment long ago really allow him to connect to what the world was like before.
The movie is a bit punched up from the book. Did you feel the need to push the comedy elements further because of the different medium? Or just because it was more fun?
I think it's more fun. We started out, even on set, being more dramatic, I would think the script reads as more dramatic. There is always comedy, obviously, because the core lends itself to comedy. We're not going to play it straight when a girl is falling in love with a zombie, because that would just be stupid. There was a lot from me and a lot from the actors where we thought we may as well go for a joke. As long as I knew it wouldn't violate the spirit of the movie, as long as it didn't go into parody territory, I was fine with it. Nick Hoult, and all these guys are incredibly funny — Rob Corddry, Teresa Palmer... John Malkovich is especially funny. So why wouldn't we do that? We have a core concept that lends itself to humor. I would say the final product was about 30% more humorous than even we originally intended, and even the original script was slightly more humorous than the book. But the book has the advantage that you don't see it. Even though R's voiceover is incredibly funny in the book, you're not looking at the picture. I think there's something visual that you have to make a concession for when you see him and her together, you have to know that we're in on the joke. The more pushed it. The more we let people know we were in on the joke, and I think the more successful the movie was.
There's a common fantasy in relationships that love can change you for the better. Is this movie basically just an exaggerated version of that fantasy?
I'm just thinking about in my relationships... I think it's a dangerous to think you can change someone in that way. I think what the movie's saying is that if you embrace someone for who they are, then you can help support and help them become the best version of who they are. If you were to talk to a couple's counselor and you said I want to change my girlfriend because of this, this and this. But if you bring out the best in someone, well that's a great relationship. And I think that's what R and Julie do for each other… ha!
What about all the zombies that don't find love? Are they doomed?
I think the idea is that these guys open up everyone's minds. The hope of what Julie and R represents spreads almost as fast as the virus spreads. They don't necessarily have to fall in love, although I hope they all do.