Hollywood continues its zombie renaissance this October with the release of Zombieland, a horror-comedy about a pair of undead-fighting gunslingers who attempt a cross-country road trip to visit a Los Angeles amusement park. A while ago, we had the chance to visit the movie's Atlanta set, where director Ruben Fleischer and stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone took time out of their busy shooting schedule to talk about the unconventional project.
Leading off were stars Harrelson and Eisenberg, who together provide the bulk of the testosterone in Zombieland:
How often is it that you get to carry off a sawed-off, lever-action rifle? Do you just feel automatically badass when you whip that out?
Woody Harrelson: "A little bit, I gotta admit. It just jumps up the testosterone level the moment I put it on."
Jesse, you’re better known for opening up your feelings than opening fire. Was it a change to do an action film and carry a gun?
Jesse Eisenberg: "Yeah, guns are heavier than they look. Just wanted to tell anyone who watches the movie, 'Guns are heavier than they look when you carry them in your hands.'"
Woody, you’ve done every kind of movie under the sun, and this combo is kind of new for you. When you came in, did you think this would be a departure, or were you just “I like the script, I wanna do it, period?”
WH: "Yeah, that’s what I thought, that the script and the characters were good."
JE: "Anything with a 'land' in it. Adventureland, Zombieland … "
Woody, did you know much about Jesse and Emma before this film?
WH: "Not nearly enough … The first day I met Jesse, he came in and we were reading for Amy Pascal and all the honchos over there at Sony, and I just thought he was fantastic from the get-go. He’s got such a good, interesting, totally different kind of humor that I love, so since that time, we’ve had a lot of fun. He kept surpassing expectations all along."
Is this kind of like a zombie survival guide?
WH: "Well, in a way, it is a survival guide for these characters."
JE: "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."
Woody, does the converse happen? Do some of his traits start to rub off on you?
WH: "Yeah, that’s true. That’s completely true. There’s one, where he always limbers up before he does things, because it’s cardio. There are several things that are fundamental to survival, according to his guide book, and that’s the one towards the end, I do a little bit of limbering up."
Is the secret message of every zombie movie: "Enjoy civilization while you have it?"
WH: "Yeah, I suppose so."
JE: "That assumes that zombies will be real at some point."
WH: "Do you think we’re heading towards some apocalypse?"
JE: "I think we’re almost there, by the end of the season."
How important is chemistry between you guys?
JE: "Like a five, on the level of five, it works. Yeah, our characters are funny. I’m very cautious about surviving, and he gets a thrill out of being aggressive and killing. If there’s a zombie coming, I flee, and he just wholeheartedly goes in and tries to kill, so it’s a funny dynamic."
WH: "But just in terms of us interacting, I think it’s really important because there’s a lot of improvisation that’s happened and moments that get kind of expanded, and I think it’s been pretty key just to be able to have a chemistry."
During your stay here in Atlanta, have you had a chance to hit the Claremont Lounge, the famous strip club?
WH: "I don’t think they’re happy strippers. [Laughs] That’s where they get their second chance. Someone said, ‘That’s where strippers go to die,’ and I said, ‘No, no, there’s where they go to live again.’ Anyway, I like that place … That’s a fun spot, and it’s cool because immediately, when you go in and there’s someone 70 years old taking their clothes off or maybe crushing cans in her breasts or something, you really suspend all judgment."
I’m guessing you didn’t do this with the family, that this was a non-family deal.
WH: "I tried to get the family in. [Laughs] I figured that the kids gotta learn some time. No, they didn’t let you in if you’re under 21 or something."
Woody, you seem very comfortable being heroic in this film. Do you think you’d like to do more gun-totin’ action-hero types?
WH: "I’m personally not a big action type of guy, because they film it in little brief segments, and it’s hard to get a handle on the scene for me, but yeah, maybe eventually. I’ve gotta do something with my life."
Jesse, has this been enough of a dose of action for you for a while? Is it back to maudlin indie dramas for you after this?
WH: "He thought all of them were comedies."
JE: "Yeah, they were supposed to be. No, I feel the same way. They film it in these tiny pieces, and it’s hard to put together what you were doing. It’s like a whole different type of acting, I guess, but it’s been fun and you get to run and then you don’t feel like you have to run after work."
What’s your favorite zombie kill so far, or in the whole script that you’re gonna get to do?
JE: "My favorite one is when we’re in a grocery store. There’s a zombie chasing me, [Woody] has a baseball bat, and I slide under his bat on my knees, so just as he’s swinging, it hits the zombie and not me."
Obviously, you have to like a script to want to do it, but do you also have to like the character you’re playing?
JE: "Yes. It’s the only way to do it, if you feel like you can do it well, and that’s the only reason they would choose you as well. For me, at least, that’s the reason they would choose me."
WH: "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 s--t-kickin’ kind of guy who’s really got this broken side to him."
Emma Stone. If you've seen her work in films like Superbad and The House Bunny, you'll know she's more than up to the task.
As a woman, what do you find appealing about playing an ass-kicker?
Emma Stone: "This is the first chance I’ve had to do something like that. I don’t know how well I’m pulling it off, I don’t know if you’re overstating this a little bit, inflating it a little bit, but it’s just been really fun. I got to learn how to shoot a pump shotgun and load it. I can sort of run, just barely. It’s been exciting. She’s kind of … my first real straight character. She’s the least comedic of anything I’ve done."
When you read the script, what was it that got you excited about this character?
ES: "First of all, the script is just completely different from anything I’ve ever read. I mean, [there is] 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, and I just love this girl, for reasons I said before, just because it’s something new for me and it’s been exciting and it’s just different from anything I’ve gotten to do. It’s been a bigger challenge than I thought it would be, in a good way."
What did you know about Woody Harrelson before this? What films of his had you seen before?
ES: "I really haven’t seen many Woody Harrelson films, which is funny — and also better, I think, because there was no preconceived … It’s shocking that I haven’t seen that many Woody Harrelson movies. Please don’t tell him I haven’t. I will be, now that I know him, but that’s also going to change the movies for me. Which is a little bit of a bummer because I know I’m in it and that makes it a little different. But it’s still great and normal and human, and I think it’s good I hadn’t seen much before that, because I got to know him in that sense instead of … on a pedestal, trying to humanize him and not able to."
Did your director, Ruben Fleischer, recommend movies for you to watch in preparation for this role?
ES: "Yeah, a lot of which I didn’t watch. True Romance, which I did watch. Kill Bill, which I’ve seen. Paper Moon, I watched. Loved Paper Moon. So unbelievable. Yeah, we’re con artists, and I was floored by it. It’s probably one of my favorite movies ever now."
Jimmy Kimmel Live indicates that he's seen more than his share of horror. In an extensive interview, the zombie neophyte discussed his approach to the well-worn genre:
How would you describe the tone of Zombieland?
Ruben Fleischer: "The movie is basically a kind of 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 Columbus, who is our main hero, and then Tallahassee, who’s Woody. 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."
Who is Woody’s character, Tallahassee?
RF: "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 badass. He’s great. And it was cool to give him the space to find it and now everyday he just lights up the screen."
And Jesse’s character is kind of the contrast?
RF: "He’s just the classic-videogame-nerd 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."
Why do they join together if they’re so opposite?
RF: "I think it’s just because you’re lonely in this world. Everybody’s out for themselves and it’s just sort of happenstance, like Jesse, or Columbus, is walking down this freeway and then in the distance there’s a rumble and this big black Escalade with a snow plow in the front comes through and then they have this kind of stand-off because they don’t know what to make of each other. And then they just kind of join forces and head off together."
Do you have fast zombies or slow zombies?
RF: "We definitely went with the fast zombies among other things just to distinguish ourselves from Shaun of the Dead. Shaun of the Dead is a real reference point as far as zombie comedies -- you know they kind of created the genre, I think -- so without wanting to re-tread too much of the ground that they already covered, we went with fast zombies, just to make it a little more modern, a little bit more scary. I know zombies … won’t necessarily appreciate it, but I think that after Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, it’s hard for me to go back to slow zombies after that."
Is it a virus that turns everyone into zombies?
RF: "I mean, it’s viral. It’s like 28 Days Later in that way. It’s a virus-based disease that creates these kind of other-worldly characters but you know they’re vial, and puking and crazy and trying to eat you … everything you’d come to expect of a modern-movie zombie."
Do you spend any time on the back story of the disease?
RF: "Yes, it was really important to me to tie it to like modern, sort of global conditions, and also the modern diseases. We looked up a lot about mad cow; beef comes into the cow’s food system and so they’re somewhat cannibalistic in mad cow by definition, and it’s like a swelling of the brain and whatnot so we were kind of thinking of that in terms of food supply and the way we, as a civilization, have put so many hormones and everything else into the food supply that it could have potentially have infected it. Then as far as the manifestations of the disease on the zombies, we tried to look at real manifestations like syphilis, leprosy. Some pretty disgusting actual real things … the research photos for the make-up department were pretty gnarly. But I really wanted it to be tied to real stuff as opposed to being supernatural. And I’m not saying it’s mad cow or anything like that; it’s just we were trying to think in terms of what a modern disease would be that would cause like a viral outbreak."
"I have a friend who‘s a PHD of infectious diseases, so I called him and asked him and he said the most real thing was either food supply contamination or something like avian flu that has to do with population density. As far as something that would hit quickly and spread very, very fast and like infect a lot of people, so we tried to really tie it to real things, but it’s not one thing or another thing; it’s kind of like you know civilization … and I want to leave it vague. I don’t want to define what the cause is or when it happened or how it happened."
How quickly do they turn into zombies after catching the virus?
RF: "I think like in four hours or something like that. It’s not instantaneous. In 28 Days Later, there’s that one where the blood goes in his eye and then five minutes later he’s walking and spitting. Ours is more gradual. There’s two scenes in the movie where you meet somebody who’s been bitten, and they’re still people for long enough to have conversations and then transform."
In the story, how far along are we since the initial outbreak?
RF: "We’re two months past. So we have some evidence of struggle before then, but I didn’t want to define it. And I’m not going to do like Dawn of the Dead-type news reports like the classic, you know: ‘An outbreak has spread.’ We just kind of find them afterwards. There are flashbacks prior to like the moment of outbreak, but it’s still not defined … We have the first time Columbus meets a zombie is in this movie where it’s like the classic -- just someone who has been bitten starts out you know, non-zombie and then turns. But pretty much everyone else at this point in the movie is either a survivor or a zombie. We only have six characters, so there’s not a lot of survivors."
Are you finding it tricky to balance horror and comedy?
RF: "I actually read somewhere that the construction of a joke and the construction of a scare are the same in that they both build the tension. So, for example, if there’s a closet and somebody’s walking towards the closet, the scare version is, ‘Don’t go in the closet; there’s somebody in the closet.’ You open the door, and there’s somebody in the closet. But if it’s something like a goofy comedy, there might be a closet full of beach balls and whatever else. He opens it and all the things fall on him, and that’s the laugh. So I think it’s about creating tension and then releasing it whether it’s through a scare or a laugh. I think they’re actually more similar. This movie, it’s a funny tone. It’s not overly scary, and it’s not really funny. It’s kind of all at once, I would say. Sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s funny and most of the time it’s just a grounded, character-based sort of comedy."
Will Zombieland be R-rated?
RF: "Yes, it’s an R-rated movie. There’s some serious guts and stuff. For me, the way I think of the movie is Midnight Run with zombies. It’s one of my favorite movies, but it’s basically a road movie where two people, kind of a badass guy with a history and a nerdy guy team up and drive across country and have to deal with various feds, bounty hunters and the mob; but we’ve got zombies. It’s really about these two people and their relationship. It’s two opposites, so they’re drawn together, they go on an adventure and then they learn something along the way."
Can you talk about your zombie rules?
RF: "Columbus has the rules. They’re rules for surviving Zombieland. Double tap is a rule. Make sure you get ‘em twice. Seatbelts; always wear your seatbelts because you never know what’s gonna happen when you’re driving away. Ziplock bags because moisture is a killer. What else does he have? Cardio. Stay in shape; limber up. He’s superclever, and this script is really, really smart. It’s like, it’s also very non-linear. It’s told through the voice of the narrator, Columbus, and he takes us on this journey. It actually reminds me a lot of Fight Club. There’s no switch like in Fight Club, but the whole time you’re seeing it through, he’s telling you this story and there’s times where it will jump non-linearly to, like, tonight they’re going to say, ‘Do you think that was zombie kill of the week?’ And Columbus answers, ‘No, zombie kill of the week goes to Cynthia Knickerbocker of so-and-so, New Jersey, and then we’re going to cut to this woman killing a zombie with a piano, dropping a piano on its head, and then we’ll come back to the scene. It’s that sort of jump around. It will tell you the backstory on Tallahassee. He may look like a crazy killer, but he wasn’t always like this, then we’ll flash back and see him before the apocalypse with his dog giving him a bath, just showing the sweeter side. It does jump around a lot, showing things, the omniscient narrator where he can see things he doesn’t necessarily experience."
You said your taste is a little more comedic than horror-oriented. Did you read up on zombie movies before doing this?
RF: "Yeah, I think the only zombie movie I’d seen was maybe Shaun of the Dead. I wasn’t a zombie guy at all. I hadn’t seen Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, any of them. So that was the first thing I did. Actually, I was scared of the movie when I first read the script. I said, ‘I’m not the guy to make this movie because this isn’t my genre.’” We’ll see if it proves to be. But I just wanted to make sure that zombie purists wouldn’t call bulls--t on it. I just really did my homework and saw all the classics and some of the more kitschy ones like Return of the Living Dead and Dead Alive, which is incredible. And then really just 28 Days Later, [Zack] Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead are, I think, the modern benchmarks and those are the ones I keep closest in my mind because I think slow zombies don’t relate necessarily to this film."
Are there featured zombie characters?
RF: "No, they’re all kind of just like mass zombies. They’re anonymous, but we had a lot of fun with it. One thing that was really important to me is that you had a sense of who they were before they got killed. I didn’t want them to just be all generic. I wanted to see their faces and see what they looked like before. Some of the early makeup tests were such extreme gross and weird sort of leprosy things where they looked almost alien-like, and I was like, ‘No, you’ve gotta bring it down. I want to see their faces.’ So we have a Hasidic Jew zombie. In L.A., the zombies kind of change. Today, we have the Southwestern zombie, a Navajo shirt and lots of turquoise. In Texas we tried to be more true to Texan stereotypes as far as our zombies. In L.A., we have skater zombies and valley-girl zombies and douchebag zombies."
What is a douchebag zombie?
RF: "I’m sure you can imagine. The classic L.A., Bluetooth-wearing douchebag, but like zombie-fied. We have some convict zombies, we have whatever is a simple read that, whenever you see a zombie, you know what they were before. Meter Maid zombies, construction worker zombies."
Zombieland hits theaters October 9.
Reporting by Jaymie Brill.