Rom Zom: Jonathan Levine's 'Warm Bodies' brings spooky twist to young-adult romance
Vampires are dangerously sexy. Werewolves are alluringly tormented. Zombies are just gross, and the words "zombie romance" conjure up creepy practices illegal just about everywhere in the civilized world. And yet Warm Bodies, Jonathan Levine's $30 million, post-apocalyptic zom-rom-com opening on Feb. 1 via Summit Entertainment, is the sweetest thing since a pile of puppies. How'd that happen?
Well, it starts with Isaac Marion's 2011 young-adult novel, the bittersweet story of R and Julie: He's an inarticulate, undead emo-boy who feels really guilty about his craving for fresh brains, and she's a scrappy, warm-blooded survivor, a dab hand at killing the walking dead thanks to military-quality training courtesy of her zombie-loathing dad. The course of true love never did run smooth, but the obstacles Julie and R have to overcome make Romeo and Juliet's pale by comparison.
"That's what appealed to me about the book," says Levine with the disarming enthusiasm of a first-time filmmaker, undiminished after four features. "It was such a fresh take, and I was really drawn to the central metaphor: For me, it's about being a shy person or being trapped in your body in some way. I could identify with R, even though he was a zombie. Teenagers all feel like misfits–I certainly did—and were I ever to be in close quarters with someone as attractive as Teresa Palmer [who plays Julie], I would probably be even less articulate than R is."
Which is saying a lot, given that R can barely croak out a couple of words when he and Julie first meet…shall we say, unusually, since rom-com standby "cute" doesn't quite cover rescuing a girl from cannibal corpses after having himself gobbled up her boyfriend's brains. Still, the fact that R talks at all sets him apart from the moaning hordes that shuffle through classic zombie movies, as does the home to which he takes Julie, an abandoned airplane accessorized with reminders of what the world used to be like, from snow globes to record albums.
"To me, what made Warm Bodies such an interesting endeavor was the opportunity to take genre movie tropes and do something interesting with them,” Levine declares. “I'm a fan of genre movies in general—that's what I was weaned on before I got my fancy film school education—but as much as I would go see every kind of zombie movie or slasher film on opening day, it never occurred to me that I'd be making one until I read this book.
"Right before starting Warm Bodies, I went back and pretty much watched all the zombie movies I could get my hands on. I love Lucio Fulci's Zombie [which gets an onscreen shout-out] and I think 28 Days Later is just a masterpiece. Return of the Living Dead—which is probably my favorite, even though it's more of a kitschy take on zombies—and George Romero's Day of the Dead both take the mythology and advance it a little bit: They include talking zombies, which was important to me because I was very conscious of thinking that if I was going to violate the rules, I wanted to violate the rules with respect."
And with a little encouragement, he also confesses to seeing a strong echo of Beauty and the Beast in the relationship between R and Julie, whose emotional bond sparks a physical transformation: "Yes, I also watched Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, but I thought I'd kind of sound like a douchebag by referencing it. I watched the Disney version as well, and there's an element of that classic fable quality to Warm Bodies. I thought the tension between the fairy-tale approach and the more grounded one I wanted to take would create something interesting. You know, to take a fable and do it in a kind of violent, handheld, desaturated way."
An aspiring filmmaker from the age of 12, Levine graduated from Brown University's Art-Semiotics program in 2000 and went to work as personal assistant to writer-director Paul Schrader, then editing Auto Focus (2002). He mostly got coffee and did scheduling, but it was Levine's first up-close exposure to the day-to-day business of filmmaking; the takeaway was that he needed to go to film school and learn the nuts and bolts.
Levine was accepted into the American Film Institute Conservatory's highly competitive two-year directing program in 2002. By 2005 he was in Bastrop, Texas, making All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006), a subversive take on classic slasher movie conventions written by fellow AFI grad Jacob Forman, on a grueling four-week/six-days-a-week schedule.
"I haven't revisited that movie in a long time," Levine says, "but I've been talking about it since I started doing press for Warm Bodies, and there's a through-line in the way they both use genre conventions to a different end.
"In Mandy Lane, the slasher formula was kind of a Trojan horse for a story about high-school alienation, the social pressures of growing up and how mean people can be to each other. And Warm Bodies…uses zombies to tell a story about what it means to be human. Part of me wishes I could do something simple, like those horror movies I love, but the pretentious artist in me won't let me do a straight genre thing."
The Weinstein Company ponied up more than $3 million for Mandy Lane—which cost well under $1 million—after it screened at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival…and then what looked to be a golden debut turned into a sojourn in distribution hell. After a series of announced release dates and delays, it was sold to Senator Entertainment, which then went out of business; Mandy Lane was never released in the U.S. at all. "Not unless pirated clips on YouTube count," Levine says ruefully.
Levine rebounded by writing and directing what he later called his "second first film," The Wackness (2008), a semi-autobiographical, weed- and hip-hop driven coming-of-age comedy set in 1994 New York: It charmed critics and won the 2008 Audience Award for Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival. He followed it up with cancer comedy 50/50 (2011)…yes, cancer comedy.
"Yes, it's a tough mix because of the shifts in tone and keeping them in balance," he concedes. "But the big thing I had to get past was the fear, fear of 'what if this doesn't work because of the shifts in tone.'
"But then you get on the set and Seth [Rogen] and Joe [Gordon-Levitt] are making you laugh, and then Seth and Joe are making you cry and you have to put the fear aside and have this kind of blind optimism that you're going to get through not just the first day, but day 45 as well."
Warm Bodies required the same leap of faith: It had to be funny and romantic and, on top of that, at least a little bit scary.
"Overall, the scares in Warm Bodies are pitched in a Gremlins or Goonies kind of way," says Levine. "More fun and startling than filled with dread, because it's mostly from R's perspective and you're hearing his thoughts. Imagine if you got into the head of Michael Myers or the shark in Jaws and now you're hearing all their insecurities and self-doubts…which would actually be really cool, but not so terrifying. In certain scenes where you're seeing things from Julie's point of view, it could be a little scary for people who are easily scared.
"Balancing the romance and the comedy was the slippery slope,” Levine continues, “because you have to earn the romance, to be incredibly conscious of not getting too cheesy or too glib or too easy for people."
Making the romance work came down to casting. "Basically, I wrote the script thinking there was a 50-50 chance it would never get made, because I wasn't going to do it with the wrong person. I knew Nick [Hoult] from the British version of ‘Skins’; he brings an amazing combination of charisma and vulnerability to his character and the studio was kind of jazzed about him because he had just done X-Men: First Class and was about to be in Jack the Giant Slayer. So we had dinner together, and he's just the nicest, most dedicated, creative person, but I still had to see him do it—be R.
"For political reasons, we couldn't call it an audition…it was a ‘working session.’ He came to my house and my brother's girlfriend, who's an actress, read opposite him. I've got the camera and I remember that at some point he looks at me and says, 'So I guess we're going to do the thing where I pretend to be the zombie now.' And he was just so great.
"I think it was the next day that we began the search for Julie, which is also a tough role, but in a different way. She's playing opposite someone who doesn't talk much, so she has to carry a lot of scenes. We auditioned lots of wonderful actresses, and for me Teresa just stood out. She had a great combination of effervescence and soul. Julie is a badass, but she's also optimistic: She's one of the few people who hasn't succumbed to the feeling that the world is in inevitable decline. When we read her opposite Nick, the scenes really came alive.
"I remember when we first started testing the movie, one of the comments we got was, 'It feels very realistic.' And I was like, 'What the fuck does that mean? It's got zombies—it's obviously not realistic.' And then I realized, 'Oh, the audience means the progression of their relationship feels realistic.’”
And that brings us to a dreaded relationship milestone: Meeting your girlfriend's zombie-hating dad, who's played by the sublimely menacing John Malkovich. "Before I met him, he scared the shit out of me because…because he's John Malkovich, you know? And he is what you'd expect John Malkovich to be between takes—you think he hates you, but I don't believe he actually hates me. That's just how he is. He was so wonderful to the other actors and he's chatting with the Quebec crew in French, and you just can't believe that you're sitting there, talking to him about everything from playing Casanova [in an upcoming New York production of The Giacomo Variations] to directing Dangerous Liaisons on stage in Paris. Crazy. He's obviously the 'famous person' in the movie, but he does a great job of integrating himself into the fabric of it.
"So now you're R, and even though you’re a zombie, you're a zombie meeting the father of a girl you're really into. And not only do you have to meet your girlfriend's dad, but he's John Malkovich. You know what? That's scary!"