Ground Zombie: Marc Forster directs Brad Pitt in apocalypse spectacle 'World War Z'

Zombies have taken over the world—not literally, of course, but thanks to a string of recent successes, it feels as though everyone has zombie fever. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is a record-breaking hit on cable television, Seth Grahame-Smith’s book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a New York Times bestseller with several sequels, and one of the most anticipated blockbusters of the summer is director Marc Forster’s World War Z, an action zombie flick starring Brad Pitt and due in theatres from Paramount on June 21.

World War Z revolves around United Nations employee and reluctant hero Gerry Lane (Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop the zombie pandemic that is destroying armies and governments, threatening to decimate all of humanity. We recently spoke with Forster about the challenges of the production and what audiences can expect from his zombie apocalypse.

When directors have tried to reinvent the zombie genre in the past, they’ve come up against some harsh criticisms from fans—for example, when Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Trance) unveiled 28 Days Later, some film critics and fans alike disapproved of the film, arguing that no movie could capture the thrills and chills of George Romero’s classic Dead trilogy and perhaps no one should even try. Even before the release of World War Z, Forster has come up against similar criticisms, especially since his film has received a PG-13 rating. Fans of the zombie genre and Max Brooks’ original novel are dubious about the rating, worried that the film won’t deliver on gore effects and harsh political commentary.

Forster says that audiences shouldn’t worry. “When I first read the book, I was very inspired by those issues… Honestly, at the time I didn’t think that the book lent itself to a film narrative and I knew I would have to do a lot of adapting, but also keeping those political and social themes incorporated so that the film could be as powerful as the book. We have definitely kept some of that feel in the film.” As for the comparisons to AMC’s popular “The Walking Dead,” Forster notes, “‘The Walking Dead’ is an R-rated show and we wanted to make sure World War Z was more accessible and very different from that show. ‘The Walking Dead’ has a lot of violence and a lot of gore, and we had to approach our film very differently. Visually, I think the film is very real and very present, but it’s not filled with blood and guts. There is a layer of intensity in the film that I think audiences will be able to relate to; there are scenes that I think people will find to be more realistic.”

Forster is perhaps best-known for acclaimed dramas like Finding Neverland and The Kite Runner, not effects-heavy epics, though he did direct Quantum of Solace, the 22nd James Bond installment. Early press reports about rewrites and reshoots don’t concern him.

“We came to a place where we thought we could make the movie better. We brought a new writer in to help us with that vision and we went out and shot it. That happens with a lot of productions, and because we shot footage that I’m happy with, I think we did the right thing. There has been a lot of scrutiny regarding the film because of how big the production is and Brad’s involvement in it, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Everyone can judge what he or she sees on the screen when it’s out. No matter how difficult it was to get there.”

With an initial budget of $170 million, World War Z needed extensive reshoots and several rewrites (Prometheus screenwriter Damon Lindelof was hired to rescript, but couldn’t find the time, so Paramount hired his partner from TV’s “Lost,” Drew Goddard, to finish the job), and there have been reports that Pitt took over the director’s chair for a few crucial scenes. But rumors are to be expected when working in a genre that so many hold dear to their hearts.

“I’ve been conscious of working in the [zombie] genre from the beginning, and World War Z is so large in scale,” Forster says. “There are a lot of original aspects in the film that I think people haven’t seen before. For example, when coming up with the zombies and how they move, I based them on a swarm theory. What I mean by that is originally, when you look at Romero films from the ’70s, his zombies move very slowly—I think because he was making a commentary on the consumerism of human beings at the time. For me, today, it was more about zombies swarming, a metaphor for overpopulation. We have fewer and fewer resources in our world today, and more people. The world’s population is seven billion people, so if those people turned into zombies, we are talking about large numbers and huge swarms.”

Twenty minutes of World War Z was recently screened for the media, and the footage revealed some kick-ass action and spectacular zombie aesthetics. Until this point, no one had seen Forster’s zombies—they don’t appear in the poster or any of the trailers. “I based the zombies on natural biology; I studied insects and how they move, how they swarm. From the moment the humans are bitten, it’s a seizure transformation into becoming a zombie. I did some research on epileptic seizures prior to making the film, and I incorporated this into when humans get bitten, so when someone turns into a zombie their movements are natural, but violent and seizure-like.”

The screened footage also established strong character development and ambitious cinematography (no surprises there, since three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson was behind the camera) with lush location shooting in places like Scotland, Hungary and Malta. Forster “really loved shooting in Malta—we were shooting with thousands of extras and filming massive scenes, and the architecture was so beautiful. We also shot in Glasgow; we turned it into Philadelphia! We had massive sequences shooting there as well, huge numbers of extras in the cast.”

Asked about his fondest memories of working on the set, Forster says he has too many to list, but concludes, “All of the large-scale mass hysteria scenes were the best. The extras were so there, and enjoyed being crazy zombies—there were sometimes thousands of people. I really enjoyed how into it the actors got, how they conformed to the energy that we were trying to create.”

And as for a sequel or two? “It depends on how this film does. We hope it will do well and then those conversations can be had afterward!”