Interview: Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies)

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By Simon Miraudo
April 10, 2013

Jonathan Levine‘s Warm Bodies is a romantic comedy set in a world in which humanity has been lost and monsters roam the streets. So too, you might say, is Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, He’s Just Not That Into You, and anything starring Kate Hudson. And you’d be right. But Warm Bodies is quite literally set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It might seem a far cry from the director’s previous features, such as cancer comedy 50/50, autobiographical stoner flick The Wackness, and slasher movie All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Then again, they do all have at least one thing in common: a lonely protagonist; in this instance, a disaffected zombie who calls himself R (Nicholas Hoult) simply because he can’t recall his real name. When he meets the incandescent Julie (Teresa Palmer), one of the last surviving humans and a strong-willed leader of the anti-undead rebellion, his heart is jump-started, and those familiar feelings of humanity start to creep in.

Check out Jess Lomas’ review of Warm Bodies here.

I spoke to Jonathan Levine about the zombie renaissance in pop culture, the influence of Seth Rogen and Jodie Foster – among many others – on the final cut of Warm Bodies, and his plans for the apocalypse.

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SM: How did you become familiar with Isaac Marion’s book Warm Bodies?

JL: It’s funny. I wish it was a more interesting story. I had a meeting with Summit. We had kind of wanted to work together for a while. This was before 50/50 and after The Wackness. One of the executives there said they had this amazing book, and they were just looking for directors now. He told me the backstory, which was that Isaac had basically self-published the book; he had printed, like, 100 copies. I thought that was really cool. In the room, he said, “It’s totally unique, and really different. Just read it. Read the first couple pages.” So I did, and immediately fell in love with it. Once I finished it, I begged and pleaded to get the job.

SM: It’s interesting that this book is a self-made, self-published item,  yet the film is your biggest production to date. Was that freeing to work with a bigger budget, or did that come with its own set of constraints?

JL: When people say, “More money is just the same,” and, “You’re always scrimping and saving,” it’s just not really true. More money is good. [Laughs] You have more options. If something goes wrong, you can redo it. If you need a location, you’re always gonna get it, because you can just throw money at it. Not that we had a ton of money, but to me it felt like a huge budget. I really did enjoy having those extra resources, and beyond that, there are certain things you can never control on a movie. The sun always goes down at the same time; the sun always comes up at the same time. Some locations you can only get for a day. You can’t buy that. There’s always going to be the same kinds of problems on a movie, but having more money does help.

SM: There’s been a zombie renaissance of late, and that’s good news for your movie, of course. During production or pre-production, where you acutely aware of how many other zombie properties were out there, and did that play into you trying to set it apart from the rest?

JL: I was kind of aware of it. It’s funny, the things I was aware of never happened, or have not yet happened. Like, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There’s another thing called Breeders that didn’t happen. I guess I was aware of World War Z, but I felt that was going to be so different I wasn’t really nervous about it. The Walking Dead had not yet become the television phenomenon that it was. I think I was more conscious in setting it apart from other young adult things, whether it be Twilight or any number of the copycats of Twilight out there. I was very conscious of giving it an irreverence that I hadn’t seen so much in young adult films. I thought that was a big opportunity, because that’s what I really enjoyed growing up; those movies that had not just adventure and romance, but a level of humour to them as well.

SM: We get a glimpse of the humanity in Nicholas Hoult’s zombie R through his voice over. I understand Seth Rogen helped you out with the voice over after a test screening. What role did he play in that?

JL: Seth was just one of a chorus of people who came in. He’s someone whose instincts are impeccable. He had some really great notes. The people who really helped were these guys who work with Seth and Evan [Goldberg], his writing partner and producing partner, who I had help me by coming in for a weekend and watching the movie, and helping me rewrite the voice over. They were really incredible. We had everyone from Seth to Mike White to Bill Condon to Matt Reeves to Jodie Foster. Just an incredible breadth of people who came in and helped give really great notes. Whenever Seth says something, he’s usually right. His filmmaking instincts are just beyond reproach.

SM: Teresa Palmer does play R’s love interest in the movie, but because of the language barrier they have to mostly communicate physically. I was actually reminded a little bit of City Lights, the Chaplin film. Did you have any particular movie romances you took inspiration from?

JL: That’s funny. I never thought of City Lights, but it is one of my favourite movies. Anything that can rip of City Lights in even the smallest bits is good in my book. City Lights and Manhattan are two of my favourites; and very similar films, actually. What did I think about? I thought a little bit about Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, for obvious reasons. There was a little bit of Badlands in there that I tried to rip off, which is bizarre, because the more you watch it the more you realise it’s not so much a romance as it is one of the most dysfunctional relationships.

SM: Oh, absolutely.

JL: I definitely have a lot of romantic films just moving around in my brain, just because they’re some of my favourite movies, whether it be Cameron Crowe or John Hughes. Romances from those coming of age movies were also a lead influence.

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SM: Warm Bodies does come after 50/50, The Wackness, and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. These films all criss-cross a number of different genres. Do you think there’s something that links them all thematically? Or, after the fact, looking back on them, do you see something in them all as specifically being you?

JL: It’s interesting. I try to jump around as much as I can; my interests are kind of wildly divergent. Thinking back, at least in The Wackness, 50/50, and Warm Bodies, there’s a lonely protagonist who’s stuck; who needs change in order to gain maturity. I think with Mandy Lane, ironically, that’s the closest analogue with this, in which genre is being used as allegory to tell a story. Whether it’s a slasher film to tell a high school story, or a post-apocalyptic movie to tell a coming-of-age story, they’re Trojan horses for character stories. If I had to do that, that’s what I’d say. It’s all subconscious. You don’t really know it until you think about it. I don’t even think about it until I’m talking to you or when someone asks me. Then I just kind of bulls*** my way through it. I don’t even know if it’s true or not.

SM: Look, we’re all doing that, every day.

JL: [Laughs]

SM: Well, speaking of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, your 2006 horror flick, that’s finally getting a release in the US. It actually came out in Australia a number of years ago. How does it feel to finally have it coming out at home?

JL: It’s incredibly exciting for me to see my collaborators, cast and crew, who worked so hard, and who didn’t necessarily have the opportunities after that movie as I did. To  have it in the light of day and show off how hard they worked and how talented they are. That to me is the really exciting thing. I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to get a small release, and then be on video on demand, which I think is a great way for people to watch it. There are certain films in college, where I would go out for the night, and have a few drinks, come back, smoke a little pot, and then put them on at three in the morning. So, if it can be that now, that’s very exciting. A movie that you can get a few people down the hall and pack into a room late at night; maybe a few people fall asleep halfway through. I think that would be like a dream for me.

SM: You mentioned pot, and it’s been five years since The Wackness came out, which you described as semi-autobiographical. Have you any new stories from your life that you’re looking to tell, or have you been able to bring some of your personal experiences to 50/50 and even perhaps Warm Bodies?

JL: 50/50 was really… It’s hard to describe it as not-personal, because I identified with so much of it, especially the tone. But it was obviously very personal to the writer [Will Reiser]. I was able to address some things that were on my mind, and some issues that are very consistent with other stuff, and honestly some themes I was able to respond to. But honestly it’s not necessarily personal, per se. I have something I’m writing now that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the guys who produced 50/50, are going to be producing, and it is personal. It’s kind of a bigger-scale comedy, but it is personal. I’m really excited about it. I like the script.

SM: Wonderful. Before we wrap up Jonathan, have you planned how you’re going to survive the zombie apocalypse?

JL: No. I’ve said, I’ll probably be one of the first to go. I’m not going to put up a fight. I have no survival skills. I’m from New York. I don’t know how to make a fire. I don’t know how to fire a gun. I could use my guile maybe for a few days.  But, I think you will find me curled up in the foetal position in a corner in my kitchen, just waiting to be eaten.

SM: Just let it happen.

JL: Just let it happen, man.

Warm Bodies arrives in Australian cinemas April 11, 2013.

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