Zombieland - Screenwriters Interview

Zombieland - Screenwriters Interview
Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese dish on the goods behind the gore.
Updated: 07-07-2009


Staci Layne Wilson reporting


When Horror.com was on set in a rather aromatic, adandoned supermarket in sultry Georgia a few months back -- that's right, the store was the real deal, no soundstages for these diehard horror filmmakers! -- we caught up with the men behind the madness, screenwriting team Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese. If this interview is any indication, Zombieland (out in theaters in October), is going to be one gory, giggly and gooey roller-coaster ride!

Stay tuned for our in-depth set visit report, including interviews with stars Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg.

Q: I could be mistaken, but I think you’re attached to something else that you may be writing that might be of interest to fandom.
Rhett Reese: I wonder what that might be.
Paul Wernick: Is it that animated project we’re doing?
Rhett Reese: No, Venom is something that we’re very fired up to be writing. We have turned in a draft and are waiting to hear back, so it’s early in the process. But it’s a thrill to be writing Venom for obvious reasons.
Q: Did you go in and pitch your take on what this film would be?
Paul Wernick: We sure did.
Q: And the studio was obviously very happy with it.
Rhett Reese: They liked it, yeah. We have to be much more tight-lipped about that one unfortunately. Yet that’s probably what everyone would prefer to hear about.
Q: I’m not looking for specifics on story or anything. I’m just curious about how, did they say to you we’re trying to do this a certain way? Or you just sort of wrote the script you wanted to write?
Rhett Reese: Well, we had certain parameters.
Paul Wernick: They had their 47 rules…
Rhett Reese: I mean, they had parameters for sure. I mean, obviously with a character like Venom there’s a ton of stuff to draw from. Then they had specific rules about, you know, the villain and the backstory and stuff like that, so there were certain things they wanted us… certain parameters they gave us. But largely we pitched them something and they liked it but they had changes, and so we worked on the outline for a long time and then we wrote the script. So it’s definitely a collaborative, with Marvel and Sony and us it’s very, very collaborative.
Q: Are you guys going to just ignore everything that happened in Spider-Man 3 and start fresh?
Rhett Reese: We can’t talk about that. Again, that starts to get into story which we’re not supposed to discuss.
Paul Wernick: Sorry.
Q: So let’s talk about other things you might be writing. Is there other stuff you’re doing?
Rhett Reese: We are, we are. We sold a project to Universal called Earth vs. Moon which is an idea that we had. It’s a science-fiction epic war movie ala, I don’t know, Braveheart or, uh… whatever things can we compare it to. It’s sort of got a little Star Wars in it, a little Braveheart, a little 300 in it. It’s like it’s sort of exactly what the title suggests. It’s big and crazy and, I mean, it’s gonna be awesome.
Q: Who’s fighting for the moon though?
Rhett Reese: It’s a colony on the moon. And the colony on the moon is fighting Earth. We’re very, very excited about it. And we’ve also turned in a draft on that and are waiting to hear back, so we’re in early stages on each of those.
Q: Which allows you to be on set and working here.
Paul Wernick: Yes.
Rhett Reese: Exactly right. We have a little window of time.
Q: So are you guys making changes on the fly on this movie, or are they sticking really close to the script?
Paul Wernick: We’re getting our movie, believe it or not. They’re sticking pretty close to the script. We’re tweaking things here and there, production-wise, but…
Q: We saw something today, an ad-lib that seemed to make it into the… Can you talk a little bit about that?
Paul Wernick: Well, Woody had this great Deliverance, you know, the 'purty-mouth' thing and it’s funny. I think Ruben, our director, has created such a safe environment for the actors and everyone feels very comfortable and collaborative that, you know, we get these great gems that come out of the day that we wouldn’t have expected at the start.
Q: Now that you’ve started to see footage and you’re on set, tell me about the version that you’re seeing before your eyes as opposed to what you were typing.
Rhett Reese: It’s really similar. Yeah, we’re really, really happy. It’s sort of coming to life exactly as we pictured it. There’s certain things that are different than the very first incarnation, but largely it’s just this getting up every morning and getting a Chrsitmas gift. You’re looking at the tree and there’s a new gift and it looks pretty much like what you wanted. It’s really, really exciting.
Q: Now going from it originally being for TV to now being the full-blown motion picture that it is, how different is the level of violence and horror?
Rhett Reese: Definitely gorier and more violent, yeah.
Paul Wernick: It’ll be R-rated.
Rhett Reese: It will be a violent movie. I don’t think it’s going to be wildly… like a splatterfest.
[Indeterminate Voice]: It won’t be gore.
Rhett Reese: There will be some gore, but it won’t be over the top. That’s just not the movie we set out to make. I think, I don’t know, I’m of the opinion that gore and comedy start to fight each other a little bit, after a little while. At least with, especially with like, I say my girlfriend, because there’s a certain subsection of the population who starts to not get turned off by gore but finds it difficult to both see it and be laughing at the same movie. So I don’t think we’re going to wildly over the top, but it’s violent though.
Paul Wernick: You’ll see some blood.
Rhett Reese: Yeah, it’s violent. It’s a pretty violent movie.
Q: So that kind of raises the question of who did you write this for? Did you write it for a mainstream crowd?
Rhett Reese: Well, we wrote it for ourselves, really. But we did write it for television. And that’s a good point. We didn’t expect it to be a gory thing because, you know, CBS. Network television is what it was intended for. I mean, I shouldn’t say that. We didn’t expect to sell it to CBS, that was a surprise. But we did expect to see it on television.
Paul Wernick: So when we sold it to them, we knew they weren’t going to end up making it. [laughs]
Rhett Reese: We had a terrible feeling. A sneaking suspicion you’ve sold this to the wrong people.
Paul Wernick: We’re like, ‘Wait, CBS? Really? They know it’s Zombieland, right? They know there are zombies?’
Rhett Reese: But yeah, it was intended for a pretty mainstream audience. But it’s not going to exclude anyone who loves gore, it really isn’t. We really feel it to be a very, very satisfying movie for fans of the zombie genre.
Q: What about the casting of Jesse and Woody?
Paul Wernick: It’s just they’re such an eclectic group of actors that we really lucked in and the chemistry between all of them is fantastic.
Rhett Reese: We think without hesitation we can say this is the best cast ever to be in a zombie movie. We really feel like it’s a great… We have two Academy Award nominees, we have a very eclectic, as Paul says, group. And they all come from different backgrounds but they’re all phenomenally talented. And I don’t know, it’s to say nothing against any previous casts, but this cast is just every day we get blown away by what they do. And yeah, Woody’s never starred in action movie before. How amazing is that that we lucked out and he didn’t do it until now because now it’s going to open up a whole new world of Woody we think.
Q: Do you guys ever talk to Matt Kennedy Gould?
Rhett Reese: Absolutely. I’m very close with him. As a matter of fact I met my girlfriend at his wedding about a year and a half ago.
Q: Both of you were on The Joe Schmo Show?
Rhett Reese: Yeah, we’re very close with him.
Paul Wernick: It’s funny. This movie really has, we have the same excitement that we had with Joe Schmo, sort of this lightning in a bottle feel, being on set every day and feeling like, ‘Oh my God, this is absolute gold.’ That’s how we felt on Joe Schmo as we were watching it sort of unfold and we have that same sort of great…
Rhett Reese: Yeah, and the weird thing about reality TV is we never would’ve done it if we hadn’t found what we thought was a really different take on it, a different spin on it. And I feel the same way about the zombie genre as I did about Joe Schmo, which is that we probably wouldn’t have gotten into it unless we felt like we had a pretty exciting, fresh [take]. And we do have that same excitement. It’s cool, it’s funny to feel again.
Q: What does Zombieland bring to the zombie genre that we haven’t seen before?
Rhett Reese: That’s tough. I think it brings a level of depth and emotion and humanity that you may not have seen in zombie movies before. I also think it’s as funny as any zombie movie that’s been done. I hesitate ever to say, there’s so many classic zombie movies, great, great movies, so this is just slightly different. But it’s, I don’t know, I’m not objective. I think it’s pretty funny, it’s really, really funny. But I think this movie could bring a tear to people’s eye. I’m not sure that’s necessarily happened in a zombie movie before, but maybe it has. I don’t know.
Paul Wernick: We shot a scene yesterday that was just really emotional. And it’s just the mixture of genre with comedy with heart and emotion, it’s sort of a delicate dance and I think it’s going to work.
Rhett Reese: We certainly hope so.
Q: One of the things about zombie movies is there’s always a danger that someone could just die. You have these four characters who basically go through the whole movie, are there are other characters around them?
Paul Wernick: You’ll have to see, but yeah…
Rhett Reese: You’re right. It’s easier to start with a bigger cast and then you can kill a bunch of them. But I don’t know.
Paul Wernick: There are unexpected twists.
Rhett Reese: There are definite twists. But I think with the four main characters, the bond of the four of them and the value of that bond sort of outweighs the are they going to live or are they going to die suspense. I think it’s… and again one of them may die, I won’t say, but you’re right. We traded a little bit of the suspense of who’s about to bite it. And that’s a classic staple. And again, in some ways that’s one of the reasons we didn’t do it.
Q: Are there any recurring zombies?
Rhett Reese: There are a couple of zombies that are sort of have much bigger roles and are more important, but not a zombie that keeps coming back if that’s what you meant. There’s no like super zombie, but that said there are a couple of zombies that have a more central role to the plot than most.
Q: But no boss zombie.
Rhett Reese: No boss zombie. [laughs]
Q: No zombies from other movies?
Rhett Reese: No. [laughs] That would be a good idea though.
Q: Are there any throwaway gags or any actors, like a Ken Foree, who might walk by in the background?
Rhett Reese: No, nothing like that. We probably should have. And I think a lot of more recent updates on genres have done a good job at paying homage or [giving] cameos to people who were like… Battlestar Galactica, or there are various examples of that, or Starsky and Hutch. We never thought about that. We probably should’ve done it. Let’s have Bruce Campbell bite it somewhere.
Paul Wernick: Stan Lee. Wait, that’s our other movie.
Rhett Reese: Stan Lee will be in Venom, yes.
Q: Did you write that cameo?
Rhett Reese: Oh, yeah. Stan Lee is in it, yeah. I feel like that’s the one thing we can say. He does appear in our script. And we’re very specific about where he is and why. May he live forever. Let’s hope he’s in many movies to come.
Q: So how about combing the two and getting Marvel Zombies?
[Chatter about Stan Lee and Obnoxio the Clown]
Q: So you said you’re not a big zombie movie fan?
Paul Wernick: I’m not, no.
Q: I think that’s actually good that there’s two of you because there is the impulse to go fanboy on this, to try to throw the references in and try to make it post-modern or whatever. So what kind of fights did you guys have to try to balance that?
Rhett Reese: Not many. It’s funny. We have a really good rapport in that sense because we’re doing all these genre movies, Venom and Earth vs. Moon, and I’m the huge geek and he’s not. So there are times when I geek out, especially on action and Paul’s like… [laughs]
Paul Wernick: I’m like really?! Really?! [laughs]
Rhett Reese: But no actually that’s not true.
Paul Wernick: No, I generally [unintelligible].
Rhett Reese: It is nice to have someone who is just that.
Paul Wernick: It’s the great equalizer.
Rhett Reese: It’s the great equalizer, exactly.
Q: How did you guys first team up?
Paul Wernick: We grew up together and we went to high school together.
Rhett Reese: Yeah, I gave him a wedgie after lunch hour one day and the rest was history. No. He was working in reality TV.
Paul Wernick: I was a news producer and then worked in reality TV.
Rhett Reese: And I was a feature screenwriter. I was writing children’s movies, a lot of kids stuff. And I was over at his place one night and we were watching Big Brother 2…
Q: You really went to high school together?
Paul Wernick: Yeah, we really did.
Rhett Reese: And he was working on Big Brother 2 and I loved Big Brother 2. I got hooked on the show, so I went over to his house to watch it. And that night he was like, ‘You know, we’ve got to come up with an idea for a reality show some time.’ And immediately I was interested but also thought what could I bring from my scripted background to reality so that we could sort of do a hybrid of our talents. And that’s where Joe Schmo came from. That’s the idea where Joe Schmo came from. We had the idea that night and we wound up selling it and doing it together, and then we’ve just been working together ever since. It was just sort of on a whim.
Q: Was it the kind of thing in high school where you guys were like, ‘One day we’re going to write Venom together.’
Rhett Reese: [laughs] Not really. No in fact, I went over to Paul’s house to do a stop-motion thing with G.I. Joe dolls with his older brother and Paul thought it was the stupidest thing. He was right. He was already giving me notes. I was trying to do stop-motion with a video camera. It’s truly impossible to do. Can you imagine? It’s like G.I. Joe is [makes jerky motion sounds]. It was the worst thing ever.
Q: When you do action movies, do you actually write out action scenes very specifically?
Rhett Reese: Very specifically, yeah. Down to the moment. And I catch flack for that. For too much detail, but it’s like that’s the fun stuff. And it’s those little moments in action scenes that make them great. It’s like Jurassic Park, the Tyrannosaurus chases the jeep. That’s cool but it’s so much cooler the moment you see that mirror that says ‘Objects are closer than they appear to be.’ It’s those little moments in action movies that make them better.
Paul Wernick: It’s the little moments in all movies.
Rhett Reese: In all movies, yeah, and in any moment. But action, you can just write, ‘The zombies chase them across, you know, they have a big fight in the amusement park.’ But that’s missing the entire joy of that scene.
Q: Plus, if you left out those directions or details, it would change how the action is completely…
Rhett Reese: In your head, absolutely. So you want to, yeah… Yeah, I’m trying to think of a moment from Zombieland, but yeah, writing the action is true joy. And maybe the director ignores it all. In our case the director is not, which is awesome, but just to get it down there so the reader of the script can visualize it is important.
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