I've never actually had an interview subject offer me a part of their lunch right then and there off their plate. And yet there I was, being asked if I wanted some sushi by Jonathan Levine, director of WARM BODIES, during our 27-minute chat. Before he set foot in the room, I had been asked if it was okay if he ate during our conversation, as he'd been doing press all day and hadn't had a chance to eat. Of course it was okay. What did I care? So right in the middle of our talk, in came his lunch delivery, and as he tried to consume some sort of sustenance for the day while also keeping our interaction going, there he sat, asking if I wanted some. I politely declined, because seriously... this poor guy needs to eat, too... but, in the moment, it hit me that that's just who Jonathan Levine is - a good, thoughtful guy, who brings that kind of heart into the type of films he enjoys making, and it shows. His two most notable films to date, THE WACKNESS and 50/50, have presented these emotional character-driven stories that are not so easily defined by a genre or a particular category, and yet draw you in by their compelling nature. These are tales of heartbreak and struggle and finding your way, and while you may not necessarily find yourself in the same situations as some of his protaganists, you understand exactly where they're coming from on their journey.
Levine's latest film WARM BODIES, an adaptation of the Isaac Marion novel of the same name, pulls in quite a few elements of his previous directorial efforts. It's sweet, has plenty of heart (both literally and figuratively) and stifles anyone who may try to put it in one particular category or box. It's a love story. It's a romantic comedy. It's a zombie flick. It's a social commentary on the value of human interaction. It's so many quality pieces that come together in one package, making it a film that you could show 10 different people and get back 10 different responses on how it played to them.
If not for the fact that Jonathan had to fight building traffic in order to get to the airport, it's quite possible our conversation would have gone on even longer. But I can't complain about getting a solid chunk of time to sit down with him and discuss his approach to working within zombie conventions while also evolving the rules, adapting an incredibly popular and well-received book, the importance of music in his films and so much more... so enjoy our talk, because I certainly did.
The Infamous Billy The Kidd - So I remember when I first heard the premise of the film, the first thought that kinda entered my mind was... “Oh shit, they’re doing TWILIGHT with zombies.” And I’m sure that I share that sentiment with more than a few people without seeing the film.
Jonathan Levine - Oh, yeah.
The Kidd - But then when you see it, it couldn’t be further from that. It is very much a romantic comedy structure built around zombies. So in bringing these two totally different elements together, how do you kinda reconcile these two different audiences and have them be willing and ready to see something... People who are looking for a romantic comedy may be wary of seeing a zombie film. People who want to see a zombie film may be wary of romantic comedies. So how do you make...?
Jonathan Levine - Yeah, right. Well I specialize in these kind of weird things that potentially no one will see. [Laughs] I mean, honestly, a lot of that is... and they kind of hate me for that, but it’s kind of dependant on the marketing. It’s like... All I can do is make the movie and trust my instincts, and then show it to people and hope they like it. So we tested the movie and it tested well, so I knew once we got people in the room, they would enjoy it. As far as getting them into the theatre, I think that’s really challenging, and I really like what Summit has been doing with it. I think they’ve been focusing on the irreverence of it, and the humor of it, and I think that self-awareness says, “This is not TWILIGHT, this is something different.” And then as far as the romantic comedy aspect of it... For me that was really funny and really important for us to make this as sort of a commentary on the romantic comedy genre, which is a genre that I really really enjoy. But I don’t know that you need to... That’s more of an intellectual thing on my part... But I don’t know that you need to know that going in. I think what audiences really connect to is the uniqueness of it, and the fact that it’s got some kind of cool, interesting characters that you’re hopefully happy to spend an hour and a half with.
The Kidd - Yeah, I remember when I caught the first trailer I was really surprised by how funny it was. Because... Especially when you have the TWILIGHT thing, which is a link that you have to wind up overcoming, you’re kind of expecting this just... emo love story. It’s still... You’re still expecting it based on the premise alone. When you see it, and you have this voice over... This unique voice that’s just very funny and very witty, it throws you off. At least when I saw it, that was what broke me down.
Jonathan Levine - Well, right. And the romance, and like... The stuff that I really used as reference was movies like... Either 80s movies that were like early Zemeckis, or even THE PRINCESS BRIDE as far as the romance goes... Or even like... There’s so many. The 80s is filled with so many of these movies where it’s like... Or SHORT CIRCUIT. Or STARMAN, y’know, whatever. Movies like where it’s this forbidden love, but there’s also a self-awareness to it. I think that sometimes these days when there are... I think that, to me, self-awareness is one of the most important things to bring to a movie. Especially when you’re mashing up all these different genres, and you’re referencing music and pop culture and stuff like that. The audience is self-aware so the movie needs to be self-aware. Not in this kind of, “Oh, wink wink, we’re in on the joke... It’s all a farce” kind of thing. We’re true to the characters but we have to be kind of self-aware, and that is inherently funny. The zombie himself is like frustrated that he’s not able to speak, and that’s funny. Everything about the scenarios we’re showing is, to me, funny, so you may as well amplify that.
The Kidd - When you’re dealing with zombies, you kind of have certain elements that you have to remain true to... Certain conventions. So how do you kinda play with these conventions and tweak them without outright breaking the rules that would then set people off and they’d say that it doesn’t feel right?
Jonathan Levine - Oh, no, totally, man. I think the first thing that I needed to accept was that I was going to set people off, y’know? And... that’s fine. I just had to accept that. Because it is scary! You’re taking on a kind of tried and true genre, and a tried and true paradigm that’s worked, but I think the great thing about zombies, and it is something that you see in the evolution of all of Romero’s movies, is that they are... A, designed as... more than any other movie creature, they represent social commentary. That’s the first thing. And B, the rules have always evolved with zombies. Y’know? No one talked in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and then there were talking zombies. Then there were fast zombies.... Was Danny Boyle the first person to do it?
The Kidd - Hmmm...
Jonathan Levine - So, like, it’s built to evolve. And I think that that’s a wonderful thing. And the reason that it’s built to evolve is that it’s always meant to reflect our times. So in that way, I felt that tweaking the rules was consistent with the rules, in a strange way. But yeah, we wanted people to know that we’re respectful and we’ve watched a lot of zombies movies and we know what’s up. Like, we want to be tweaking them from the inside out. We want to be experts before we start tweaking them. So, not only... I mean I had seen a ton of these movies, but then I went to zombie school for myself, I rented a ton of [zombie movies]... And just rewatched or watched for the first time a lot of really great ones. And I exposed myself to a lot of really cool movies like FIDO or DEAD ALIVE... I’d never seen DAY OF THE DEAD, and that’s awesome... But as far as when you know what to do... The idea that was in the book that I really liked was when you eat someone’s brains, you relive their memories...
The Kidd - Yes. And when it first happens, you’re... It throws you off because you’re not used to it, but then you quickly accept how it works within this universe, and it helps you kind of enhance these characters and helps you tell the story by having this tool that allows them to have this more personal connection and it kind of developed the female side with the Teresa Palmer character, Julie.
Jonathan Levine - Yeah. It would be impossible to tell the story otherwise, because you’re strictly be... I mean it allows us to break the point of view, or cheat with the point of view a little bit, too. But I also thought it was cool. So I was like, if I think it’s cool, and I’m a fan of zombie movies, and I’m a fan of horror films, then hopefully other people will think it’s cool. So that was kinda my rule. Once I accepted the inevitable hate mail that I will receive... Hopefully at my Hotmail address. Not my Gmail...
The Kidd - You talk about the social commentary, and that is inherent in all types of zombie films... It’s kind of this snapshot of where we are as a...
Jonathan Levine - [Signaling to his just arrived sushi] You want some, dude?
The Kidd - That’s okay. You haven’t eaten all day, so enjoy it.
Jonathan Levine - This miso is awesome.
The Kidd - It’s always been a snapshot of where we are as people in terms of the times and how we’ve kind of viewed society through this lens. What do you view as the statement that WARM BODIES is making about society today? Because I watched it and I came away with kind of my own theory, but I was just curious in terms of transporting the book from the page and also your own vision.
Jonathan Levine - Yeah yeah yeah. There’s a lot of that in Isaac [Marion’s] book, a lot of commentary, and I wanted to keep it as smart as possible within the parameters of what we’re doing. Obviously it’s meant to be entertaining... You don’t want people to think too much but...
The Kidd - Well, it’s there if you...
Jonathan Levine - It’s there if you want it, but you don’t have to have it. To me, it’s two-fold. What’s it mean to be human, are you really living your life, are you living in the moment... It’s about connection. It’s about how difficult it is to find connection especially in modern society with technology and those kinds of barriers to connection... And it’s also a little bit about the trivial things we care about in our modern society and how kinda silly they are. Like one of my favorite little sight gags is when he’s sitting there reading the Us Magazine... And it’s like, “Jesus, we cared about that shit?” That’s, to me, that’s kind of what it’s about. Like what does it mean to really be alive. And, you know, there’s other stuff in there about tolerance, but to me, it was really the idea that... It really goes back to the DAWN OF THE DEAD mall. The idea that modern society is... This criticism of commerce, and what it means to live in a modern society, and you can look around and... In our thing it’s an airport, but you can go to any airport and look around and you see a bunch of zombies. Like you don’t have to look too far. What was your...
The Kidd - Well yeah, that was what I took away from it, was this value on human connection, and how it’s everybody... No one wants to interact with people on a personal level anymore, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or... We’re so detached from people... Like nobody wants to... Even just calling someone... Nobody wants to call anymore, they’ll just send a text.
Jonathan Levine - Yeah. Oh, if I get a voicemail, I can barely listen to like two seconds of it. I just listen to make sure no one is like dead or anything, and I’ll just call the person back.
The Kidd - Sometimes you’ll call a person and you’ll be like, “Hey I left you a voicemail,” and they’re like, “Yeah, I didn’t listen.” Then what was... Why does it even exist?! [Laughs]
Jonathan Levine - I tried to explain this to my parents, that leaving a voicemail is the best way to not get me to understand what they want me to...
The Kidd - It’s a generational thing, but now it’s gotten to the point where we’re so... Everything’s so quick and so fast, no one has the time to have to interact anymore.
Jonathan Levine - Absolutely, and you become this kind of... You and your phone become a shell, and then... Not unlike the guy in the movie, you’re trapped in your distant box. Yeah. I don’t know. It is something that really interests me. It’s something I think I’d like to explore in other films, too.
The Kidd - You have... How difficult is it to make the adaptation from the book while remaining loyal to what’s on the page and the fanbase and the people who are into what was in the novel? I’m sure you know there’s automatically this... “The movie will never be as good as the book” thing.
Jonathan Levine - Yeah, right, sure.
The Kidd - This obstacle that you automatically have to overcome in trying to pay respect to what’s on the page and staying true, while coming up with something fresh that’s on the screen. So how do you kinda make that balance between, “Okay we have this source material, we want to be respectful in transitioning it, but we also have to do something that isn’t just word for word verbatim translation of it"?
Jonathan Levine - Yeah. I think that one of the challenges but also one of the benefits of it was that it was literally impossible to just translate the book into a movie because the book is so much in his point of view. We had to break point of view to give you more texture from the world, so I have to do certain things to depart. And I think it’s a credit to Isaac, the writer, and the studio that they gave me the freedom to kind of interpret it as I saw fit. But the book was a wonderful guide, and template, because it was structurally very tight. The central premise was very smart, and very clever, and very moving... But I never felt that I needed to do some slavish adherence, verbatim, for the movie. I knew what I liked about the book, and I knew what I liked about the book was consistent with what the other people on the creative team, including Isaac, liked. That said, when i got to the book, it was before... It hadn’t even been released yet. So I didn’t know what people were going to be upset about or not upset about, and I think in many ways that was helpful to me. Because I wasn’t scared of backlash or anything like that. And now I’m sure there are people that are mad about one thing or the other, but A, it’s too late, and B, I just didn’t know at the time so I have plausible deniability on all fronts. [Laughs] But there’s nothing greater than being given the freedom to stay true to the spirit of something but also interpret it in your own way, and that’s a credit to Isaac. I had a very similar experience with Will [Reiser] on 50/50, and y’know that was his life, so... You have to as a director. You have to have some critical distance from the source material. You just have to.
The Kidd - How did you ultimately decide on Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer to kind of bring this love and chemistry between R and Julie onscreen? Was it a long process? Was it two people that you immediately had zero frustrations for? Or was it something that you kinda have to test against, make sure that it works before you put them together and everything’s packaged up?
Jonathan Levine - I mean, it’s such an inherently risky movie that I think that I would have been crazy to not see what Nick was going to do before making that decision to cast him. I really liked Nick, and he was at a point in his career where he felt like a really fresh choice, too. He hadn’t been over exposed, so it didn’t feel like we’re dropping this famous person in and now you have to believe he’s a zombie. He’s a really exciting choice. I loved him from SKINS. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the first two seasons of SKINS...
The Kidd - No.
Jonathan Levine - He’s so awesome. He’s like bad-ass and funny and he’s like cool but you totally sympathize with him... So I knew I wanted to... I knew as soon as his name came up that he’d be a great choice. And then it was like, “but we’ve gotta see it.” It wasn’t an audition, because he wasn’t against anyone else, but he came over and... We did it at my house, it was super weird. I was like, “This is my fuckin’ job? Is having this guy come over and grunt in my living room?” But it worked! And, you know, I wanted someone who was where Johnny Depp was when EDWARD SCISSORHANDS came out. I think he had just finished JUMP STREET or whatever, but he wasn’t like Johnny Depp. So I just fell in love with what Nick did. And then Teresa, we auditioned a bunch of girls, and she was just so... Because that’s a hard role. You’re up against somebody who’s not saying anything. And she just brought so much energy and life and soul to it, and then she read opposite Nick and it just felt like a great choice. And I like them as people, they’re super cool people.
The Kidd - Yeah, I met Teresa back when she did TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT, and she’s just very chill and very down to earth. Very cool.
Jonathan Levine - Yeah, totally. Very sweet gal.
The Kidd - One of the things in terms of... How difficult is to built this relationship through the characters where for a long stretch of it, it’s very non-verbal communication? Because when you’re on-set and you’re working with it, you don’t have this voice over. Like everything in his head, from his point of view, is a voice over, and you can’t see it. It’s all in his face or zombie movements. So how difficult is it to build this relationship that people can then become invested in while being very limited in what it is that they can do to each other?
Jonathan Levine - I mean, it’s really important to sort of... The most important thing is to build it. You’re right. You can’t just cut to... you can’t just have a shorthand. Nothing can happen offscreen. Every kind of progression in their relationship needs to happen for a reason. You can get away with him kind of falling for her because she’s beautiful and he’s a monster, right? So there’s the Frankenstein thing of that. He just sees a pretty thing and wants it. But the way it builds... And that’s one of the things I really liked. They became friends before they fell in love, right? And the way it builds is really important, and it’s... You just have to be very very careful. And it makes you think a lot about... Within the conventions of a romantic comedy, I think a lot of times that people sort of take for granted that the people... “Oh, it’s Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. They’ll just fall in love, of course.” But this, we don’t have that shorthand. So it really makes you think about what makes two people start to care about each other. It’s little things from... Just Nick’s attitude around her, and his protectiveness of her, to them driving around having a good time, to... God, what else is there... Just the... Even the music he listens to! There’s so many things. To me it was always like, you’ve gotta break this down to... The only way this works is if you break it down to “it’s a guy and a girl.” It’s not a zombie and a girl, it’s a guy and girl.
The Kidd - The guy just happens to be a zombie...
Jonathan Levine - Just happens to be a zombie... But he’s a shy guy who is inarticulate and trapped in his body, thinks he’s a loser, all this stuff that I think a lot of people can identify with. I certainly can... I don’t know if that answered your question.
The Kidd - You bring up the music, and the music and the soundtrack, is really the language that R uses to communicate in a sense. I mean you have Springsteen and Dylan and Guns N' Roses and John Waite. Can you kind of take me through the process of finding these particular songs? Through this ocean of music that perfectly defined the character’s emotions and fit within these particular scenes.
Jonathan Levine - That was one of the things I loved about the book, was that he used music to communicate. In the book he’s actually really into Frank Sinatra, but I kinda wanted to tweak that character and make it more... Like that’s too specific. Like he could be more of like an everyman. Like I wanted young people to see him and go, “That could be me if I was stopped frozen in my tracks one day...” But he’s also someone who feels so intensely that it transcends being a zombie. So i started thinking about music that has this kind of bombastic feeling and I thinK I eventually landed on 80s music... Also because I think I kinda see this through the lens of John Hughes a little bit... Like it’s this intensity of feeling that you can only get from something like Missing You or... So that’s where "Missing You" and "Patience" came in. I don’t know if "Patience" is 80s. It might be... No, I think it’s 80s. I think it’s ‘88.
The Kidd - Patience is... I think it’s like right toward the end.
Jonathan Levine - Because Appetite [for Destruction] was ‘86.
The Kidd - And that was off of Lies.
Jonathan Levine - That’s off of Lies, so I think it’s ‘87 or ‘88... But anyway... And then, he has this vinyl collection. So we knew it had to be like album rock that he would use to communicate, and it was always like the lyrics need to make sense, and the vibe of the song needed to make sense, and "Shelter From The Storm" was so great because... I think he even refers to himself as a creature. He’s like... “I was a creature...” I can’t remember the exact line. But it is such a sweet sentiment. And then Bruce, I just love Bruce. I’ve seen him like 20 times. I travel around.
The Kidd - I’m originally from Jersey, so he’s like the patron saint of that area.
Jonathan Levine - Where are you from?
The Kidd - Hudson County. Bayonne.
Jonathan Levine - I’m from New York.
The Kidd - So like Springsteen, Bon Jovi, like that’s the heart of that area. Did you have any trouble getting the rights to any of the songs? Or any difficulty at all? Because I know... Especially when the GnR came up... I’m a Guns N' Roses fan so I know the like... With Axel and...
Jonathan Levine - I don’t know what happened... I certainly don’t think they had to talk to each other. Probably their lawyers talked to each other and they were like, “Do you want $300,000 for doing nothing?” That’s probably one thing that they can agree on... "Patience" was actually written into the script and I think we started that process pretty early on. Yeah, stuff we tried, there is stuff we tried to get that we couldn’t get. There was stuff that was too expensive. We originally had "No Church in the Wild", that Kanye and Jay-Z song in the beginning of the movie and that was like a million bucks, or $800,000, something ridiculous... And by then it had been in every single trailer and movie so I was fine to lose that... No, I think to Summit’s credit, after THE WACKNESS and 50/50, they knew that you’ve gotta protect the music budget, because that’s... part of my language as a filmmaker? Jesus. That sounds pretentious. But it’s true. It’s really important to me. Music is really important to me, and they knew. So when you’re doing any movie and you want to go late or add a CG shot, and everyone’s just like, “Take it from music. We’ll take it from music.” And by the time you get to the end of the line, there’s nothing in music. So Summit was always really good about protecting the music budget, so we had a lot of money for music... Not as much as PITCH PERFECT, which I saw on the plane. Jesus. I don’t know how much money they had.
The Kidd - Let me ask you two quick questions. One is kind of about the design of the Bonies and the challenge of mixing CG in this world that, to that point, is very practical. You’re dealing with practical zombie makeup, and making things look a certain way and here you’re kind of injecting CG creatures into it. So how difficult is that to kind of make it work?
Jonathan Levine - Originally I wanted to do everything practically. Well, I wanted to do the boneys as this kind of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion guys. And then I realized I did want people to take their threat seriously, so I thought that would have felt a little goofy, y’know? So the next best thing... I found a wonderful visual effects supervisor, a guy named Dan Schrecker, who had worked with Aronofsky and did a bunch of visual effects that looked and felt really organic. And then... I didn’t even know this was something that would help, but I always insisted shooting on film, and I think that really helps. That gives it kind of an organic analog feel. And then the way we conceive of these characters, we always kept in mind that we wanted them to be kept in the shadows and we put a lot of effort in their texture, their movement, and the way they looked. And hopefully it turned out okay. I mean that was my first time working with visual effects, and I had a really great experience with it. Yeah, it was always very important to me to keep everything kind of grounded. The little... Shooting on film helps, shooting things handheld helps... All those things really do help... And hopefully I’ll get to continue shooting on film. I don’t know. I didn’t even realize. Since I started making that movie, everyone stopped.
The Kidd - Yeah, in the industry it kind of died. There’s only a handful of people that still insist on shooting on film. The digital thing has kind of... towards that.
Jonathan Levine - Mmm-hmm.
The Kidd - I know Isaac Marion announced that he was going to write a sequel to Warm Bodies as far as a novel. Would you have any interest in coming back and revisiting the characters in this world? Have you had any discussions with him in terms of where...?
Jonathan Levine - I would never talk about that, man, because I’m like totally superstitious and think that only horrible things are going to happen to me. So it’s like...
The Kidd - A jinx?
Jonathan Levine - Yeah! It’s like a jinx to talk about that. I mean... I do always kinda laugh when it’s like, you hear they’re making three SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN or whatever, and you’re like, “Well lets see if anyone likes the first SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN before...” If people like the movie, and that’s something that we’d be so lucky as to be able to explore, I would be totally game to explore it and do it. Because I love the world, I love... There’s a lot more I think I could mine in that world... It’s a hugely creative just to be able to explore and it allows you to do so many different things. And the actors are nice people, so it’d be cool to hang out with them again. But, yeah. I won’t allow myself to think about that for a long time.
The Kidd - Okay, thank you very much.
Jonathan Levine - Thanks, man. So nice to meet you.
WARM BODIES arrives in theatres this Friday, February 1.
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