Exclusive: ‘Zombieland’ Writers Talk Killing the Undead and Fighting the Moon

By  · Published on October 9th, 2009

Fans and box office receipts have spoken, and what they are saying is that Zombieland is a hit. The fans are saying this. The box office receipts can’t actually talk.

After receiving critical acclaim for the film and getting a disgustingly positive reception at Fantastic Fest, writers/executive producers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese were nice enough to sit down with us to discuss the ins and outs of zombies, bad asses, and the future of their careers.

Also, you should know that no matter what the record states, Paul was not giving Rhett a prostate exam during the interview.

You guys have essentially created a snarky love letter to zombie flicks. After seeing it, I have to imagine that you guys love the hell out of zombies.

Rhett Reese: Well, it’s interesting. Paul, you wanna confess?

Paul Wernick: I’m a zombie virgin.

No way.

PW: The only zombie genre movie I’d seen before we sat down to write Zombieland was Shaun of the Dead, and Rhett…

RR: And I’m hardly a zombie slut. If he’s a zombie virgin, I’m hardly a zombie slut. I’d be, what, a zombie serial monogamist or something? I’d probably seen six of 7 zombie movies before this, so I certainly wouldn’t call myself a buff, but I do love the ones I’ve seen and did love the genre and was more recently inspired ‐ we wrote the script four and a half years ago, so it’s been a while ‐ but at the time I found inspiration in 28 Days Later and the new Dawn of the Dead, and their new approach to the speed of zombies. To me, that invigorated a genre that had been around a long time, and it was one of the reasons we wanted to explore the fast zombies. Some people even call them non-zombies because they aren’t actually undead, but we tend to take a pretty broad view when it comes to the zombie canon. We don’t get too worried about a Zombie Bible that’s been handed down from on high, and you have to follow certain rules. We like to play a little fast and loose.

But your zombies don’t move too quickly. They sort of bumble around.

RR: They do.

And they’re easily killed. It’s surprising to hear you say you guys aren’t major buffs because you really have focused on some tropes of the genre and walked a fine line of making fun of its flaws while still celebrating it.

RR: Yeah, we didn’t want to make fun of zombie films. We wanted to have fun with zombie films. If that makes sense.

Well, you’ve clearly done the homework and understand the genre.

RR: We’re honored to hopefully be entering the zombie club, because it certainly has attracted some wonderful filmmakers and writers over the years. I’m hoping at some point we’ll get to sit down with the Edgar Wrights, and the Alex Garlands, and the Danny Boyles, and the Peter Jacksons, and the Sam Raimis of the world and talk zombie.

I think [the genre] gets a bad rap as, “Well, zombie films are inherently stupid,” and I think it’s the opposite of that if anything. They tend to be very smart movies that are dressed up with a lot of blood and gore that distract you from the fact that they’re pretty smart.

PW: You know, the world, this zombie apocalyptic world, is such an interesting playground that we wanted to take full advantage of. There’s huge wish-fulfillment in a world without people. Where you can kill without consequence and drive any car you wanna drive and shop in any store you wanna shop in without worry of not being able to afford it. So there is this wish-fulfillment in a post-Apocalyptic zombie world that we wanted to take full advantage of.

Sure. There’s no real downside except for what’s already happened. There’s no humans, and there’s ravenous beasts constantly…you know, the more I say it out loud, the more it sounds like the price is pretty steep.

RR: [Laughs] We wanted to find the silver lining in the dark cloud of the post-apocalypse and not neglect the fact that it’s sad. Because we do have sad moments in the movie and we do have our characters longing for the innocence of days gone by. But we also have them reveling in this sandbox full of toys, and they now are afforded the opportunity to break stuff and beat zombies over the head and ride roller coasters without a line, and things like that. That was a big part of it for us. We always wanted it to be funny. We didn’t want it to take itself too seriously. We wanted it to be fun, and a ride, and a romp as opposed to a real serious polemic.

PW: Rhett’s been reading too many reviews…

RR: I know. I’m using all the ‐ It’s a ride! It’s a romp! It’s a blast!

PW: [Laughs]

RR: Sad.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t use those terms in our review.

RR: If you did, it’s okay. We like to be called a Blast or a Romp.

I don’t even know what a romp is.

RR: I don’t either. It came out though. I apologize.

It sounds like something you take with a loved one through a field of daisies.

RR: [Laughs]

PW: Much like a prostate exam, it involves rubber gloves snapping against your forearms.

RR: [Laughs]

[Laughs] You know when you talk about sadness and the human connection between the characters. How did you achieve that balance with the carefree comedy?

PW: More than anything, we wanted to write a movie about a dysfunctional family which is what our four characters are essentially. They’re all looking for something, and that something is love. So, at its core, it’s a character piece. We didn’t want to forget that. Rich characters make every moment that much better ‐ where you care about them, whether they’re happy or sad. We spent much of our time developing our characters in this very rich world that we were living in to be such that they had heart, and you do care about them, and when Columbus does brush Wichita’s hair over her ear, it’s a really goosebump-inducing, heartfelt moment where you just want to cheer because you’ve cared so much about them over the course of 83 minutes or so.

You got me sidetracked. I was gonna ask a question about bad asses, and you got me all misty-eyed.

PW: [Laughs]

RR: [Laughs]

PW: That’s what we do.

Woody Harrelson’s character Tallahassee is a complete bad ass. What film bad asses did you look to for inspiration?

RR: The concept for the character came out of this idea that we’ve all flirted with in life. Maybe we’re great at something, and we haven’t discovered what that thing is yet. You know, if you’ve never picked up a golf club, maybe you are Jack Nicholas waiting to happen. If you’ve never tried pole-vaulting, maybe that’s your secret skill. And we loved the idea of a guy who had been largely a failure in life but that, by virtue of this post-Apocalypse and zombies breaking out, realized that he was actually really good at killing zombies. Not just good. The best.

In terms of specific inspiration, the answer is no. I mean, a character like Ash from Sam Raimi’s movies like Army of Darkness and those movies, is at least somewhat inspirational because he’s a bad ass, he spouts one-liners, and we wanted Tallahassee to do the same. But really, it stemmed more out of this idea that 1) a guy who’s finally discovered his skill and 2) a guy who is the perfect foil to Columbus ‐ who is a very passive character who’s always retreating from violence. We needed a character to balance that by always diving in.

I do appreciate that they are great at killing. There are a few scare moments, but mostly this group doesn’t see much danger anymore and knows how to have fun.

RR: That’s great. I think what you’re picking up on there is partly due to the fact that we decided to start the story in the middle. So many zombie movies, and I’d have to add them all up, but so many of them start at the beginning. They start when the zombie outbreak first begins and so you are seeing that What the Hell Thinking and the fear, and we wanted to jump into the middle of the story and meet people who had highly honed their survival skills by virtue of the characteristics they had before the world of zombies. There’s Columbus who’s a real wuss, and he’s very careful, and that has proved adaptive to this world. Tallahassee is really tough and likes to fight and seek danger. That has proved adaptive. For the girls, they’re really good at thinking ahead, and conning people and being smart. That has proved adaptive. So we wanted to jump in the middle and not begin at the beginning where the General comes on and tells everyone to stay in their house. We thought it would be nice to flash back a bit, to show the first meeting with a zombie and the first zombie attack, but largely we wanted to view people who had already learned to survive.

I want to switch gears just a moment and bother you guys about your upcoming projects. The first being Earth vs. Moon ‐ which is titled really directly.

PW: It’s genius in that the title says everything you need to know about the movie. It’s a high concept movie with an even higher concept title. Earth vs. Moon is the story of the Earth versus the Moon 400 years in the future. A big, sci-fi epic war movie. A civil war movie. And caught in between that war is a fractured family on either side of that battle.

I love that high concept films are usually described in one sentence.

RR: We’ve boiled it down. One word. Zombieland! We’re gonna try to do it with just one letter pretty soon. You know ‐ F! ‐ and then everyone’s gonna get it.

P: It’ll be A instead of F, though.

And this project isn’t based on “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Heinlein?

RR: No. You know we’d actually never heard of that story. We’ve now heard of it. Is it a short story or a novel? I can’t remember.

It’s a novel.

RR: Yeah, we’ve heard of it subsequent because we’ve been accused by many internet folks of having ripped it off.


RR: We read enough of a synopsis of it to assuage ourselves that ours is really different from it which made us feel relieved. But no, we haven’t read it and we had not heard of it when we wrote [Earth vs Moon].

So there’s no libertarian political theory abounding in Earth vs. Moon?

RR: Well, interestingly I am a libertarian. But no, that’s not what’s at the core of our movie. It’s not even in our movie at all actually.

And the second project is Venom. A pretty hot property.

PW: Venom is one of those we put in a lock box and can’t unfortunately talk about.

RR: Unfortunately Venom is one that’s shrouded in very high secrecy. We’re just unfortunately not allowed to comment on it. I hate to say that, but we gotta do that.

PW: Even the slightest bit of…

RR: People like to run with…even if we say one line about it, it becomes a headline because people are thirsting for it. So we need to stay quiet on it.

Could you even talk about what particular skills you have as writers that lend themselves to the project?

RR: I think we probably shouldn’t. Just because we’ve had situations before where we think something is innocuous and then suddenly it’s the headline of an article. I think everyone involved would rather it stay as secretive as possible.

Wow. I’m impressed. I just gave two writers the chance to brag, and they stayed silent.

RR: It’s not our choice!

So can I safely report that you two aren’t cast in the movie? That Paul Wernick won’t be playing Venom?

RR: I think that’s safe.

PW: I would run with that.

RR: Paul’s got some acting chops.

PW: I may play Venom.

So there you have it. The casting scoop of the century. Paul Wernick might play Venom.

What do you think?

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