'Warm Bodies' Director: Teen Romance, Undying

Feb 7, 2013
Originally published on February 7, 2013 6:50 pm

This past weekend, a surprising little movie topped the box office over pop-action juggernaut Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and the Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook.

Warm Bodies is a zombie romance brought to you by the man behind the recent cancer comedy 50/50; clearly, director and screenwriter Jonathan Levine has an interest in genre bending, and this latest flick is equal parts Night of the Living Dead and Romeo and Juliet. It's told through the eyes of R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie living in an airport.

Levine talked to NPR's Audie Cornish about zombie symbolism, teen alienation and how he became a staunch defender of Twilight fans everywhere.

Interview Highlights

On zombies as symbols of modern self-involvement

"Issac Marion [author of the novel Warm Bodies] wrote this wonderful book, and this guy was stuck in this airport, and I thought it was this very clever commentary on commercialism. There's this other moment in the beginning of the movie when we show all these people in the airport, just kinda on their cellphones, just wandering around almost bumping into each other. [We wanted] to illustrate the point that ... you can look around an airport today and see a lot of zombies, whether they're brain eaters or not — that there were a lot of people just locked into their own internal boxes. And so you know, every time I'm in an airport now, it's kind of been ruined for me."

On why teens can identify with zombies

"I think that's the great thing about zombies. ... Going back to even Night of the Living Dead, they've always been a tool for holding up a mirror to us and showing us something about ourselves that we might not otherwise know. And I thought the brilliance of this book — and what I wanted to translate into the screenplay — was like, 'Yeah, being a zombie is not that different from being a shy kid.' You're trapped in your own body. Like, this guy thinks he's a total loser, and his internal monologue reflects that. He's totally incoherent and unable to articulate himself in front of this beautiful girl, and I sort of could identify. It reminded me of the protagonists in a lot of John Hughes movies that I loved growing up, and I thought it was just such a clever way to address that kind of character in a way I hadn't seen before."

On how Warm Bodies is just a story of a (dead) guy and a girl

"The voice-over really took a lot of calibration to find that place where it felt like it could just be a guy and a girl. That was something that was really important to me about the movie, was I wanted to — even though it's a zombie in a post-apocalyptic world and all that stuff — I wanted to distill it to the fact that it was a guy and a girl, and we had to kind of calibrate that voice-over to find the right tone a lot."

On being compared to (and defending) Twilight

"I've been dealing with those comparisons for like a month now, and at first I kind of resented them because I felt like it made us sound like, we're some cynical you know, 'Twilight's over and now we're gonna get these young girls and they're all gonna watch our movie cause they have nothing else to watch.' Which I thought was — you know, this movie came from such a pure kind of creative place that ... I resented that notion.

"But now I'm starting to feel bad for the Twilight fans and I want to defend them, because there's this kind of like, inherent — whenever something is compared to Twilight, there's this kind of unspoken pejorative thing about it. And I think that for me, that the Twilight fans — you know we always said we'd be lucky to get like a fraction of the fan base they have; they're so devoted and they're so rabid and loving of these characters that I think that you have to respect it.

"As much as I didn't like the comparison because I felt like it made us sound like some cynical attempt to capitalize on a trend, now I'm a staunch defender of Twilight fans everywhere. And I'm Team Edward, by the way.

"Whatever your taste is, there's a lot of people who love those movies and there's a lot of people incredibly devoted to those movies. And I think it's not nice to them."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, a surprising little movie that topped the box office this past weekend. It beat out the pop-action juggernaut "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" and the Oscar-nominated "Silver Linings Playbook."

"Warm Bodies" is a zombie romance brought to you by the man behind the recent cancer-comedy "50/50." Clearly, director and screenwriter Jonathan Levine has an interest in genre bending. And this latest flick is equal parts "Night of the Living Dead" and "Romeo and Juliet." It's told through the eyes of R, a zombie living in an airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARM BODIES")

NICHOLAS HOULT: (as R) What am I doing with my life? I'm so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What's wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can't I connect with people? Oh, right. It's because I'm dead.

CORNISH: Director Jonathan Levine, welcome to the program.

JONATHAN LEVINE: Thank you very much. Great to be here.

CORNISH: So we hear R there having the kind of internal monologue that I think we've all had in the airport.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Was it about airports that lends itself to, you know, the zombie condition?

LEVINE: I don't know. It was this - in Issac Marion's book, he wrote this wonderful book, and this guy was stuck in this airport, and I thought it was this very clever kind of commentary on commercialism. And there's this other moment in the beginning of the movie when we show all these people in the airport, just kind of on their cellphones, just wandering around, almost bumping into each other. And, you know, to illustrate the point that a lot of people - you can look around an airport today and see a lot of zombies, whether they're brain eaters or not. That there were a lot of people just kind of locked into their own internal boxes. And so, you know, every time I'm in an airport now, it's kind of been ruined for me. It's no fun.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, of course, this movie takes place after, you know, your typical zombie apocalypse...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...where just about everybody is a zombie, except this kind of human population that's squirreled away. But it feels like zombies are this kind of all-purpose metaphor for, like, mindless consumption and lack of will power. And then here you are, using it as a metaphor for adolescence.

LEVINE: Yeah. I mean, you know, and I think that's the great thing about zombies, is, you know, going back to even "Night of the Living Dead," they've always been a tool for kind of holding up a mirror to us and showing us something about ourselves that we might not otherwise know. And I thought the brilliance of this book - and what I wanted to translate into the screenplay - was like, yeah, being a zombie is not that different from being a shy kid. You're trapped in your own body.

Like, this guy thinks he's a total loser, and his internal monologue reflects that. He's totally incoherent and unable to articulate himself in front of this beautiful girl. And, you know, I sort of could identify, and it reminded me of the protagonists in a lot of John Hughes movies that I loved growing up. And I thought it was just such a clever way to address that kind of character in a way I hadn't seen before.

CORNISH: A great example is the scene where R, who's played by the actor Nicholas Hoult who is, by the way, probably the best-looking zombie I've ever seen, I'm going to just say that.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVINE: He's top three. He's...

CORNISH: Yeah. Top three hottest zombies out there.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVINE: Definitely, definitely.

CORNISH: And he's trying to woo Julie, played by Teresa Palmer, and he's trying to - he's making eyes at her, I guess, for lack of a better word.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARM BODIES")

HOULT: (as R) OK. Here we go. Don't be creepy, don't be creepy, don't be creepy.

CORNISH: I don't know anyone who has not thought that...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...while looking at their crush, right?

LEVINE: Absolutely. Yeah. And the voiceover really took a lot of calibration to find that place where it felt like it could just be a guy and a girl. That was something that was really important to me about the movie, was I wanted to - even though it's obviously a zombie in a post-apocalyptic world and all that stuff - I wanted it to kind of - to distill it to the fact that it was a guy and a girl. And we had to kind of calibrate that voiceover to find the right tone a lot. We - I - poor Nick had to come in probably on 20 different occasions and record new versions of voiceover.

CORNISH: It seems like this movie could draw some easy comparisons to, say, "Twilight," you know, where...

LEVINE: Sure.

CORNISH: ...a human girl falls for a kind of monster and, I don't know, warms his heart. I don't know how these things work. For you...

LEVINE: That's about right.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: OK. For you, what do you think of those comparisons? I mean, where is this different?

LEVINE: Well, OK, so I've been dealing with those comparisons for like a month now, and at first, I kind of resented them because I felt like it made us sound like we're some cynical, you know, "Twilight" is over, and now, we're going to get these young girls. And they're all going to watch our movie because they have nothing else to watch, you know, which I thought was, you know, this movie came from such a pure kind of creative place that I felt - I resented that notion.

But now, I'm starting to feel bad for the "Twilight" fans, and I want to defend them because there's this kind of unspoken pejorative thing about it. And I think that for me, it's like the "Twilight fans," you know, and we always said like we'd be lucky to get like a fraction of the fan base that they have; they're so devoted and they're so rabid and loving of these characters that I think you have to respect it. So, I mean, as much as I didn't like the comparison because I felt like it made us sound like some cynical attempt to capitalize on a trend, now I'm a staunch defender of "Twilight" fans everywhere.

CORNISH: Right. And then there's something sort of...

LEVINE: And I'm Team Edward, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I think I know what you mean, though. It seems as though it's dismissive of the fan base of young women and their interests.

LEVINE: Totally. And, you know, whatever your taste is, like there's a lot of people who love those movies, and there's a lot of people incredibly devoted to those movies. And I think it's not nice to them. So Team Edward.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, Jonathan Levine, thank you so much for talking with us. It was a lot of fun.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVINE: That's my last - that's my final statement. Team Edward.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVINE: Yeah. No, thank you so much. Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Jonathan Levine, writer and director of the zombie love story "Warm Bodies." It's in theaters now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.