Are you thinking Warm Bodies is Twilight with zombies? Or how about Twilight meets Shaun of the Dead? Let’s nix both concepts right away because that most certainly is not the case. And that assessment isn’t just coming from someone who’s a big-time fan of the book and truly believes it’s the fresh young adult supernatural romance we’ve been waiting for; it’s also coming straight from the Warm Bodies director, Jonathan Levine, and his cast.
While hanging out in a dilapidated waiting room on the Warm Bodies set at the Montréal-Mirabel International Airport, Levine laughs and notes, “I’ve read some things on the Internet that say it’s Twilight meets Shaun of the Dead, which, to me, sounds like the worst f***ing movie I’ve ever heard.” And remember that all-too-familiar-looking first promotional image of Teresa Palmer’s human character, Julie, cozying up to Nicholas Hoult’s zombie, R? Palmer actually doesn’t quash the connection to Twilight, but rather embraces it. “Look, I have to say, it’s very flattering that people are comparing our film to Twilight.” She adds, “If we have even half the level of success of that movie, I think we’d all be very happy, but having said that, it’s such a different film. It’s almost a little darker, a little edgier. I understand that there’s a relationship between the mortal and the immortal, but apart from that, that’s where the comparisons really should end because it is its own different story.”
The story comes from the mind of author Isaac Marion, and rather than tell the tale from the perspective of zombie-apocalypse survivors, Marion’s protagonist is a member of the living dead. R behaves like a zombie – eating flesh, grunting and lumbering around – but deep down, a piece of his human self lives and, thanks to the spark that ignites between R and Julie, that piece starts to grow.
Hold on there! Don’t go all Twilight on Warm Bodies just yet. Hoult may make for some wonderful supernatural eye candy, but there are layers to his relationship with Julie, layers that don’t only define their connection, but everything and everyone around them. Of R, Palmer explains, “He’s stuck in this world where he can’t express his feelings, but he listens to Frank Sinatra, he’s a romantic and he’s just trying to shine through his decaying flesh.” Hoult may be Warm Bodies’ main man, but he gives R’s other half the credit she deserves. “Teresa’s a fantastic actress and is always full of energy, and having great ideas, is fun to be around and just brings the character of Julie to life.” And that’s really the ultimate compliment for someone responsible playing the living half of a big-screen couple. Hoult also jokes, “And she’s very good at learning her lines because she has pages of dialogue whilst I grunt.”
It sounds funny, but the zombie grunt is no joke. Hoult explains, “I’ve got the challenge to play a character that can’t really communicate through speech particularly well, but also someone who feels trapped and wants to regain his humanity as best as possible.” He adds, “It’s just that feeling of being tired and wanting to connect with someone, but not being able to so we kind of worked on the more difficult sounds, how you form them in your mouth, kind of like someone who’s had a head trauma or something trying to learn how to speak again.” Rob Corddry, who plays R’s best buddy, M, elaborates, “They’re actually trying to say words so it’s more of a struggle to get a word out, and it just usually doesn’t work.” As the film’s primary source of comedic relief, Corddry also gets a laugh and recalls, “Today we just shot a scene, which is about five minutes of grunting.”
Perhaps Palmer’s mother could show Hoult and Corddry a thing or two when it comes to the art of the zombie grunt. “I remember reading the lines with my mom in February,” Palm remembers. “My mom was being R in the audition and she was groaning and making all these weird noises. It was just the worst possible zombie impersonation I’ve ever heard!”
So now the big question is: how do you swing selling a lead character, all of his layers and intense emotions when he can’t even talk? The answer in Marion’s book is narration and that transitions to voiceover in the film version. Yes, voiceover does have a bit of bad rap, but before raising any red flags, hear Levine out. He admits, “We have a lot of voiceover,” but also highlights their plan to spice it up. “We’ve done some clever things with the style of the movie and with graphics.” If you’ve read the book, you might be thinking of those renderings of parts of the human body that decorate the first page of each chapter, but Levine describes what he’s got as, “Almost like Fight Club in a way where it kind of does these graphical things that kind of illustrate expository points.” He adds, “I’m not as afraid of voiceover as a lot of people are. I think it’s a really nice tool sometimes. So it’s exciting to be able to use Isaac’s voiceover and put it over these amazing images.”
Graphics or no graphics, Levine’s got some great imagery to work with thanks to the set design alone. Now that the Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is no longer a working airport, the Warm Bodies crew had the run of the entire facility. Corddry notes, “I’m always fascinated by these lost places. We shot in the Olympic Stadium, too, which is where the Expos used to play, and it’s just like this really ugly, empty, waste of money, and it fascinates me for all the reasons a place like this can fail and that here we are.” He jokes, “I can just walk through security and not get hassled. I can walk right to baggage claim if I want.”
Picture a location like a rundown airport or Olympic Stadium and fill it with zombies. Now picture those zombies having an all-out brawl in said rundown location. While we didn’t get to see any of that action while on set, Hoult assures, “Lots of the action stuff comes later on towards the [end of the] story.” In fact, some of the material had already been shot and the experience wasn’t easy on Palmer. “There’s that whole end sequence in the film where we’re getting chased by [the Bonies], we’re chasing them, a huge fight breaks out, and there’s a ton of running.” She recalls, “The first day I was fine, I was sprinting, running as fast as I possibly could, and then the second day it was sort of a joke. I could not walk. I couldn’t even walk out of my trailer.” She jokes, “I thought I’d be fine. I was like, “Hey, I was Number Six in my last movie. I know how to fight!’”
Not only did Hoult have to struggle with the physicality of the film’s action sequences, but he also had to keep in mind that, unlike Palmer, he wasn’t playing human; R’s a zombie and in Warm Bodies, zombies don’t run. In the midst of their big chase scenes, Hoult had to play R as though “you haven’t slept, or when you’re on your way back from the pub and you’ve had a few more drinks than you should have and you kind of stammer a little and you’re real tired and there’s nothing really to give.” On the other hand, R is changing and Hoult notes, “There’s a bit of fight left in him so it’s just kind of that thing of not suddenly turning into an action hero and being able to fight like a zombie still, and running.” While Hoult and Palmer battle zombies on-screen, Corddry is busy picking fights with his human costars off set. Corddry jokes, “We have rumbles, we have races to the food lines, we give ‘em hotfoots. You know what a hotfoot is? You put a lit match in between their toes.”
Funny thing about the film’s funny man? He’s a serious worker. In fact, Corddry says he often takes his work too seriously. “I tend to maybe over-prepare, and I always write a bio and do way too much. I think it used to get in my way.” Lucky for him, in the case of Warm Bodies, he plays a zombie and none of the zombies can remember a thing about their human lives. Then again, there’s no harm in messing around and wondering where M might have come from. Of a scene he just shot with Hoult, Corddry explains, “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you meet my character doing some semblance of what he used to do all the time so it’s strangely and mysteriously familiar to him, but he can’t figure out why?” He continues, “I’m sitting at the bar just staring at a bottle of alcohol like, ‘This used to mean something to me, what is it?’ And that’s also like a nod to the typical best friend in movies, you know, the partier, ‘Hey, main character, come with me, nothing bad can happen! Do that stupid thing!’”
If you’ve seen the film’s trailers, you know Warm Bodies comes with a good deal of fun and games, but Levine is quick to point out, “I think the one thing that’s important for people to know is that the tone of the film is not tongue in cheek, it’s not comedic like that.” Levine adds, “It’s much more serious than that and much more grounded than that, and when there is humor, it’s within the context of the world.” And get ready because that world could be dark. To develop his dystopian future, Levine looked at films like Children of Men, I Am Legend and 28 Days Later.
Levine also lines his movie up with the aforementioned by upping the gore. There’s one particularly intimate scene during which R chows down on a very special human brain and Levine admits, “We go pretty hard, man. We want it to be PG-13 because we think that it’s a movie that, at its heart, has a lot of heart and there’s no reason to turn away people with the gore.” However, those with a soft spot for carnage should keep an eye out for an unrated DVD because Levine has high hopes for a “director’s unrated gory version.”
But in the meantime, the theatrical cut of Warm Bodies really could be something to look forward to. Corddry notes, “I can’t really think of a scene that I don’t like.” He laughs and confesses, “When you do a movie you’re always like, ‘Ugh, I wish [they’d cut] this scene. I hate it.’ This movie, really, every scene is pretty cool.” Palmer also only has the best to say about production. “It’s been the most seamless film that I’ve worked on yet in terms of building friendships and relationships and working relationships, obviously. It’s just been really nice, so it’s a blessing.” Hoult also brings up the key that should make Warm Bodies a special piece in a market oversaturated with teen supernatural romances: “I trust Jonathan and everyone involved to make this something different. Considering the promotional material that’s gone public thus far, perhaps we should, too.