2013 is off to a pleasantly promising start when it comes to genre films. Just a few weeks after the soulfully spooky Mama, we are now treated to Jonathan Levine’s thoroughly delightful adaptation of Isaac Marion’s beloved novel Warm Bodies. A hilariously self-aware and surprisingly sweet reimagining of the overly familiar “love transforms a monster” trope, Warm Bodies tells the story of a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult), who narrates much of the film from his very unique point-of-view. Although zombiedom has robbed R of his ability to express himself verbally, his thoughts are as articulately human as ever; the film mines quite a bit of humor from this cognitive disconnect.
R spends his days staggering around an abandoned airport with a familiar lineup of other zombies, grunting and pondering what these people were like in life. But R is roused from his undead existential crisis when he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), the daughter of one of mankind’s last great protectors, Grigio (John Malkovich). Julie enters zombie territory on an armed mission along with her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton); it’s love at first sight for R despite the fact that Julie is trying to kill him. When the mission goes haywire and Julie is left behind, R devises a plan to keep her safe from the other zombies in the hopes that she’ll fall in love with him in spite of their, uh, differences.
With its talented buzzy young cast and acclaimed writer/director, it should come as no surprise that Warm Bodies is leagues above the kinds of offerings one normally expects at this time of year. It marks a return to clever suspense films for Levine; after his 2006 cult debut All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, he established himself more broadly as a formidable young filmmaker with two very grounded and personal films, the engaging drama The Wackness and the Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Seth Rogen cancer comedy 50/50. Nicholas Hoult is absolutely sensational as R; the former child star of About A Boy continues transforming himself into a striking adult actor after turns in A Single Man, X-Men: First Class, and the UK series Skins. Teresa Palmer reminds us why she was the best part of I Am Number Four in her kick-ass yet emotionally compelling work as Julie. Dave Franco follows his pitch-perfect turn in last year’s 21 Jump Street with the pivotal role of Perry, and as Nora, Analeigh Tipton puts her past as a second runner-up on America’s Next Top Model even further into her rearview following her breakout role in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.
Spinning Platters recently sat down with Franco, Tipton, and Levine to discuss surviving a zombie apocalypse, the mixed legacy of Sex and the City, and of course, Tipton’s previous life as one of Tyra Banks’ reality TV pawns.
What was the atmosphere like on set? Was it surreal having all these zombies milling around between takes, texting and hanging out at craft services? Did it take some getting used to?
Jonathan Levine: It’s a horrible thing to say, but when I’m on set those people are not even on my radar because I’m focusing on so many things. The background zombies only drew my attention on the rare occasions that they were overdoing it. Most of the time you put someone in zombie makeup, we’d give them parameters, and they were amazing. Just brilliant. So much better than people actually trying to be people as extras. [laughs] But every once in a while you’d get someone being like, “Blaaaaaaagh!”
Dave Franco: Is there anything that got into the movie that just drives you crazy in terms of zombie overacting?
Levine: You know, I caught a few at the very end. You watch it on not the biggest screen when you’re editing, and once we got into color correction I caught a few. On set when I’d see them in the background, I’d say to the assistant director, “Those guys suck!” Usually you just move a couple people politely. Say like, “Can you just move two steps that way?” And then they’re not in the shot anymore. [laughs]
Analeigh Tipton: I’ve met a few journalists who were kind of irritated they didn’t make the cut.
Levine: Yeah, I know. We did this thing where we invited a few journalists to dress up as zombies for the day.
Tipton: And now we’re seeing them in interviews, and [to Franco] I don’t know if you got any of this—
Franco: Oh, a ton!
Tipton: We’ll meet them and they’ll talk about how they got cut from the movie, and then the rest of the interview goes kind of awry. [laughs]
Levine: It’s a double-edged sword. But I’d say most of the background was incredibly cool. I was pretty desensitized to seeing zombies text after the first day.
Franco: Like, you would hope that they’d pull more pranks than they did and just start scaring people.
This reminds me of that episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Dee is cast as a dead extra in a genocide drama, but she thinks it’s a zombie movie and keeps making monster faces at the camera.
Franco: Yeah! I liked that.
Levine: That show’s funny.
So in Warm Bodies, much of the humor comes from the monster being the protagonist and having the story be told from his point of view. Do you think other monster romances would be comedies if told from the monster’s perspective?
Franco: What are you thinking of specifically?
Like, would Twilight be hilarious if it were told from Edward’s perspective rather than Bella’s?
Franco: [quickly] No.
Levine: I think it’s bigger than that, because there’s nothing necessarily inherently funny about having the evil creature be the protagonist. It’s more that that’s the tone of the movie. We’ve decided to embrace and amplify that part of it. There’s a fine line; I don’t like doing anything that takes itself too seriously, but at the same time I want it to be grounded and I don’t want it to be like, “Hey, we’re winking!” So I think that tone, which came from the book and all these guys brought to it, is what gives the humor to it. But in Isaac’s book, even the character that Nick’s playing understands that there’s something funny about his inability to articulate himself.
In the event of a zombie apocalypse, do you think you’d die immediately, be a midpoint cautionary tale death, or emerge triumphant at the end?
Franco: I’m dead pretty quick, I think. I’m going for the hills. I’m the Legolas where I’m just picking people off from up top, and once I’m out of arrows I’m just hiding until they find me.
Levine: You have arrows?
Franco: I have arrows.
Levine: How’d you get arrows?
Franco: Don’t worry about that.
Obviously he can’t tell you.
Levine: Analeigh’s gonna live the longest. She’s an outdoors woman.
Tipton: I would throw puns at them and confuse them. Or spread rumors and make them turn on each other.
Levine: I’m dead. I lack basic survival skills. Not to get dark, but I might just [kill myself]. Like, if there was even a hint of it, like if I saw on the news… Like, that [bath salts] guy in Miami? I was like, “They’re coming for me, man! It’s only a matter of time!” My girlfriend had to talk me down. [laughs]
Franco: What about you?
I’m sure it would be almost immediate. And I’m pretty certain I’d then become one of those zombies that just loiters on the periphery and no one bothers killing because I’m just grunting in solitude.
Franco: Sure. You’d be one of those zombies that Jonathan tells to move two feet out of the shot.
Tipton: And being a zombie, it really depends where you are. Like if you’re a zombie and you happen to end up in Fiji?
A beach zombie.
I would be okay with that.
Levine: I’m gonna be a beach zombie in a couple weeks! Get a couple Mai Tais… [laughs]
So in the film, R takes Julie to his plane in the hopes that she’ll fall in love with him there. If you had to pick a place to take someone to make them fall in love with you, where would you take them?
Franco: One of my favorite spots in L.A. is this little park called Barnsdall Park. It’s between Hollywood and Los Feliz, just this little patch of grass up on a hill. You can see everything: the Observatory, downtown. It’s a very small patch of grass, but when it’s hot out it’s always ten degrees cooler up there and no one’s ever there.
Levine: I’ll go with the Brooklyn Bridge. Just the standard New York…
Sex and the City…
Levine: Sex and the City, yeah. Steve and Miranda meet there in the first movie, right?
And then Liz meets Peter Dinklage there on 30 Rock.
Levine: Oh, that’s right. So my original idea was not even in an episode of Sex and the City, but the shitty movie. [laughs] I was just watching some episodes of that show on a plane, and that show was legitimately good!
The movies have kind of tarnished the legacy.
Levine: They totally have!
Franco: How about that new prequel show [The Carrie Diaries]?
Yes, that is definitely a thing that’s happening.
Levine: [laughs] Analeigh, what’s your falling-in-love place?
Tipton: You know, I’m not quite sure I’ve found one.
Franco: Has anyone taken you anywhere that’s romantic?
Tipton: Laser tag. That’s always fun. Actually no, there’s a really cool place downtown where you have to climb up and kind of break in. I like breaking in places to fall in love. Something illegal…
Analeigh’s character Nora gives R a human makeover because Julie is in love with him and he needs to pass in public. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to help a friend in a romantic dilemma?
Levine: To help things, I generally try to bring two people together and involve a lot of alcohol.
And things seem less crazy once you’re drinking?
Levine: Yeah, it definitely loosens things up. It’s good. So I’ll just generally try to get people blackout drunk, both of them…so there’s no question of consent. [laughs] Jesus Christ.
Nothing to remember, nothing to regret.
Franco: My friends and I would actually do the opposite. I remember my buddy was going on a date with this girl we were very surprised he was going on a date with, so we decided we needed to trail them throughout the date. They caught us spying on them; they came out of the driveway and there was ten of us hiding behind this bush. And we just kinda got up, didn’t really say anything, and just walked the other way. [laughs] Ten people piling into a couple of cars.
Levine: So you were watching them just because you were baffled that they would go out?
Franco: Yes, and we wanted to see how it would play out. Also, we were very fucked up. [laughs] So alcohol is involved either way.
Tipton: I had a friend that used to hang pin-up girl posters on his wall, and his wife’s fantasy was to wear red high-heel shoes and transform into one of these pin-up girls. She’s in her early 50s and it was on her bucket list to do this photo. So I made a video of her transforming into “Dorothy” and wearing these red high-heel shoes and doing this very cute little pin-up thing…
Levine: That’s a really good answer! [pause] So then did they go fuck, or…
Tipton: They’re a really awesome couple. I don’t know what they did, I wasn’t there when they watched the video.
Levine: They were on their own?
Levine: That’s good. That’s amazing! That’s nicer than anything I’ve ever done for anyone.
Analeigh, in the film you get to engineer R’s makeover. Did you consciously channel Tyra or think about your own Tyra makeover? Because I felt a little bit of that coming through in your performance.
Tipton: Did you?
I did, and I liked it. I responded to it well.
Tipton: You know, Tyra taught me something very important. That my nose was… in her words, I have a “black girl’s nose.” So she always taught me how to sculpt [with makeup] so I wouldn’t have a “wide nose.” Her words! So I didn’t want Nick to feel self-conscious about having any kind of wide or uncomfortable-looking body parts, and…maybe you caught some of that? [pause] I hope that was worded so poorly that it doesn’t make any sense, because I feel like there could just be a lot of bad stuff in there.
Levine: I think you just said something racist. [laughs]
Sorry guys, but the movie’s gonna get lost in all the controversy over what Analeigh just said.
[Tipton puts her face in her hands]
Levine: I totally forgot about this! Now I want to rent it! Like, is this on DVD?
Tipton: Oh, you can find it…
Franco: Yeah, we totally gotta see it!
Tipton: No you don’t, because I was such a rainbow, unicorn-loving, bright-eyed…
Levine: But you’re in every episode?
She was top three, this one!
Levine: You made it to the top three?
Levine: Dude, I gotta watch this.
You were on the most marathoned non-Law & Order show in syndication. Does it haunt you? Like, do you see your cycle when you’re flipping through the channels, or get avalanched with tweets every time it’s on?
Tipton: Yes. It’s just weird because people forget, like… How were you guys five or six years ago? I was just 18 or 19…
Levine: I was actually cooler 5 or 6 years ago. [laughs] But I understand! It’s gotta be nerve-wracking.
Tipton: I was not cooler. I was much less… I was just different. And it’s tricky to be like, “No, that’s not…”
Levine: Now I really have to watch this! I’m really excited about this! But it’s not reflective of who you are?
Tipton: I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe I just don’t want it to be. [laughs] Even sadder.
Warm Bodies opens nationwide today.