Interview with Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer

Though I am not allowed to give a full review yet I can safely say to you that Zombieland freakin’ rocks! This Zom-com is directed by Washington, D.C. native Ruben Fleischer and is about a post-apocalyptic zombie world starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin.  Fleischer began his career as an assistant to Miguel Arteta on Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. From there he spent two years making a slew of low-budget music videos, short films, and other experiments and in his own words put himself embarrassingly deep into credit card debt. Eventually he got signed to a production company where he was able to direct commercials and bigger budget music videos. Ruben got his big break when he met Rob & Big Black, with whom he created and developed Rob & Big, which became a hit reality television show on MTV for three successful seasons. Zombieland is Rubens’ first feature film.

Mike Sargent: Ruben, welcome to

Ruben Fleischer: Hi there, Mike!

MS: So, we were just talking prior about how this project came to you. I admitted to you that I didn’t expect to like this film—I thought, “we’ve seen enough zombie films.” I’ve even seen comedy zombie films …but I was blown away.

RF: That’s nice to hear! You know, when I read the script—I think Woody and Jesse and everybody who first gets it, you see the title, and you see “Zombieland” and you’re like, “Oh no…is this something that I really want to do?” But as soon as you start reading it, it’s just so compelling and the characters were just so clearly drawn and the humor’s so funny…I mean, Rhett (Reese) and Paul (Wernick) who wrote the script are just immensely talented and they created a very original world, so as a first-time director approaching a project and wanting to really show what I can do and make an imprint for defining my career, I was so excited by the opportunities that this script presented, just because it really has a lot of comedy, obviously there’s a zombie element, there’s a big action component, and then I thought the relationship stuff between Jesse and Emma’s characters was really sweet, and so there was just a lot to play with. So when I go into it, I figured that it could be more than just another zombie comedy, and just ultimately be a story about these people and their relationships, and by focusing on that and trying to keep it grounded, maybe it could transcend people’s associations that they have with traditional zombie films or zombie comedies.

MS: Well, there are a number of things about the film that I really enjoyed; there’s an overall feeling of creativity, that as much as you can jam into one scene, into one shot, whether it’s the titles, the rules, you do. How much—in terms of what you’ve done with “Rob & Big” and TV and doing comedy—how much of that helped inform what you did here?

RF: Well, I really think the thing that informed it most was my music video background. I’ve done a lot of stuff with motion graphics in the past, and obviously music videos are inherently visual, and so I tried to bring that aspect to the film. I mean, I love comedy, and I’ve always tried to do things that were funny, but what this film allows was a very visual component that maybe a traditional, straightforward comedy wouldn’t allow. Yeah, I just was really excited, with my first feature, to really show what I can do, and so I used every opportunity, I worked with a lot of really talented people that raised the bar… I mean, the titles and the rules that you responded to were done by this company called Logan. I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time, so getting to work for them was an exciting thing for me, and I think that it’s one of the signatures of the film and I really have them to thank for it because they brought them to life and made them so dynamic. I think the filmmakers that I love are ones that cross genres and do different thinks, the way that David O. Russell can do something like Flirting With Disaster but then go do Three Kings which is like an incredibly visual film—that’s a huge reference point, Spike Jonze is one of my all-time favorite directors, and I love his music video work as well as his feature work, and he always makes things so visually interesting that I just wanted to be in the same playing field as them and try to do whatever I could to elevate the material and make it as cool, and something I would want to watch if I were going to go see the movie.

MS: Well, I think you definitely succeeded. Now I’m curious—in the script there’s what I would call inspired lunacy in there, and because it has so many moments like that, maybe you could give me an example of something that was in the script and what you brought to it that made it more of a Ruben Fleischer film, than just this great script…because we’ve all heard the notion of the bulletproof script, and we all know there’s no such thing. (laughter)

RF: Well, I guess one thing that I love, and it seems like people who’ve gone to see the film like a lot, too, is the opening credit sequence, and that was in the script—I can’t remember if it was defined as slow motion or if it was just kind of a montage of people getting attacked; it wasn’t even really intended as the opening credits, it was just kind of like a montage…and I really wanted to expand it and make it visually dynamic and use it as an opportunity to both convey the storytelling of the moment that the outbreak happened, when zombies first really attacked in scale, as well as just have it be a backdrop for the opening titles which you’ve got to include in a film, and so I just wanted to make it as cool-looking as possible, and I’d seen some stuff shot with the phantom camera which is a digital camera that shoots 1000 frames a second, and it’s captivating…you can shoot a leaf falling from a tree, or actually, one of the coolest things you can see shot at a 1000 frames per second is a water-balloon getting punctured. You can look at it on YouTube- it’s like one of the coolest things you’ve ever seen. But anyway, I thought it would be really cool to see zombies attacking people in super slo-mo, and so we designed a lot of scenarios that were full of action, just could instantly, in one shot, tell a complete story, and tried to include as many elements as possible. Then Logan designed that incredible relationship, with the people interacting with the type, bashing into the type in slow motion, which is so cool. Yeah, I guess we made a meal out of it, and then getting Metallica for the song just brought it to a whole different level, because to have a zombie movie kick off with “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, I think it just really defines the film and says, “We’re here, we mean business.”

MS: Right—I agree 100%! Well, one of the other things I really enjoyed about the movie, both in what you did and in the script, is it does the things that you always thought in a zombie movie, “I would wanna do this if the end of the world had come!” and it really does do that. Now, without giving away one of the main plot elements, there’s a brilliant, inspired cameo in there; without naming names, tell me a little bit about how that came together…

RF: Yeah, that was hard. I mean, in the script, it was always scripted as a celebrity cameo, and we had various celebrities that we did drafts for, who were either involved or not involved, or fell in or fell out—really it was up to the last minute, we didn’t have anyone, and Woody made a call and we got, I think probably the most memorable part of the film literally two days before shooting. It really is, I think, my favorite and the audience’s favorite, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it, because to me it’s epic just to have the involvement that we had and I’m thrilled by it, and I think audiences. It’s something that, again, if I were to hear about, I would want to go see that movie.

MS: Sure, just for that scene alone…another thing is, you mentioned your music video experience. In a music video, you have to tell a lot of story in a short amount of time, because you may be cutting back to the band or there’s some B-story going on, you have to cram so much in, so I can definitely see where that came in. I’m also curious what kind of research you did. Because the comedy’s there, it’s dead-on, and that’s timing, that’s editing and all that, but the effects, how you did the zombies—that’s all pretty scary, too.

RF: Yeah, I mean, I’m not a—or I wasn’t, I should say, a zombie fan in approaching the film, and I’m not a horror guy, I’m definitely way more of a comedy guy, and so I was really nervous that…I was insecure, I guess, that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on the zombie component of it because it just isn’t my background or taste, and so I was very diligent about watching every single zombie movie I could, and researching sort of like the history of zombie films from the transition from Romero’s original zombies to these more modern zombies that Danny Boyle and Zach Snyder portrayed in their films. As scripted, they were always going to be fast zombies, but I wanted to be sure that they looked right, so I hired Tony Gardner, who worked on “Thriller” and Evil Dead II and Return of the Living Dead to design the zombies’ makeup, and worked really hard as far as defining the movement of the zombies—we had zombie workshop classes…we filmed essentially a training video on how the zombies should move that all the extras had to watch—

MS: Is that on YouTube?

RF: (laughs) No, maybe it’ll be on the DVD. But we really defined how our zombies moved, and then all the extras that came through had to watch it so that everybody was moving in the same way…although if you watch the film, you’ll be very aware that they’re not (laughter). And yeah, I also just wanted to make sure the history of the disease in our storytelling, where it came from and how it started and how it manifests and everything like that…I appreciate you saying that you thought it was well represented because I really did work hard to try and make sure that nobody could call bullshit on it, basically—I really wanted it to be good and satisfy the zombie audience.

MS: Well, now as a de facto zombie expert with all the research—because I have to say it sounds like a documentary (laughter), “The History of Zombie Films”—I’m curious what were some of the things that you noticed in seeing them that were consistent, and/or things that you said, “You know, I need to have this, because this works”?

RF: Well, I think that there’s a real appreciation among zombie films for the more creative the kill you can make it, the better, and actually I kind of regret that there’s so much gun-blasting in the amusement park—I wish we’d had more of the rides wiping them out—but that’s certainly something that in the opening rules sequence, like when we tell about double-tap, and our seatbelts I think is such a cool stunt. But I think that zombie films have a real love for creative kills. I think that no matter how scary zombie movies are, there’s always an underlying sense of humor, in a way that maybe vampire movies take themselves really seriously, I think that every zombie movie, even Romero with his Hare Krishna zombies, or Zach Snyder, there always is an underlying current of humor, and so I guess we just really pushed the humor button a little bit harder than the scary button. Zombie fans, I think, are also really devoted to the movies that they love, and hopefully they’ll like this movie, too.

MS: As a storyteller, what do you see as—what has been debated a lot as the sort of allegory of zombies, what do you see it as?

RF: I honestly don’t have a great answer for that question; I mean, I think that the sort of answer that I’ve read about, that seems like the generally held perception is that zombies represent anxiety about the future, and the state of the country. In the late sixties is when Night of the Living Dead first came out, and it was supposed to represent people’s anxiety about the war and politics at that time; and then again in the early eighties there were a slew of zombie movies because of the recession and Reagan and worries about that, and definitely we’re currently in an economic recession and I think people have anxiety. But I don’t make a real connection between that and zombies, I don’t know what it is…for our movie we tried to tie into real anxiety about things that are happening now, like pandemics, the way that Swine Flu was such a big deal, and Avian Flu was such a big deal, and then also Mad Cow Disease, which we even reference by name in the movie, I think people do have a lot of concern about all the things that have been pumped into animals and food-source supplies and contamination and uncertainty about that, and so we tried to make it less allegorical and more, I guess, real.

MS: I’ve always felt zombie movies cross a line between horror and science fiction, because there’s always the science fiction concept to how it happened, but what happens falls into horror. What are your thoughts? Do you see it more horror, science fiction, or do you see it as a hybrid?

RF: I think, a hybrid; in ours there’s not too much science fiction, that I’m aware of. It’s really this hypothetical scenario that a pandemic happened, and that a virus spread quickly, and that almost all the world was contaminated by the disease and then became zombies and there are just a few survivors. So I guess if that’s science fiction, then that would be the science fiction component of it, but the horror is the reality of dealing with zombies once they’re there.

MS: Last question: brilliant cast. Did you read it saying, “I’d like this person, that person,” were there any people in mind when you read it at first?

RF: I really got all my first choices. Woody was definitely my first choice that I ever thought of, he so far exceeded any expectations I think anyone has, I think he’s just so amazing in the film, and it’s a return to form for him in a way that we haven’t seen him in awhile. I’ve watched the movie thousands of times and I still delight in his every nuance, and he’s just the most charismatic, captivating guy to watch onscreen, just so funny. And then Jesse’s somebody I’ve been a fan of—I think I first saw him in The Squid and the Whale, but I went back and watched Roger Dodger and a bunch of his other movies, and I have immense respect for his work. He literally is the character—what was on the page and who he is as a person are just so closely tied that there wasn’t really anyone else that we could consider. And then with Emma, I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time, but I think we’re getting to see her in a way that we haven’t seen her before, which is really exciting. And then Abigail, when it was scripted as an eleven-year-old kid, the dream was always, “Well, Abigail Breslin, but we won’t get her,”  and then somehow we actually did, and she just completely holds her own with these other adults, and I think shows a different side to her than what we’ve seen in Nim’s Island and Kit Kittredge, she just really grows up a little bit in this film, which I think is fun for audience’s because she’s so beloved by her fanbase, hopefully they’ll be excited to see her take it in a new direction and step up and be part of something a little bit more R-rated and crazy. I mean, of course she’s known for Little Miss Sunshine, which I think was her defining role, but she maybe has done something a little more offbeat since then , and I think people will be really excited to see her in this.

MS: I think so, too. Well, I think you’ve created a classic.

RF: (laughs) Thank you! Alright, I really appreciate it, Mike.

Mike Sargent is a nationally quoted film critic for WBAI-FM in NYC. His late night radio show Web site is: If Mike gets bit by a zombie and lives he hopes someone will shoot him before he turns.


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