Marc Forster explains why his vision of World War Z is not the book and how your imagination will make it scarier than anything he could put on screen.
What’s an A-list movie star like Brad Pitt doing in a zombie movie?
That’s the big question surrounding World War Z, the much-debated big-screen feature adapted from the popular Max Brooks novel and directed by Quantum of Solace helmer Marc Forster. “It’s kind of cool,” admits Forster, noting it’s basically Pitt — who also serves as a producer — saying, “‘Why do another big action movie when you could do a big, end-of-the-world movie with zombies?’”
When Geek suggests that such Hollywood stars as Paul Newman and Robert Redford probably wouldn’t have done something like this at the height of their popularity, Forster replies with a smile, “That’s what makes Brad more iconic.”
Upon their first meeting, Forster says he and Pitt were on the same page about how to make the novel (its official title is “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War”) translate into a big studio tent-pole film. “We all had an incredible passion to do the same thing, which is to give people something new and fresh that they haven’t seen before,” says Forster. “Obviously the book doesn’t lend itself to a filming narrative, because it’s more episodic storytelling. So we had to change the film into a narrative structure, which is a challenge unto itself.”
It wasn’t too long ago that zombies were the black sheep of the horror genre, as only true fans gravitated to the George A. Romero series of films while mainstream audiences stayed away from their often over-the-top, gory and unrated feasting.
But things have changed, no doubt fueled by the success of the 2002 sleeper hit 28 Days Later and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, with the living dead sub-genre hitting an apex with AMC’s mega-successful The Walking Dead. Zombies are suddenly hip, cool and — strangely — mainstream, which doesn’t really make it too far fetched that Pitt would want to do a movie like this.
However, World War Z is certainly a different kind of zombie movie. The film was made with a PG-13 rating in mind and shares more DNA with a big studio action disaster movie than the kind of gruesome, flesh-eating action that The Walking Dead indulges in. “I had to keep that in mind: less gore, more intensity,” says Forster. “People’s visualization might be stronger than the gore. You just play a lot of it off screen.”
It’s early April, and Forster is busy prepping World War Z for a June release. Before our interview officially begins, the filmmaker shows Geek a special 15-minute highlight reel featuring a pretty incredible opening zombie attack sequence in Philadelphia and a scene from later in the movie that culminates with the big zombie pyramid currently showcased in the trailers and on the latest movie poster.
The footage is impressive-looking and unlike that seen in any other zombie film to date. There’s a documentary style to it, and it’s fascinating to watch a movie star like Brad Pitt playing family man Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator trying to stop the zombie apocalypse before it’s too late.
After the screening, Forster pops into the Paramount Pictures screening room to chat before he hops on a plane to London for scoring sessions for the film with composer Marco Beltrami.
While he’s best known for his dramatic independent films, including Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, the director has traversed the big franchise playground before with the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. And Forster is excited about his new film, though he’s very conscious that fans of Brooks’ 2006 book have been watching him closely throughout the lengthy World War Z production — especially since liberties had to be taken to turn the novel into a linear feature film. “You want to make a zombie movie that’s original, but you also don’t want to remake one of the old George Romero films,” he says. “You want to do something that hasn’t been done before, but stick within the framework of the zombie world.”
The argument of fast versus slow zombies has been a bone of contention among purists (in the book, they’re the slow kind), yet Forster says there’s a methodology to his Z creations that mixes the best of both worlds: “Ultimately, when they get triggered, they start to move; when there’s no feeding frenzy or nothing to feed on or bite, they’re just stagnant and move slowly.”
One of the most important things that he cribbed from Romero was using zombies as a metaphor for a much larger story, similar to the original Dawn of the Dead’s shopping mall-situated satire on mindless consumerism. “My metaphor here would be overpopulation, going after the last [of Earth’s] resources,” says Forster. “We’re seven billion people now; we’re going to be 10 billion in 2015, and there are less and less resources. That’s sort of going back to nature and the thinking that the key moment is in the bite.”
Forster also looked to science — specifically epilepsy research — to inspire his Z creations. “You don’t have control of your limbs anymore and start to move differently because you’re this shell of yourself; you have no boundaries,” he adds. “I looked at that and I thought everything out very concretely and made a test and how they would attack with the mouth first. I conformed all these different elements in nature and biology. Animals have very primal behavior patterns and that was put into the Z ideology.”
Even though the Mayan calendar was wrong and the world didn’t end last December, it hasn’t stopped Hollywood from mining this end-of-the-world hysteria for stories. The success of The Walking Dead and other apocalyptic films due out this year — including the comedies This Is the End and The World’s End — seem to prove it.
Isn’t is a bit ironic that our popular culture fixates so intensely on the end of days? That’s something Forster says is cyclical. “Every time a culture goes through a time of change, people have those thoughts and this sort of philosophy and psychology and storytelling become very prevalent,” he explains. “[Right now] we do not have enough resources and the economies around the world aren’t very stable, so there’s a huge amount of fear and uncertainty. Whenever there is uncertainty in a culture, you think the end might be near and it brings these kinds of stories. I think it happened in the early ’70s and it’s happening now. And as we hopefully go into a new time, hopefully it will change again.”
Surprisingly, despite choreographing the elaborate end of civilization with World War Z, Forster insists he’s more of a glass-half-full guy. “I’m an optimist,” he says. “I always believe everything will turn out, and even if some of my films are dark, there’s always a glimmer of hope. World War Z has a glimmer of hope. At the end, it’s the personal journey of overcoming your own demons, and that’s the journey that interests me.”
Now that the German-born and Swiss-raised Forster has proven himself capable of seamlessly navigating both the independent and franchise film worlds, he says he’ll continue doing both as a director. And though the financial stakes are higher with something like World War Z, the plus side is that he gets to play with all the best cinematic toys. “As a filmmaker on this kind of scale, you can really explore every kind of technique and create scenes on a mass scale,” he describes. “It’s exhausting and tiring, but you can do something you could never afford or even dream of doing otherwise. For weeks, we shot thousands of extras, trying to create mass hysteria. We were shooting in Glasgow for Philadelphia, Malta for Israel and we were shooting on an aircraft carrier. It’s challenging every day. And every day, you ask yourself, ‘How can I get through the day?’ It’s relentless. With smaller films, you can be a little more relaxed, ‘Oh, I have a scene with two characters talking.’ You don’t have the schedule or time, and you’re pressed with that, but it’s different than having suddenly 1,000 people in a scene and a camera breaks down or the helicopter doesn’t show up. You just have to keep going.”
In terms of what’s next, Forster isn’t sure, but he emphasizes the most important element for him is always the story. “Whether it’s small or big, it doesn’t matter, first the story has to speak to me,” he admits. “That’s the key.”
What would Marc Forster bring to a desert island if there were a zombie apocalypse?
- “You always need water.”
- “There are certain kinds of food I would love to take with me. I love pasta. I would take good Italian pasta, greens, vegetables and fruits. I would be happy on a desert island with lots of food and water. And maybe some wine.”
- “Company. You want to take some great people with you that you love to hang out with.”
- “Then there’s the entertainment part — music, art and films you want to take with you as well.”
- And the one zombie film he would take along?
“I’d have to go with the Romero original [Night of the Living Dead]. It’s the birth of zombies, and because he’s the grandfather, you should go with that.”