Interview: 'Zombieland' Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick


Zombieland is, without a doubt, one of the best movies of the year.  In a world where humanity has devolved into zombie-kind, a ragtag quartet of survivors (Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin) set out across the country to find a new place to call home.  The film is definitely a comedy first, horror movie second, but don’t be mislead: Zombieland may be loaded with violence and gore, but any pants-shitting you do will be from laughter, not fear.  We spoke exclusively with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick about how the project came together.

FEARnet: Where did the inspiration for Zombieland come from?

RR:  Zombies have never been on television.  We were TV writers at the time and thought, "what an opportunity!"  We decided to pursue writing a spec pilot about zombies, in an hour-long format.  It was bought by CBS, but they never made it.  It came back to us and ultimately we expanded it into a feature.

But it works out, because you can get away with more in a feature film.

RR: TV – particularly CBS – definitely would have imposed some restrictions.  Thankfully those restrictions went away when we turned it into a feature.  By virtue of having an R rating, we could drop F-bombs, and put in lots of gore.  It was quite freeing to have it become a movie.

Were you able to get away with more gore and violence because, underneath the rotting flesh exterior, this is a comedy?

RR:  We always felt like this could live in either a PG-13 or an R setting.  It could go either way because it is largely a comedy.  But I think horror fans everywhere demand a certain level of gore and violence and scares, regardless of the fact that it was a comedy.  So we decided to err on the side of an R rating to give it a little more cred with horror fans.  It’s a comedy first and a horror movie second.

Well it definitely is hilarious.  I laughed so hard I gave myself a stomach cramp!

PW: Can we use that quote for the ads?  "Go to Zombieland, get stomach cramps!"

You guys both worked together in TV, but Rhett, you have a lot of children’s films on your resume.  All that time, were you harboring secret ambitions to write Clifford the Big Undead Dog?

RR: My very, very first script was a vampire script, and they always say you can tell by your very first script where your true love lies.  It never got made, but I have always loved horror.  By virtue of writing a fun family script many years ago, I got on a track where Hollywood saw me as a children’s writer, and they slapped the golden handcuffs on me.  I did that for five or six years.  Ultimately, I came full-circle, back to what I love.

Paul, are you a horror fan , too?

PW: Interestingly, I am not.  I am not well versed in the zombie genre.  I was a zombie virgin until this movie.  Rhett and I went to high school together, so we are old, old friends and have been partners for nearly a decade.  We both bring a very unique and differing perspective to the genre.  Me, not having any experience in it at all, and not really being a fan of it up until this point. I looked at this movie more as a road trip story about a dysfunctional family, with the zombies being the thread that brings them all together in these unique, death-defying situations. 

Rhett, did you give Paul a stack of zombie movies and say, “Here, bone up?”

RR: I didn’t really.  I knew enough about that angle that I felt like we were covered there, and I think it is nice to have that perspective from someone who hasn’t seen them.  You are not burdened with the clichés you have seen before.

PW: I was pitching things like, "Let’s bring something fresh to the zombie genre, and they have blood on their face, and they run very disjointedly.  That would be awesome!  No one has ever seen anything like that!"

RR: And of course I would just pat him on the head and say, "It’s nice to have you here."

Can you talk a little bit about the pitch-perfect casting?  Was it easier or more difficult only having four main roles to cast?

RR: I think it made it easier because it shortened the casting process.  Woody was really the lynchpin.  When he got the script, he got it among five or six others.  He said that he looked at the names of each script and promptly put ours on the bottom of the pile, because who would want to be in a movie called Zombieland?  He said it just kept staring at him from his nightstand, and finally he cracked it open.  He ended up loving it.  Talent attracts other talent, so when he decided to do it, as an Academy Award nominee, he gave us a level of credibility that most other movies don’t have.  He attracted Abigail, and Emma, and Jesse – all real hardcore, amazing actors.  Ultimately, we are a zombie movie with multiple Academy Award nominees.  That’s a rarity. 

PW: Not to take anything away from actors in other zombie movies, but I really think we have the best cast of any zombie movie.  It’s such an eclectic group, and such wonderful actors.  The beauty of it  is that, when you bring on actors to a project, you often have to tinker with the script to adjust to the actor, depending on their tastes and what he brings to the role.  We, fortunately, didn’t have to do that.  They were all such wonderful actors and fit so beautifully into the roles that they read the script, fell in love with the characters, and shot the movie pretty much as written.  We couldn’t be more proud or honored.

Patrick Swayze was originally signed on to do a cameo.  Who were some of the other actors you were looking at before the one you ended up going with?

PW: We went through a long list.  It was a difficult process because actors often times don’t like to make fun of themselves or don’t like to play themselves.  Finding the right fit with an actor who was willing and able was difficult.  We were fortunate enough to end up with the best actor we could possibly imagine.  The reason he wasn’t on our list originally is because we thought there was no possible way we could get him. 

RR: The script went out to The Rock, Mark Hamill, Joe Pesci, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Bacon, Jean Claude Van Damme… it was a long list.

PW: And [the script] was tailored to each particular actor. 

RR: There is a draft for every one of those actors.

PW: The drafts started off really mean.  Then as we were having trouble attracting an actor, they got nicer and more reverent as the drafts came along.

None of your characters have actual names, just anonymous nicknames – even the girl in the dorm.  What are you trying to say with this?

RR: We thought that in the world of zombies, it might be a good idea to not become too emotionally attached to someone.  We thought it would be fun to use nicknames instead of real names.  Then we thought that if we did it with our leads, we should do it with our supporting characters, too.  We decided that it would be a really nice emotional moment to have one of the characters reveal her real name as a way of letting another character get close to her.  We’ll probably have fun with that if we do a sequel, too.

Zombie films are notorious for having socio-political messages.  What is yours?

RR:  Hmmm…. There may be a message there, but I think it is more for the audience to decide.  Probably the greatest message would be that home is defined by the people you are with.  Your physical home can be taken away from you, but you will always be home if you are with people who love you.

Being that Zombieland is a zombie comedy, I’m sure you have heard the inevitable comparison to Shaun of the Dead.  Is that okay by you?

PW: We are honored to be mentioned in the same breath as Shaun of the Dead.  It’s a classic – it is so funny and brilliant.  That being said, Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead are two very different movies.  Ours is more grounded in reality, I think.  Theirs is a little more absurd than ours.  But hey, there is room for Star Wars and Star Trek and Alien and all that… I feel like we are the same genre as Shaun, but there is room for both of us in that genre.

What can you tell us about the next piece you are writing, Earth Vs. Moon?

RR:  It is set in the future about 400 years, about a civil war between Earth and a colony on the Moon.  It focuses on a fractured family – some of whom are on Earth, some of whom are on the Moon – who find themselves on opposite ends of the conflict.  It’s epic, and much more serious than Zombieland.  We really freed our imaginations with regards to what the future might look like – in particular what future war and weaponry might look like.  I think we have really created something that no one has seen before.

How far along in the process are you?

PW: We are in the scripting phase.  It is set up at Universal with Scott Stuber attached to produce.  So now it is just making its way through the system.