It has been a long time coming, but Zombieland has finally come back from the dead. The 2009 cult movie went through a number of rumored iterations, including a film sequel, a TV series, and an animated series. It finally landed as a pilot for Amazon Studios. What is different about the Amazon model of programming is that the pilot is online, allowing anyone in America to watch it and leave comments. It is this super-direct focus group mentality that will decide whether more episodes are made.
We spoke with Zombieland writers and creators Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick about the many different versions of their story, what we can expect from a TV series, and what it is like working with Amazon.
It's kind of widely known that Zombieland started as a television pilot. Why don't you give us a little bit of the history of how it began and how it has evolved to where it is now on Amazon?
Rhett Reese: Well we always intended Zombieland to be a television series. And we originally sold a pilot script to CBS back in 2005. They decided not to make it, which was a blessing in disguise because that pilot script we ultimately expanded into the movie Zombieland.
When Zombieland came out and succeeded as it did there was a lot of talk of a Zombieland 2, a sequel. And we tried very, very hard to make that happen. Unfortunately the movie gods didn't smile on us. We had a few key departures and any number of factors that played into Zombieland 2 not happening. At that moment we decided, “Why not go back to our original passion and our original vision,” which was to make Zombieland into a TV series. And we found a partner in Amazon to do that. And now we've brought out the pilot.
How has Amazon been as a partner?
Paul Wernick: Amazon's been just amazing. We really feel they're trailblazing here on the content front, putting their pilots up online and letting the viewers decide. Zombieland is a nontraditional show. Amazon is a nontraditional network and content provider. And we've really had the creative freedom to do what we want, how we want to tell the stories we want to tell. They've given us incredible resources, dollar for dollar, minute for minute. It's really on par with the feature, budget-wise. The feature was shot for $22 million. Dollar for dollar and minute for minute we're really on par with that.
I think the viewer response is great. People are clicking on Zombieland and watching it and loving it. And it's been really fun to watch. It's the ultimate focus group. You put it out there for all of the public to watch and they get to decide whether we move forward or not.
Why bring back the same characters - Tallahassee, Wichita, Little Rock, and Columbus - knowing that you couldn’t get the same cast back, instead of creating a new batch of characters?
RR: I think the biggest reason we brought back these specific characters is, to us, Zombieland really is these characters. Without Tallahassee, Wichita, Little Rock and Columbus I think Zombieland really wouldn't be much more than a title and a tone. It would be like watching The Odd Couple movie and then doing The Odd Couple TV show and not having it be Felix and Oscar, having it be another odd couple of two different people. It just didn't make sense to us. We always loved these characters; they were the reason we wrote the movie in the first place.
It's about a dysfunctional family. It's about a fearless guy paired with a fearful guy. It's about two really live-by-their-wits con artist sisters. And at its heart we just didn't want to stray from that. We didn't want to create a bunch of new characters.
Obviously what that created was this comparison between new cast and old cast which we think is incredibly unfair. Obviously our first cast was tremendous. We had four Academy Award nominees in Zombieland the movie. And it's clearly impossible to replace those actors and the indelible market they left.
That said, there's a long history of parts both on stage and in TV shows that have become movies and movies that have become TV shows going in each direction of parts being played by multiple different actors. That is a precedent that has definitely come long before Zombieland.
We think we found a tremendous cast, people who really captured the essence of the characters without imitating the actors who came before them. And we're very, very proud of them. We just want everyone to give them a chance. Our feeling is if the more time [viewers] spend with them the more they're going to love them and the more they're going to embrace them.
Because of the series format are you planning on exploring a lot of the country?
PW: We do envision this as a road show. We're going to head east and travel towards Detroit, towards the East Coast and Fisher Island to this safe community. So absolutely. We feel that actually going on the road and shooting it on location [is the way to go]. Vegas will hopefully be the next spot we hit and hit spots along the way, like Mt. Rushmore and Graceland. Again, we have to kind of chart it out on a map. This inherently is a road show and I think we ideally would love to take the production on the road.
How does working with Amazon impact the amount of gore that you’re able to show, versus what you can show on a network or in the theaters?
PW: I don't think we got overly gory in the movie. I think we tried to maintain that same level of horror and comedy and heart. We tried to maintain the tone of the movie in the pilot. Amazon’s edict was basically: “Make the show that you want to make. Make Zombieland.” As gore goes, we do see some blood and guts. But that's all part of the tone of the show and something that Amazon encouraged.
Kirk Ward, who plays Tallahassee in the pilot, was originally cast in the role in the network pilot. What is it like working with him post-Woody Harrelson? Did he struggle with interpreting the character?
RR: We worked in Kirk Ward in 2005 on a show called Invasion Iowa with William Shatner. And we fell in love with his talents and him as a person. When we wrote Zombieland as a spec pilot, we were really inspired by Kirk. We intended him to play the part of Tallahassee. We kind of wrote the part to him, based on some of his acting strengths and what he likes to do in his physicality and his sense of humor and things like that. When Zombieland became a movie it was impossible to cast Kirk because, you know, Hollywood wanted a star and they found that star in Woody Harrelson, who was just amazing and awesome. And Woody left a very indelible mark on Tallahassee. But interestingly Tallahassee was never really intended to wear a cowboy hat and to talk with a more rural accent. He was supposed to be from a big city in Florida and was supposed to be Kirk Ward originally. So much of what Woody brought to the role was Woody bringing himself to the role and it was awesome. He created this wonderful Tallahassee that was different from the Tallahassee we had originally envisioned.
When it came time to do the series we had a lot of actors come in to audition. We wanted Kirk and but we had to go through an audition process. We had a lot of actors come in and essentially ape Woody Harrelson. We had a million guys come in with shark tooth necklaces and cowboy hats and T-shirts and jeans and do the southern accent. Our immediate reaction was that that was a mistake. We didn't want an actor to imitate Woody or to try to invoke Woody because we just thought that would have been playing an actor as opposed to playing a character. When we went to Kirk and said, "You've got to come do this," we told him not to try to imitate Woody, not to do a southern accent. We said, "We're not going to put you in a cowboy hat or cowboy boots. We're going to let you be the urban Tallahassee we originally imagined and you just have to be what you originally would have been in the character."
Can you talk a little bit about finding the balance between honoring the movie while keeping the TV series its own entity?
RR: Ultimately we're trying to recreate the movie without imitating the movie if that makes sense. We want to try to capture the tone of the movie which is dramatic, scary and funny - with the emphasis on the funny. We want it to have a heart the way the movie did. We want the relationships to play out similarly to how they were playing out in the movie and how they would have played out in movie sequels, which is a father-daughter relationship that developed between Tallahassee and Little Rock and a romance that developed between Columbus and Wichita.
We're bringing back a lot of elements from the movie like the rules and the zombie kill of the week. We have a lot more of those in store, not just rules and zombie kills of the week, but also a lot of other fun little... I hate to use the word “gimmicks” because it sounds gimmicky, but a lot of different elements that will bring new graphics and new fun runners and jokes that we always had intended to bring in.
I think overall we're not trying to imitate the movie or do exactly what we did in the movie. But we are trying to make it feel like it's from a consistent tone and world.
PW: If you think of Zombieland the brand, think of the movie as the pilot episode of the show. And now we're continuing on and telling more stories. The movie was essentially episodes 1 and 2 of the show put together. And now we're basically hitting the road on episode 2 or episode 3, depending on how you look at it. We're not necessarily trying to emulate it as much as we are just trying to continue to tell that serialized story that we wanted to tell of a dysfunctional family coming together and trying to survive in a world of zombies.
One of the biggest surprises of the film was the Bill Murray cameo. Can we expect more celebrity cameos like that if the show goes to series?
RR: Yes. We will likely see a celebrity cameo down the road. It's tough to predict who it will be because celebrities are notoriously hard to pin down and convince. And their schedules are always difficult and getting them in.
What kinds of zombie “rules” will you have?
RR: Well we're basically using the 28 Days Later model. So our zombies are infected humans who are fast and they're not undead. They're not slow. We are not adhering to some of the previous zombie rules like zombies don't eat other zombies. Obviously you see a zombie eating another zombie in the opening scene of the pilot. You don't have to shoot the zombie in its head in order to kill it. We have a moment where Tallahassee shoots a zombie in the chest and it dies because they're just human beings. They're human beings whose brains have been ravaged to one degree or another by a virus. So I do think that depending on when they got bit you'll see some variation. We'll have some smarter zombies, some stupider zombies.
But beyond that I don't think we're going to get too much into the mythology. Ultimately we hope to be able to lead our heroes to a place that's zombie-free or maybe find a cure or something like that.