Director Jonathan Levine is a genre guy. But he's never told it straight.
UNDEAD Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies.
His breakout film, The Wackness (2008), is a coming-of-age story, yes. But it focuses on a young marijuana dealer (Josh Peck) trading weed for the counsel of a psychiatrist on the brink (Ben Kingsley). And while 50/50 (2011) is a bromance of sorts, it could just as easily be called a "cancer comedy."
For his latest project, the director is engaged in a bit of fusion — merging zombie flick and romantic comedy (zom-rom-com!) with Warm Bodies, based on the novel by Isaac Marion about a young, tortured undead who strikes up a friendship with the girlfriend of one of his victims.
Levine, who graduated from Brown University in 2000, will be back on campus January 27 for a 6 pm screening of Warm Bodies at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, followed by a discussion of the film.
I caught up with him by phone in Miami, one of several stops on a promotional tour. The interview is edited and condensed.
SO HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU UTTERED THE PHRASE "ZOM-ROM-COM" IN THE LAST FEW DAYS? You know, I don't really say it. We started testing the movie and people were kind of coining it themselves and I figured I would leave it to other people to feel like they discovered it. I don't like to put things in boxes — even if it's a box of three different things. It always feels reductive or whatever. But I'm glad they all rhyme. I hope it becomes a new genre. I'd love to see Kate Hudson start doing some work in the genre.
WHAT ZOMBIE RULES DID YOU ADHERE TO AND WHICH ONES DID YOU BREAK? We were very careful. I knew, no matter what, that getting inside the head of a zombie [for an interior monologue] and all that stuff was going to have zombie purists up in arms. And that's fine. I've steeled myself for that. But I'm a huge fan of zombie movies, I'm a huge fan of slasher films. In fact, at Brown, we did a group independent study about horror films. Basically it was an excuse for us to smoke weed and watch horror movies once a week.
I definitely wanted [my] respect [for the genre] to shine through. I wanted to adhere to as many rules as we could. So we definitely have [George] Romero-type slow-walking zombies [a la Night of the Living Dead], they eat brains, they can only be shot in the head. Most of it fits within the rules. But then, of course, what the book had done was kind of tweak those rules — push them in a new direction, a really interesting direction.
When our zombie eats brains, he's doing it to access the memories of the person he's killed. So it's this way for him to be alive again for a fleeting moment. It's almost like a drug.
YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT ZOMBIE AS METAPHOR. WHAT IS THE LARGER POINT YOU'RE TRYING TO MAKE WITH THIS MOVIE? The best thing about Night of the Living Dead is it's about the group versus the individual, or it's about intolerance. Basically, zombies hold up a mirror to us as a society and hopefully let us see things that we could be doing better.