Ruben Fleischer can breathe sigh of relief. The young director, newly repped out of Caviar Content, was able to achieve that often unattainable goal for talents crossing over into features: a film that earns the hearts of both audiences and critics, while drawing in box office dollars too. His comedy-horror Zombieland, starring a Twinkie-obsessed Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone and an amusement park full of zombies, topped the box office charts this weekend, drawing $25 million and recouping its $22 million budget.
Fleischer spoke to Creativity about surviving the zombies and what challenges he's looking toward next.
How did you first get involved in the movie? I've read it was intended to be a TV show.
They had it over at CBS television, I think. It was originally a traditional pilot and then they extended it to be a TV movie, which they were trying to do as a backdoor pilot to launch the series. But when they budgeted it out, it was beyond affordable for television and the producer thought the script was too good for television, so he took it to Sony, where he did four or five movies, and set it up as a feature film there. And then they went through the traditional process of trying to find a director, where they meet with a bunch of different people and somehow I talked my way into it.
Has that always been your goal, to make movies? Have you been trying to make one for a while now?
Yeah. I started out as an assistant to a director on two movies, Miguel Arteta. The movies I worked on were Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl. I didn't even know I wanted to be a director until I started working with Miguel. I just needed a job and it just turned out I really liked being on set and he was a great mentor. When I started trying to become a director, I started shooting low budget short films, 50-dollar music videos, making my own stuff. That eventually led to commercials. The goal I guess was ultimately to do a feature, but I wasn't in a position to do features, and since I wasn't a writer, I wasn't going to write my own movie that I was going to try and make, so I had to just keep working until I could realistically be considered for a film.
Did you have an agent?
Yeah, I had an agent and a while ago I was attached to direct this other movie at Paramount called Psycho Funky Chimp, which was a really funny, funny script, but Paramount basically just decided they were never going to make it so I had to start looking for other opportunities and I read Zombieland and loved it and went very aggressively after it. I had a series of interviews, starting with a junior level executive at the studio, then you meet the producer, then somebody higher at the studio with the producer and that ended with a meeting with the Chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. You kind of just pitch your vision for the movie and talk about what you'd change on the script and what you'd do to make it great.
What do you think locked you in? I read an L.A. Times interview and you talked about having an actual ending for the film.
That's pretty much what it was. Because it was a TV show, it didn't conclude in a very satisfying way. It was naturally meant to lead to the second episode. So basically I pitched the idea of having it go to an amusement park as the place the little kid character wants to go, which would give it a destination for the movie to have, and I also knew it would be a really cool place to have a giant zombie battle.
Where did you shoot the film?
We shot the movie in Georgia, for the most part in Atlanta, and we shot for two and a half weeks at that amusement park called Wild Adventures.
Was this the movie you pictured to do your first feature? What was your thinking going into it?
I definitely never intended to do a zombie movie. I've always loved comedy, but I never would have thought to do a zombie movie. I'm not a horror guy and that's not really my taste, per se, so I was really excited to get to do something that allowed me so much opportunity as far as the action, the horror component. It was a much more dynamic film than your straightforward commercial comedy.
So what were you trying to achieve on the film? It almost seems as if the zombies are kind of the backdrop for the characters' relationships.
I think a lot of that was in the script, but definitely, the stuff that I responded more to was the comedy, that was just kind of inherent to the classic kind of buddy cop comedy and the relationship with that odd couple. That's what I focused on as much as the zombies.
When it comes to the zombies, what were your references?
For me, just because it's a more modern zombie movie, with fast zombies that are more virally based as opposed to the traditional Romero-type zombies, I used 28 Days Later and Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead as the biggest reference point.
Were there any unexpected zombie challenges?
We didn't have a very big budget, so only a few of our zombies would be stunt guys. There's a big difference between extras and stunt guys as far as what they bring to it, especially shooting at night. With hundreds of extras in the winter in the freezing cold in Georgia, it was pretty hard to get our extras to be as fast and as violent as I wanted them to be. Not to take anything away from them, but they're just random people in Georgia who are excited to be in a movie, but that didn't meant they could run super fast take after take after take.
You have a great cast—how did you get everyone on board?
Definitely, Woody was first. I definitely had to convince him to be involved. I think he was a little reluctant about doing a zombie movie, but I put together a big visual presentation to show him what I had planned, and that was enough for him to sign on. It was print, but basically reference points for who I thought his character was like, the landscape. I really was thinking about this movie a lot in the terms of a western, like Sergio Leone, so I allowed him to see it was just not a straightforward zombie movie, but it could be something bigger and better.
Once we got Woody on board, it was a lot easier to get everyone else. And as far as Bill Murray, he was like a real last minute addition. Woody made a call to his buddy Bill and we locked him down three days before shooting. We kind of wrote it all last minute and it was so hectic. But he was so great and really brought it in a big way.
What about working with the talent. What were the challenges, interesting points about directing this cast.
We definitely did improv, both Jesse and Woody are amazing improvisers. It was really fun, once we got the script to let them just go and see what they came up with and they're both so talented that a lot of the lines that get laughs are improvised ones. I was a little nervous at first working with that level of guys, but they made it very easy for me and were open to doing whatever we needed to do. They were everything you could ask for, it was aweseome. And Abigail Breslin was incredible, like the most talented young woman in the world.
What skills served you well on this project, in terms of your past experience in videos and commercials?
Definitely enthusiasm was a big component. I was really excited about the opportunity and worked incredibly hard because I knew how much was at stake to make it as good as I could possibly make it. So I was overly prepared and definitely ready for anything. On top of that I definitely wanted to add my own visual style to the film to show what I could do as a director. That's why I think that some of these sequences that don't even have the cast, like the opening rules or the credits are very dynamic and visual, because ultimately as a music video director that was my sensibility.
Yeah, the rules—they pop in and out of the film and are like another character in a way. What inspired that?
They were scripted to appear on screen, but I really knew they could be dynamic. I've done a lot of motion graphics in my music video work, so I was like, if we're going to have words on the screen, they have to be awesome. So I collaborated with Logan to do all the rules and they went above and beyond. We all worked really hard to get that look down for both the rules and opening credits.
Overall what was the biggest challenge?
I guess for me it was the action. Because I've never done anything with a gun in it or zombies. I've done a bunch of small short films with people talking so it was great to experience action on a really big scale for the first time, but it was intimidating. I storyboarded everything which was greatly helpful, and I also worked with an amazingly talented second unit director, George Aguilar, who's also been the second unit director ofr Scorsese and Ridley Scott, and he completely elevated that component of the film.
Is there one moment you're most proud of?
My favorite shot is the seatbelt shot, where the woman flies through the windshield, for sure. That's my favorite shot of the movie.
You just signed to Caviar. Why did you decide on them as your next commercials company?
I had heard a lot about Caviar. Jasper Tomlinson is a producer I've worked with for the past six years, and he's produced the majority of my videos and commercials has been working there a lot and Keith Schofield is someone I'd met only after he'd done one music video. We've become friends and have been friendly through directing for a long time. I first became aware about Caviar through them and once I met Michael [Sagol] and Tom [Weissferdt], and saw how proactive they were about adjusting to the new economy and new forms of media, and also to have Peter Farrelly and Jody Hill and Keith, I felt that there was a new brand to the company they were developing and I feel like I fit in really well with that kind of idea and together, we can make a fresh, exciting new company. They hustle, which is great. I work really hard and have rolled up my sleeves for a long time to get the opportunities I've had. I feel that same energy from those guys. They don't sit back and wait for jobs to come for them. They're definitely going after them and I think that's how you have to be.
So what's next on your plate?
It's kind of an open book. I don't have anything planned at all. There's a show we're developing at Comedy Central that I'll shoot the pilot of if it gets picked up. I really want to spend the remainder of this year shooting commercials and hopefully at the end of the year consider another feature film, but I really want to go after commercials hard. I don't even have representation in the U.K. so I'm looking for that. Hopefully I can employ some of the things I've learned already in doing the film. Without sounding pretentious, I feel like I can do anything now. The movie is a comedy first, but there is a huge visual component to it, and on my reel, some of the spots I'm proudest of are more visual. I've also done a lot of VFX through the movie. So I feel like I can tackle any kind of board.
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