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A Visit to Zombieland

On the Georgia set of the Sony horror-comedy

Forget all the arguments you’ve heard in that age-old debate about slow zombies vs. fast zombies. After October 9th, the real debate will be whether horror fans prefer slow zombies or FAT zombies!

That was the primary thought running through our heads as we watched Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg battling a number of obese hillbilly zombies living inside an abandoned supermarket on the set of Ruben Fleischer’s debut horror-comedy Zombieland. After all, no movie has really ever explored what happens when zombies get gluttonous enough to eat other things besides flesh and brains, so that’s certainly one area of the zombie genre where Zombieland will certainly be breaking new ground.

By now, you’ve probably watched the teaser and gotten some idea about the sense of humor inherent in the upcoming Sony action-comedy. When ShockTillYouDrop.com went down to Atlanta earlier this year, we knew very little of what to expect, since there were many unknown quantities with a first-time filmmaker helming a screenplay by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose only previous collaboration was Spike’s The Joe Shmoe Show. Oddly, at that time, there was a lot of horror going on in the area with Rob Zombie filming his sequel Halloween 2 not too far away, as well as the remake of George Romero’s The Crazies. (You can read Ryan Rotten’s report of the latter here.) Oddly, our own previous visit to Atlanta was nearly disastrous, but we tried to get past that and enjoy our second experience in the Southern city.

The movie’s general premise revolves around the fact that the entire country has been overrun by flesh-eating zombies – no, we never learn how this happened – and the film follows two unlikely travel mates, Tallahassee and Columbus, played by Harrelson and Eisenberg, respectively, as they try to survive the experience. Along the way, they meet Emma Stone (Superbad) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) who play Wichita and Little Rock, respectively, two sisters also trying to survive the zombie outbreak. If it seems odd that all the characters are named after cities, that’s part of the well-constructed conceit of the film in that in a world gone crazy, you wouldn’t want to get too close to the people you meet for various reasons, so you tell them where you’re from instead of your name. At its core, Zombieland is a road comedy with the duo driving across country, facing zombies at every turn, as Woody’s character is desperately trying to fulfill his quest to find… of all things… Hostess Twinkies.

Lost in the Supermarket

The location we would be visiting while down in Atlanta was an abandoned shopping mall, and as our van pulled into the parking lot, we were generally impressed by the way they had transformed the surrounding area into the fictitious town of Powder Springs, complete with marked police cars and highway signs. That was until we learned that in fact we were actually in a place called Powder Springs, Georgia, and those were real police cars and police officers roaming around as Powder Springs was turned into a nameless Southern locale where Woody’s character hoped to find those elusive Twinkies.

The shopping mall was otherwise abandoned and vacant, with a Curves gym – apparently, it’s a chain of gyms exclusively for women – being used as the crew’s cafeteria as well as command central for us to do most of our interviews. After a quick bit of debriefing by the film’s unit publicist Michael and a visit to the make-up trailer to watch a couple zombies being made-up for the day’s shoot by Steve Prouty, we were walked over to the larger building in the complex bearing a sign saying “Blaine’s Grocery.” Though the thought of seeing the inside of a supermarket might not sound very impressive, they actually had done a lot of work to take the large empty space and convert it into a recently abandoned supermarket. This included a lot of attention to detail including all of the signage placed throughout the store and on the front windows, and filling up all of the shelves with realistic product they had actually rented for the days. To save on costs, they had made props versions of all the perishable meats, most of which had already turned a rancid shade of green. The freezer cases were empty except that they had taken life-size photographs of actual freezer cases filled with products to give the illusion that they were still full. For the most part, a lot of the place had already been trashed by the zombies that inhabited the space, so there was a lot of food scattered all over the place.

They actually had dressed up a surprisingly large portion of the market although there were large empty sections that made it more obvious that this was not a functioning supermarket. Over the past few years, we’ve had more than a few opportunities to interview the 25-year-old Eisenberg over the years for his various films and as we stood watching them shoot, he saw us and started to come over to talk to us, unaware that we were actually with a larger group of journalists at which point he quickly retreated back to the safety of the set. We’d have a chance to talk to him and Woody briefly later during our day, but we generally saw them throughout the day while they were rehearsing or goofing around between shots. Woody was quite charming, keeping everyone entertained with his singing.

In the back of the market there was a butchers’ area with rented meat slicers and a giant meat press – you know, the kind used to squeeze out ground beef. One could definitely see this area used in a lot of gruesome ways to dispatch zombies or other morbid things, but instead, it was where a key dramatic scene involving the four travelers would take place.

Deliverance from Evil

Before they could get to that point in the story, Columbus and Tallahassee had to make their way through the seemingly-abandoned supermarket, which is what they were shooting as we arrived on set. We watched as Woody and Jesse’s characters cautiously walked through the squeaky front door, Woody taking the lead carrying a banjo he calmly strums as he walks forward. Jesse enters a little more hesitantly, nervously carrying a rifle but not looking confident enough to use it. We noticed pretty quickly that Woody had a veritable utility belt of zombie-killing paraphernalia, including a baseball bat and a large set of garden shears, both of which would be used before they left that market.

As they approach the registers, Woody began to play the opening of “Dueling Banjos” the musical theme made famous in the Southern thriller Deliverance. Apparently, Tallahassee uses the banjo as a way to get the zombie’s attention before killing them, and it does the trick, as one large well-dressed zombie, presumably the store’s manager – his name is “Jake” – comes out snarling with blood spewing from his mouth. Woody charges forward unslinging the banjo from his shoulder and swinging it at the zombie’s head as Jesse’s character watches meekly from the background. As this is happening, another zombie comes crashing through a display behind Jesse, who then runs towards Woody and does a baseball slide, as Woody swings his baseball bat at the second zombie. We watched the various bits involved with constructing this scene, shot from all sorts of angles, in one take, Woody throwing in what was apparently an ad-lib, saying to the zombie “You’ve got a purty mouth” (another Deliverance reference!) before whacking Jake with the banjo.

Although director Ruben Fleischer has done a lot of commercials and music videos, he’s fairly new to the whole idea of movie marketing, publicity and talking to the press, although he seemed genuinely delighted to have all of the various websites on set. Sadly, we didn’t get very much time to talk to him because he was so busy, having a lot to shoot in the two days they were at the supermarket set. (We do have a piecemeal interview linked below.) One point of interest to some is that Fleischer is using the Genesis digital cameras to film the movie. They had famously been used on bigger scale movies like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, but having the high definition digital cameras made it easier to shoot so many scenes in the limited amount of time they had in each location, using a combination of handheld cameras with a pair being moved around on dollies.

A couple other quick things to help get you into the tongue-in-cheek vibe of the movie: The logo emblazoned on the back of the cast chairs had the word “Zombieland” in red, white and blue in the shape of the United States map. We were told they were trying to get the rights to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to open the movie, which would have been a nice twist on that classic folk song. As we learned, no one working on the movie seems particularly bothered or worried about the comparisons to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead that were likely be made. Most freely admitted that Zombieland might not have happened if not for the cult following behind the earlier movie that’s rightfully considered to be the pinnacle of zombie comedies. Fleischer saw the zombie movie as akin to Westerns, a genre where broad enough that they could use it to tell a “super funny and entertaining” story. Both he and the producers seemed to be fairly down on the slow zombies made famous by George Romero, something they might want to keep under their hats if they want to avoid the ire of obsessive old school zombie fans.

Creating Zombieland

After watching a few takes, we went back to Curves to spend some time talking to the film’s production designer Maher Ahmed, who showed us pictures of the locations where they were shooting before and after the set designers got to them, including some of the concept art and Photoshop work they used to figure out how to design the world. Ahmed’s presentation include an aerial floormap of the Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia, where they shot the movie’s climactic finale, which included anywhere between 150 and 180 extras made-up as zombies attacking our heroes. The map had the locations of the park’s various rides which would be modified to turn the park into the “Pacific Playground,” where the quartet ends up in the third act. Some of the before and after pictures we were shown included a haunted house that had been dressed up for an important scene, and we were told they shot other key action moments in rides like the “Blast Off,” which the girls ride up and down while blasting approaching zombies. Because this was an unused amusement park – unlike the one where Eisenberg shot Adventureland – they had to do a lot more work, including stringing up their own lighting on the various rides. Another location being used on the film is an Indian trading outpost called Geronimo’s, which they had converted from an actual trading post, and we were shown the designs for a section of a highway that was going to be converted for their use with a burned-out truck blocking their way.

Later on, during a rare break, Fleischer took all of us to his trailer to show some of the wild footage they’d shot at the park with Woody hanging from one ride as he blasted at zombies with a shotgun, and another scene of the girls trapped in a games booth surrounded by the creatures. This footage gave us a much better idea of the scale of the movie than the rather subdued scene we saw them shoot at the supermarket. (We were really excited to learn that George Aguilar was the stunt coordinator on the show, as some of us were already fans of his work on movies like War of the Worlds and next year’s Prince of Persia.)

For the most part, they’re using real locations although there is quite a lot of green screen involved with the driving aspect to show the bigger picture of the world around the duo, and that’s where special FX supervisor Paul Linden comes in to create the bigger picture, which includes a scene where a plane crashes into a burning city and things that would have cost many more millions of dollars if they created them for real. He showed us some of the various elements of fire, smoke, etc. that they’d layer using computers to create these settings.

After that, we were taken back to the supermarket and watched as the crew set up an elaborate shot where the camera swings from showing the two guys entering to a reverse shot showing the charging zombie from Woody’s point-of-view. As we waited, the producers came over with a laptop to show us one of the animatics that explained the “47 Rules” that had been mentioned in a few of our earlier interviews. Even before our country turned into a zombie hell, Columbus was already a neurotic young man with OCD, something that actually helps him in this setting, because he created these very specific rules that are essential for survival. (You can read about some of them in our interview with the producers below.) The animated scene they showed us was for “Seatbelts,” a very funny and gory bit in which a woman driving a car is being chased by a zombie who grabs on to the back of her car – there’s an amusing collection of Beanie Babies and Bobbleheads bouncing around in her rear window. She freaks out and steps on the gas and enters an intersection where the car crashes into a truck and she goes flying through the windshield landing and skidding along the pavement leaving a disturbing red skidmark. Lesson to be learned: “Always wear your seatbelt.”

Bring the Drama…and the Chainsaws!

As is always the case, there’s a lot of “doing nothing” while visiting a movie set, but while we were hanging outside the supermarket, we had a chance to catch Woody playing around with two chainsaws in preparation for a scene he’d be shooting later. It would be for a flashback sequence where we got to see what a kick-ass zombie killer he really was, but it was more of a fantasy sequence of how Columbus imagined his road partner. (Before meeting Columbus, Woody’s only friend was the woman from On-Star, the in-car navigational and assistance system, named Detroit – just another quirky little nugget about his character.)

Woody was really good at keeping the cast and crew entertained on set, singing Elvis songs and such. Sadly, we missed watching him dispatch the largest of the three zombies, a veritable Haystacks Calhoun of a man, with those aforementioned garden shears, since we were trapped in an area where we couldn’t really see them filming. We finally found out way over to the far side of the market near to the deli counter to watch Woody and Jesse having a small tiff when Woody learns there are no more Twinkies in the supermarket after all that work killing zombies. The scene was semi-improvised as Woody ended his tirade by throwing the other Hostess treats onto the floor yelling, “Animals!” one time and “A$$holes!” the next, before Columbus suggests they get going.

Right after that, we got to watch the super-sexy Emma Stone do a little bit of serious dramatic acting, filming what they were calling her “hero shot,” essentially a close-up of her giving a pouty look and telling the guys to “Come quick!” before exiting to the back of the deli section where Breslin was supposedly waiting in the butcher area (which actually was set up on the other side of the building.) Sure, it wasn’t much, but Stone could probably recite the alphabet and we’d enjoy watching her do it. (Make sure to check out our interview with her below.)

Before the sun faded completely, they still needed to shoot another dramatic scene in the parking lot of the supermarket as Stone and Breslin say their farewell to the boys. They set up a big tarp to try to block out some of the sunlight and the ladies sat in a large black Escalade that had a snow shovel on its front fender to easily dispose of zombie bodies. After each bit of conversation with the guys – the overly-neurotic unit publicist wouldn’t let us hear what they were saying because he thought it might contain spoilers – Stone would step on the gas and drive through the parking lot to the exit, then drive back so that one of the crew would reset it in the proper place to shoot another take. After she drove off, Woody and Jesse would start walking away with Jesse carrying the majority of the bags. The only thing interesting about this scene being shot was that it was rush hour by now with a fairly busy Georgia highway running behind the supermarket. Every time they were ready to shoot, police officers on either side of the highway had to stop all the cars to maintain the realism of the stark environment. As we watched, we also got to meet Emma Stone’s equally gorgeous stand-in, a super-cute model who goes by the name Gentle Hart… just in case anyone thought you have to go to L.A. to meet New Age hippy chicks.

As we were leaving, we saw them preparing to shoot that flashback sequence in the alley outside the supermarket where a pick-up truck was on fire and two zombies were ready to attack the chainsaw-wielding Woody, but that was it for our trip to Zombieland. To learn anymore, we’ll just have to wait for Comic-Con at the end of the month and the next trailer, which will be in front of District 9 in August.

As promised, here are links to all the interviews we were able to conduct while on set:

Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg

Emma Stone

Director Ruben Fleischer

Co-writer/co-producers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese

Zombieland opens on October 9, 2009.


Source: Edward Douglas