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After that I went through a series of folks who put silver gunk in my hair, black goo in my teeth, and dirty shmutz all over my torn-up clothes. While practicing my icy stare and hunched-over walk, we got to talk to the talented director behind bringing Isaac Marion's popular book to the screen, Jonathan Levine. Levine is the man behind the "still unreleased in the U.S." All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, 2008's fantastic coming-of-age flick The Wackness as well as the Joseph Gordon-Levitt cancer comedy 50/50, and he was medium excited to be working with his biggest budget ever (5-times 50/50) and first full-on genre project.
"I like zombie movies and I like genre movies a lot," said Levine. "To watch. Less so to make, I think. But I grew up on that stuff. I would just grow up watching a lot of horror movies, a lot of slasher movies and then zombie movies."
From the footage and on-set action I witnessed, it seemed like Levine was very capable of creating this universe, but seemed much more in his wheelhouse during the romantic scenes.
"I like the love stuff, man," he said. "I like the allegorical significance of it. It’s really just about a guy and a girl and the guy is trapped in his own kind of shell and can’t get out of it. That part of it really appealed to me. I like that kind of stuff a lot."
He had high praise for Hoult, the guy coming out of his shell career-wise. After starring in About a Boy, as a child he's since gone on to earn praise for A Single Man and geek kudos for his work as "Beast" in X-Men: First Class. Fresh off of his starring role in Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer, Hoult was more than holding his own in the zombie department.
"What happens to him at the beginning of the story is he can't communicate with anyone," said Hoult of the lovestruck walker R. "He's lost the power of speech, he's trapped. His life's quite dull and worn down, that feeling of dragging yourself through life. The thing I really liked about the script is it's about someone trying to retain his humanity. Through killing Julie's boyfriend and eating his brains he falls for her and then regains that through being with her."
Wait, eating brains makes you smarter?
"Eating brains is fun," Hoult confirmed after years of speculation on this end. "It's kind of like a cold, wet sponge they made the brains out of. The idea that Jonathan came up with is that because these brains are memories it's kind of like being alive again, it's kind of like a drug to the zombies. The brains is quite a release. There was one day where there was a scene where I crack open Dave Franco's head to eat his brains. We used a dummy, and I actually pulled some of the dummy's hair out and it was on the brains so I ate a load of fake brains and the dummy's hair which wasn't the most pleasant experience."
Levine insisted that, "If Nick didn’t work, the whole movie’s preposterous. He’s essentially playing, with every line he has to find what it means to be a talking zombie. There’s not that many historical references for talking zombies so he’s essentially creating it... He tracks himself so well that he doesn’t really need me but every once in a while I’ll just be kind of like give me 20% more zombie or 20% more person. And it really works."
After Levine showed us a temp edit of a scene aboard a plane cockpit/makeshift apartment where R has taken Julie (and plays her some Guns & Roses), we realized that the commitment Hoult was bringing to the role, with his almost junkie-like mannerisms, was only half the equation. Lending just as much believability to the scene was Palmer, the beautiful Aussie actress who appeared in I Am Number Four and The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Her simultaneous intrigue and horror at the sweet, humanlike behavior of R mirrors the audience perfectly.
"You realize that we’ve been hanging out now for eight or nine days and he hasn’t eaten me and he hasn’t really killed anyone else," Palmer noted. "So, that sort of is where you notice a change starts to happen through love and connection and life. I sort of breathe life into him. He starts to heal himself and you realize that corpses can heal themselves and eventually go back to being human, which is what they want."
"It is such a 'Beauty and the Beast' story," she continued. "Also, I liken it to Edward Scissorhands sometimes. Essentially, he’s an outcast and she, in a way, feels different from other people she’s in contact with. She’s so anti what’s going on with her father and the military. She misses life the way it was and I think that spark in her has definitely been dimmed. She starts to lose hope. And then R, I think, both of them breathe that life and that light back into each other."
Her father is played by John Malkovich as a stern military leader, but he was not on set that day, though we did get a chance to act alongside former Daily Show alum Rob Corddry, whose role in Hot Tub Time Machine had many pegging him as the next Steve Carell-like breakout star.