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Co-creators and Executive Producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick Talk Zombieland the Series

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Co-creators and Executive Producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick Talk Zombieland the SeriesRecently we had a chance to sit down via conference call with co-creators/executive producers of Amazon TV’s “Zombieland” (review) Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and we’ve come back with a transcript of the highlights!

First up, 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 move 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.

And at that moment we decided well, 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.

So that’s a little bit of a rough chronology of how it’s all come down.

On how Amazon is 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.

You know, “Zombieland” is untraditional, 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.

And they’ve given us incredible resources, dollar for dollar, minute for minute. It’s really on par, budget-wise, with the feature. The feature was shot for $22 million over the course of an hour and a half. We’re really on par with that going to series, or at least the pilot episode, on Amazon.

And it’s just been great, I think, the viewer response. People are clicking on “Zombieland” and watching it and loving it. And it’s been really fun to watch.

So it’s the ultimate focus group, the ultimate focus test. You put it out there for all of the public to watch, and they get to decide whether we move forward or not, so…

On the decision to bring back the film characters instead of just meeting up with new survivors dealing with the zombie apocalypse…

Rhett Reese: 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, you know. And it would be — I’m trying to think of something analogous — 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.

Now obviously what that then created was this comparison between new cast and old cast, which we think is incredibly unfair in the sense that obviously our first cast was tremendous. You know, 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.”

And 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. And we just want everyone to give them a chance; our feeling is the more time they spend with them, the more they’re going to love them and the more they’re going to embrace them.

On the show’s gore…

Paul Wernick: 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, you know. The tone of the movie we tried to maintain in the pilot. Amazon… basically their edict was make the show that you want to make. Make “Zombieland.” And so as far 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.

On casting Kirk Ward as Tallahassee…

Rhett Reese: Well, 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. And so, when it came to leaving reality television, which is what we were trying to do at the time, and writing a script (you know, we wrote “Zombieland” as a spec pilot), it [was] 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.

And ultimately, when Zombieland became a movie, it was impossible to cast Kirk because 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 talk with a more rural accent. He was supposed to be from a big city in Florida and was… he 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. Like 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, but we had to go through an audition process. And we had a lot of actors come in, and we saw a lot of people essentially ape Woody Harrelson. We had a million guys come in with like shark tooth necklaces and cowboy hats and T-shirts and jeans and do the Southern accent. And even some of the initial people on our crew started to view Tallahassee through that Woody Harrelson lens like let’s go find the cowboy hat for him and let’s – for this new character – figure out how to recreate him. And our immediate reaction was that that was a mistake. We didn’t want an actor to try 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.

And when we went to Kirk and we 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.” And that’s what he did. So that’s what you see when you see Kirk playing Tallahassee. You see a different Tallahassee and one that we enjoy in a very different way from the one that Woody brought to life.

On finding the balance between honoring the movie and making the TV show…

Rhett Reese: Ultimately really we’re trying to recreate the movie without imitating the movie if that makes sense. Again, we want to try to capture the tone of the movie, which is both dramatic, scary, and funny in theory 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.

So really we are 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 kind of – I hate to use the word gimmicks because it sounds gimmicky – but a lot of different elements that will bring new graphics and just new fun runners and jokes that we always had intended to bring in. But 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 of a consistent tone and world.

Paul Wernick: I would say that 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. You know, the movie ends. They’re at Pacific Playland. They get in the car, and they’re hitting the road.

And really the movie was essentially Episodes 1 and 2 of the show put together. And now we’re basically hitting the road in Episode 2 or 3, depending on how you look at it. And 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.

On the prospect of surprise cameos the magnitude of Bill Murray’s in the film…

Rhett Reese: The answer is absolutely 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… Getting Bill Murray into the movie was an absolute miracle. It was a Hail Mary that largely was a function of Woody Harrelson knowing Bill Murray personally and asking him if he’d be willing to do it and us finding a little window in his time and getting him the script. And it was crazy. It was very lucky. He got the script about three days before he showed up on set. It was that touch and go.

Anyway, so yes, we absolutely plan to do it. It may be difficult to find the right person and we won’t do it unless it is the right person. But we’re going to try hard.

As to the style or mythology of the zombies present in the “Zombieland” world…

Rhett Reese: 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. And 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.

And 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. And so I do think just depending on when they got bit, you’ll see some variation. We’ll have some smarter zombies, some stupider zombies, some more impaired zombies and less impaired zombies.

But beyond that I don’t think we’re going to get too much into the mythology. I mean, I do think 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. So maybe we’ll get there at some point. But we’re trying not to burden ourselves too much with how this happened or why it happened or where we’re headed with regard to that.

On what scares them about zombies…

Paul Wernick: Well, for us… Unlike “The Walking Dead,” there’s great wish fulfillment in this idea that you’re one of the last few humans on earth. You don’t have to deal with traffic. You can drive any car you want. You can go into any shop you want.

You can kill with reckless abandon, like this idea of a post-apocalypse that’s kind of cool. I mean, not that we’re antisocial, but [we have] this idea that the post-apocalypse is not that scary a place, or at least there are scares in it, but there’s also some wonderful things in it, too. That’s something that we embrace in the movie and something that we’re embracing in the show here.

On Internet distribution…

Paul Wernick: It’s a little bit of the wild, wild west out there, and we feel we’re on the front end of it. I think entertainment is going [in] that direction of people wanting to watch when they want to watch and having it available to do so. I think young kids today are especially watching TV that way. They’re the ones that are cutting the cable cord it feels like most. And the core audience is that group of people that are watching TV that way or are watching content that way. So we feel like it’s really the perfect match of content and viewer in terms of the direction that everything is going.

On how long it will take to find out if “Zombieland” will be picked up as a series…

Rhett Reese: We’ve been told that what you’re seeing right now, the pilot, will be available for about a month and that at some point either during or after that month we’ll get a better indication of whether we’re going to series. So it could be very soon, or it could be three or four weeks down the road. We’re not exactly sure.

Paul Wernick: You know, they’re using a whole host of data to figure this all out. They’re using clicks. They’re using how many people watch it through in the first sitting, if you put it on pause, if you stop it. Amazon can track basically what you had for breakfast this morning. So they’re using a whole host of data to make those decisions: reviews and clicks and everything like that. So we’re in the public’s hands.

Amazon's Zombieland TV Pilot

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Steve Barton

You're such an inspiration for the ways that I will never, ever choose to be.