Director and actress took special steps to get mood right in 'Warm Bodies'


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Any interview dealing with zombies must include the obligatory and, yes, relevant question: Do you feel a kinship with George A. Romero?

"I do feel a great debt to him, and I also feel like we are kind of following in his footsteps in some way," Jonathan Levine, director-writer of "Warm Bodies," said in a recent call from a Philadelphia publicity stop.

"The wonderful thing about Romero is he established the rules and created this amazing allegory in 'Night of the Living Dead.' And then proceeded to, first of all, vigilantly use the genre as a vehicle for social commentary, which we try to do to some small extent, and also continue to tweak his own rules."

In the "Warm Bodies" novel, writer Isaac Marion uses an abandoned airport much as Mr. Romero did Monroeville Mall in "Dawn of the Dead."

"It's all holding up a mirror to us. I don't know how he feels about the violation of rules -- like the way we do it and the way '28 Days Later' did it by introducing fast zombies and stuff like that. But I would think, just based on all his films, and I've seen all of them now, that he would be open to it."

Mr. Levine, who also directed "50/50" starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, here cast Nicholas Hoult as the hero zombie known as R and Teresa Palmer as the human he rescues and falls for, to her initial fear, dismay and confusion.

She had auditioned for Mr. Levine's second feature, "The Wackness" with Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck, and he never forgot her. Once Mr. Hoult was hired, she read with him.

"It was their chemistry, really, that inspired me to cast her. Her role is incredibly difficult because she's acting opposite a guy who's basically grunting the whole time. There's a lot of responsibility on her to keep the scenes entertaining, and she had such effervescence and a soulful thing going on, that it was really a no-brainer."

Based on her turn as Julie in "Warm Bodies" and her work in movies such as "I Am Number Four" and "Take Me Home Tonight," she seems primed to break out, the director predicts.

Analeigh Tipton, who plays Julie's best friend, Nora, turned heads as the baby sitter in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" starring Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. A 13-year-old is tireless in declaring his love for the 17-year-old sitter who is crushing on someone else in a thread that skirts the edge of squeamishness.

Ms. Tipton, a third-place winner on "America's Next Top Model" in 2008, doesn't go for conventional sorts of roles, she said from Philadelphia.

"I'm kind of a little bit odd. I'm not attracted to some of the traditional female young girl roles, and I like how edgy the character of Nora is and her off sense of humor, just slightly understated, and Jessica from 'Crazy, Stupid, Love' had that bit of off humor.

"I think, if anything, for me, they're perfectly a normal fit. ... But I trust the directors that it will come out looking normal."

Nora has to know her way around guns and, until this movie, her experience was limited to Laser Tag (she's excellent at that, by the way) and Neon Lights games.

"Guns certainly were new to me, especially the ones we were using in the film. I had been to a gun range maybe once."

When she and Dave Franco, who plays Julie's doomed boyfriend, arrived in Montreal where the movie was filmed, they were sent to a gun range for instruction about safety, control, stances, types of guns and ammunition and when to use what and where.

"That, to me, was fascinating because it wasn't just, 'Here, hold this to look cool.' We really were trying to be authentic to it," she said.

"I learned how to take apart and put back together a handgun without looking at it, and it was interesting. There's quite an art to it, in the proper hands."

Also as part of her research, she spoke with the novelist, brought a zombie survival handbook with her and engaged in a "Love Boat" viewing marathon, in keeping with one of her character's quirks that didn't migrate to the movie.

"I went and got the boxed set of that show and rewatched all of those episodes every night before filming, which had nothing, at the end, to do with my character," she said. But she loved how kitschy, positive and, in its own kooky way, progressive in terms of social issues it seemed.

If books, including "Romeo & Juliet," and music help Ms. Tipton with characters, the madcap song selection is a key part of the movie's appeal.

In the book, the zombie called R is sketched as an old-fashioned guy. "He's really into Frank Sinatra, he wears a suit and a tie, and part of my slight tweak in the conception of the character is I really wanted to have a young person to watch the movie and be like, that could be me," the director said.

"So I wanted to keep him kind of semi-anonymous, in a way, but at the same time, obviously, his personality shines through. He feels things so intensely that it transcends the zombie plague. Even at the beginning, he clearly is kind of a diamond in the rough and I wanted to find music that could articulate that and was consistent with that notion."

Mr. Levine looked at "the most bombastic, overwrought songs about feelings" he could find. "The '80s were a great time for music like that. Power ballads especially, like 'Patience' and 'Missing You.' "

Given what he considers a John Hughes revisionist vibe to the movie, the 1980s further felt right.

"The music that he uses in his plane [doubling as his home] is meant to reflect a nostalgia for a bygone era. It's a way for him to communicate but it also represents a yearning for something lost. So we got to use this great '70s album rock, like 'Hungry Heart' from Bruce Springsteen.

"I'm unnaturally obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. I've seen him in concert almost a dozen times and have gone many different places to see him and, of course, Dylan is Bob Dylan," and the lyrics of "Shelter From the Storm" proved beautiful and relevant.

Music supervisor Alex Patsavas helped to find songs by indie rockers such as Bon Iver and The National.

"When I was reading the book, I was like, wow, this is a great opportunity to put together an incredibly eclectic soundtrack where music engages in the dialogue with the audience. Music has always been a huge part of what I do, so one of the big selling points on doing this movie for me was the way Isaac used music to tell a story," Mr. Levine said.

As for that all-important voice-over that Mr. Hoult does, it was recorded "literally 50 times." It changed with every edit and as the tone of the movie evolved.

"I don't think there's a single line of voice-over in the movie that was in the original script. Editing is a very fluid process and I always knew we could rely on voice-over either to explain things that people didn't get or help us smooth tonal inconsistencies.

"It took us a while to find his voice, honestly. I got a great deal of help from a lot of friends who would come in and watch it and help me out with ideas. Finally when we decided to go with this very irreverent voice that was not lifting dialogue from the book, but really was the one that captured most the spirit of the book, that's when I think we nailed it."

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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