An axe, a baseball bat, and a crowbar: That’s all the weaponry required for the finale of Brad Pitt’s huge new World War Z zombie flick invading theaters on Friday.
Loosely based on Max Brooks’ novel of the same name, World War Z stars Pitt as a UN investigator who tries to track down “Patient Zero” so he can save his family–and a handful of other human survivors–from a worldwide zombie pandemic.
Though it’s one of the summer’s most expensive movies, reportedly costing more than $200 million, World War Z deliberately defies Hollywood blockbuster formula typified in hits like The Avengers and Iron Man 3. As World War Z director Marc Forster explains, “Historically, blockbusters always retreat back to these big third-act action pieces that are bigger and louder because that’s what the audience expects.”
By contrast, Forster and the rest of the World War Z braintrust decided to reshoot the ending. SPOILER ALERT Leaving the giant explosions, helicopters, and heavy artillery on the cutting-room floor, the filmmakers pared down the finale to zero in on one thoughtful hero and a single teeth-clattering zombie.
When Forster initially finished production on the World War Z, he agreed with Paramount executives, Pitt, and his Plan B production team that the rough cut failed to cohere. Forster wanted to avoid the frustration he endured while directing the 2008 James Bond flick Quantum of Solace. “With Quantum — because of the writers strike, we couldn’t develop the script further for the third act. This time around, I wanted to make sure that if I’m doing this big action thriller about the global apocalypse, then I wanted to make sure the film really ends up the way I’m happy with.”
The problem: Though Forster shot an extravagant climactic action sequence set in Russia, it simply couldn’t top the spectacle, midway through the film, in which hordes of zombies swarm with freakish intensity over the walls of a Jerusalem fortification.
“I said to (studio executives), ‘Look guys, Israel is so big, this [third-act battle] is like sort of a repeat.’ In my other films, I always prefer to do something introverted, quiet, reflective, so I said, ‘Instead of spending the money on all that CG you would put into the final battle, let’s just re-do the ending very simple.'”
Lost cocreator Damon Lindelof, who’d earlier reworked the Prometheus sci-fi script for Ridley Scott, came on board to figure out plot particulars for the new third act. “It was interesting when Damon saw the rough cut for the first time, he said, ‘After Israel, you don’t want to go bigger.” I was glad he and Brad agreed on that.”
Given the proliferation of zombie-infested entertainments over the past decade, Forster knew he wanted to contribute a fresh visual take on the genre. “I needed an image that was strong enough to make you feel like, ‘This really is the end of humanity. We can’t escape the zombies.’ “
The Swiss-born filmmaker found his angle by summoning childhood memories of a backyard anthill. “As a boy I spent many hours growing up in Switzerland watching these ants. I’d always wanted to translate these swarm images into one of my movies so when I started working on World War Z, the Israel part of the story felt like a perfect match where we could show this tsunami of zombies, this swarm that just comes at you and you can’t escape anything.”
Building on his swarm theory, Forster modeled walking-dead behavior on patterns of aggression found in the real world. “I once saw a German Shepard attack someone, and that was very frightening to me. So I looked at how police dogs bite. As I started researching it more, I thought ‘Okay, when somebody gets bitten and the human ‘turns,’ it’s going to be like an epileptic seizure.”
Forster’s gaunt zombies, first glimpsed in a horrific Philadelphia traffic jam, sprint at top speed toward their prey. “They just wander around like the zombies we are more used to until the moment they hear something. Then it’s like when a shark smells blood: They have this feeding frenzy where they run as fast as they can and follow a direct line to their food.”
In choosing to reshoot the third act as a relatively quiet showdown, Forster had the luxury of relying on one of the world’s biggest movie stars to sustain interest. He says, “I like very subtle performance, where everything is about repressed emotions, because that’s also the culture I grew up in,” Forster laughs. “Switzerland is sort of this repressed emotional culture. The thing about Brad is that he connects in this subtle way and keeps it simple. You put him in a situation where everything can be very frenetic around him, but Brad just blocks everything else out when you say ‘Action!'”
When the cameras quit rolling, Pitt played an active role as one of the film’s producers. “The positive part about having a star who is also the producer is that Brad wanted to make sure that every cent gets up on the screen. Sometimes you have producers who say Can you simplify that? or Why do we need this? when it comes to spending money from the budget. But with Brad, it’s like, Oh, of course, we should make sure we get this. Because he’s done so many movies, Brad really understands what’s necessary.”
Serving as director for hire on a high-priced studio project meant Forstser needed to collaborate with a number of opinionated, high-powered executives. “The stress level is much higher; anxiety is higher because the budget is in this range,” he says.
Forster boasts an eclectic resume that includes low-budget relationship-driven films like Monster’s Ball and The Kite Runner. “With smaller movies where the investment isn’t that grand, sometimes you finish a film and people kind of throw it out there and see what happens. For World War Z, everybody wanted to get it right because they have a lot to gain and to lose. At the end, that’s where it gets tricky. You need to connect the plot points so you get the right payoff.”
[Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures]