Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: What We Learned On Set!
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES has been in development since before the Seth Grahame-Smith novel was published by Quirk Books in 2009. At the time, the future ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER author was just taking the classic Jane Austen novel and inserting scenes of zombie mayhem and martial arts to enhance the romantic tale of class struggle and gender bias. The novel kicked off a brief boom of books combining classic novels with genre tropes like sea monsters, demons, and even robots. But, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES was the first and hottest of the books and drew interest from Natalie Portman and David O. Russell. After ups and downs in pre-production, both Portman and Russell left the film which seemed dead until the arrival of filmmaker Burr Steers.
Sony was gracious enough to fly a select group of us from various websites to London in November 2014. Just ahead of Remembrance Day, Britain's equivalent of Veteran's Day, I visited the set of Screen Gems' adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. On first hearing the title, most reactions are generally to groan at the humor of it while others may immediately write it off as a movie they will never go see. After all, how many young Americans, male or female, are interested in a British Regency romance? Maybe a lot more after PRIDE AND PREJUDICE gets a boost from a horde of undead zombies.
This Is Not A Watered Down Zombie Movie.
The vision for this take on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is not to play the film for laughs but rather allow the humor to flow from the situations and setting: England is dealing with a zombie plague and has done so for seventy years. The class struggles from the original novel have been enhanced with a caste system involving zombies as part of British society. The higher classes have taken it upon themselves to train in anticipation of the undead threat and send their children to Asia to train in various martial arts and other forms of combat. This is not your high school required reading Jane Austen. This shit is hardcore.
Our visit was taking place at Basing House, the 500 year old remains of an opulent castle. With a population of just over 7,000, this is the definition of old England. Now a tourist attraction, the site includes the Great Barn which had been converted into the scene of a banquet for a significant part of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. Upon our arrival, the cast and crew were in the midst of filming an action sequence involving the five Bennet sisters, played by CINDERELLA's Lily James, DARK SHADOW's Bella Heathcote, THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT's Suki Waterhouse, Millie Brady, and Ellie Bamber. The five proper English ladies encounter a pack of zombies, or "unmentionables" as they are called in the film, and go to work to dispatch them using their martial arts and sword skills.
They Used Primarily Practical FX versus CGI.
Make no mistake, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is not some watered down zombie film. Despite having the budget comparable to most independent films, Burr Steers and his crew are using primarily physical effects for the zombies rather than CGI. We were given an opportunity to visit the Great Barn for the next phase of filming which was littered with zombie corpses, decapitated heads, and other body parts. It was here that we watched the filming of an altogether different aspect of the film: the Regency romance part. The next scene filmed was the lead-up to the above action scene which featured Elizabeth Bennet leaving the banquet, saddened by Mr. Darcy's behavior. As she contemplates her feelings for the man, a zombie approaches her. But, this is a different kind of zombie. Mrs. Featherstone, a friend to the Bennet family, is undead but still able to communicate using proper English. She is quickly dispatched by Mr. Darcy in what will most definitely be a headshot in the final film.
In speaking with effects supervisor Chris Reynolds (SHERLOCK HOLMES, THE WOLFMAN), this is what sets PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES apart from typical zombie films. There are classes of the undead ranging from the mute, lurching type to those that can still partially function in society. Whether the zombies eat pig brains or human brains also drives the prosthetics employed, but Reynolds assured us that the thousands of prosthetics designed for scenes employing anywhere from forty or more zombie actors will be gruesome yet not gory as this is a PG-13 film. The zombies will be rotting and diseased in appearance (keep an eye out for a zombie baby that Reynolds was very proud of) but also utilize the unique time period, something never seen before in a zombie movie.
The Trailers Haven't Shown Anything Yet.
As a special treat, producer Allison Shearmur presented us with the first footage from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, edited together specifically for our visit to the set. If you have seen the trailer for the film, our footage shared similar scenes plus a heck of a lot more. We got glimpses of Jack Huston and Matt Smith, two who will certainly be fan favorites when this movie is released thanks to the additional layers to their characters added for this film. And that is what the cast and crew are trying to add to this film as compared to previous adaptations of the Jane Austen novel. Here is what Shearmur, former head of production at Lionsgate and producer on such films as THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, CINDERELLA, and ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, had to say about the human stakes in the film.
You look at a story like The Walking Dead as an example and they have done it phenomenally and over several scenes. You never feel for a second that there aren't human beings or great losses at stake as you watch these undead creatures relentlessly go forward and pursue their prey. You don't laugh at it...but you are scared for these people.
The Film Balances Violence and Humor.
She continued to say that the key was to hit the tone properly between the violence, humor, and gravity of the film. The sheer concept of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is looked at as a gag, but in seeing the footage, that is far from the aim of the filmmakers. The question was raised as to why now, six years after the book was a bestseller and after the literary mash-up craze has seemingly come to an end. Shearmur said a lot has changed during the wait for the right script and director, including the success of THE HUNGER GAMES.
Having young females at the center of an action movie in a kind of "boy context" is something that people will believe. And then there was DIVERGENT and then there was LUCY, so no longer are we trying to convince people to make a movie about five girls that kick ass...I am grateful that what happened didn't happen until now. And then, of course, you are blessed with the perfect script and I give complete credit to Burr Steers. I mean he loved and knew the Pride and Prejudice novel well and he is also a fanboy and to have both of those sources of knowledge and expertise in one human being that has great taste and can direct action is a miracle.
This is a Romance...and a Zombie movie...and a Martial Arts flick.
Shearmur also clued us into the fact that while the zombie part of the film will be getting a lot of attention, this is also a great story. Instead of taking cues from other versions of Pride and Prejudice, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES has a wealth of adaptations to be inspired by but the source novel is chock full of Regency period drama to help this film. But, by adding in the historical context of the Bennet sisters training in China to fend off the zombie hordes adds another action element to the mix. Spotting Asian influences during scouting trips in England, the crew built in elements of Japanese and Chinese fighting styles for the various characters. From signature weapons to fighting moves, this movie is going to not just be head shots from muskets but also employ swordplay and hand to hand combat.
Director Burr Steers Went Back To The Beginning
Steers is not exactly known for his work in horror or action with only the films IGBY GOES DOWN, 17 AGAIN, CHARLIE ST. CLOUD, and some television directing to his credit. He did write the screenplay for HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS, but I am not sure if that is the same kind of horror Shearmur was referring to. Still, this project does not have the look or feel of a movie being helmed by a filmmaker unfamiliar with the subject matter or territory. Burr Steers has built this into the original novel's class struggle element, giving the movie a more natural connection to the source material than the novel. The use of physical set locations that existed at the time of Jane Austen, including some estates from the Joe Wright and BBC adaptations of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, gives this horror comedy a much more realistic feel than you would expect.
Taking over the script from David O. Russell’s draft, Steers felt he needed to reinsert Pride and Prejudice into the screenplay. The other versions were very broad, but Steers didn’t want to wink at the zombie inclusion, but to play it straight.
The film will have humor but the idea was to create an alternate world where this pandemic has taken place and to stage PP in it. Ultimately it is absurd, but you play it straight and get the punchlines.
Influences on Steer’s direction include THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS. He feels there is humor but also drama and you invest in the characters. It has elements of a war movie. Jane Austen came back into popularity during WWII because it was used like propaganda. The film explores the Napoleonic War period which was not touched on in the Austen novel.
The Zombie Pandemic Happened 70 Years Earlier And Things Evolved From There.
The themes and issues of class and wealth in Austen’s novel along with the empowerment of women were kept in this film. Steers also developed the class difference between those trained in China versus Japan, with China being a lower class option. They also provided each of the Bennet sisters their own fight choreography that echoes kung-fu and the dance-like elements of the martial arts. Characters talking angrily or emotively to each other are now balanced with action scenes. Steers influenced these back and forth of dialogue like sparring matches, which Austen herself intended, but with violence added in.
The zombies are frightening, meant to be a threat. Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND was a big influence on the film. Steers wanted the zombies to be like a race of their own who view themselves as equals to living humans. They aren’t just wandering around waiting to be decapitated. The influence on the zombie design was along the lines of crystal meth junkies; lunging addicts trying to get their next hit. Steers also cites the western THE PROPOSITION which showcased brutal violence but with much of it happening off screen. This will be a PG-13 film, but he promises it will be a brutal one.
The late autumn shooting in England has been fortunate for Steers and crew as the weather has been temperate. While some locations were also used in prior adaptations of the novel, the new versions give different perspectives on the sites. With a shooting schedule of less than fifty days, Steers praised the crew for being a great team in getting this shoot done on time and budget.
“There are four stages of the disease: you become infected, then a full blown zombie, and then begin decomposing. You then have crypto-zombies that have not completely gone over.”
These crypto-zombies are results of the evolved virus and are able to maintain brain function and become leaders amongst the undead. Steers knew he was setting the stage for this fictional world. Characters like Wickham (Jack Huston) have become more developed than in the Austen novel. Wickham has become the primary antagonist and is now more “testicular” according to Steers.
On Sequels and Franchise Potential
While there are currently no plans to adapt the prequel and sequel novels, Steers has intentionally left that door wide open.
It played out naturally. The things I set up have not been resolved in this. The Pride and Prejudice resolves, but the other big issues have not been resolved.
If a sequel were to happen, Steers envisions taking the characters into an original direction like the BBC film Death Comes To Pemberley. This film is being made for a target audience, but Steers is not pandering and is aiming to make the best film he can. With concern that there could be information overload in trying to get audiences adjusted to this fantastical world, Steers has a single goal.
“I’ve made a point of keeping it engaging. There is a basic thing in movies of knowing who the good guys are and the bad guys are so you know who to root for, the rest is a given…as long as it comes out as something the characters are interested in, you can get away with it. This is still the template: Pride and Prejudice a romantic comedy and it works.”
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES opens in theaters on February 5th, 2016.
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