'Zombieland' show creators: 'Our zombies are infected humans ... not undead'


Have you had your passport stamped in Zombieland yet? While not exactly the happiest place on earth, it might be one of the more talked about new show projects right now. The pilot, now showing for free over at Amazon Instant Video, spins off of the 2009 blockbuster hit starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone. And as is well known by now, that movie was initially intended to be a pilot in of itself before it was instead adapted for the big screen.

But now Zombieland is back on the small(er) screen and, though it has generated a lot of buzz, it is facing the inevitable comparison to the movie that sort of spawned it. The characters are the same, but the actors different, but the gore is still there. And the chances of the show's survival (meaning a full season pick-up) depend on the streaming numbers and feedback from the viewing public. This strategy, of a show living or dying from fan engagement, continues an interesting non-zombie apocalyptic scenario that Netflix has already profited from: What happens when TV networks are really unnecessary to create TV?

To discuss these topics about recast characters, zombie rules, Zombieland and online TV-Land, the show's co-creators/executive producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick joined Paranormal Pop Culture for a conference call. (After the jump...)

Q: It's kind of widely known that Zombieland started as a television pilot. Why don't you give us 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, you know, a partner in Amazon to do that. And now we've brought out the pilot.

Q: Why bring back the same characters from the movie instead of coming up with a new batch of characters within the same Zombieland?

Rhett Reese: Yes that's a very good question, Aaron. I think the biggest reason we brought back these specific characters is, to us, Zombieland really is these characters.

You know, if -- without Tallahassee, Wichita, Little Rock and Columbus -- I think Zombieland really wouldn't be much more than a title and a tone ... It just didn't make sense to us. Like we always loved these characters. You know, 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, you know, comparison between new cast and old cast which I think is -- we think is incredibly unfair in the sense that, you know, 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 ... 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 and to - and our feeling is if the more time they spend with them the more they're going to love them and the more they're going to embrace them.

Q: Are you planning on exploring a lot of this zombified country?

Paul Wernick: We do envision this as a road show that we're going to be heading east and traveling towards Detroit, towards the East Coast and Fisher Island to this, you know, safe community.

So, absolutely. We feel that actually going on the road and shooting it in location to location -- Vegas hopefully being the next spot we hit -- and hitting spots along the way like Mt. Rushmore and Graceland. Again we have to kind of chart it out on a map.

But absolutely. This inherently is a road show and I think we, you know, ideally would love to take the production on the road.

Q: Can you speak to how working with Amazon impacts the amount of gore that you're able to show versus on a regular network?

Paul Wernick: As far as gore, 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. The tone of the movie I think we tried to maintain in the pilot. Amazon, basically their edict was make the show that you want to make. Make Zombieland.

We do see some blood and guts. But that's all part of the tone of the show and something that, you know, Amazon encouraged.

Q: Is it correct that Kirk Ward was originally cast as Tallahassee in this -- as it was a pilot before Woody Harrelson?

Rhett Reese: 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 time to leaving reality television which is what we were trying to do at the time and writing a script, we wrote Zombieland as a spec pilot and we wrote it 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 to 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...

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... 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."

Q: Can you talk a little bit about finding the balance between honoring the movie while keeping the TV serieits own entity?

Rhett Reese: Ultimately 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, you know, dramatic, scary and funny in theory with the emphasis on the funny...

We're 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 ... different elements that will bring new graphics and just new fun runners and jokes that we always had intended to bring in.

Paul Wernick: I would say is thatif 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, you know, more stories. You know, the movie ends. They're at Pacific Playland. They get in the car and they're hitting the road.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what will be different with Amazon? Like it's all being focus-tested essentially to the general public. So how is that going to affect the success of whether or not it goes to series?

Paul Wernick: Well, I mean, again it's the ultimate focus test putting in front of America and having them decide whether they like it enough to take it to series. I mean, it's really a meritocracy and one we embrace.

You know, oftentimes, pilots are - whether they go to series or not are decided by a couple of executives in suits and a room full of 20 random people that are selected for various reasons and whether they like it or not. So I think putting it in front of the public is really an exciting way to decide whether to move forward or not on a project.

Q: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Zombieland zombies are not the traditional George Romero zombies; they're living zombies. Is that still sort of the zombie that we're dealing with in the Zombieland series?  And what other kinds of mythology or zombie rules have you crafted?

Rhett Reese: Right. 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.

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, you know, 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.

Q: The genre is incredibly popular right now and there's all sorts of theories as to why. But for you personally, for both of you guys, what is it about zombies that intrigues you or even terrifies you?

Paul Wernick: Well, for us, it's that the post-apocalypse -- unlike The Walking Dead -- is that there's great wish fulfillment in this idea that you're one of the last few humans on earth; that 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 this -- well, I mean, a little bit -- but 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.