“We were always hoping it would come together,” says director Ruben Fleischer, sitting in a fancy London hotel room to talk about the long-awaited sequel to his 2009 hit Zombieland. “But it was a long time in the making. You know, it was 10 years ago that the first one came out. And we pursued a sequel pretty much immediately, but it just wasn’t right, so we kind of abandoned the whole thing.
“And then it was only about five years ago that I was thinking, ‘Man, we should get back into Zombieland 2‘, just because it was such a fun experience making the first one and the cast is just some of the greatest people there are. It was kind of like I was just trying to figure out how to get to work with them all again. And so we came up with the story, but it took a long time to get the script right.
“Woody [Harrelson, who returns in the sequel as the cowboy-hat-wearing Tallahassee] especially was very discriminating about the script to make sure that, if we were going to do a second one, that it was worth doing. Because I guess the first one holds a special place in his heart – or in a lot of people who liked the movie’s hearts – we didn’t want to do anything that would tarnish the original. So we wanted to try and make something as good.”
Talking to Den Of Geek over a steaming cup of coffee, Fleischer went on to offer all sorts of insights into the making of Zombieland: Double Tap and how it slots into own personal journey as a filmmaker. Here are some highlights from our chat…
When it clicked
Trying to pinpoint a moment when things started to click into place, Fleischer remembers a script draft that came in from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. This duo, who worked on the original Zombieland before becoming the custodians of the Deadpool franchise, “galvanized everybody and gave us the confidence to move forward.”
The original cast had “all been excited about the possibility of it, but it was dependent on the material,” Fleischer recalls. They had all been involved in a “collective process” of offering notes, and once everyone was happy with the script, it just became a case of organising schedules and getting them all in the same place at the same time.
The story they settled on wasn’t a particularly complicated one: “They just needed a bit of a mission,” says Fleischer on the decision to separate Abigail Breslin’s Little Rock from the group to get the film started. “Having Little Rock go off on her own kind of felt like a natural thing for her character, wanting to kind of break free from the nest, and that was like the kind of inciting incident that led everybody on the quest to go get her. If you think of like a movie like The Searchers, or something like that, it’s a similar structure of like, “Oh, we gotta go rescue a little girl.”
Ten years later
A lot has changed since the first film, within its fictional world, with Fleischer wanting to create a sense that nature has returned to industrial areas over the last ten years. And the zombies are starting to adapt, too: a certain breed is becoming more intelligent and harder to kill (these ones are nicknamed T-800s) while others have become slow and stupid (they call those ones Homers).
“We actually at one point had even more different types of zombies,” Fleischer reveals, “and we had a lot of fun coming up with the different types. But the T-800s, being this heightened threat, felt like it was adding another layer of stakes to the world.” They also provide a proper challenge for our highly-experienced heroes, at a time when the apocalypse “had kind of got boring [for them]. Like, they’d gotten so good at killing zombies, and Tallahassee had lost his sort of passion for it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is pop culture, which is stuck at a post-apocalyptic stand-still, and Fleischer had some fun with that: “One of my favourite aspects of the whole thing was just acknowledging that time stopped in 2009. So no music in the movie takes place after that. It’s all pre-2009, I think, and the best example is probably Madison [a new character played by Zoey Deutch], whose style it was really fun to figure out: the Von Dutch and the Juicy Couture, and like just bringing back Paris Hilton circa 2006.”
Ten years is a long time in real-life, as well, and we asked Fleischer to reflect on how his filmmaking processes have changed in the decade between Zombieland films.
“You know, the first one was my first ever movie,” he tells us. “So I learned everything there was – that was my Baptism by fire. I learned so much on that movie, and the learning curve was huge. I remember telling my director of photography on the first one, ‘You know, I’ve never shot anything with a gun in it before’ – the movie’s about zombie-killing! And like, I hadn’t done big action sequences or anything like that. So it was really fun. It was like a dream come true to get to make that movie. But since then, yeah, I’ve made a bunch of other movies. And so, I felt like I just had more to bring to the table, especially from a visual effects standpoint: after doing Venom, I am a lot more well-versed in visual effects.”
He adds: “Wherever possible, [I’ve been] using some tricks that I’ve learned along the way. I’m super proud of that fight sequence that we did with Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch. I felt like that was pretty elevated filmmaking that, on the first movie, I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve something like that.”
In a Shaun Of The Dead-aping scene that you may have seen in the trailers, Wilson and Middleditch show up partway through the film as dead ringers for Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus and Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee. (And here’s a fun fact for you: the role of Eisenberg’s doppelganger was originally offered to Michael Cera.)
“Luke and Thomas just both came to play,” Fleischer says, remembering their four-day stint on set. “Luke and Woody are close friends in real life, so I think it was nice having that camaraderie that kind of sparked it, but Thomas was kind of… I’m not sure that any of them had met him before, but yeah, I can’t say enough about his improvisational skills. And Jesse’s an incredible improviser too. And so just seeing them go back and forth – like, a lot of the lines about T2 and James Cameron, there were runs that didn’t make them in the film where they were talking about being “Cam’ Heads” and it just went on and on and on. It was hard to edit it, because there’s so much great material.
Although Fleischer thinks an Emma Stone doppelganger is a “great idea,” there were never any plans to include one here. “In the early drafts,” Fleischer recalls, “it was just a Tallahassee doppelganger – I think we called him Alpha Tallahassee, and he was just like big dick-swinging kind of guy who got under Tallahassee’s skin. But then it evolved to be the two of them. But no, there was never an Emma Stone, but that might leave room for the third one.”
Another new character is played by Rosario Dawson, and Fleischer believes that “she hit it out of the park” with this badass heroine role. Could the director envision a spinoff? “With her? Yeah, I would love to,” Fleischer states. “That’s a great idea. Yeah. I mean, it’ll be interesting to see what happens next. Like, if people like the movie, which I really hope they do, is there an impetus to do another one? Or yeah, perhaps the better version is finding other characters within the world or following other stories?”
Out of the Venom-verse
Fleischer has worked on all sorts of films since the first Zombieland, from the glossy period piece Gangster Squad to the low-budget comedy 30 Minutes Or Less, but his recent work on Sony’s Venom earned the biggest box office bucks of the director’s career to date. He won’t be returning for Venom 2, though, and he is yet to talk to his replacement Andy Serkis about taking on the gig.
In those ten years since the original Zombieland, pre-existing intellectual properties like the Spider-Man villain Venom have become Hollywood‘s absolute favourite ideas to put on the big screen. Original concepts like the first Zombieland film feel like a very rare breed nowadays. Or does Fleischer think they were always uncommon?
“I don’t think it was as rare back then,” Fleischer reflects, pondering the history of original concepts in Hollywood. “I think that’s what the studios were making [back then]. But it’s funny, because they refer to this movie [Zombieland: Double Tap] as a franchise, but it’s not. I mean, I don’t think of it that way. It’s just a sequel to a first film. But yeah, I think I’ve said before: it’s like, if that first Zombieland script were to be turned into a studio today, I can’t imagine they’d make it. I think that’s the big difference. I don’t know, if they got a weird zombie comedy, if they would have the confidence to release it. Which is sad, because it’s such a great movie and such a funny world to live in.”
Zombieland: Double Tap opens in UK cinemas on 18 October 2019.