Q & A with Director Ruben Fleischer

Director Ruben Fleischer on the set of Zombieland.

Director Ruben Fleischer on the set of Zombieland. In theaters October 2nd.

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to Ruben Fleischer, director of Columbia Pictures and Relativity Media’s action comedy “Zombieland”, opening wide Oct. 2.

“Zombieland” focuses on two men trying to survive in a world overrun by zombies. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a big wuss who’s afraid of being eaten by zombies. Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a zombie-killing, gun-toting badass. As they join forces with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who’ve also found unique ways to survive the zombie mayhem, they must determine whether it’s worse to rely on each other or succumb to the zombies.

A Pariah production, “Zombieland” stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer, it was produced by Gavin Polone and written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. It was executive produced by Ezra Swerdlow, Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese, and Ryan Kavanaugh.

Ruben Fleischer, who grew up in Washington, D.C., never dreamed of directing movies. It was only after working as director Miguel Arteta’s assistant on “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl” that Fleischer was able to see what directing was all about. After that he devoted the next two years to making low budget music videos and short films that put him deep into credit card debt in his attempt to become a director. After people began watching and enjoying his videos, he was signed by a production company where he began directing commercials and bigger budget music videos.

While making the documentary “Six Days In May” about the Gumball Rally, a kind of modern day Cannonball Run, Fleischer met Rob & Big Black, with whom he then created and developed “Rob & Big”, a hit reality television show on MTV. After three successful seasons, the show ended and was followed by “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory”. “Zombieland” marks Fleischer’s feature directorial debut.

Q: How did “Zombieland” come about?
A: I’ve always wanted to make a film. I’m not a writer. I’ve tried writing a couple screenplays and they were all pretty horrible. I was looking for existing scripts as opportunities for my first film. I read a ton of them and when I read “Zombieland” I just was really excited because of all the opportunities it provided from a filmmaking perspective to put my stamp on the film and show my taste and my sensibilities and have some fun.
Q: First time directors are frequently writers. So if you’re not able to write your own screenplay, how do you as a brand new feature director find material?
A: I’m lucky because I have a terrific agent (Jason Burns at United Talent Agency) who always believed in me and had a real sense of my taste and was very pro-active as far as mailing scripts in my direction. He made sure I was reading everything that was out there that might be of interest and I was, I guess, pretty diligent about trying to search down good scripts and spend my free time reading them so that I could find a project that potentially fit. If you’re a young director and you’re represented by one of the major agencies, you can get access to pretty much any script that’s out there.
Q: So you were sent “Zombieland” to read?
A: Yes. “Zombieland” has an interesting genesis because it was originally a television show that the writers, Rhett & Paul, had developed. Gavin Polone, who is a movie producer but also a very successful television producer, had been trying to do it as a TV show, but it was deemed too expensive to be shot for a show or a pilot. They had taken their TV pilot then and made it into a TV movie to make it more of an event, but it was too expensive as budgeted so Gavin took it to Sony where he’s made several other movies and had a good relationship and asked them if they wanted to develop it as a feature and they did. The script I got (to read) was actually the television movie script.

I think part of the reason why they hired me was because they needed to figure out how to take it from being the first episode of a show that would naturally set up a series and end with a sort of ellipsis that would lead to later episodes to having more of a resolution or climax to make it a self-contained feature. I guess when they were talking to lots of young directors I was the guy who had the idea they liked for the ending, which was basically to set it in an amusement park and have that amusement park function as a destination for the dramatic thrust of the script. So it became like their Walley World (the theme park in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”).

Every road movie needs a destination and by nature of the television script it was aimless because they wanted to sustain over multiple seasons survivors making their way through this apocalyptic landscape. But as a movie we needed to give it an ending so we came up with this climactic ending in an amusement park that was really cool.
Q: Why were you attracted to the material when you first read it?
A: The voice of the script, Rhett & Paul, was really original quality. But I’ve got to be honest. At first I wasn’t interested because of the zombie nature of it. I’m just not a horror guy in any way. So it actually kind of put me off because I never envisioned making a zombie movie. But when I re-read it I realized that the zombies could be used as a backdrop, but it’s basically a buddy road movie with these two kind of opposite characters. The zombies are more of a backdrop for the storytelling than they are the point of it all. It’s really about these two people and their relationship and the adventure they go on that just happens to include blowing the heads off zombies. But for the most part, it’s about these two guys and then these two girls they meet along the way.
Star of Zombieland Woody Harrelson — in theaters October 2nd.

Star of Zombieland Woody Harrelson — in theaters October 2nd.

Q: When you read the script, I understand you thought of Woody Harrelson for the lead right away.
A: I think I’d just been watching “No Country for Old Men” and was reminded when he came on the screen how much I loved him because it had been a while since I’d seen him in anything. I was so excited. He just lights it up. He’s got such a natural charisma and he’s inherently funny. There’s something about the way he talks that is funny. I wanted the Tallahassee character to be iconic and bigger than a typical zombie movie might have. Woody seemed like the perfect person because he has all the qualities required of a bad-ass zombie killing loner drifter weirdo. He took it and elevated it to a whole different level.

When I first met with him we talked about it and read the script and he said, “What about a zombie killing cowboy?” — which was very in line with what I was thinking because I’d been watching a lot of Sergio Leone’s movies. I’d been seeing the movie as this post-apocalyptic western. Woody, I think, took a leap of faith in agreeing to be part of this zombie movie, which he’ll admittedly say he never in his life would have really considered doing. But the script just has such a playful fun nature that I think he was willing to take a leap of faith on a first-time unproven director and just go for it.
Q: How did you get Woody on board?
A: I had an initial meeting with him where he was considering it and then I prepared a visual presentation of some references to how I see the movie and other movies that I thought it could be like and casting ideas for the other roles. I flew to New York and met him at a vegan restaurant. This was Memorial Day weekend last year. He was impressed by the presentation and agreed to do it. He was wearing rollerblades at the time. He rollerbladed to the restaurant. I was super nervous (about meeting him).

He literally rollerblades into the restaurant and stops across from me. He has a rip on his jeans because I guess he’d fallen at some point in Central Park on his way across from his hotel to the restaurant. He was lost and had asked directions. I was just trying to picture being a tourist in New York City and walking through Central Park when all of a sudden Woody Harrelson falls on rollerblades in front of you and then asks you for directions.

He had four criteria that he required for him to do the film. The first two were fairly reasonable about casting and crew. The third was that we have an environmentally conscious set and make our best efforts to have a green set and recycle and whatnot. And the fourth request was that I don’t eat dairy for a week. So I agreed to those terms and I didn’t eat dairy for a week. I actually went five weeks without dairy.
Q: Was that hard to do?
A: It was hard, to be honest. I’ve always eaten meat and cheese and for me to not eat cheese is like for an alcoholic not to drink. I had a hard time and especially since it was Memorial Day when he asked me and there were all the summer barbecues. But I ended up being a vegetarian for, I think, 11 months as a result of that and I was basically a vegan for five weeks after that.
Q: Looking back at production, what were your biggest challenges?
A: For me, the entire experience was a challenge. Every single day I’d come across something that I’d never encountered. Previous to working on this, the largest things I’d done were a handful of music videos and short films and commercials. So there was nothing to really compare it to. Our second day of filming we had a massive zombie battle where Amber Heard, who plays a girl next door that turns into a zombie, gets bashed over the head and thrown across the room and is vomiting all over the place. It’s a really intense zombie action sequence. Then the rest of the week was spent shooting our third act climax in the amusement park with Woody Harrelson hanging off a roller coaster shooting a machine gun. I’d never done anything that involved a gun or shooting and I had like 150 extras chasing him around the park. He was doing some really intense stunts.

So every single day was a challenge and I was up to my ears in things that I hadn’t encountered before. I was very lucky to work with an extremely talented crew whose credits collectively are staggering — people who’d worked with Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and Martin Scorsese and Roland Emmerich and Doug Liman. All my heroes’ crew members were represented on my crew and so I was shepherded by these incredibly experienced people who just raised the bar on my filmmaking and took the movie to a whole different level. And I have them to thank for how the film turned out.
Q: How did you get Columbia to give you a big picture to make as your first film?
A: I guess it was my approach to the storytelling and the changes I suggested for the script. They wanted a movie that connected with a younger audience and I’d made some videos that were popular with the kids. I think they wanted that younger, hipper flexibility to bring to this material.
Q: What kind of budget did you have?
A: The budget was $21.9 million all said and done.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: 41 days. We shot in Georgia, which has significant tax incentives, from February through April of this year. So we were able to take advantage of that as well as the inherent production value in Georgia that just boosted the look of the film significantly. And there was a great local crew. Our producer, Gavin Polone, is immensely talented at making the dollars go as far as they possibly can.