“Warm Bodies” — Isaac Marion Interview
It’s common knowledge that if there’s a zombie, you destroy it. You destroy its brain by any means necessary. But this is all changing because of Isaac Marion and his book Warm Bodies. And it’s been turned into a movie directed by Jonathan Levine. This new rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy) puts the shoe on the other table, turns it, then flips the genre on its head. Ever thought it was possible to relate more with a zombie than a human? Well, get ready to.
Warm Bodies is told from the point of view of a zombie named, R (Nicholas Hoult). He mostly hangs out with his buddy M (Rob Corrdy) and groans. And yea, he loves eating the living, but he at least questions whether he should do it. Oh, this is important, when a zombie eats the brain of the living, they get short glimpses of the person’s memory. So, when R eats Perry Kelvin’s (Dave Franco) brain, he immediately knows who his girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer) is. And now, he has the overwhelming desire to keep her safe instead of eating her. Sappy, I know. But sappy, in this case, is pretty awesome. Problem is, Julie’s dad is General Grigio (John Malkovich), the head of the armed forces trying to wipe out the zombies. Also, there’s this sect of zombies called boneys that are cool to kill without sympathy, so that’s awesome. Well, here, just watch the trailer:
Anyways, after seeing this trailer, I had to read the book. I never do that, but, come on, the story intrigued me. And I have to tell you, it was incredible. Go buy the book and read it. Isaac actually made a book trailer over a year ago. But beware, the book asks some deep questions. What’s the point of doing anything? Why do we exist? Well, you can think about that after you finish reading this.
Ok, so I hunted down Isaac and asked him a few questions about his book and the movie, which comes out February 1st.
NB: First things first. On your site, you admit that you’re not married, have no kids, didn’t go to college, and worst of all, didn’t win any prizes. What made you even think you could write a book that would be made into a movie?
Isaac: When I was just an uneducated 21-year-old construction worker, I found a tweed jacket with leather elbow pads at Goodwill and put it on and felt the ghosts of writers past flooding through my being. It was then that I knew I could write a novel, even a novel with the most ridiculous premise I’d ever heard of.
NB: You tell the story from the point of view of a zombie named, R. We’re all trained to want to destroy zombies in awesomely gruesome ways. But from page one, the worst thing I could imagine is for R to get “killed.” I’m sympathizing with zombies, thanks a lot. You made them more relatable than humans. Where did the idea to do this come from?
Isaac: Zombies are maybe the last remaining classic monster that hasn’t been humanized. Everything else–vampires, werewolves, robots, aliens, demons, mummies–has gotten the empathy treatment, has gotten its story told. It seemed to me there was a missed opportunity, because it’s always fascinating to explore the perspectives of things that aren’t like us, whether human or creature or object. I’ve written stories from the POV of a cat, a black hole, a T.Rex, a stop light, a single pixel, and each one offered interesting new ways to look at humanity and everyday life. Also some pretty good jokes.
NB: Write what you know, right? So, how much of R is you? And, is the love story between R and Julie based off of real life in any way?
Isaac: It’s weird to say this, but Warm Bodies is probably the most autobiographical thing I’ve written. I started it during a very dark, sad, apathetic phase of my life. I’d recently broken away from my fundamentalist upbringing and was in the tough transitional period between life in the religious bubble and life in the real world where we have to face our own problems and create a sense of meaning for our lives without it being force-fed to us every Sunday. I very much related to R, having no identity, no sense of self or role to play in the world. I started to discover that for myself while I was in the process of writing Warm Bodies, and it exploded onto the page.
Practically speaking, R is an aspect of my personality, but not “me” exactly. The combined person of R and Perry is probably closer. As for Julie…yes, there’s a story there too. But it’s too long and weepy for a website called Man Cave.
NB: There’s obviously going to be some changes going from book to the big screen. One example is that R’s red tie is replaced with a red hoodie. What are the most drastic changes you’ve noticed, and do they take anything away from the story?
Isaac: R has been aged down a bit, made more teenage. Nora is…whiter. It’s mostly superficial differences. Probably the biggest story change is the way the ending plays out, which I won’t spoil, but if you’ve read the book you know it ends in a very mysterious, metaphysical, metaphorical way, and you can probably imagine the difficulty of portraying that in a lighthearted dramedy flick. Movie adaptations tend to distill books down to their basic story beats, so some of the thematic depth and character complexity always gets lost. Everything becomes lighter and simpler. But I’m actually pretty impressed with how well this movie balances the contrasting tones. It’s definitely more of a comedy than the book, but it still manages to include some of the book’s poignancy and social commentary, in between zombie jokes.
NB: So, the sets are fully decorated and the cast is all made up. What was it like seeing your words come to life?
Isaac: So surreal. Hard to even explain all the feelings. Every time I’d hear a crew member use a character’s name–”We need two more lights on Julie, and let’s touch up R’s makeup”–it would strike me how bizarre it was that all these highly paid professionals were taking my ridiculous story so seriously. It was like a NASA control room on the set and I kept thinking “I made those people up! Julie is a figment of my imagination!”
NB: How involved were you with the making of the movie?
Isaac: More than most authors, from what I’m told, but it was more of a consultant role than an active participant. Jonathan Levine would call me now and then while he was writing the script and ask me about this or that, they consulted me on some visualization ideas and I got to give notes on two drafts of the script. So I contributed opinions, but I didn’t have any direct “control” over how things played out.
NB: Shrugging is used throughout the book, which I loved. Any specific reason for that?
Isaac: It developed naturally from R. He can barely speak, so he has to use a lot of body language. And since his answer to most questions is “I dunno, whatever” we find him shrugging a lot. It became sort of symbolic for the state of apathy and disconnection he was existing in, which is why it annoys Julie so much. As R fights to become more engaged with being alive, he tries to ditch this noncommittal gesture.
NB: Since we know eating brains gives zombies the memories of the living, whose brain would you like to eat if you were a zombie?
Isaac: Assuming it has to be someone currently living, I’ll take an appetizer of Charlie Kaufman, an entree of Neil Armstrong, and whoever is dating Lizzy Caplan for dessert.
NB: What’s your favorite zombie movie that’s not based on a book you’ve written?
Isaac: To be honest, I’m not that hugely into zombie stuff. I’ve absorbed all the tropes over the years and I’ve seen most of the major films, but I’m not the rabid fan of the genre you might expect. I like comedy and satire but I don’t have a lot of patience for half-assed cheese and camp, which is what a lot of zombie fiction seems to aim for. I like good dialogue and stories with ideas. I like violence and gore, but only if its used to make an emotional impact, not just cheap thrills. I liked Day of the Dead for exploring what zombies actually are and how they work and think. I like 28 Days Later for taking the genre seriously and creating characters that seemed like real people. I liked Shaun of the Dead for having fun with the concept without being stupid.
NB: Right now it’s all about Warm Bodies and World War Z. How much better will Warm Bodies be?
Isaac: I haven’t read the WWZ novel. I hear it’s good. The movie looks boring to me. All we see in the trailer are helicopters, Brad Pitt’s worried face, and a swarm of vaguely zombie-shaped CGI. What is this movie about? Anything? Are there any other characters or is it just Brad Pitt shooting stuff and having long hair?
NB: Everyone will want/wants to know what happens to R and Julie. I know you get this all the time, but I have to ask. Are you working on anything along those lines? And, are you working on any non-zombie stories?
Isaac: I’m writing a sequel. It will be the conclusion of this story, not the beginning of a series. Details on that are on my blog, burningbuilding After that, I have three novels queued up to be written. No zombies in any of them. Warm Bodies was the first time I ever wrote about something as pop-culture-specific as zombies, and I never imagined that would end up being the basis of my whole writing career. Most of my writing is more dark magical realism, Charlie Kaufmanesque weirdness. Warm Bodies will definitely be the last thing I write that anyone will mistake for a YA novel.
So, the book’s awesome, and the movie will be too. Go buy the book and then go see Warm Bodies on February 1st, 2013. Follow the movie on Facebook and Twitter. Oh, and follow Isaac there and here too. He’ll appreciate it.