A wild story about a zombie pandemic had an equally wild shoot. Inside Brad Pitt's struggle to bring the best-selling epic ''World War Z'' to the screen
It’s ticking toward midnight on a frosty October night in 2011 in a cheerless corner of Budapest, and Brad Pitt is a man on a mission. The actor is nearly naked — wearing only some cotton shorts and a pair of untied shoes — but he’s got a blanket wrapped around his shoulders that gives him the look of a prophet. Is he seeking truth? Or maybe just his lost shopping cart? ”I need a chili dog,” he says over his shoulder to a journalist he has known for less than 90 seconds. To make it closer to a conversation, he adds a question: ”Do you like chili dogs?” He doesn’t wait for his visitor to answer or catch up. He has been called the sexiest man alive, but right now he’s just the hungriest man in Hungary.
Pitt has been fasting for days and hints that he hasn’t eaten a proper meal in a couple of weeks. The effect is a famine physique: His famous abs are missing in the cave-in above his beltline, and his face appears to be shrink-wrapped. Pitt wanted to bring some ”authentic desperation,” as he puts it, to a scene that finds his character among the ragged captives of Russian slavers, just one of the menacing factions in the sci-fi/horror epic World War Z (out June 21). The movie, which the actor is producing, is his bid to build himself a PG-13 action franchise, and it is also the most expensive zombie film ever made.
At the moment, Pitt is beating a path to a New York-style hot dog stand on set, an incongruous sight considering that the World War Z crew is encamped at an abandoned canning factory dressed to resemble a Moscow manufacturing plant. Soviet-era tanks flecked with fake snow and piles of rubbery corpses give the scene a brutal tint at the edges. Pitt grabs two frankfurters and adds jalapeños. ”Greatest chili dog ever,” he says, cheeks bulging.
In a zombie apocalypse, you take your pleasures where you can. World War Z took six years to develop and shoot, and it’s been a lurching, bone-jarring ordeal as delays, rewrites, a postponed release, bad press, a carousel of screenwriters, and expensive reshoots pushed the expected $125 million budget to $170 million. The good news is that during a follow-up interview on the Paramount lot in Hollywood in mid-March, Pitt seems proud and buoyant. Even his jawline and frame have regained their famous contours. ”We had a fantastic preview last night, so we’re feeling good, but the whole experience has given me respect for this kind of [F/X-heavy] filmmaking,” says the 49-year-old actor, who’s dressed head to toe in varying shades of black. ”These movies are very intricate puzzles, and you have to keep winding the mechanisms and then trigger them all at just the right time. We give so much more credence to the end-of-the-year dramas. In these movies you’re triggering emotions, too — a thrill response — but they are far more calibrated. You’ve got to be a bit of a technician.”
Sitting across from Pitt is Marc Forster, his partner on the movie. Forster’s a German-born director in whose eclectic body of work (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace, The Kite Runner) Pitt had seen hints of a kindred spirit. But it was a bumpy ride for both, and they reportedly had clashing visions on the set. Asked if it’s true that they literally stopped speaking to each other during production, the easygoing but no-nonsense actor and the reserved, cerebral director take turns shrugging. ”We’re in here every day, pounding away,” Pitt says.
Forster adds that shooting for 80 days in four different countries meant creating ”mass hysteria and panic in the streets” for zombie-attack scenes and choreographing more than a thousand extras. ”A movie of that scale, you know, it’s not four people sitting around a table having a discussion,” he says. ”It’s not My Apocalypse With Andre. There’s choppers and crowds, and it’s not easy and it can be stressful.”
WWZ is based on the 2006 best-seller World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, written by first-time novelist Max Brooks. Paramount acquired the film rights for Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment that year after a bidding war with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. In the film, Pitt’s character is flinty, soulful Gerry Lane, a former United Nations crisis specialist who reluctantly leaves his wife (Mireille Enos of AMC’s The Killing) and two young daughters for one last mission — to discover the cause of and hopefully the cure for a wildfire virus that threatens to wipe out human civilization. The malady sends victims into a fatal seizure and then, with microwave-oven speed, brings them back as desiccated drones that have only one impulse: to find a living victim to bite to complete the lovely Circle of Nonlife.
Brooks’ novel is structured as a collection of U.N. field reports and firsthand accounts of the ”Walking Plague,” in which spymasters, civilians, soldiers, and scientists look back from the far side of the pandemic. The zombies in the book are fairly garden-variety: As in Shaun of the Dead or The Walking Dead, they trudge along in the slow footsteps of George A. Romero’s cannibalistic hordes. Pitt was hooked by the ominous outbreak but even more so by the geopolitical safari the book presents. There’s a change of locale every five pages or so, with stops in Langley, Va., and Tel Aviv as well as offbeat detours to India, Ireland, and Chile. ”This unprecedented threat comes along, and it’s going to end everything and everybody unless someone comes up with an answer,” says Pitt. ”The interesting thing is how different those answers are and the way those choices lead to power shifts and life-and-death consequences.”
Brooks, son of the legendary Mel, was skeptical that a blockbuster could be made out of his novel. ”I’m naturally cynical because of growing up in Hollywood. When I first met Brad he was so excited, and saying, ‘I really want to go into this book and get everything right — all the details, everything.’ I was feeling like, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s nice.’ And then I went to see Moneyball, a movie that not many people would have tried to make. That’s when I realized he was serious.”
Ultimately, Brooks’ story was indeed transformed as the movie made its way to the screen — partly because the filmmakers envision a trilogy if all goes well. Rather than reflecting on the war from the future, as the novel did, the film begins with America’s first glimpse of the zombies. (Not for nothing do directors shout ”Action!”) Pitt’s character was amped up to bind the plot together — a necessity because Lane is little more than a cipher on the page, a placeholder not unlike the reporter in Citizen Kane. The undead have been amped up too. ”The book focused on slow zombies,” says Pitt. ”We chose to be more dynamic in that we wanted to base all of this on science. So it’s ‘What if we had them move like ants? Or a swarm of bees? Or birds or a school of fish that’s being chased?’ One of the first [”questions”] we asked was how to portray the zombies and how to do it differently because it’s been done so many times and been done pretty damn well.”
It was Forster who suggested what has already become the film’s eye-catching visual signature: the use of animal-kingdom biomechanics to create zombies that move across the screen in a new and deeply unsettling way. When the creatures chase humans, they wheel in formation, like a school of fish evading a predator. When they see a human in a car, they launch themselves toward the windshield, leading with the crown of their skulls the way a salmon hurls itself up a river. Most jolting is seeing the human forms climb on top of one another to make a writhing tower with all the intuitive cooperation of an insect colony.
J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Changeling) wrote the first script for WWZ, and cited The Bourne Identity as a tonal cousin for international action grounded in gunmetal tones of reality. His screenplay was leaked online; Ain’t It Cool News breathlessly hailed it as a masterpiece. Perhaps, but Forster and Pitt went in a different direction. Their North Star was All the President’s Men: During the early stages of production, they were more interested in solving mysteries than in throwing punches. Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs) was brought in to work on the script. Filming began in the summer of 2011 with a $125 million budget and an eye toward a holiday 2012 release. As weeks became months, however, there was a sense that the center wasn’t holding. The movie felt scattershot, Pitt acknowledged in Budapest, pointing to test footage on a television screen in his trailer.
After shooting in England, Malta, and Scotland, the movie reached Budapest on wobbly tires. There was debate within the creative team about priorities. Were there strong enough action sequences? Were they expressing politically interesting ideas at the expense of deepening the relationship between Pitt’s and Enos’ characters? Then there was the debacle with the guns.
On Oct. 10, 2011, Hungarian antiterrorist officers entered an off-set warehouse and seized 85 assault rifles, sniper rifles, and handguns meant for the film. Production sources and law enforcement officials have since disagreed about whether the firearms could have been used as anything other than props. No charges were filed. But a juiced-up version of the story made the rounds online, until you almost believed Pitt was sitting atop a pile of weapons when a SWAT team burst in on him.
Six thousand miles away in L.A., Paramount execs were shocked when they saw the emaciated Pitt in the dailies arriving from Budapest. It was hardly the first time the actor had submerged his looks for a performance (he earned his first Oscar nod playing a disheveled psychiatric patient in 12 Monkeys), but it’s easy to imagine the footage stirring up high anxiety at the studio. (As of now, almost all of the Budapest footage is on the cutting-room floor.) Prometheus co-writer Damon Lindelof was brought in to write a new finale — both literally and figuratively — for WWZ. Feeling pressured and overwhelmed by the unexpected workload, Lindelof asked for a partner. The Cabin in the Woods director and co-writer Drew Goddard came in to help give the third act a more heroic flourish. Five weeks were spent on reshoots, pushing the budget higher.
Even throughout the more tortured phases of production, the cast and crew held together to a surprising degree. During a break on the Budapest set, Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz — who plays a Tel Aviv soldier who ends up escorting Pitt’s character into an almost Dantesque vision of hell — describes World War Z as a peaceful military operation with a mission that changes at times. ”That’s just the work, though,” she says, talking between deafening blasts of a siren being readied for an upcoming attack scene. ”Going from country to country and seeing the same people along the way, you become like a family in a way, or maybe a tribe with passports.”
Today, on the Paramount lot, both Pitt and Forster insist the movie is better without the scenes they shot in Budapest. ”Well, you remember that at the time I was really interested in a more political film, using the zombie trope as a kind of Trojan horse for asking: ‘What would happen to sociopolitical lines if there was a pandemic like this? Who would be on top? Who would be the powerful countries and who would be the most vulnerable?”’ says the actor. ”We wanted to really explore that, but it was just too much. We got bogged down in it; it was too much to explain. It gutted the fun of what these films are meant to be.”
Asked if he feels it was a waste of time or creative labor, Pitt shakes his head quickly and says there’s ”no amputation” when you leave stuff behind on a film of this size. As with those zombies who react in unison, there’s only the collective goal: a hit movie that entertains and possibly enlightens. After a beat, Pitt’s face creases into a toothy grin. ”And those hot dogs were good, man.”
Zombies: A Field Guide
The undead are living large in pop culture these days, but what a zombie is, exactly, depends on whom you ask. Here are some of the varieties that have made it to the screen.
Caribbean old-school zombies
In Haitian culture, a zombie is a corpse brought back to life to act as a slave. Movie examples can be found in 1932’s White Zombie and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow.
These are the dead who are revived by a scientist who later regrets the decision, usually while slumping to the floor. The undead in Re-Animator and (arguably) Frankenstein fall into this category.
Director George A. Romero invented the modern zombie genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, whose shuffling, flesh-eating corpses would go on to populate The Walking Dead and the World War Z book.
What’s better than shambling zombies? Running zombies! That’s what Zack Snyder thought when he made his 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Some, including Romero, dispute that view.
In 2002’s 28 Days Later, the fast-moving zombies aren’t dead but have been infected by a rage-inducing virus. So technically they’re not zombies at all. Although they still really want to kill you.
Chinese hopping zombies
A jiangshi (which translates as ”stiff corpse”) moves with a pogolike motion due to rigor mortis but sucks the life energy out of victims to get more bounce. See one in Spooky Encounters.
Not so much a zombie but more of a horror-loving rock star and director of Halloween remakes. His birth name is in fact Robert Bartleh Cummings. See also: ’60s-era British rockers the Zombies.