Grindhouse: Inside Rodriguez Planet Terror

Cannes Film Fest 2007–In Robert Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR, a retro-futuristic vision of horror thats been weathered and stripped, married doctors William and Dakota Block (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton) find their graveyard shift inundated with townspeople ravaged by gangrenous sores and a suspiciously vacant look in their eyes.

Among the wounded is Cherry (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer whose leg was ripped from her body during a roadside attack. Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), her former significant other, is at her side and watching her back. Cherry may be down, but she hasnt danced her last number. As the invalids quickly become enraged aggressors, Cherry and Wray lead a team of accidental warriors into the night, hurtling towards a destiny that will leave millions infected, countless dead, and a lucky few struggling to find the last safe corner of PLANET TERROR.

PLANET TERROR also stars Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Naveen Andrews, Stacy Ferguson and Michael Parks. PLANET TERROR will be shown on a GRINDHOUSE double bill with Quentin Tarantinos DEATH PROOF.

Origins

Several years ago, when Rodriguez first jotted down the notes that would eventually become the script for PLANET TERROR, he thought he would resuscitate a dormant genre. No one had made a zombie movie in a long time, Rodriguez says of his initial impulse.” The visionary director was a fan of zombie and horror films, but he wanted to write a movie that would be something truly different, surprising and unexpected. He sought to make a zombie film that was character-driven, frenetically paced and over-the-top. He continued fleshing out his ideas, but writers block and work on other projects stalled his efforts.

Greg Nicotero, Rodriguezs longtime collaborator, describes the script's protracted gestation: I remember during SPY KIDS, or maybe as early as THE FACULTY, Robert saying, Ive got this cool idea for this zombie movie. I dont know exactly whats going to happen yet, but theres going to be a doctor and his wife, and theyre going to be working in a hospital, and theres going to be this really great scene where we see a girl on the road, and every time a car passes we reveal silhouettes of zombies getting closer and closer to her.

Cycle of Zombie Films

Rodriguez gave Nicotero the first thirty pages of this screenplay, which included these pulse-pounding moments. I remember reading it and I said, Where are you going to go from there He said, I have no idea. I never got past those thirty pages, Rodriguez says, and of course zombie movies started coming out one after another.

Three weeks later, DAWN OF THE DEAD, LAND OF THE DEAD and SHAWN OF THE DEAD invaded movie theaters and revived audiences appetites for screen representations of flesh-hungry monsters by offering new, unusual takes on the plight of the undead.

But instead of discouraging Rodriguez, these movies whetted his appetite and challenged him to be even more inventive when writing. Rodriguez was developing his child-like imagination with the SPY KIDS trilogy and with the smash hit SIN CITY, films that showcased his capacity to create a fantasy world that is unlike anything audiences had ever experienced.

Rodriguez returned to PLANET TERROR committed to fill his screenplay with things that I hadnt seen in other movies, like new characters. Included in Rodriguezs tiny anonymous Texas town are a barbecue-obsessed business-owner; a stoic and suspicious sheriff; a gun-legged go-go girl-turned-vigilante; a syringe-wielding, wobbly-wristed doctor on the run from her abusive husband; a pocket-bike riding mysterious hero, and a pair of psychotic identical babysitter twins.

In PLANET TERROR, disbelief isnt just suspended; its annihilated. As with SIN CITY, stories weave in and out of each other and circumstances escalate to absurd and impossible levels.

Although Rodriguez has commitment for fresh and radical storytelling, PLANET TERROR has its roots in classic films beyond those of grindhouse era. The dialogue between Wray and Cherry is noir-inspired, and their love story is similarly elevated. The political paranoia and vague allusions to espionage are great throwbacks to films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, KISS ME DEADLY and other cultural remnants of the McCarthy Era.

Nicotero received the script for PLANET TERROR, unaware that Rodriguez had resurrected the project: Lo and behold, I get this script and I start reading it and I think, Hey theres a doctor, and his wife, and then I get to the scene with Tammy on the road and I think: Ive read this before.

Actors on their Roles

You would think a zombie movie is just people running away from zombies, Michael Biehn, who plays Hague, jokes. But we all have our relationships with the other people in the movie that are very strong. The characters are really well written. I think that thats whats going to make it all pull together, because its a pretty crazy movie.

Rose McGowan, who plays Cherry, was so in awe of the scripts unusual circumstances and such sharp, funny dialogue. She also couldnt imagine how anyone could think of outfitting a character with a gun for a leg. (The image of McGowan and the leg has already become iconic among the fanboy set following the exciting debut of a teaser poster at Comic-Con in June of 2006.) I asked him, How did you come up with the fact that Cherry has a machine gun leg He said, Well, I was sitting in traffic, and thats where the explanation stopped. OK, I sit in traffic, too, and I dont often have machine gun legs that pop into my head. But thats just me.

Rodriguez looked to his favorite films and TV programs, his family, friends and his previous collaborators to assemble the impressive and diverse cast of PLANET TERROR. Marley Shelton, Bruce Willis and Tarantino worked with the director previously. Joining them are actors who are familiar to genre enthusiasts: Naveen Andrews of Lost, Rose McGowan of Charmed, Michael Biehn, who starred in ALIENS, THE ABYSS, and THE TERMINATOR, and Jeff Fahey, a favorite for THE LAWNMOWER MAN and BODY PARTS. Tom Savini, one of the founding fathers of horror movie makeup, portrays Deputy Tolo. Rebel Rodriguez, Rodriguezs son, plays Tony, and Elise and Electra Avellan, Rodriguezs nieces, make an impressive debut as the Babysitter Twins. This group of actors, along with Freddy Rodriguez and Stacy Ferguson, makes the high drama of PLANET TERROR seem real, believable and very, very scary.

Rose McGowan

McGowan has a global following for her scene-stealing roles in SCREAM and THE DOOM GENERATION and for her turn as Paige on the television series Charmed. She embraced the truly un-chartered dramatic territory that her role in PLANET TERROR would offer her. Cherry is on an emotional rollercoaster from the moment she appears on the scratched (digital) celluloid, crying on the stage of her go-go club. Shes kind of a wanderer, and things never just really seem to pan out for her. Shes just really down on herself and her life.

Cherrys turmoil dovetails into a fateful run-in with her ex, Wray, played by Freddy Rodriguez. But Cherrys bad night doesnt end there: Her leg, one of the tools of her former trade, is ripped from her body in a roadside attack. Thats when the fun really begins. PLANET TERROR is absolutely a wild ride, McGowan says. I dont even really know how best to describe it. Cherry starts out as a normal girl whose life is a bit on the skids, and all of a sudden she has to save the universe.

McGowan spent much of production shuttling between Austin and Los Angeles, where she was completing production of the final season of Charmed. Once the show wrapped, she was free to devote her attention to Cherrys adventure.

Freddie Rodriguez

Joining McGowan is Freddy Rodriguez, who has become a popular character actor since his Emmy-nominated stint on HBOs Six Feet Under. PLANET TERROR marks Freddy Rodriguezs debut in a sci-fi or action film. He plays Wray, a tough loner whose identity is shrouded in secrecy.

Wray is kind of a mysterious character, Rodriguez says. The film takes place in Texas. Because of his appearance, the way he talks, and the way he behaves, Wray is clearly not from Texas. We really dont know who he is or where hes from. Hes kind of a loner. As the movie unfolds, you see different layers of Wray, and as the different layers are peeled away, and you see more and more of who he is.

McGowan, for one, was extremely happy with the pairing. Freddys got this great edge in this character and he just really nails it. Hes very, very focused, McGowan says. He definitely has the cool thing going on. Hes got swagger going into it, and swagger coming out of it.

Marley Shelton

Marley Shelton, who made an appearance alongside Josh Hartnett in SIN CITYs brilliant opening sequence, returned to Troublemaker Studios to play Dr. Dakota Block: Im an anesthesiologist, and I have a terrible relationship with my husband, Shelton says of her character. We have a stale marriage — a Cold War marriage. On the night that the movie takes place Im about to leave my husband, played by Josh Brolin.

Dakota, like Cherry, is prepared to take strides in reclaiming control of her personal life. Dakota also has her own set of unusual physical challenges to work through: The funniest thing about my character is that for the first half of the movie I lose the ability to control my hands. Funnily enough, I can actually move my wrists in a really bizarre way. Stupid human tricks. Playing with Dakotas frustration was really fun for me. Shes a doctor whos rendered awkward. Shes someone whos hyper efficient, a real type-A personality, whos always in control and who is now out of control. She cant protect herself, and she cant protect her son, and she cant escape.

Not only can she not escape, Dakota cant even turn a key: She busts her tooth within moments of her introduction. Shelton had to get used to having the eyes of crew members fixate on her blacked-out tooth during on-set conversations.

Dakotas problems are not just plot points or gimmicks for Shelton. She approached Dakotas unusual circumstances with respect and believability and tempered her performance with humanity: Its a wild ride and her evolution is great. The more horrific, traumatic things that happen to her, the more sort of unbridled and unleashed she becomes in terms of connecting to herself, and reconnection with her father, and connecting to her son.

Shelton loves that her character has a devilishly heroic upswing: I have a secret stash of hypodermic needles on my garter belt. Once my hands come back to life Im able to use to defend myself against the evil rapist played by none other than Quentin Tarantino, Shelton says. One bad thing after another is happening to me, and Im on the run, but I have this great comeback moment where I get to shoot my needle gun, and then twirl it in like old-school western movie fashion just like my dad, Quick Draw Earl McGraw would. Tarantino and Rodriguez fans will remember Earl McGraw played by Michael Parks, appeared in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and KILL BILL and who has a cameo with Shelton in DEATH PROOF.

The movie universe also includes Red Apple cigarettes and Chango Cervesa. She took her addition to this legacy very seriously. That syringe moment shows that Earl trained his daughter well. Shes got chops. She can twirl a gun, which she probably learned when she was six years old. I was terrified of the gun twirling. I spent months trying to learn how to do it, and of course Robert made me look much cooler than I really am. Hes just brilliant at that.

Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin portrays Dr. William Block, Dakotas suspicious and controlling husband. He shared many of his scenes with Shelton, who found the actor distractingly charming: Our characters hate each other — were killing each other, were fighting, were violent. But Josh is just the most magnanimous guy. Hes so charismatic and funny. Between takes we were cracking up.

Despite their kidding around, Shelton appreciated his similar commitment to the role and his dedication to making his character as real as possible. He gained twenty-five pounds for the role. He plays this brooding Texan with a beer gut — just this crazy guy who is a bitter, male chauvinist pig. He did an amazing job, and hes so funny in the movie, and so menacing, and so scary.

Brolin has known Rodriguez for years, and the part of Block was written specifically for him. He wasnt aware of the specifics of the project or of the imaginativeness of its plot, so he was pleased when he finally read the script for PLANET TERROR. Why would you not be a part of something thats that fun; thats that involved, the actor says.

The character was a small role that was developed and fleshed out during a meeting between Rodriguez and Brolin. He came in with a beard, and that whole character we kind of came up with based on him just coming in and reading, Rodriguez says. You dont know hes a villain until theres a scene where he turns. Youre sympathetic to him until you realize hes out of his mind. And this is before hes turned into a zombie. Hes crazy and deadly before he even gets infected. So I wantedI battled that a long time. I thought the character was someone who was never going to get infected. He was just going to be more dangerous than anyone just because he was out of his mind, jealous, and crazy, after his wife for cheating on him.

Michael Biehn

Michael Biehn plays Hague, a small town sheriff who must unite with Wray to overcome a zombie enemy. Biehn has been a screen presence for nearly thirty years. He has come against some crippling other-worldly forces throughout his career, having appeared in THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS and THE ABYSS. Though playing the stoic, brave Hague had its own creative rewards, showcasing the set to his son was a special perk: When my fourteen-year-old was out here visiting he always wanted to see the zombies and explosions. Hed say Dad, are they going to shoot zombies tonight Are they going to kill zombies Whos going to get bloodied

As with Brolin, the creation of the character of Hague was developed and tailor-made following the casting of Biehn in the film. Rodriguez comments: I had only had the part half written when I met him and cast him, and then wrote the rest of it based on what I could do with him. Its just like with Quentin and Zo. Once you know someone, you can write for those specific people.

Jeff Fahey

Jeff Fahey plays Hagues brother JT, who is fortunate enough to be the owner and proprietor of the best damn barbeque joint in Texas period. Hes working on the perfect recipe in the midst of all of this, Fahey says. Hes just concerned with getting the perfect recipe, and hes just about there, and then all hell breaks loose.

The wonderful thing for me and for this character is that in the midst of all this insanity and this wild ride hes got one thing on his mind and thats that barbeque sauce.

Stacy Ferguson

Stacy Ferguson, also known as Fergie from the immensely successful band Black Eyed Peas plays Tammy, whose fateful journey is cut short when her Volvo overheats on the wrong road. Ferguson filmed her role in PLANET TERROR while she was touring the globe and recording an album. In fact, the actor and singer made some extreme adjustments in order to accommodate the production schedule. She whisked up to Luling, TX set to shoot a scene with Jeff Fahey after performing a concert with the Black Eyed Peas to a sold out crowd in Dallas.

Tammy is Fergusons third big-screen movie role, and PLANET TERROR completes an unusual hat-trick for the actor: I was in a horror film when I was little called MONSTER IN THE CLOSET. I died in that. I died in my second movie, POSEIDON, and I die in this one. Threes a charm.

Ferguson had an instant fan in Felix Sabates, who was deemed Coolest Dad In The World after introducing his daughters to Ferguson: Fergie was just a ball of fire. Shes great. My daughters were here and Fergie took them to the dressing room. She was very, very nice to my daughters. And in my book if youre nice to my kids youre in. Sabates was extraordinarily well-suited for the role, despite not being an actor by tradehes an ophthalmologist in Kansas City and an emergency room physician in Houston. He also does head and neck surgeries. He previously made a brief appearance in Rodriguezs SPY KIDS 2: THE ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS, and graciously accepted the offer to portray a version of himself.

Probably the most fun experience Ive had making movies was when I did SHARK BOY AND LAVA GIRL and the first five days I got to work with Rebel, Rodriguez says of the casting of his son in the role of Tony. When I was writing the script I had a little boy, and he was so inspiring because he has the bowl haircut that reminds me of from the kid from THE SHINING. In those horror movies kids always have that old bowl haircut, and they always have that same look.

Tom Savini

Tom Savini, who designed the zombie effects for the horror classic DAWN OF THE DEAD, portrays Deputy Tolo. Though he is best known as a horror makeup artist, he has proven himself as a gifted actor.

We built this character together, Rodriguez says. Tolos probably somebody who should have been sheriff but probably a little too shell shocked. Hell shoot the wrong person. He might even shoot you (laughs) in a panic. He gets to do some heroic stuff, but hes not like that the whole time like he was in FROM DUSK TIL DAWN. These people are being surprised that his range is really fantastic.

Nicotero, Savinis former protg, comments: Hes a great actor. I was sitting on set the first night he was doing his big scene, when he loses his finger. I was so proud of him. We were sitting in the car driving back from set, and it was six oclock in the morning. He was in the front and I was in the back, and I just patted him on the shoulder.

Rodriguez wrote the roles of the Babysitter Twins for his nieces, Electra and Elise Avellan. He would ask his nieces about their after-school job (babysitting, of course) and kidded with the pair that their experiences may make it into one of his movies.

Thankfully for children everywhere, Elise and Electra are nothing like the hyper-aggressive characters they play in PLANET TERROR. I bet all the parents that ever hired us are going to say, Wait, arent those the babysitters we had a year ago Elise jokes. Is this what they do when were gone Electra adds.

Bruce Willis

Finally, Bruce Willis, who acted for Rodriguez in SIN CITY and Quentin Tarantino, who appeared in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN stepped in and took on cameo roles. Tarantinos role offered him the opportunity to act opposite two of his DEATH PROOF stars, Marley Shelton and Rose McGowan.

Tarantino as Actor

Tarantino was honored to be asked to play such an interesting role in the film. Rapist #1 also points to the originality of Rodriguezs script. Its one of the things that happens in Roberts movies that I like a lot: Two of the most dangerous characters that pose the most important threat to the heroes of the movie are not the infected people. Its Josh Brolins character, and Rapist #1, who becomes a main villain for the third act of the movie.

I dont think Quentin was originally going to play the rapist, McGowan says, He was at the script reading. He was so good and treacherous and funny at the same time, I think he got hired on the spot. I think I have a lot of fans out there that dont even know that Im a director, Tarantino jokes. They just know me from acting in Roberts movies.