World War Z: From Page to Screen

Paramount will release the eagerly awaited film June 21


“World War Z” the movie began as a post apocalyptic horror novel by Max Brooks called “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” written in first person, individual accounts from those who experienced it.

Producers Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner read the book in galley form. They, along with everyone at their production company, Plan B Entertainment, were immediately captivated.

“Five years ago, I knew nothing about zombies. Now, I consider myself an expert,” recalls Brad Pitt. “Max’s book treats the zombie genre as a global pandemic, spreading much like we’ve witnessed viruses such as SARS travel. What happens when this jumps the fire break. What happens when everything we concern our days with is rendered useless? What happens when power structures and societal norms are obliterated? How will we survive?”

“It resonated with us as something that was relevant and prescient, despite being a zombie book–or maybe because of it. We didn’t know, which made it even more compelling,” Gardner recalls.

The vast scope of the story also intrigued Kleiner, who was familiar with Brooks’ work, having read his companion book/field manual, “The Zombie Survival Guide.”

“The world scale–the intersection of zombies, politics, institutions–intrigued us and added really cool, contemporary elements unusual in the zombie genre,” says Kleiner.

However, the novel’s multi-person, testimonial approach did not necessarily lend itself to a motion picture screenplay. Ultimately, the filmmakers opted to tell the story through one protagonist as opposed to many but also endeavored to maintain the essence of the themes and plot points that initially riveted them.

“It was very apparent that the book’s structure was going to be a challenge to adapt. We did try to follow the narrative of the book but we found, having gone through the process, that the dramatic tension was significantly diminished, at least in cinematic terms. We needed to go back, essentially, to when the zombie outbreak occurred and make that the centerpiece of the film. We worked very, very hard to render the movie with authenticity, so it felt like this could happen to us, today, to people we know. And so while the structure differs, I hope the film evokes the feeling we had when we read Max’s book,” Gardner says.

Still working on the script, the team decided it was time to approach a director and turned to Marc Forster.

“Marc was likeminded in that he was committed to setting the movie in the real world and maintaining the material’s verisimilitude,” Gardner recalls. “I respect Marc as a director who has made many different kinds of films, yet with a common thread of dealing with core human issues–family, love, loss. He brought this humanistic approach to our film and I think that his openness, his not having pre-conceived notions of the limitations of zombie films, was really helpful,” adds Kleiner.

Plan B began by sending the book to Marc Forster. Like them, he was engrossed. “I thought it was a great read and it dealt with themes I am really interested in,” Forster says. “I sat down with Plan B and we started talking creatively about what we could do with the project. They had developed the script at that point, which they gave me, and that was the beginning of our discussion that eventually led to this film.”

“Zombie movies” have become their own genre and are currently enjoying a popular renaissance. Forster believes there is a thematic reason for their resurgence and many zombie hallmarks resonated with him and drew him to the project.

“I find zombie movies fascinating in that they were popular in the 1970s, at a time of uncertainty and upheaval in society. And now when we are again living in a time of change and skepticism, zombies are popular. They’re such a great metaphor –representing a sort of unconsciousness and hold a mirror to what’s happening in the world. We human beings, as a species, are unconscious to a certain degree and ultimately we have to wake up,” Forster muses.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t encounter zombies in the zeitgeist. I see it in advertising banners inside the New Yorker, for Zombie Survival Kits. The Occupy Wall Street movement invoked a lot of zombie mythology and there’s obviously the great success of ‘The Walking Dead’ being the highest rated show on cable television. It’s a slippery slope trying to assign metaphors to something that I consider to be very popular but clearly that’s a part of it too. The language of the zombie world is more easily understood today, I think, because of everything that’s currently going on. People are tied to their screens and their monitors and their headphones, in the most basic sense, they do walk around like zombies by not interacting with other human beings.

Also, at least for me, the world feels like a tenuous place…it feels unstable. It feels like there are big waves of emotion and behavior that are sweeping over us and it’s happening more and more quickly. But it does have roots in a historical love for the genre. For me, ‘World War Z’ is intense and real and fun…also non-stop, epic, scary and, I hope, ultimately satisfying,” Gardner says.

Indeed, part of the initial appeal of the project for Pitt was the heart-pounding action and race against time aspects of the story. “Those zombies are scary as hell and the movie, I believe, works on numerous levels,” says Pitt. “But primarily it’s complete summer fun and, frankly, something I wanted to do for my sons to enjoy.”
Not Just a Zombie Movie

Forster is reluctant to categorize “World War Z” solely as a “zombie movie.” “It’s not just about zombies, it’s about a global apocalypse that happens to be spread by zombies,” Forster says. “There are a lot of parallels to what we’re living through, culturally, that lend themselves to a ‘zombie movie,’ but the great thing about Max’s book is that he set it in a realistic time frame and within a reality-based framework.

That’s what really intrigued me–I wanted to create a movie that feels real, so audiences feel like this could happen, this minute, to any one of us. The general premise is that anything can happen, in any kind of scenario, on any given day. No one is spared, everyone is susceptible. That’s the plotline in the movie, but it’s also real life,” Forster says.