'Zombieland' Writers on the True Woody Harrelson Story They Added
In the week after Zombieland became a surprise hit in 2009, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick booked three high-profile jobs: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Deadpool and a Zombieland sequel. G.I. Joe hit in 2013. Deadpool would break box office records in 2016 after a famously long road to theaters. But strangely enough, the film that started it all took even longer to make, with Zombieland: Double Tap finally hitting the big screen Friday after a decade of development.
In the intervening years, Reese and Wernick have amassed a list of credits that would make most screenwriters envious. The pair have become go-to writers for Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds and have 6 Underground (on Netflix Dec. 13) and Clue coming up with the actor — in addition to the prospect of more Deadpool.
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With Double Tap, the screenwriters returned to characters who have grown in the public consciousness over the years, and Reese and Wernick sought input from stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin.
The writers even incorporated a lengthy story from Harrelson's own life into the script during a moment in which Tallahassee shares a story about his deep love of Elvis. The monologue was drawn from a story Harrelson has told for years (and which he recently recounted on The Late Late Show), about how he became an actor after doing an Elvis impression in his high school library. The impression earned him a kiss from the vice president of the drama club, who encouraged him to try out for a play. Harrelson has credited that student, Robin Rodgers, as the reason he's an actor (Rodgers herself talked about it in an interview with Harrelson's hometown Ohio newspaper in 2010).
Among the biggest question marks in Reese and Wernick's future is the fate of Deadpool following Disney's acquisition of 21st Century Fox, which moved the franchise to the family friendly studio.
Disney CEO Bob Iger has maintained Deadpool can exist as an R-rated property at the company, and Reynolds tweeted a photo of himself at Disney's Marvel Studios this week, sparking speculation that news Deadpool could be on the way.
"I think it's going to happen as the fans hope it happens," Reese tells The Hollywood Reporter of a future Deadpool film. "Deadpool and his R-rated universe, and also down the road, we hope to be playing a little bit with some of the MCU toys."
In a conversation with THR, Reese and Wernick also talk about Zombieland: Double Tap's sequel potential and how actors are coming out of the woodwork to pitch themselves for Clue.
How different is Zombieland: Double Tap from when you conceived it 10 years ago?
Paul Wernick: Very different. We [originally] picked up Zombieland 2 right where Zombieland ended. They were at Pacific Playland. As the project kicked down the road and time passed and people got busy and it didn't look like it was going to happen, our story that was conceived post-Zombieland didn't work anymore. Abby, Little Rock, was no longer a little girl but a young woman. And the dynamics were different. ...
The story took pretty dramatic turns, more than anything, because of time passage. A great writer, Dave Callaham, came on when we were on Deadpool and in Deapdool land for many, many years. He took the torch and created the framework and a lot of great, great stuff and he really set the table. Oren Uziel, another great writer, came in and did some wonderful work. Once our decks cleared on Deadpool, we immediately came back and were on it for a couple of years and really gave it the voice that Zombieland had.
How much input did your actors have this time around? Did they have specific character requests?
Reese: They all had input for sure. It wasn't a specific request so much as it was reactions to what we were doing and the various things that were being tried. Those guys, even though they were only in one movie, have really lived with those voices for the last 10 years and they know better than anyone what those characters sound like, what they act like, and so whenever there was a false start or a false note, Woody would call it out and Jesse and Emma would be able to say "that doesn’t feel like my character."
Wernick: The story Woody tells to Nevada [Rosario Dawson] is actually a true story. That actually happened to Woody, where Woody got up in the library and sang Elvis, and Robin Rodgers gave him a kiss. It's why Woody got into acting, at least that's why he tells it.
Reese: Robin Rodgers was doing the school play and invited him down to do the school play, and the next thing you know, he wanted to be an actor.
Wernick: We infused a lot of heart and character into the actual real story there. And Woody just loved that.
You've said that every time you'd run into Sony film boss Tom Rothman over the years, you would ask him when this movie would happen. Any studio head will be budget conscious — and in the intervening years, your cast has only gotten more famous and more expensive. How does that affect the writing, knowing that your actors likely have higher fees?
Wernick: We generally aren't too conscious of budget when we try to write. We knew we weren't fitting into a massive movie budget. We knew this needed to be relatively small. We just try to write the best movie we can, and Tom too. It took 10 years, and god bless Tom for being bold enough to role the dice with us again on this one.
Reese: To his great credit, he didn't have to take a project that had originally been developed by another regime and throw his weight behind it. He really, really did fall in love with Zombieland. Usually, you see selfishness among executives, where they are placing themselves and their own careers ahead of what's maybe best for the movie or for the studio, and Tom was the opposite. He always put the studio and the movie first.
Was it always apparent that Zoey Dutch's Madison would be a standout?
Wernick: She's a movie star. She really brings an energy when she comes onscreen and is so funny and elevates everything that is on the page. The foursome that we have in Woody and Jesse and Emma and Abby, she was a welcome addition ... It was important to bring new voices. Zombieland was a fairly contained movie. There were only four characters and Bill Murray. We thought, "They are traveling on the road. We have to expand the world a little bit" while keeping true to the movie and to the tone and the feel and making it still about this family.
You introduce Albuquerque and Flagstaff, who are doppelgangers for Tallahassee and Columbus. Do you write, "Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson" into the script? Or did you just write "Guys that are like our original heroes?"
Reese: The interesting thing there was that Tallahassee and Columbus in the very first draft of Zombieland years ago were named Albuquerque and Flagstaff. We had to change their names because there was a geographical move in the script and we had to change their names. When it came to writing the doppelgangers, we didn't write Thomas and Luke because we didn't know they were going to play it, but the idea was to take the characters and push them to 11. Take them a little bit further and then to Thomas' and Jesse's great credit, they found a fun mutual admiration society. Originally it was a little more competitive, but when the guys got together, they thought, "Luke and Woody were doing the competitive bit. What if we did more of a mutual admiration society where it's almost like we are discovering our lost soul mate or our lost twin brother?" They ran with that and it makes for a really, really funny scene.
Given your packed schedules, would you be able to fit in writing a potential Zombieland 3, should it get greenlit?
Reese: Should we be so lucky to move forward on a third, we'll make time for it. We'll clear the decks.
Wernick: It's easy to think of Zombieland as a franchise now, with a sequel and a potential third movie, but really it started as a little original passion project. We wrote it as a television pilot, we created the characters from thin air, so to speak, and they were brought to life by these wonderful actors. It feels less of a classic Hollywood behemoth franchise sequel to us, and more like an individual passion project, because that's the way it began.
You have 6 Underground coming up with Ryan Reynolds. What is it about him that makes that relationship work?
Wernick: He's our muse, kind of. We love Ryan and would love to continue to work with him until the end of time. I think we have similar sensibilities. The things that make him laugh, make us laugh, and vice versa. He's a wonderful actor, and a wonderful man and he elevates everything. We love people who take what's on the page and make it even better. That makes us look good. We've got Clue in the works with him. It will hopefully be our next one with us, and obviously the Deadpool franchise. We want to continue working with him until the end of time, because he is just awesome.
Where did the origins of Clue? Was that a pitch from you guys?
Reese: Our buddy Greg Mooradian at Hasbro, with whom we've worked before, came to Ryan and us with the idea of rebooting Clue. That was a cult classic from the '80s with Tim Curry. More and more people come out of the woodwork telling us it's one of their favorite movies. ... We thought the only way we would want to do it is we could find a way in that wasn't just a rehash of the old movie and that made it feel modern and fun and crazy. Once we did that, it was sort of off to the races. Now we have Jason Bateman, who has come on board to direct and star with Ryan, so that's thrilling.
Wernick: We are currently writing right now. ... We are taking a break to do some press right now, but it's open on our computers and we are turning around a second draft to get to Jason and Ryan and the studio. If all things go well, we'll be shooting in the spring.
The original has a great cast, so I imagine we will be hearing some fun news soon.
Reese: The love for the original movie has helped us. We're getting calls from actors saying, "I don't even care what's in the script, I want to be in the movie. This is my favorite thing." We had no idea that was going to be the case and was going to help us in that way. Now we just have to make sure we won't let people down.
Ryan Reynolds tweeted from Marvel Studios this week. Bob Iger has repeatedly said Deadpool could remain R at Disney. I don't think it will be a surprise if we see Deadpool in some form down the road.
Wernick: I think it's going to happen, surely. I think it's going to happen as the fans hope it happens. Deadpool and his R-rated universe, and also down the road, we hope to be playing a little bit with some of the MCU toys. And we'll see. It's in progress and we'll see how it all ends up. But yes, I do think the fans are going to get themselves another Deadpool and in the form and fashion they have grown to love him.
How many alternate takes do you expect to see on the Double Tap Blu-ray?
Wernick: These actors are such wonderful improvers ... so I'm sure you could cut together a Zombieland with jokes you've never heard that are just as funny if not funnier. We hope the DVD has all that.
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