Director Marc Forster attends the premiere of "World War Z" in Times Square June 17.
Brad Pitt and zombies. For many moviegoers, those are two good-enough reasons to see the zombie apocalyptic blockbuster, World War Z, which opened nationwide Friday.
But there are those of us who are equally excited about the film’s director, Marc Forster, and the opportunity to see how he puts his stamp on the undead genre.
The 43-year-old Forster built his young career on successful low-budget dramas with big stars: Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in 2001’s Monster’s Ball, and Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and Dustin Hoffman in 2004’s Finding Neverland. In 2007, the filmmaker chose to go even smaller in scale, directing an unknown cast in the acclaimed Afghanistan-set drama The Kite Runner.
In 2008 Forster broke through to mainstream audiences with the Daniel Craig James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. And just like the Bond films, World War Z arrives with its own lofty studio and fan expectations.
Adapted from Max Brooks’ popular novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the film is the terrifying account of a global zombie virus pandemic. Pitt stars as a U.N. employee named Gerry Lane who races around the world attempting to halt the contagion. Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, secured the film rights to the novel and contacted Forster about directing the adaptation.
Brooks’ work lacks a central character and explores the costly battle against zombies through myriad points of view. It also has overt opinions on politics and religion that may not play well with mainstream audiences. In making his summer blockbuster, Forster made changes (some would say concessions), much to the anger of the novel’s fans, who latched onto the news of script rewrites and a major third-act reshoot as proof of a film in trouble.
By phone recently from his home in Switzerland, the German-born Forster addressed those changes, as well as rumors of a troubled production. But first the conversation focused on his directing career.
Q: Talk about the evolution as a director of small dramas to a summer blockbuster and how you arrived at this point.
A: I usually like to basically choose projects I haven’t done before and … genres that I haven’t tackled before. Whatever my instincts really are, I need to be passionate about them. In regard to World War Z, after Plan B sent me the book by Max Brooks I was just inspired and I thought on one hand you had like a big blockbuster popcorn type of movie but on the other hand it also has a second layer, sort of social/political backdrop. It’s very hard to find both.
Q: Given your wide background in dramas, what do you bring to this type of popcorn film that most directors wouldn’t?
A: I think what is important with all these films is character and on a level there’s a family story which was really important for me, because it grounds it and gives it roots making Brad Pitt like an everyday man we can connect with. He basically becomes throughout the movie a reluctant hero. But to start him off as an everyday man was really important to me because it connects you with him. He’s not any kind of superhero or anything like that. And then you surround it, or have parallels with this enormous epic-scale action sequences, and I think both of those in conjunction work really well.
Q: The novel has many themes and ideas. What did you do as director to condense all of that into a film for mainstream audiences?
A: The book has like 54 little stories and anecdotes about how they survived the war. But ours was key to make a three-act story line with a central character in the middle of it. And that was the key for me, [that] and then trying to capture the essence. What hit me first when I read the novel was that it was written very real and I felt like the movie needs to feel like that as well. It’s really set in an extremely real environment because the more real it would feel the more intense the movie would feel and the more edge of their seat the audience will be.
Obviously, because we tried to capture the essence of the book but we didn’t follow the book, I think there is already some controversy there. Some fanboys will like that and embrace that and some will not. The same in general with a genre like that. You have the people who are fans of the slow zombies versus the fast zombies. And you can dissect it. But you can’t make it right for everyone anyway. Any kind of movie like this, I can only make a movie where I feel like, this movie stands on its own four legs and it’s a companion piece to the book.
Q: When J. Michael Stracynski’s initial screenplay to World War Z leaked online, the novel’s fanboys raved about it. But then a new screenwriter, Matthew Michael Carnahan, was brought in to start from scratch. What happened?
A: That’s not completely true. Stracynski’s draft was, I don’t know if you read it, but the issue was for me — and I like him a lot as a writer — but because it was structured in flashbacks and it also didn’t have a central hero or character in the midst of it, it felt very passive. It felt like you were always going back into the flashbacks instead of if you started in the present day and you discover everything out of the point of view of the main character. The urgency adds much more intensity versus telling a story in flashbacks, [where] you’re much more removed from the initial sort of engine of tension.
Q: What are the differences in working with stars like Brad Pitt and little-known actors? Do you have a preference?
A: Obviously, if you make a movie with let’s say no-name actors like I did with Kite Runner, it’s very, very different because you work in different languages and with people who are much less experienced. On the other hand, if you work with an iconic actor like Brad, who has done so many good movies and understands it so well … it’s much, much easier. … The sensibilities are very much in sync and you have similar aesthetics about how a scene should go down because you don’t have to talk that much about it. You both instantly know what feels right and go for it.
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