Director Ruben Fleischer talks reviving the ‘Zombieland’ legacy

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In 2009, the arrival of “Zombieland” seemed like another venture into an overextended genre. It’s almost painful to remember how the early 2000s were consumed by widespread Facebook debates over the true characteristics of a zombie. Filmmakers, in their haste to capitalize on the world’s obsession, tried to integrate zombies into nearly everything. Although we did have to suffer through films like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” the iconic “Zombieland” managed to distinguish itself from the herd. Even when zombies were becoming ubiquitous in the filmmaking landscape, “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer managed to introduce a film with wit, humor and a unique storyline. Since its release, the film has remained a cult classic. 

The film was Fleischer’s debut filmmaking endeavor. For most of the cast and crew, it was their first successful foray into the industry. It launched not only Fleischer’s career, but also the crew’s. Since the original film, Emma Stone has become an Academy Award winner, while Abigail Breslin, Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg have gained enough critical acclaim to be considered household names. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to write critically and commercially successful “Deadpool.” Fleischer himself directed last year’s hit “Venom.”

A decade after the inception of “Zombieland,” Fleischer has embarked yet again on an endeavor to revive the genre from the depths of the 2000s. With most of the original cast and crew attached to the project, “Zombieland: Double Tap” has become both a nostalgic celebration of zombies’ cinematic infestation, and a love letter to fans of the original. 

One of the defining qualities about the initial picture was that many of the film’s iconic lines were improvised, and Fleischer made sure to revisit the environment he engendered in the original film. “I love improvisation and one of the joys of being a director is getting to cast these incredibly talented comedians to collaborate with,” he said. “And when you have some of the world’s funniest people at your disposal, I think you’d be a fool not to take advantage of all that they bring to the table.”

He explained that filming would commence with scripted scenes, and then he would give the actors free reign to include their own impromptu dialogue. “Zoey Deutch’s character, Madison, asked to look through some binoculars. She’s holding them the wrong way. So instead of making things look bigger, they make things look smaller,” Fleischer said. “She has an exchange with Woody Harrelson and then she just goes on this full run about “tiny, big, tiny, big.” Afterward, she was able to riff off Eisenberg and Harrelson instantaneously.  “It’s like one of the funniest things in the movie, the entirety of that was improvised,” he revealed. Fleischer made sure to keep the cameras rolling in order to capture unscripted opportunities. 

By the end of the first movie, audiences were left with 33 rules for surviving the inevitable zombie apocalypse. Rules included “cardio” to ensure you were able to escape zombies with Usain Bolt-like abilities, and “double tap,” a reminder to shoot the brutes twice to ensure their demise. What were some of Fleischer’s rules for survival while creating a zombie-focused flick in 2019? “My first rule would just be to make sure you get the best cast you possibly can. I got so lucky on the first movie with Jesse and Emma, before people knew who they were,” he confessed. 

The stars he worked with have now reached the upper echelons of Hollywood. Yet, Fleischer took a similar approach in choosing actors for the second installment. He was proud of the burgeoning stars of the sequel. “I feel like with Zoey Deutch, who was a bit of a discovery in this film, people are gonna be blown away. I think that she’s gonna go on to be a big star,” he emphasized.  

Often times, sequels find minimal support because of unnecessary casting changes. Yet, Fleischer wasn’t afraid to add new characters to amplify the existing ones. “Casting, for me, was the most important thing. Just trying to make sure that any new characters we brought in could hold their own. Which is a tall order when you have Woody, Jessie, Abbie (Breslin) and Emma as your baseline,” he explained. 

Even with finding success in multiple films since “Zombieland,” Fleischer chooses to remain humble. He makes sure to underscore the importance of those working behind the scenes, explaining he has a rule that he applies to any of his films. “Make sure that all your collaborators, whether it’s the stunt guys, the cameraman, the production designer … always work with the best people, because filmmaking is the most collaborative artistic medium there is.” 

A film as renowned as “Zombieland” provides a snapshot into a global cultural phenomenon. Although he was aware of the nearly impossible expectations of delivering a film of the same caliber — especially when the zombie obsession has essentially died off — Fleischer chose to remain focused on the intricacies of the creation process. He had a sharp focus on not only recapturing elements of the original, but also the people who would bring the same charisma to the sequel. “You know, there’s no one person that does it all. It’s such a group effort to achieve something like a movie,” Fleischer explained. “And so just make sure that you surround yourself with the very best people at all times and it just makes the job of the director that much easier.”

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].