When Marc Forster was a kid, he was fascinated by how a collective swarming movement made everything from ants to cancer cells more potent. Those images informed the depiction of the hordes of zombies in World War Z. It had never occurred to Forster that the same phenomenon could happen to his movie. Unsubstantiated reports about overruns, creative clashes and re-shoots cropped up and then mutated and spread virally on the web. It got to the point where the question was no longer would WWZ work, but how cataclysmic a failure it might be. That began turning around when Paramount began showing the film, and it’s not a big factor as the film opens today. But what was it like for a director to get caught in such an unprecedented media maelstrom, a lot of which was based on some truth, and some inaccurate or exaggerated reporting?
“I never went through anything like that, not on Quantum Of Solace, not on anything,” Forster said during a break from promoting WWZ in Russia. “I would read that Brad Pitt and I had no communication, and we would look at each other and say, where could this come from? Is somebody just making up these stories? When articles like those come out and start spreading, it causes you to take a look at yourself, but the thing is, I never doubted the movie, or my own intuition. So few original things get made on this scale. This isn’t a sequel, it isn’t based on a superhero in a comic book. We saw it as an opportunity to take a genre and create something new and unique within it. That challenge excites me, but uniqueness always comes with criticism. As a filmmaker, all you can do is hope you get to the point where people feel as excited and as passionate about the film as you felt making it. Sure, we felt like the media wanted the project to fail, but we knew what we had, and we felt it would work. Then came the first preview, and the movie played like gangbusters.”
Some of those reports implied that Forster was a passive participant once he and studio brass went into the editing room and decided that a colossal, bloody battle scene in Russia was loud, bloody, and unsatisfying. Other rumors were he didn’t even do the reshoots. Forster denies those rumors. Certainly, there was tension. How often does a studio like Paramount pull a picture out of its release calendar and commit another $20 million or so to create and shoot a new climax? But Forster said they were all in lockstep, working with scribes Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard on an ending that aimed to be quieter, but more intense. When they left, Christopher McQuarrie also lent a hand in the writing.
“The original third act, with its big battle, was like every Hollywood movie,” he said. “It’s that big set piece, and it’s all about bigger and louder than everything else that came before it. I always felt that the set piece in Israel that happens earlier was the key action sequence in the film. It takes place in Southern Jerusalem, the birthplace of humanity, and then everything implodes and leaves you feeling, we can’t beat them, this is the end of humanity. That had to be the biggest set piece in the movie. Damon, when he saw the Israel sequence, had the same response, that you had to wind it down from there. Damon and Drew wrote what became exactly the movie I had in my head. It became a more personal journey, where you could connect with Brad in what felt like a haunted house setting. This way, the tension always shifts in the movie, but it never peaks, like a nice piece of music. I haven’t seen that quietly intense an ending in a blockbuster-size film before.”
Forster said the decision to scrap the big battle happened quickly and wasn’t some big drawn out spat. “We went to the editing room, looked at the footage, and we never tested that battle sequence,” Forster said. “Paramount was good with that. We all said, let’s not spend money on all that CG needed to finish that sequence, let’s spend the money instead on shooting a very simple, personal ending.” Forster said the result was in keeping with the original vision of the film that he and Pitt talked about when the actor/producer first came to him with the Max Brooks book. “When Brad sent me the book, I felt it was different, and that it was an opportunity to not just make another zombie movie, but to do something new. I wanted to create images we’d not seen before, from the way the zombies moved, to the way they swarm in Jerusalem, just different than anything done before in the genre. And the moment I’d heard the studio was willing to move forward with a more quiet haunted house ending which we pitched them, I was so relieved and happy. This movie plays well, but it’s different from every blockbuster out there. It’s the intense fun ride that we intended it to be, but it has unexpected moments. And after Jerusalem, you are so exhausted that to have added another big battle would have been repetitive, and it would have left you feeling exhausted.”
Another widely reported “fact” Forster refuted was that he and his cohorts were ordered by the studio to change the origin of the zombie outbreak from China, as Brooks’s book had it. The reports maintained the studio didn’t want to risk offending a Chinese government that determines which films have access to theaters in the country. “We threw a lot of countries around, Korea, Russia, India, China, but no one actually said that to us. We were never given a mandate that we couldn’t use China as that country. It was a purely creative decision we made to not have finding patient zero be the film’s focus. We are still not sure whether or not WWZ will play in China or not, but we wanted nothing offensive against China or any other country. Those were creative choices.”
In Quantum of Solace and now WWZ, Forster has now made two movie movies far afield from his breakout film Monster’s Ball. WWZ, he feels, combines the best of those worlds. “Monster’s Ball was distinguished by those character performances, and what I love most about this movie is watching Brad’s character turn from everyday man into the reluctant hero,” Forster said. “We were able to incorporate those quiet character moments that I love, and it all came together in a way that made me really happy. Even some of what I went through with the press was a good lesson, I suppose. Obviously, everybody coming at you with constant negativity is daunting. If I had thought the movie wouldn’t work, it would have made me sad. But I felt so good about what I had, and none of those other people had seen the movie except for us. We figured other people would eventually see the same thing and we would be fine. I also think while negative buzz affects the inside Hollywood community, the movie going audience, the one in the middle of the country, they’re not influenced by this or even by critics, necessarily. They form their own opinions. And if your movie is good, they will be texting their friends. That earned word of mouth is what is important.”