Writer-director Jonathan Levine.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Writer-director Jonathan Levine.
The undead teenager is pale and sensitive. He’s cute, despite blackened lips and blue veins in his neck. His “life” gets complicated when he falls for a human girl. But “R” (Nick Houlte) isn’t the zombie version of Robert Pattinson’s brooding Edward. The specter of the “Twilight” franchise may hover over the just-released teenage zombie romantic comedy “Warm Bodies.” But the new movie’s writer-director, Jonathan Levine, wants comparisons to end there. Not that he’d mind, he says, if his movie had “just one fraction” of the box office success amassed by “Twilight.”
“Warm Bodies” is all about tone, that most difficult of movie components to get right. Levine, who proved some skill with tonal mash-ups in “The Wackness” (2008) and “50/50” (2011), says that’s what Summit Entertainment — the studio also responsible for the “Twilight” series — was looking for when it came to him with Isaac Marion’s 2011 young-adult novel, a post-apocalyptic spin on “Romeo and Juliet.”
Levine, a graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, Brown University, and the American Film Institute, says “no one saw” his 2006 debut feature, the horror film “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.” His sophomore effort, “The Wackness,” a coming-of-age comedy set in the 1990s about a teenager who sells weed to (and dates the daughter of) his psychotherapist, fared better. Those films made an effective calling card for “Warm Bodies.”
The Summit folks “had seen ‘The Wackness’ and wanted to work with me,” recalls Levine, 36, during a recent visit to Boston. “I wasn’t sure our tastes would align. I like things left of center and studios rarely do. And they certainly don’t spend a lot of money on that. But they were in love with this book, the irreverent tone and cleverness of it.”
After he auditioned for the job with a PowerPoint presentation (complete with “my visual references and how I was going to do it,” he says), Summit told him to “go write it.”
“They knew I’d match the tone of the book. I was attracted to the book’s uniqueness. That’s to Summit’s credit, since studios don’t often want uniqueness, as you can tell from going to the movies.”
While adapting Marion’s novel, Levine directed Will Reiser’s screenplay for “50/50,” another unconventional movie that mixed irreverence and serious emotion in its story about a young man with cancer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the buddy (Seth Rogen) who helps get him through. Summit bought and released “50/50,” further cementing the studio-filmmaker relationship. Despite its cancer plot, “50/50” is run-of-the-mill next to “Warm Bodies,” which is narrated by the disaffected R, who can’t remember his name or what happened to the world. He shuffles around an abandoned airport with other zombies, searching for humans to eat (brains are coveted) and doing battle with creepy “boneys,” zombies in a more decayed state who eat their meatier counterparts. When R rescues the attractive and spunky Julie (Teresa Palmer), the human daughter of the authoritarian head of the dwindling human population (John Malkovich), a forbidden love story heats up as R begins to show signs of life.
“There’s lots of movies where two actors stare at each other across a room and fall in love and the audience buys it. We couldn’t do that because our guy is a zombie,” says Levine. “I wanted all the characters to be grounded. Even though it’s a silly, fantastical thing, I tried to make them all as grounded as possible.” To prepare, Levine put himself through a “curriculum” that included not just zombie movies but Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” “Children of Men,” and “I Am Legend.” “I wanted to pull influences from everywhere,” he says. “The book is a pastiche and that’s what the film is, too.”
Levine says “50/50” turned out to be “the perfect training ground” for mixing sincerity and levity. “You learn to try and fail and no one knows it because you cut it from the movie. You can navigate your tone in the editing room if you do the right things on set,” he says. “For ‘Warm Bodies,’ we wanted to be aware of ourselves and didn’t want to pretend that a relationship between a girl and a zombie was something we took totally seriously. At the same time, it’s not wink-wink. But you only know if the tone isn’t right; you don’t know when it is.”
Analeigh Tipton, 24, who play’s Julie’s best friend, Nora, says it was clear to the actors what Levine was aiming for. “When I read the script, I was skeptical that a zombie romance could work. But when I got to [the set in] Montreal, I was instantly comfortable. I didn’t have to fake a best friend relationship with Teresa. Jonathan created such good energy, friendliness, and openness to collaboration.” The cast wasn’t restricted to talky scenes. Tipton had to spend many hours learning how to use a gun for the movie’s showdown between the humans and zombies.
Both Levine and Tipton have youthful memories of Boston. Levine, who grew up in New York City, remembers “crawling through the woods with friends” from his Phillips Academy residence and heading into Boston “for raves or trips to Newbury Comics and Faneuil Hall.”
A Minnesota native, Tipton says she wanted to go to Emerson College but was waitlisted and had to make do with visiting friends who went there. Her fallback plan was to enroll in Marymount College in Los Angeles, after which she began modeling and acting. She just completed her first leading screen role, in “Two Night Stand,” the directing debut of Max Nichols, son of Mike. “We were both trying to be confident and act like we knew what we were doing at all times but we were ultimately terrified,” she says.
Levine, who’ll say only that he’s working on a Showtime series among other projects, says after the relationships among the characters he’s most pleased with the look of “Warm Bodies.” “We didn’t have the budget of other post-apocalyptic movies but we had tens of millions. It felt to me like I was making ‘Titanic.’ ” It allowed Levine to work with special effects pros who created the film’s impressive CGI and a crackerjack art department who tuned the Montreal locations into places of devastation and destruction.
“We had to turn the subway into an apocalyptic place and then put everything back in time for it to open in the morning,” he says. “They’d destroy a few city blocks, and we’d shoot on a set of overturned cars and graffiti-covered buildings. Then I’d turn around and the art department had it all back to normal.”
Levine’s proud of his efforts to create grounded characters and a believable romance, but he most enjoyed the action sequences. “I’ve liked doing ‘two people talking’ movies. But it’s cool to blow things up.”