World War Z production problems are the stuff of legend. How did filming get so weird and so messed up so fast, though? An action-packed zombie movie with a $125 million dollar budget and an inexperienced director and a movie star both chomping at the bit for a franchise without knowing a thing about zombie movies? That’s what happened.
While what happened with World War Z is not on, say, the levels of Apocalypse Now or Gone with the Wind, it certainly was its own special brand of a poo sandwich for cast and crew. Hoodie-loving director Marc Forster was rumored to have been unable to lead. He clashed with those around him. It was even rumored that he and Brad Pitt stopped talking to each other at some point during the shoot. Forster has denied every claim of unrest on set, especially with Pitt. But he definitely locked horns with VFX supervisor John Nelson, who - along with several others - quit production at various points. “It was a chemistry thing,” Forster said of his battles with Nelson. Meanwhile, the crew was in the seventh ring of hell. Among the most messed up behind-the-scenes stories is the one about the wrap-up crew in Malta finding millions of dollars of purchase orders just lying in a drawer like it was no big deal.
But the biggest snafu involved the World War Z rewrites. Pitt and Forster couldn’t seem to make up their minds about what kind of film they were even making. They were aiming for a geopolitical-soulful-action-zombie movie and ended up with a third act that was so dark and depressing, it actually pierced the cold dark hearts of studio executives. Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard were brought in to save Pitt’s reputation and Paramount’s investment.
Sure, there are always problems on movie sets, but World War Z took the grand prize when it came to chaos.
Brad Pitt and Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Kite Runner) knew nothing about zombie movies when they took on Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, but they were both struck by the tone and theme of the story. Brooks’s book is set over a decade after the zombie apocalypse with various narrators telling their stories to an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission. The book was in the style of Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two.
In the novel, Brooks addresses the government’s inability to handle a global outbreak and attack, specifically focusing on US isolationism. This was no zombie story anyone had seen before, making it a tough adaptation even for a seasoned producer and director.
But Pitt and Forster were determined. “There is no better metaphor than the walking dead as, sort of, the unconscious,” Forster said. He was excited about making a “blockbuster movie that has some sort of substance.” Turns out that's a lot harder than it sounds.
Pitt was attracted to the geopolitical aspect of Brook’s story, but he had never done anything on this scale in his career. He asked in The Hollywood Reporter, “Can we take this genre movie and use it as a Trojan horse for sociopolitical problems, and what would the effect on the world be if everything we knew was upside-down and pulled out from under us?” Um, well, sure. But there’s going to be a lot of tears before bedtime in Budapest.
Neither knew exactly how an action zombie film - depicted on a global scale - worked. What could go wrong? Plenty.
Before the zombies got to swarm Philly, Glasgow, Malta, and ultimately Budapest, the first real draft got eaten alive. Not unusual by any stretch in the industry, but it does explain the first shots fired in the project’s troubled path. Each version swung between the geopolitical aspects of the book that drew Brad Pitt to the project and what Forster and Paramount ultimately wanted to see happen. Namely, a blowout action movie just in time for Christmas 2012.
Ultimately, the script passed through four writers. Again, not unusual but never helpful. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (Thor, Babylon 5, Changeling) put down a pretty solid script that stuck more to Brooks’s tone and theme. Straczynski’s draft got the picture greenlit, but it was quickly thrown out the chopper’s gunner door in exchange for a slick action plot with a hero.
Pitt’s production company, Plan B, hired Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs) to perform another re-write. His version focused more on Gerry Lane, the former United Nations field specialist. Lane is not in Brooks’s book, and the first-hand accounts were also scrapped. And then production began without a real third act. And Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) was brought in to do a polish, as well.
Straczynski and Forster were not on the same page from the get go, and Straczynski didn’t hold back about the director’s approach in an interview with Vanity Fair. “Marc wanted to make a big, huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge action pieces in it. If all you wanted to do was an empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?”
Straczynski put out another draft in December 2008 to beef up the action and sense of emergency, which was intended to be more to Forster’s liking. How did that go? “They slammed the door so hard in my face it came off the hinges,” Straczynski told Vanity Fair.
When Forster was asked about the strain between the two, it was, apparently, news to him. “I personally had no animosity,” he said.
It’s not a great idea to launch into production on a multi-million dollar film without a clear vision of the third act and ending. But with World War Z, Plan B was all, “Whatever! Let’s shoot!” Principal photography began in Malta on June 20, 2011. President of Paramount Film Group, Adam Goodman, admits, “The script felt good, maybe not great.” That’s an understatement. The script was experiencing a bit of schizophrenia.
One of Carnahan’s early scripts had Gerry ending up in North Korea where he convinces the government to invade the United States with an army of seasoned warriors who use lobos (short for lobotomizers) to kill the zombies. Plan B producer and Pitt’s right-hand-woman, Dede Gardner, and Forster supervised that version.
The shooting script started out with Gerry and his family in Philadelphia, as viewers see in the final version. Then he travels to Israel, which is also in the release. And then he heads to Russia for a huge final battle. Moscow’s Red Square is overrun. An enslaved Russian army battles the horde the lobos.
Gerry discovers something about the zombies that gives him an edge, and this version set him up for sequels, but many, including Pitt, felt that the ending was way too dark.