History is littered with movie productions that went haywire and melted down (we recently chronicled a few that survived bad buzz and some that didn’t). Either imploding on set because of director/actor spats, budgets that ballooned into excess causing for major flops, or any number of confluent forces that created disaster. Some films escaped their thought-to-be impending doom (“Avatar,” “Titanic”) and others (“John Carter,” “Battleship,”), well, they pretty much lived up to their “this is going to bomb” narrative.
2013’s easily most maligned film is the Brad Pitt’s zombie drama, “World War Z.” Originally due Christmas 2012, the movie was delayed until just this past weekend because the principal creatives involved, including the studio suits, didn’t believe the ending of the movie worked. Eyed as a potential trilogy from the start, as news of the delay arrived, so too did reports of drama spring from the project like a leaky dyke. Seven weeks of reshoots were called for, writers had to craft a new ending, and things got so bad apparently Pitt stopped talking to director Marc Forster (his DP Robert Richardson apparently wasn’t too thrilled with the overall experience either).
But “World War Z” arrived in theaters this past weekend and as we noted yesterday in our Best/Worst post-mortem, it wasn’t all that bad. Or at least nowhere near as bad as the disaster the media made it out to be originally (you can read our original review too, which perhaps liked it slightly less than everyone else). And with a surprisingly good $67 million in box-office receipts in its opening frame, and an B+ Cinemascore, clearly audiences responded to the film as well, not really giving a toss for the anti-buzz.
So what changed in “World War Z” exactly? Well, three writers received final credit Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions For Lambs”), Drew Goddard (“Cabin In The Woods”) and Damon Lindelof (Christopher McQuarrie was also hired to do punch ups after Goddard and Lindelof took a run at it, while J. Michael Straczynski wrote one of the original drafts way back when). Most of who wrote what exactly has come out already. But as we got our hands on the Matthew Michael Carnahan’s draft of the script (and Straczynski’s draft for that matter) and have seen the film, we thought we’d breakdown the “original script” vs. the final version that ended up on screen that has a last act mostly credited to Lindelof and Goddard (the latter of whom was brought on by an overwhelmed Lindelof to give the ending its “heroic flourish”).
Obviously, a MAJOR spoiler alert is in effect going forward, as we are discussing the ending of the movie.
It’s probably not even worth getting into the J. Michael Straczynski draft in too much detail,as the changes since are a natural part of movie development. But, suffice to say he left the project unhappy. “Marc wanted to make a big, huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge set pieces in it,” Straczynski, the told Vanity Fair earlier this year. “If all you wanted to do was as empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?”
The Final Film You Saw In Theaters
If you saw “World War Z” this weekend, you know it essentially has four sections broken up by location. Philadelphia, which is the opening of the film, South Korea, which is the in the first act and gives Pitt’s U.N. crisis specialist clues of where to go next, Israel at the top of the second act, and then Wales in the final act where a wounded Pitt stops by a fortified World Health Organization building.
Damon Lindelof told Vanity Fair a few weeks back in a rather controversial expose of the film’s problems that “everything changes after Brad leaves Israel,” and having read Carnahan’s script that’s essentially true (and the Huffington Post confirmed this as well recently).
The New Version: Starts with Zombies On A Plane
What Happened: Pitt’s Gerry Lane character see Jerusalem fall under zombie siege despite the city just having presciently built a wall around the entire metropolis a few weeks earlier. Lane has to help the injured Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz) because he chopped off her hand to protect her from falling to full-scale zombie infection. They have to get on a plane and this is the break in the line between the old and new scripts.
Where The New Changes Begin: Lane and Segen get on a Belarus Air plane flight that’s rerouted by the U.N., but a zombie attack mid-flight changes everything.
The New Ending: Lane and Segen crash land in Wales and make their way to a W.H.O. building which leads to the new ending. Gerry Lane and the scientists there discover that by injecting themselves with various illnesses, the zombies become blind to the humans, only hungry for healthy humans to kill.
On page 2, everything we know about the original ending.
The Original: Dante’s Inferno In Russia
How It Transitions: So the movie is generally the same in the script as the finished movie (aside from a few things here and there that we’ll get to) up until Israel. The zombies still get over the wall and attack, and Pitt and Segen (who still gets her hand chopped off) jump on a plane as well. But instead of crash landing because of a grenade, the plane lands safely in Russia. But not all is well on the ground and the situation is actually much worse than it was in Israel (minus the zombie hordes attacking).
The Last Act: Gerry and several random people deplane, only to find themselves prisoners of a ruthless Russian military that has taken over (the face of which is an evil Russian Lieutenant who butts heads with Gerry early on and steals his precious cell phone). The weak are instantly shot and killed, the rest are enslaved in underground tunnels where they have to move around cargo for the government and fight off zombies who have penetrated the breaches of Moscow’s fortification. The movie cuts to Gerry months later, emaciated and with a thick beard (the Entertainment Weekly piece talks about how Pitt starved himself for the role, but obviously we didn’t see any of that evidence on screen). His UN crisis skills and survival instincts have made him a leader in this underground setting that the script compares to a type of Dante’s Inferno; it’s dark, there’s little light, everyone is starving, everyone whispers and one by one they’re being picked off by zombies that are akin to dirty rats in sewers coming to feed on this group whenever they can. “Listen to him. That’s how you survive,” is how one new detainee is introduced to this world, meaning: do whatever Lane says. He teaches them how to fight in teams using whatever pieces of scrap metal they can for shields, hammers, and spears and creates ragtag battalions, lopping off the heads of the surging zombies with shovel-like weapons. “Relieve the desperate” is the motto for fighting.
How It Climaxes: Lane and his group escape the underground tunnels to find a huge battle taking place with the undead laying siege to Moscow’s Red Square. The only thing stopping them is an unfocused army of enslaved thousands that the Russian military is forcing to fight. There are snipers all around and these slaves are essentially just food for the zombies, but they do delay them from overtaking the army itself. When Lane is captured and forced to join “the line,” he separates from his team, tells them to teach the others their tactics and slowly, but surely they turn the tide against the zombie army.
How It’s Political: In this version of the movie, the frontlines of the enslaved battling the zombies are divided into religions, with Jews, Christians, Muslims and Atheists fighting in their own groups. The reasoning? If you’re bitten, better to die than to turn amongst your own kind. So the procedure if one is bit, is to cross the line, raise your arms and yell “I’ve done my duty!” and the snipers will instantly shoot them in the head.
What’s The Zombies’ Weakness? In the theatrical version, Gerry Lane and co. do not find a cure or a weakness for the zombies per se, but they do find a reprieve; injecting themselves with various diseases which makes them blind to the zombies’ need for a healthy kill (or whatever it is exactly). It’s a type of camouflage which humans can use to get around zombies. There’s no such thing in the Carnahan draft, but the zombies do end up having a “weakness” which is the cold. When Gerry Lane and his hordes are forced to fight the zombies at gunpoint by the rogue Russian military, they discover— when attempting a little side mission— that the zombies are huddled around fire and taking turns attacking. The warmest, most alive zombies go into the field to attack while the shivering ones try and warm up. It’s all in keeping with the idea of zombie hordes as schools of fish, flocks of birds or pride of lions working together, that runs throughout both versions of “World War Z.” So how do they beat them? In Russia anyhow, Pitt’s Gerry Lane convinces the Russian commanders to extinguish all fires. At first the initial thought it’s, “Are you nuts?” as half the Russians and slaves are dying of the cold anyhow, but it’s their only option. Cut to a few days later and all the zombies have died from the cold and the Russians and the slaves are victorious.
The Sequel-Baiting Denouement: OK, so the zombies in Russia are dead. What’s next? The movie is over, right? Not exactly. The Russian Lieutenant arch nemesis (picture a kind of oily villain you love to hate like Hans Gruber in “Die Hard”) that Pitt faced throughout? He had Pitt’s cell and cell phone charger and when he’s finally killed, Pitt gets it back to find his phone fully charged (kinda convenient, yes). He calls his wife to discover she and the kids are still alive. They’ve been to camps in Cuba and now they’re in Florida, and here’s where it gets tricky. She’s with the soldier played by Matthew Fox (which explains why his character is barely in the current movie) and he’s essentially holding the family hostage, because the world has become a barter system. What’s he holding them for exactly? Nothing yet, but it’s implied that the sex trade can get you anything you want in this Brave Scary New World. “You’d be amazed at what they trade,” Mireille Enos’ wife character says over the phone before its swiped by Fox’s character. “Do you understand?” Pitt talks to Fox briefly, indicates in no uncertain terms that he will find his wife, and then he leads his Russian crew — now devoted to him as if he’s a savior prophet — to Oregon in boats as they make their way to the Everglades. The movie ends with them running onto a beach knowing they will quickly encounter hordes of zombies. Pitt yells to his ragtag soldiers, “SPINES ARE DIVINE BUT KNEES WORK JUST FINE!”
What Else Changed? Mostly little things, though one major element is Thierry Umutoni (played by Fana Mokoena), the African UN higher up in the movie who helps Gerry, is killed and chaos starts to take over the Naval Ship that Karin and her daughters are on. Deemed inessential, she is transported with others to Cuba, a country that like Israel that has found out about the virus early and closed off all flights to its nation before the zombies could spread. As the Huffington Post notes, the opening scene with the family making breakfast in Philadelphia was not in the original script and was written by Lindelof and Goddard to sow the emotional seeds that grow in later acts of the film. In the Carnahan draft, the movie essentially starts with the family in traffic. As the Post also points out, a few phone calls from Gerry to his wife Karin were rewritten by Lindelof and Goddard to punch up the emotional beats as well. Chris McQuarrie (who directed Paramount‘s “Jack Reacher”) was brought in to “sharpen” the ending. For the sake of being completist, there was also another major character in the third act: Simon. He essentially becomes Pitt’s right hand man in his zombie battalion and along with Segen, devotedly follow him to the U.S. to find his wife.
Why It Changed? While this ending sounds better in some ways, there’s a reason they changed it. “It was just atrocious,” Pitt said of the first cut of “World War Z” to USA Today. “You see some first cuts and you go, ‘Oh, it’s everything you want it to be and more.’ It’s working on certain levels that you didn’t even understand when you were shooting it. Like, I had this feeling seeing ‘Moneyball.’ And here was the exact opposite.”
If you dig deeper into the Vanity Fair piece, it’s clear that Pitt is exaggerating somewhat — or being hard on himself –and that everyone was happy with about the first two-thirds of the movie; a sentiment echoed months before the Vanity Fair piece. “It’s a great first 45 minutes, maybe even an hour,” one source told THR. Even the studio was candid about the movie’s problems back in June of 2012. “The footage from this film looks fantastic, but we all agreed it can have a better ending,” Paramount president Adam Goodman told the trade. “Getting the ending correct is essential, and we are in that creative process. “
So it’s clear that the Russian ending didn’t work. But why? Well from most accounts, many of them from the Vanity Fair piece and various interviews, it was incoherent and poorly shot. Not only that, the entire movie was already at pitched to an intense level and the Russian sequences only tried to top it: louder, more furious and scary. But the result was something messier, with a rhythm off from the rest of the movie. And you can get a hint of that at the end of ‘WWZ’ as there are a few shots from around the globe and clearly a few shots from the Russian footage that looks like a blur of quick cuts and hard to understand fighting imagery (sort of like the more poorly shot action sequences in Philadelphia that we discussed here). “Our summation of the thing was just a complete failure,” Pitt said of the ending. “You develop this sense I guess as you get on in your years, and we all knew. We just didn’t know how much it would smell. And it was pretty rank.”
Or as a source put it to Vanity Fair, “Russia never worked. It wasn’t character-driven anymore.” The magazine also describes his character as a calculated zombie killer instead of a family man. In truth it reads like the same ol’ Gerry Lane— smart, canny, thoughtful and sharp enough to put the group’s needs over the individual if they’re going to survive— but obviously it went sideways in the actual execution.
Making it Emotionally Satisfying: The second element of why it changed is also noted above. The idea was for Gerry to go search across the United States for his family — that was supposed to be the hook for the next sequel, but as Forster, Pitt and Paramount execs determined when they saw the final ending, this wasn’t emotionally satisfying at all. The second big fix, aside from re-doing the last action set-piece, was returning Gerry to his family. “He has to ‘save the world’ to get back to his family,” Lindelof told Vanity Fair when he described what needed to be done to “fix” the movie. “It is an emotional task.”
Final Verdict? The new ending. While it sounds cool, both on the page and in what they could have done right, it sounds like Pitt, Forster and the producers made the right decision even if the new ending of “World War Z” is also kind of uneven. Going against the expected payoff was a smart, anti-move that most creatives in Hollywood would never have thought of (props to Lindelof and Goddard), however it does sacrifice some intensity and the existing ending is kind of anti-climatic. It also doesn’t provide much room for a sequel— we discussed why here— because the movie concludes with a sort of time-out reprieve story wise, and it will hard to gear up for another salvo when the movie ends with a interim solution. The original obviously does make for a “What will happen now??” finale, but obviously it tonally didn’t work.
Evidently development on a “World War Z” sequel has begun as the movie should prove to be a hit, if not quite profitable. But as we’ve said elsewhere, we do not envy the task of putting a movie that ends in neutral back into first, second and then third gear. Let’s just hope they get the script right before they start shooting the next one.