Paramount must be annoyed. Just a few weeks after the Entertainment Weekly piece on the much-maligned Brad Pitt-starring “World War Z” zombie movie played down the signal to noise ratio on the “troubled production,” Vanity Fair has jumped into the fray, dredging up more of the dirt on this runaway-freight-train of a blockbuster. To be fair, the “World War Z” story seems complicated, a series of many small and medium size issues snowballing into a near-disaster of a production, but in comparison, EW’s feature is kind of a damage-control-y “nothing to see here, please disperse” response.
That doesn’t mean one is more correct than the other and in all fairness, the VF piece isn’t filled with major pieces of dirt, but it does tell a bigger picture about what went wrong. But in the interest of brevity, we’ve tried condensing the sprawling feature into its key points. And the big takeaways from all of this are that a lack of leadership, inexperience and a confluence of mistakes caused an excessively costly tentpole that, according to the magazine, will need to gross $400 million to break even. Mild spoilers below, but keep in mind this film is intended to spawn a franchise for Pitt and Paramount.
1. J. Michael Straczynski’s initial script was tossed out for something more action driven.
While the geo-political elements of “World War Z” were ostensibly what brought Pitt’s Plan B production company to outbid Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way for the rights ($1 million is the rumor) to Max Brooks‘ book in the first place — the idea of how would world leaders react to a pandemic and what those consequences would be? — in the end they went for something action-y and tossed out Straczynski’s script. Evidently, Marc Forster was looking to redeem himself in the action-franchise realm after the critically despised “Quantum Of Solace” so he gravitated towards bigger, louder and stronger. And so did everyone else, Pitt included.
“Marc wanted to make a big , huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge set pieces in it,” Straczynski, the creator of “Babylon 5” told Vanity Fair. “If all you wanted to do was as empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?”
They hired Matthew Michael Carnahan (“State Of Play,” “Lion For Lambs“) and his more action-y script finally met Pitt’s approval and was greenlit. Before that, Straczynski tried to write another draft that he tried to make more palatable to Forster’s aims. Evidently it still wasn’t enough in the direction they ultimately chose to go according to the writer. “They slammed the door in my face so hard it came off the hinges,” he said.
2. However, everyone chased their tail and ended up with what they started with: a more thoughtful drama with an emotional finish.
Much has been made about the Russian set ending in “World War Z” (the film has three main settings, Philadelphia, Israel and Russia). The gist of it: In Russia, humans are kept as slaves, presumably to stave off the hordes of zombies — and the original climax of ‘WWZ’ has Pitt freeing these slaves and enlisting them to fight off and kill the zombie army off with “lobotomizing” sheaths that take off zombies’ heads. It was evidently a huge set piece (taking up almost 15 minutes of the film) and super expensive, but there were three essential problems:
a) These sequences were gruesome and veered close to an R-Rating whereas ‘WWZ’ was contractually obligated to bring in a PG-13 (“The question was: how graphic can it be and get that rating?” one source questioned).
b) They showed Pitt in an unsympathetic light as a savage zombie killing leader.
c) It didn’t reunite Pitt with his family and had no payoff. The film starts out with Pitt having to abandon his family to help save the world and this version — hoping he could find them in the next movie — didn’t reunite him with his wife and kids, but that left for a cold and bleak ending that concluded with an emotionally hollow and bloody victory with no emotional resolution.
3. Classic mistake #35 was going into production with a third act that no one was satisfied with.
“The script felt good, maybe not great,” Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman told the magazine. “You have to figure out the third act,” Pitt is quoted as telling someone. “We started shooting the thing before we locked down how it was going to end up, and it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,’” Damon Lindelof, brought in to rewrite the third act said, quoted Brad Pitt saying to him.
Maybe green lighting a $150 million dollar tentpole without an ending that no one loves is not the wisest decision on earth — how does this still continue to happen? Paramount contends the movie cost $175 million with reshoots ballooning the budget to around — $200 million (no one wants to commit to a final figure obviously). But sources and rival studios say the actual cost is anywhere from $210 million to $250 million. Slapping promotion and advertising on top of that (say $50 million conservatively) 3D conversion ($8-15 million), this movie is going to have to be a huge global hit to just break even (in the plus $400 million mark).
4. So other than the script problems what else went wrong? A little bit of everything: inexperience, poor communication and bad accountability.
Pitt, his production company, and Forster had never mounted something this big and ambitious and with too many cooks, and not enough leadership and accountability, the film spiraled out of control. One day of filming was lost because the caterers didn’t have enough food to feed 750 extras. Another half day was lost when one restaurant refused to close in a Malta-square that was otherwise totally shut down. Costumes for extras playing Hassidic Jews didn’t account for the massive numbers and last minute costumes had to be flown in from another country or created on the spot. Several other minor mishaps like this lead to a film already way over-budget upon leaving its first major location (Malta, which doubled for Israel). Paramount began to see numbers and got nervous. One of the key location producers was then replaced in favor of Ian Bryce, a guy who has managed to keep Michael Bay‘s runaway epics on schedule and under budget.
“It was quite a logistical headache,” Winston Azzopardi, the location manager for scenes shot in Malta said. “Truthfully, I don’t think we were fully prepared.” Goodman freaked out when he saw the budget overruns out of Malta. “It was literally insane,” Marc Evans, President of Production, Paramount Film Group said. “Adam [Goodman] and I believed we’d gotten out of Malta good and I found out we weren’t. That is a nightmare.” He called the overages an “unthinkable action.”
Breakdowns in communication and lack of leadership were key too. This Forster quote is pretty…interesting…to say the least. “No one came to me and said, ‘You are fucking up here,’” the director said. “So if there are any budgetary issues, they are not my issues.” He said producers hid problems from him to boot. “You don’t know the shit going on behind closed doors,” he said. “You are having a meltdown while working. So I don’t usually know what is going on. Of course, I know what is on set, If you look at directors, they are always protected — the producers only let you know so much.”
5. The ending didn’t work and had to be scrapped, and Damon Lindelof had three weeks to come up with a new ending.
The Russian section had to be tossed out entirely. The room was silent after the first screening, “I was in my own head for a minute,” Evans said. “It was like, ‘Wow, The ending of our movie doesn’t work.” Goodman liked the first hour, but then became concerned because it became, “a) less suspenseful than I would hope for a movie that is basically a horror premise and that b) it didn’t allow for a sense of a triumphant ending, something you could get behind.” Pitt, Plan B’s Dede Gardner, everyone felt the same. Forster agrees too. “Yes, we all thought it was going to work… but I think this movie is more original and bigger and more special than I have ever done before.”
They screened a 72 minute cut for Lindelof, purposefully excluding things they didn’t want in the movie, but he eventually asked to screen that version regardless as the shorter version was abrupt and incoherent. “The thing we really need right now is someone who is not burdened by all the history that this thing is inheriting, who can see what we’ve got and tell us how to get to where we need to get,” Pitt told Lindelof. And the screenwriter laid it out with clarity.
“I said to them, There are two roads to go down here. Is there material that can be written to make that stuff work better? To have it make sense? To have it have emotional stakes? And plot logic and all that? And Road Two, which I think is the long-shot road, is that everything changes after Brad leaves Israel,” Lindelof explained, noting the second option would require dumping footage that had already been shot. “I didn’t think anyone was going to say, ‘Let’s throw it out and try something else.’ So when I gave them those two roads and they sounded more interested in Road B, I was like, ‘To be honest with you, good luck selling that to Paramount.’ ”
But Paramount bit, and Lindelof repositioned Pitt’s character from an everyman that “shifted… into a calculated zombie killer” and give him a clearer goal. “It has to be an emotional task,” Lindelof said.
Vanity Fair says, “absent from the reshoot were the huge action spectacles.” Of the additional shooting, Forster said, “It was a different setting. The maximum amount of actors or human beings on that set were 20.”
It’s a 5,000+ word piece and this is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a pretty fascinating read and an interesting anatomy of how an expensive studio piece gets derailed. If anything, the big take away feels like the difference between, “Iron Man 2” and “Iron Man 3.” The former is a louder, bigger-is-better dud. The latter is a surprisingly small-scaled character piece that’s not as big and ambitious, but way more effective and satisfying as a movie. Will it work? Who knows. This new issue of Vanity Fair is on stands now.
“World War Z” opens on June 21st, check out a new featurette below
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