Will It Or Won’t It? Paramount’s Gamble On World War Z

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Will it or won’t it – a simple question. Think of it as David Letterman’s “Will It Float” segment on The Late Show, except instead of watching a cheese log bob up and down in a pool full of water, I’m voicing my opinions on the upcoming feature film adaptation of Max Brooks’ best-selling zombie documentary novel, World War Z. It’s entered reshoots and rewrites, we’ve seen the questionable trailer footage, we’ve heard Brooks’ comments, we’ve followed the saga of producing a big-budget mainstream zombie movie – but is all the commotion actually going to be worth it?

Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of Max Brooks’ literary winner World War Z, recalling the events of a full-scale war between zombies and humans through a collection of personal accounts spanning various groups of survivors. From campers traversing frigid tundras free of zombies to spoiled rich folk seeking sanctuary in a heavily guarded mansion, we follow Max Brooks as he assumes the role of an agent working for the United Nations Postwar Commission, collecting information and first hand accounts detailing the cataclysmic events which almost annihilated humanity. Brooks also injects thematic social criticisms which shine a light on government ineptitude and unpreparedness, survivalism, and personal uncertainty, using the zombie genre to address real-world issues. World War Z is far more than just a brain-dead zombie horror story – and that’s what I’m afraid Marc Forster’s film will miss.

As a fan of the book, the thought of a cinematic adaptation sounded like a phenomenal idea. World War Z is chock full of ripe material, eloquently written stories, and big events like the Battle at Yonkers and the assault on the rich mansion that would make for phenomenal screen material. Brooks’ novel is far denser than any popcorn flick about zombies eating people, almost serving as a warning to humanity’s sluggish preparation for the unknown, as simply reacting to threats doesn’t always yield positive results. If done properly, World War Z could be a bleak, dark, apocalyptic film which changes the way we view zombie films, broadening the scope from a group of survivors versus a town full of zombies to a global epidemic which is outlined by the Great Panic. The threats hinting at complete human extinction are dealt with maturely by Brooks, who isn’t afraid to show man’s failure over and over again – a humbling, truthful, and horrifying ego check reminding us we aren’t invincible.

Enter director Marc Forster, star actor/producer Brad Pitt, writer J. Michael Straczynski, re-writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, re-re-writers Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard, several weeks of reshoots, numerous backstage problems (including reports that Brad Pitt and Marc Forster were not on speaking terms by the end of shooting), and Max Brooks’ personal views on his un-involvement – all leading to the final product which seems to be getting positive reviews mixed with obvious hesitation.

So what the hell went wrong? How did the production budget balloon to about $200 million dollars? Why did 12 minutes of footage get deleted and why were 30-40 more minutes of footage re-shot after the entire film had been completed and a director’s cut had been screened? Simple – what Forster first presented was utter shit.

Continue reading on the next page…

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According to Damon Lindelof’s honest comments to Vanity Fair, Brad Pitt approached him with an edited cut of World War Z as he wanted an objective opinion from someone seeing the material for the first time with no invested roots in the project. Pitt wanted someone to bluntly comment on where the film stood, along with how to fix it. Lindelof’s reaction? The ending as it existed was “abrupt and incoherent,” missing “a large chunk of footage.” Damon’s suggestions were to either doctor up the existing edit with new material that could make sense of the mess, as he explains “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?”

Then there was road number two, “Road Two, which I think is the long-shot road, is that everything changes after Brad leaves Israel,” which would mean ditching an entire battle scene in Russia (the 12 minutes previously mentioned) for complete re-shoots (the 30-40 minutes also previously mentioned). Lindelof didn’t think the scrapping of Brad’s exploits in Russia would fly with Paramount officials, due to the tremendous amount of work and budget it would require just for a fix, but apparently World War Z was such a piece of garbage that they didn’t even want to try and make Brad’s ending in Russia work.

Red flag number one I’d say, right? How are you supposed to trust a director and producers who present content which is so bad everyone stops, looks around awkwardly at one another, and collectively realizes what they’ve put together isn’t even fit for theaters? Or better yet, ones that didn’t even know what they wanted to shoot going into production? I understand filming on the fly and making adjustments here and there, but according to Pitt there was only the inkling of a plan as production kicked off. Lindelof revealed that Pitt told him “When we started working on the script, a lot of that stuff had to fall away for the story to come together. 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.”

Red flag number two for me right here, as with the source material already in place, there really shouldn’t have been much need for “not locking down how it was going to end up.” Sure, adaptations should be allowed to take creative liberties and produce a film that can appeal to the masses, but to just go in guns blazing and wing the production only makes me think the World War Z novel was optioned for name only, hoping to create a PG-13 zombie film which attracts mainstream viewers, genre viewers who are gung-ho for any type of zombie adventure, and then the more intelligent crowd who worship Max Brooks’ novel for the bit of geopolitical brilliance it is. In layman’s terms, Paramount is trying to trick people into seeing World War Z by optioning the popular novel, only to ignore the source material and present a story which has little to do with Brooks’ book. All of this could have been avoided by letting Brooks participate in scripting though, right?

Red flag number three: Max Brooks wasn’t approached by producers until after filming had begun. Here’s what he had to say:

Why would I read [the script]? This is not the movie you’re going to make,” Brooks said. “You’re going to do rewrites and reshoots. That’s what happens when you make a giant movie. My attitude is if you haven’t invited me in to contribute, then fine. Go make the movie you want to make and I’ll see it when it comes out.

Yup, I can’t get on board a project that purposely keeps whoever created the original content out until the very last minute when everyone knows his approval or disapproval didn’t mean a damn thing. Like they were going to halt production if Max didn’t like the current script? Confirming my fears, Brooks went on to tell the interviewer that World War Z shares no commonalities with his book except for the title, which is nothing but a low-blow to fans of Brooks’ literary work. The potential for a mockumentary style film along the lines of District 9 could have worked wonders, but with every new piece of information, it looks like we’re going to get nothing but a bloated action blockbuster that loses sight of Brooks’ geopolitical commentary, commentary Pitt admits was originally a giant drawing factor that made him come aboard the project.

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So the question still remains – is the now giant gamble that is World War Z going to pay off for Paramount Pictures and all the producers involved? Well, when you’re already $200 million in the hole, you’ve got a pretty hefty sum to make up monetarily, so they’re not getting off on the right foot.

Defining a film as a success is always objective because a film can financially be deemed a “success” when it makes a positive margin, yet reviews could absolutely pan the film and deem the quality an obvious failure. But studios don’t really care for critical analysis, because they aren’t making their money off critics – the money is made off of mainstream audiences.

So a movie gets 60 negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it turns a $350 million dollar profit, la-di-freakin-da, am I right? You think there’s a producer going “Oh man, we’ve got a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, there’s no way we can put a sequel out there,” and not “hell, the entire world just saw our movie, think they won’t see another movie about the same crap in a different place? Cha-Ching!” So in addressing Paramount’s gamble, we first must address what signifies success.

Let’s discuss the monetary gamble of World War Z, which some reports are claiming to cost almost $400 million based on the addition of advertising and whatnot. While I don’t really believe this, the number that has been confirmed is in the $200 million ballpark, thanks in part to all the reshooting and an overall lack of attention.

Paramount’s President of Production, Marc Evans recalls leaving Malta and finding a stack of forgotten purchase orders relating to the cast and extras just thrown in a desk drawer and forgotten until the final clean-up. That’s millions of dollars in overages literally just stored away and forgotten, basically summarizing the terrible preparation and bumbling production that plagued the entire film which World War Z now has to make up in revenue, only adding to the already grandiose budget.

With that said, all the promotional material is emphasizing the fact that Brad Pitt will lead the fight against this zombie scourge, and superfans all over the world will see just about anything the Hollywood hunk makes. You’re going to get audience turnout just from Pitt’s persona alone, despite World War Z technically being a zombie film. Again, the marketing seems to be ignoring this fact by only showing far-away shots of the CGI zombies, and the watered-down PG-13 rating opens up the film to younger audiences who don’t know any better having not seen the numerous R-rated zombie movies released each year. These giant demographics will undoubtedly contribute a nice chunk of revenue.

World War Z is crafted to be the safest “horror” movie possible, and it’s been done rather well. There’s no doubt these tactics will pay off, letting viewers of all walks of life approach World War Z with open arms.

What does that mean for revenue? Honestly, forget the fact that Brooks wasn’t involved in creating World War Z - people are going to show up, and it’s going to be successful. Do you think even half the audience will have read Brooks’ novel before catching Forster’s film? Yup, his warnings won’t mean anything to those viewers without any knowledge of what the source material even represents.

World War Z will be just another mainstream zombie thriller. A money-snatching, studio pleasing thriller. Quality wise though? Well you’ll just have to check back next week for my follow-up article predicting whether this crazy ride will be worth the price of admission.

My Verdict?

World War Z should earn enough dough to put producers in the green. Enjoy it, Brad.

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  • Sarah

    Movies and books are different art forms. Judge a movie itself after you see it.