Zombieland was a runaway hit when it came out in 2009 – and not just because its main character, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), prioritized cardio above all else in the film’s post-apocalyptic environment. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were not yet some of Hollywood’s most successful purveyors of slyly self-aware genre comedies (going on to write not one but two Deadpool films), but their aptitude for skewering the mundane details of everyday life while exploring big, broad fantasy concepts tapped right into a thriving appetite for zombie-themed stories while introducing four characters audiences would immediately relate to, laugh at, fall in love with, or do all three.
So when time came to revive that iconic quartet of Columbus, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) in Zombieland: Double Tap, Reese and Wernick worked closely with director Ruben Fleischer (Venom) and his stars to ensure that a second adventure lived up to its predecessor.
“More than anything, it was about making sure the voice was right,” Reese told Nerdist. “We did early drafts on the script that that had to be changed because of the passage of time. “But it was mostly about coming back and making it really feel like Zombieland. It’s near and dear to us and we kind of live and breathe those characters, so it was making sure it really felt like a Zombieland movie, not just not just an action movie tangentially related to Zombieland.”
Much has changed in the real world since 2009, including Eisenberg and Stone’s respective ascension in Hollywood to movie stardom. But as the duo dove back into the world they created, they tried to focus more on fictional continuity than anything that has occurred in the intervening decade. “Those Woody Harrelsons and Jesse Eisenbergs tend to live in our head anyway, so it’s pretty easy to get into their heads again,” Reese admitted. Wernick added, “But in the world of Zombieland, time stopped in 2009. So in terms of how our characters interact and how we write them, while they’ve lived the last 10 years in Zombieland, life as we know it is still in 2009, so we’re frozen in time in that way.”
“But while Emma went off and became an Oscar winner and Jesse became a movie star and Woody continued to rule the universe, the dynamics of our actual characters haven’t changed,” he continued. “That is, they’ve evolved, but they haven’t had to keep current with what we know in 2019.”
Reese and Wernick’s pedigree has since become a commercial windfall for their collaborators, racking up one hit movie after another. But what continues to distinguish them from others who try to deconstruct genre conventions – or simply take the piss out of them – while retaining a palpable sense of emotional weight is what they consider their constant awareness of the rhythms of real life, stitched into the fictional scenarios they create for the characters that they love. “That tone is such a delicate balance of finding when to weave in and out of action and comedy and drama and heart,” Wernick said. “But real life is all of those things. One person’s life isn’t just a comedy or just drama; people experience all of the above all of the time throughout their day and week and year and life.”
“Interweaving those tones is a way to make a movie feel grounded because the audience is experiencing what they experience on a day to day basis.”
Wernick also said that their insistence on wringing emotionality out of their stories is the key to their success, not just with Zombieland, but all of their projects. “The heart is our ‘secret sauce’,” he said. “We’re the funny guys we can make you laugh, but more than anything we want you to feel. And the story is more than anything about this family and about this family getting along, experiencing ordinary problems in extraordinary circumstances – those being zombies and you could turn a corner and die at any point in your day.”
Zombieland: Double Tap opens in theaters nationwide Friday, October 18, 2019.
All photos courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.