Burr Steers is the director of such underrated movies as Igby Goes Down and 17 Again. It’s been six years since his last film – The Death And Life Of Charlie St. Cloud – hit cinemas, and now Mr Steers is returning to the big screen with the regency-era decapitation fest Pride And Prejudice And Zombies.
He joined the production after David O Russell, Mike White and Craig Gillespie had all been and gone in the director’s chair during a somewhat troubled development phase. When we got to meet Steers at a posh London hotel, the film was firmly in the can and on the cusp of reaching cinemas worldwide.
He was a little jetlagged, sipping on Red Bull, and had his pristine white trainers up on the table. He was very welcoming, dry in his humour, and incredibly candid during our twenty minute chat. Here it is…
It’s been quite a long gap between Charlie St. Cloud and this. What appealed to you about this movie so much?
It wasn’t by choice. It’s not like I was hanging out popping bonbons into my mouth! It’s really difficult to get a movie made. And Charlie St. Cloud… um… you know… did…
Anyway, no, it’s tough. I mean, I’ve had a lot of movies going. It’s hard to get a movie made. Really hard. I mean, the business contracted and studios are just making these huge movies for world market. So they have no nuance, they have no… it’s these comic book movies.
So you came into this and did a rewrite on the script –
– a page one rewrite.
And what was it that you changed? What’s different between your version and the one that was already underway?
Um… I have to walk carefully. I… I reinserted Jane Austen. The other script went off in a very different direction… um… and was broader, comedically. My idea was to build an alternate world where this zombie pandemic had happened and then to cast Pride And Prejudice in it. And then, the mantra throughout the film was that the big wink was that there was no wink. You know, you play it straight. As opposed to a sketchy comedy thing.
And what had your exposure to Seth Grahame-Smith’s book been like, when it first came out?
None. I mean, I had been struck by the cover in the book stores. Which I’m sure really helped the marketing of that book. Kind of perfect, with that regency woman and she looks great and half of her jaw’s missing. It’s great.
It’s such a cool cover.
Yeah, it is. It just catches your attention. And it says what the whole thing is about.
Can we just talk a little about your inspirations? I saw an interview online, and you were saying how Haiti had inspired you…
Yeah, years ago I had been working on a piece with Greenpeace, and got sort of side-tracked on the Tonton Macoute [a disbanded Haitian paramilitary force from the era of the dictator Francois Duvalier’s control, 1957-1971]. And the Tonton Macoute had used all the old European lore to intimidate and frighten the people in Haiti. Like, they used the Boogey Man, and they would break into peoples houses late at night and kill and rape and leave the bodies up in the trees in the morning.
But also, the zombie marches from that period as well. So, that was in my mind. And Baron Samedi is a European figure. The Lord of the Dead. You know, that version… the guy with the top hat… a sort of voodoo god.
So that kind of led you –
– Well that led me back here. Yeah…
I’d like to talk a bit about your version of the zombie. It’s interesting: they can talk, they can blend in really well. Where did those ideas come from?
Well, for one, I wanted them to be more formidable. I didn’t want them to just be wandering around waiting to get their head chopped off. But, something that always stuck in my mind was Richard Mathieson’s I Am Legend. And the idea that the zombies see themselves as a competing race. And that they’ve evolved. And now they’ve reached the point where you can’t profile them. If they weren’t bitten in the face, they could pass [for human].
And when we were making the movie, was the period when those three English guys… with Jihadi John… with the South London accents, were doing… so… who’s your enemy?
It allows you to make it into a conspiracy film doesn’t it, to add a whole new layer to it?
It adds a whole new layer to it, and makes it that much scarier. I also had the zombie point of view. So you could be in a party scene or a ball scene, and all of a sudden you’re in a zombie POV. So there’s a zombie amongst you. And you have that, as a way to give the audience a goose from time to time.
Was there a zombie-fication of a certain Austen scene that you were most pleased with? My favourite was probably the ball scene where Elizabeth goes outside, comes back in, and suddenly the whole place is in chaos…
Oh that’s the first ball. The town ball. When the girls go marching through. Yeah, yeah… It was challenging, because it had to a PG-13 movie. Contractually, from the very beginning. Because it’s such a difference, as far as what kind of market or demographic you’ll be hitting.
So, a lot of the more gruesome stuff isn’t in it. But I love that, yeah. The idea that they’ve been drawn out there and this other zombie has kept Liz busy while the other zombies are feeding on the members of party inside.
Um, a zombie-fication… Hmm… I think Miss Thudderstone’s transformation is great. One of my favourite things was that, when she comes to tell Liz something, that she gets self-conscious about the way she looks and – sort of in the way that someone would touch-up their makeup – she puts her face back together.
I understand the ‘why’ a bit more now that I’ve spoken to you about your script, but I was really quite taken with the non-zombie scenes. How you gave these character scenes such great prominence.
Making Elizabeth into a warrior like you do really intensifies her… Particularly in the scene towards the end when she confronts Darcy, but here it’s a physical fight too… Was that a big, important scene for you?
That was a big scene for me. Well, one of the books that I read going into this was a book on Game Theory [the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision makers] that used Pride And Prejudice as an example. Going through every scene and basically, sort of, showing how every scene was a sparring match. That every line was a blow or a counter blow thrown.
She [Austen] was really so amazing in the way that she engineered those scenes. Especially, you know, that dance scene – that unfortunately I had to cut out – that’s in the book and in other versions of the movie. Every line has a counter line, you know? It is a boxing match. A verbal boxing match.
Are there lots of scenes that you had to cut? Was there a much longer version of the film at one stage?
There was a longer version. It, um… it’s a tough thing, dealing with ratings in America, because they’re very arbitrary. And not always fair, because bigger films will undoubtedly wield more influence. Um, the one thing it does… you rely on not graphically showing something. But having the audience’s imagination fill things in. And I think that’s kind of artful, if you can manage it.
I mean, Polanski’s movies were horrifying and you didn’t see… but it’s weird, the bloodlust that people have. When they want to graphically just look at something – it’s almost like pornography – just, like, clinically. That’s not frightening to me. I grew up with movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. The Exorcist, especially, scared the shit out of me because I grew up right next to those steps as a kid.
But these aren’t scary movies [the porno-esque graphic ones]. There’s nothing frightening in any of these. It’s sort of like bad, cheesy humour. You know? Anyway…
Did you have some action inspirations, at all? We’ve not seen this many fights and battles in your films before…
I’ve written them, though. I’ve had to go through and write them. And choreograph them, how they’d work. And there’s that basic idea of samurai – that the way somebody fights reveals who they are as a person. That was in my mind. And really saving substance, and style coming out of substance.
I knew what they had to do. Really, it’s like everything in movies. It’s like hiring a dance choreographer. You hire a fight choreographer. And then you’re making something visually interesting. And dynamic. But a lot of these movies, what they do, is they hire somebody who has nothing to do with the movie just to come in and shoot the fights. Like a second director to do the action scenes.
And those always feel grafted on. I mean, really, it has to be part of the whole. They’ve got to be the same persons in those fights as they are in the movie.
You didn’t do that, then?
Didn’t do what?
Get someone else to do it?
[Laughs] No, I did not do that.
Good to know!
One thing that you’ve touched upon is that your script took out the broader humour of the previous versions. But one actor who is very funny is Matt Smith as Mr Collins…
Really? I don’t find him amusing. [Laughs] I know he gets a chuckle out of himself, but yeah… that’s really just knowing. It’s one of the advantages of being a writer-director, that somebody can do something and you can go ‘yeah, that might work. Go with that. Let’s do that.’
My background, too, is completely collaborative. You have really talented people, why wouldn’t you take advantage of what they can do. Or, more cynically, why wouldn’t you exploit their talent to the fullest? [Laughs]
I have to ask whether one bit was scripted – when Mr Collins bursts into the hall and just completely pratfalls and goes flying.
No. You know, he came up to me beforehand and said ‘I’ve got something here.’ And basically, what you do, is you get the page [filmed] in the first few takes. You get it the way it was written, and then you have an opportunity to play and see what you can come up with. See if we can get something magical, you know? Not only him doing something, but the way someone might react to him.
What was your knowledge of Matt Smith like before? Obviously he’s a big star over here because of Doctor Who, but he’s only recently started doing big American movies…
Yeah, it’s weird. He’s really the Doctor Who who broke it in the States. I mean, I grew up being aware of Doctor Who. There’s even a Doctor Who store in Los Angeles. And I have a nephew who’s just… beyond nerdy. Um, but him specifically, no, I wasn’t that aware of his work. I had to educate myself.
A huge part of putting this movie together was the English casting director, Des Hamilton. He left no stone unturned and really discovered some amazing young talent for the movie. But, I mean, he packed it. There’s no rule here where it’s a favour to some agent, everybody in it is pretty spectacular.
Lily James makes a great Elizabeth as well. It’s interesting looking at who else was in talks for the role before, but she holds the centre of the film so well…
She’s no Greer Garson! [Laughs] I know. People ask me about casting her, but she’s pretty blatantly talented. It’s not like you really need to be that keen an eye to spot it! [Laughs] There’s something there, maybe… No, she really knocks the socks off when you meet her.
So, is there going to be a long gap between this and your next film or have you got something lined up straightaway?
I’ve got a few things lined up, um… but it’s always difficult. It’s always… trying to get independent things made… is always the horrible fear that no-one’s going to see them. Also, it’s hard to get financing for anything remotely dark. But yeah, I’d like to get into the mode of making a movie again. I’ve pushed a lot of boulders to the top of the hill… hopefully some of them are on the verge of going over.
Is there a Julius Caesar project that you’re involved in? Is that still going?
There was. Um, it’s at Lionsgate now. I wrote it, but I’m no longer attached to direct it. At the moment, I’m not attached to direct it. That’s one of the things that I’m contemplating.
That was great, it’s Conn Iggulden series of books which had this great device. Wherein, Caesar’s family brings in this boy who’s living in the streets and they grow up as brothers. And at the end of the first movie you discover that the boy is Brutus. So they’re the same age. It’s almost an origin story for Caesar.
I’ve got a few things going, but it’s really tough. If you look what’s on the slate at studios, it’s not exciting. You know? First of all, everything’s a remake of something. Because the group think is that the brands that somehow are in the general consciousness… but not even good movies are getting remade… it’s really strange. Bizarre. The only good movies are getting made over here [in the UK].
It’s one of the reasons that there’s such a dearth of young American actors. Because there’s not really the opportunity. They’re not getting launched by independent films. There’s no way for them. I remember the year that Sam Riley broke in Control was the same year that Tom Hardy broke in Bronson and Fassbender broke in Hunger. That never could have happened in the States.
When we were at Comic-Con, there was not an actor there who wasn’t English or Australian. There were no American actors there.
I know you’ve directed TV episodes between your movies, but have you thought about transitioning over there longer-term? There seems to be more freedom there at the moment…
Yeah, there does. It does seem like they may have reached the over-saturation point where there’s too much content, but yeah I have played with that. I do have a series that [American cable/satellite network] IFC may be doing.
As far as directing it, I always want to direct television. Because it’s a weird thing with movies, because there can be so many years in between. You just lose your… you’ve got to get out there. But, no specific television, no.
What’s the process like? Is directing a TV episode different to directing a film?
In America, it is. In America, the lines are really strictly drawn between TV and movies. Here, people go back and forth. They really don’t do that in the States. Although cable has changed that a bit.
Yeah, the writers really rule television in America. And the directors are basically the substitute teachers who have to hold order for one episode. But you’re… basically, you’re doing everything. Um, but the writers are really running the show.
But I’ve enjoyed it. When you get to work with good people, it’s always great.
And quickly, just to finish off. What TV shows and films have impressed you recently, that aren’t by you?
Not by me? Other people are making movies? Um… TV shows… I like Black Mirror. I thought that was really good. And I’m glad that they’re… I mean, it seems like we’re only remaking bad English shows, but I think that’s one that Americans are finally catching on to.
Um… I mean, mostly comedic stuff… What movies, though? I don’t think I’ve seen a movie in a while that I really… I was talking about this with somebody and the last studio film that I was really moved by was The Constant Gardner.
Boy, it’s a tough one… What have I really… Um… even Lynn Ramsey’s movies are all pretty old. You’ve stumped me. To answer it honestly, there’s nothing that I’ve been blown away by and thought ‘I have to do that.’ The first season of True Detective, I thought, was a lot of fun.
Jesus, I don’t know. I’d better come up with something for that. That’s a good question. [Laughs] I’ll get back to you. Can I email you that one? [Laughs]
Burr Steers, thank you very much!
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is in cinemas on 11th February.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.