Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse: visiting the set

We went behind the scenes of Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse. Here's what happened...

Arriving at the Park Plaza, a looming building is billed as a hotel, but with no guests, reception or rooms for rent; a group of journalists assemble, awkwardly checking their phones and replacing batteries in Dictaphones. I size them up; I don’t see anyone else wearing a Ninja Turtles t-shirt, so reason that I am the coolest one. The building looks amazing. The ceilings are high enough that I felt twinges of vertigo and are decorated in beautiful elaborate paintings, like in the Venetian casino in Las Vegas. It’s June and we’re in California, and the lobby is providing welcome shade from the sun.

Representing Den of Geek, I’m here to check out the film that we will be released as Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, although at the time of our visit it’s called Scouts vs Zombies. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, as the name does nothing to communicate the scale of the film. That I’ve been sent such a long way suggests that this is going to be a pretty big movie, but that I’ve been sent suggests that this film isn’t that important to anyone. A quick look at this building we’ve arrived at, and the number of production trucks outside, suggests this is decently sized film. I’ve probably just been sent by accident.

A short wait and then, group all together, we make a quick trip up an impossibly steep staircase to see actors Logan Miller and Joey Morgan posing for publicity stills. They are dressed as Scouts (this film is not about the actual Boy Scouts, we’re told on multiple occasions, as they’re keen to stress no association between the official Scouts and this violent zombie movie) and are wielding ‘homemade weapons’. One of which, a gun that shoots doorknobs (made of rubber – the magic of Hollywood!), looks more than a little like the slime gun from Ghostbusters 2.

We’re then ushered back downstairs and through a large hall full of tables. Not long before, this hall was full of extras. As we pass through, it looks so badly trashed that it could pass for the site of an actual zombie massacre. We’re moved straight through and down into the basement. It’s a massive area split into two by a wall. On one side of the wall is an empty swimming pool where the scene is being shot and on the other side is the crew and so, so much equipment. 

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The set section looks amazing. Flashing lights, graffiti everywhere and an impressive number of extras. We’re advised that the film will feature over two hundred zombies. The graffiti, we’re told, was created by five artists and is all transfers, so when the production is done it can simply be peeled away.  If only real graffiti artists were as considerate. I spot, at the back of the pool, a large tag from ‘Chris L’, no doubt a reference to the film’s director, Chris Landon.

A guy sits at the side of the pool, working away happily on two different computers. Film sets aren’t like any other workplace, in that he doesn’t have Facebook open on either of them. There’s kit everywhere and a huge number of people. They’re constantly walking past. What’s weird is, it never seems to be the same person. It’s such a busy, crowded place full of people getting on with their jobs that you feel in a perpetual state of being slightly in the way of someone too polite to tell you to move.

As we’re ushered away from the set side (a take is imminent) we’re told that the party scene will feature a cameo from DJ Dillon Francis. Unfortunately I’m 32 and don’t know who DJs are. But, good news 19 year olds; Dillon Francis has a cameo in Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse!

The take suddenly less imminent, we’re taken to the creepiest boiler room in the world. All of my instincts were telling me this was a murder ambush, but it turns out that my instincts aren’t all that sharp. I’d still argue that “come and check out this creepy looking boiler room” should raise alarm bells for anyone, regardless of the circumstances. True to the reputation of horror movie boiler rooms, it was a murky, grimy looking affair, with hulking metal pipes and such. Apparently, they had already used this space to film another, unrelated scene. Again, such is the magic of Hollywood.

We collected journalists are then herded around one of two set of monitors. We watch three different angles of the action scene taking place next door. I can see why they brought us here on this day; the lights, the party crowd and mass of zombies all contribute to the enthusiastic atmosphere on set. It’s interesting to note that they’re right near the end of the shoot, with no signs of flagging energy from anyone, even though they’re working on the same scene for the entirety of our visit, which lasts for several hours. After a few hours getting this shot, they’ll move on to get three more angles on it. It comes to mind that renowned repeat-taker Stanley Kubrick was an utter maniac. Making a movie, based on what I saw on the set of Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, requires patience and a determination to make things perfect that my writing output suggests I don’t ha

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The calm, fun atmosphere reflects the manner of director Chris Landon. Landon is a cool guy. Naturally funny, charming and, if my reading of him was even close to correct, with something of a mischievous streak. When they’re shooting, though, he’s focused on the monitors, quick to respond if something is wrong. 

Landon sits, surrounded by producers and various other crew members, in front of the larger set of monitors. In total, there’s six screens, two sets of three (three cameras are running for this scene, as it’s part of their big finale, but we’re told they were shooting with two last week), with people watching at both. Behind Landon’s monitors are several boards covered in storyboard cards leaning against a wall. The monitors are named. They’re:

Monitor A – BJMonitor B – EricMonitor C – 

No idea who Monitor C pissed off.

Early in the first take we see, Landon reacts to something almost immediately. “No, no, no, no, no” he mumbles. He watches the take through, then sets about fixing what he saw. I’ve no idea what it is, until a couple of takes later we find out that the actress is responding ever so slightly early to a zombie grab. Who could blame her? If I knew a zombie was going to try to grab me I’d ball up on the floor and scream hysterically. It’s why I’ve been voted Den of Geek’s most cowardly writer six years in a row. I’ve never had the guts to collect the award, though.

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Landon’s dedication to getting the timing just right, something that could probably have been papered over with a cheap jump-scare ‘boom’ note in the score, is admirable, particularly as each new take means more time waiting for various different things to be reset. “Time is always our biggest challenge” Landon tells us. But it’s time spent getting things right. Milling around a short while after, waiting to begin another take of another shot, Landon exclaims to the producers “Isn’t making movies FUN?!”

Jokes aside, Landon clearly is having fun. He’s trying to make a fun movie, too. “It’s like a really gory, R-rated version of The Goonies” he tells us, adding that “Gremlins is a movie that we’ve referenced a lot.” He’s keen to play up the influence the 80s Amblin movies, but even more so to tell us about the hard content and R-rating that they’re going for.

“I always want to write something that I would want to go see. I didn’t want to do a PG-13 zombie movie, because it can’t be gory. There’s too many nos in that world and I wanted everything to be yes!” In fact, the earliest drafts of the script that existed prior to the director’s involvement in the project were for a PG-13 movie. The script was reworked to, among other things, bring in the genre cornerstones of gore and nudity.

Landon is relaxed and seems happy to take questions and chat with us. He talks with enthusiasm and knowledge on the subject of zombies, something I always look for in a person. “I watched all the Romero movies”, he tells us. “I was inappropriately young when I started watching Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead.”

“A lot of our zombies have personalities. Whatever they did in their former life, they’re still living out some version of that” Landon explains. While he’s happy to tell us about their zombie innovations (including the zombie cats shown in the trailer), he’s quick to let us know that the team behind Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse do know how to play the game. “You have to stick to certain rules. Like, you can’t get around the idea that you [have] to brain a zombie. If you just go and stab a zombie and it dies, you’re going to lose your audience.”

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On the subject of zombies, it’s an absolute delight to be on set with them. The make-up, which we’ll come to shortly, is excellent, meaning that the set is filled with convincing zombies texting, eating, reading and even skateboarding in between takes. One particular zombie clocks me looking at him. All casual like, he moves slightly closer to me and turns his head, showing off the more elaborately made-up and gruesome side of his face. Then, just as casually, he swaggers away. High fives to you, cool zombie guy.

It’s not the case that any one person is responsible for this particular apocalypse of the undead, but much of the blame will likely be split between makeup effects designer Tony Gardner and zombie choreographer Mark Steger. Steger, who surely has the coolest job title in the world, tells us that, in spite of the large number of zombies, the brain-chompers in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse won’t just be an anonymous horde. “I’d like everyone to interpret it for themselves,” he explains “because everyone has different biometrics. Everybody is different. We don’t want everybody moving the same way, we just want them to have the same focus.”

Make-up artist Gardner is responsible for the Oscar nomination received by Jackass for his work on Bad Grandpa, which already makes him a hero in my eyes. When we’re introduced to Gardner, he’s stood behind a bar. In front of him is a big bowl of bananas, just for people to eat. Behind him, a gruesome mess of a bloody leg spills out of a black bin liner. Gardner works away at a zombie dummy that you just know is going to be used for something awesome.

In Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse he’s trying to create something close to medically accurate zombies, basing his designs on the real layout of veins in the human body and having the zombie disease spread like a snakebite. Working on the film has been no simple task. “We have 18 makeup artists today. We’ve had a couple of hundred zombies,” he recounts, in the same way you might tell your spouse that the bastard phone would not stop ringing at work.

While everyone speaks excitedly about the zombies, it seems to me that it’s the cast that director can’t wait to tell us about. “Casting, for me, it’s like a gut thing,” he explains. “You meet someone and you either fall in love or you don’t.”

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“It started, really, with Tye Sheridan. I was on a plane and I saw Mud and he was amazing” says Landon. “We started talking about the Ben character; I didn’t want Ben to be a caricature.”

Tye Sheridan, the lead in Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse speaks just as highly of Landon, describing him to us as a “talented guy.” Sheridan comes across as a thoughtful, friendly young man. He’s very charismatic, too. The questions asked of him keep coming back to the film’s script, which he suggests attracted him to the role in the first place. “I read the script and I was super blown away by how much I cared about the characters.”

On behalf of Den of Geek, I pitch Sheridan a particularly brilliant question about the difficulties of having to do something silly and funny on such a large scale film, but the actor is hard pressed to answer it, his eyes wondering and speech broken. Just as my ego begins to crumble, it becomes apparent that his two co-stars, Logan Miller and Joey Morgan, are pulling faces at him behind the backs of the gathered journalists. ‘Have these young rascals no respect for the press?’ I thought, although they’re actually being more help than they realise. It’s a bunch of silly guys being silly together. The scale only makes it sillier.

The camaraderie between the three boys looks authentic to my outsider eyes. “We hang out, we play FIFA” Sheridan explains. “I just got a new PS4, and of course the World Cup is going on right now*, so I think we’re all really into that.”

Our chat with Logan Miller and Joey Morgan takes place in the so-creepy-I-wish-I-could-stop-mentioning-it boiler room. One of the lovely people who has been showing us around becomes a little flummoxed rounding the pair up. An odds maker would place Logan Miller as the most likely source of the difficulties, as he has the air of someone who might need to be wrangled. Miller is cheeky and rambunctious. He’s clearly having a ball making this film. When he’s not chatting with us, shooting his scenes or hanging out with his costars, he’s sat around the monitors exchanging jokes with the director. “Chris is one of the raunchiest writers I’ve ever met in my life. When we were spit balling ideas at the beginning of the process he just let all of us go balls to the wall, and ‘Yes, let’s do that.’”

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Joey Morgan is a newcomer. A tape he sent in landed him a screen test for the film, just as the young actor had taken a job cooking chicken. Morgan is a likeable and naturally funny guy, although he seems less preoccupied with how far things can be pushed that Miller. He’s got a natural funny manner about him. He’s able to get a decent laugh from the group when describing his character, Augie. “He’s the most Boy Scouty Boy Scout of all Boy Scouts.” He’s quickly corrected, though; he’s not a Boy Scout, he’s a Scout.

The differences between Miller and Morgan perhaps make them more appealing as a double act, and I found myself quite excited to see the two on screen together. I pitch the two some potential opponents for a sequel; Scouts vs Werewolves, or maybe Scouts vs Beliebers? Miller seemed excited to battle Beliebers, rattling off his own suggestions, including Oprah, Dr Phil and Michael Bay. Morgan pitches a battle against renowned LA gang The Crips and I wonder whether he’s old enough to be referencing an episode of South Park where Scouts and Crips did battle. Of course, the name change has put paid to our title pitches for a potential sequel.

As our energy starts waning (it’s a long afternoon, and it doesn’t take long for a crowded basement full of lights and machinery to start feeling oppressively hot), we see the crew setting up the next shot from our view behind the crowd watching the monitors. They’ve lined up a grand entrance for the three young heroes Sheridan, Miller and Morgan, who stand bold as silhouettes in front of a bright light, arriving to save the day. Only they aren’t. It takes me a moment to notice that the three actors are all sat in front of me, watching the monitors, and that the three bold looking heroes are stand ins, at least while the shot is set up. Damn it, Hollywood! Tricked again!

We then leave the crew to work and head on our way. It’s early evening and the Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse team will be filming scenes of gore and carnage through the night. Badly jetlagged and sagging from exhaustion, I wind up sleeping through the rest of the early evening and wake up at 3am. Like I said, I’m 32 and cool.

At the time of writing, I’ve no idea how Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse is going to turn out. It’s a big, slick looking zombie movie, but how it will play is still a mystery. I hope it turns out well, though, because if this team, who are working so hard and with such enthusiasm, are able to achieve what they described to us, we’re going to end up with a really fun zombie movie.

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* Please note that America is not just really behind us when it comes to football broadcasts, but that this has all been written in June 2014. The World Cup is going on. You’re just reading this in the future.

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