When Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick first started writing Zombieland (first as a TV pilot and then as a movie), they had no idea that their little “zom-com” would end up being the bleeding edge of an entirely new revival of interest in flesh-eating corpses. Sure, there had been movies like Shaun of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake sprinkled throughout the 2000s, but the October 2009 release of Zombieland made ghouls somehow more mainstream and paved the way for them becoming pop culture staples with the arrival of The Walking Dead one year later.
A sequel to Zombieland seemed like a no-brainer (sorry). So why did it take 10 years to get Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) back on the screen in Zombieland: Double Tap?
That was the question we put to Reese and Wernick–who took some time between films to pen another little franchise known as Deadpool–when we recently sat down with them. We also spoke about how the sequel changed over the past decade, what it’s like to write for Harrelson, and whether they thought they could top the first movie’s classic scene with surprise guest Bill Murray.
Den of Geek: Let’s just start off with the gestation of this, which has taken a while. How soon after the first one came out, did people start throwing the idea of a sequel around?
Paul Wernick: Right away.
Rhett Reese: A day.
Wernick: Zombieland came out in early October, and a week later we had booked Deadpool, GI Joe: Retaliation, and Zombieland 2. Zombieland 2 was the first script we started on of those three.
Reese: How outrageous is that it took six years to get Deadpool made from there. But it took 10 years to get Zombieland 2 made? We thought Deadpool was a long slog and this one turned out to be almost double.
How much of that initial idea or script has made it to where we are now?
Wernick: Some. I mean the themes and some scenes. The biggest issue, and the reason those early drafts didn’t happen, was the aging of Little Rock. Little Rock was still a little girl in those drafts. She then grew up in the four or five years that followed. We were still trying to get the script right and [director Ruben Fleischer] was off making other movies, and the cast was blowing up and then as time passes you realize, well, this doesn’t really work anymore.
Little Rock’s now late teens and suddenly you’re going, she’s not a little girl. Now you start to have to think about…
Wernick: Leaving the nest.
Reese: Yeah, what’s the next moment for her? Then we were on the Deadpool stuff, and Dave Callaham came on Zombieland 2, did a great job sort of re-conceiving the story around the hunt for Little Rock. Oren Uziel also did a very nice job. Two excellent writers. Then ultimately it still wasn’t where people really wanted it to be exactly, where the actors really wanted it to be, even though it was very solid.
Then Paul and I came back and we worked on it for a couple more years, and in that time it really does evolve because now it’s about a young 20-something woman who really is having a chance at a real relationship for the first time in her life. Her father figure’s a little put off by that. You get to explore the passage of time. What does that mean for their relationships, for the evolution of zombies, for the evolution of the physical world around them? How much more has it decayed? So we all leaned into the passage of time at that point. But it was a long slog for sure.
Meanwhile, at the same time, Zombieland really kicked off a zombie revival, so to speak. Were you guys keeping an eye on all this stuff and saying, how do we differentiate our story?
Wernick: What’s interesting is the movie’s called Zombieland, but it’s not really about zombies. It’s about this family, this dysfunctional family that’s having their ordinary issues that every other family has in this extraordinary world. So we appreciate the zombies, and they provide us the threat and the stakes, but ultimately it’s about this family.
When you wrote the first one, I’m assuming that you didn’t know who would play the roles?
Reese: We wrote it as a TV pilot. So we had no idea we’d be getting stars of this caliber to star. The benefit of the sequel, of course, is that now you know you’ve got these great people and you can write to their voices, write to their personalities, write to their strengths, and then add some new people to freshen it up and throw more energy into the system.
Well, that was sort of my question. Now you know you’ve got Woody and his particular style and you’ve got Emma, and they’re all very unique personalities. So you’re writing more for them.
Wernick: I mean, it’s such a gift to have the actor’s voice in our head when we’re writing and such talented actors who not only take what’s on the page but elevate it and make us look good. So, yeah, these are characters that were born in our head, but then evolved as actors came on and made it their own. So yes, it’s a real privilege to have their voice in our head as we’re sitting down to write.
In the early drafts of the first movie, Tallahassee and Columbus were called Flagstaff and Albuquerque. Now you’ve reapplied those names to the characters played in the new film by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch.
Reese: The first draft of the first movie took place in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona. When we got Atlanta as our shooting location, we thought, well, we can’t use the Sonoran Desert. So now the whole movie has to be set in Texas. So suddenly we had to abandon the names of our characters and they all got different names, but even though Tallahassee and Albuquerque have a close affinity for some reason in the way they sound, we still had an affection for those original names.
We had written a character we called Alpha Tallahassee who was like the more alpha dog version of Tallahassee that he kind of butts heads with. Then someone thought, I don’t know who it was, that had come up with the idea, well what if we did one for Columbus too? Then we thought, well, of course we have to use their old names. Albuquerque and Flagstaff is an homage to that earlier draft.
Wernick: So it’s a little Easter egg.
Reese: A little bit, yeah. And then of course you go out looking for actors who can take the character and push it to 11, almost do a slight parody of what’s come before them. Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch took on that challenge and did an awesome job.
When you’re writing, are you conscious that stuff on the set is going to happen spontaneously and these guys are going to improv?
Reese: Depends on the actor, but yes.
Wernick: We’ve been blessed with amazing improv talents–Ryan Reynolds on Deadpool and obviously Jesse and Woody and Emma, and Abby and Thomas. It’s great. The idea is as writers you want to give them a framework and lines obviously to say, but then once they say those lines, once we’ve got it on camera, it’s like, let the genius flow.
Reese: But we’re happy to take credit for it after the fact when they come up with great stuff.
Wernick: Exactly. Ruben is very collaborative and very open to new ideas. So to have the actors improv on set is a wonderful thing.
Reese: We came from an improv background. Our first collaboration was a show called The Joe Schmo Show on Spike TV, which was an improvisational comedy reality show. So we came to love improv from the very beginning. So we’d never seen it as a threat. We always see it as an amplification or an elevation of what’s on the page. You’ve always got the lines as written and sometimes they work out the best. Then other times, there’s something else somebody comes up with, some extra magic that makes them even better.
Was there talk of another celebrity appearance along the lines of the Bill Murray scene from the first movie?
Wernick: We had written a scene where it was Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Bill on a golf course and they were all trying to convince Bill to do the next Ghostbusters, and then the zombie outbreak hits and Bill is having to kill his buddies on the golf course. Joe Pesci is out there too, in front of them and playing slow.
Reese: I think at one point Dan Aykroyd gets his ankle wrapped up in the seatbelt of the golf cart maybe and is dragged into the lake. It was crazy. It was pretty funny. But then time intervened and there actually was another Ghostbusters, and Bill was in it so the joke didn’t work anymore and these things just come and go.
Wernick: But in terms of another celebrity cameo, Bill Murray kind of was the tip of the iceberg. How do you top that?
Reese: Luke and Thomas are sort of this movie’s version of that, the characters that come in for a fun 10 minutes and then they’re gone. We couldn’t really top Bill Murray.
Zombieland: Double Tap is out in theaters Friday, Oct. 18.