MovieRetriever: Seeing Zombieland and The Messenger in the same week was quite an experience and it hinted at something unique about you, I think. There are few actors who would go from No Country for Old Men to Zombieland to The Messenger – is that purposeful for you to seek out diverse roles or is that just how they came your way?
WOODY HARRELSON: No, not at all. I just read it and respond to the material – it isn’t like some kind of calculated plan.
MovieRetriever: What is it that you respond to?
HARRELSON: Well, for example, with Zombieland, I thought it was a great and really funny script that was completely original. With The Messenger, I thought it was one of the best scripts that I had ever read – it was powerful and one of those things that you just couldn’t not do.
EFilmCritic: In terms of horror and popular culture, every era seems to have a certain kind of genre type that seems to dominate and represent the times – monsters, giant insects, mad slashers and the like. Zombies have, of course, been around for a while but it seems that they have become the dominant creature of this era in terms of popular culture. Do you have any thoughts as to why that is and where Zombieland fits in with all of that?
HARRELSON: I think that a lot of it does have to do with having eight years of an administration that made us believe that zombies are taking over. Then again, I do think that maybe the vampires are a little bit ahead right now.
EFilmCritic: Yeah, but in the case of vampires, they are less interested in commenting on what is going on in the world right now and more interested on cashing in on the success of Twilight.
HARRELSON: What was your favorite zombie movie?
EFilmCritic: Probably the original Dawn of the Dead.
HARRELSON: What about 28 Days Later?
EFilmCritic: I liked it a lot but I think it falls apart a little in the last third once they come upon the creepy military guys.
HARRELSON: I thought that one was great. I Am Legend and Shaun of the Dead were really good.
Twitch: This is kind of like an American Shaun of the Dead because you have American culture under the scrutiny of the film the entire time and you have these extremely American characters that are even named after American cities. One thing I am curious about is whether either of you worried that maybe zombies had been played out or if this would work as a big-budget studio film when a lot of the zombie films have been smaller and more underground.
JESSE EISENBERG: The only hesitancy that I had was that I didn’t think that there would actually be any good roles written into a zombie movie. When I got the script, and I think Woody had the same experience, we read it from the bottom of the pile because you don’t expect that a zombie film is going to have such well-written characters. In terms of trends, that is luckily not for me to figure out. I didn’t realize that underground horror movies were received that openly. I was just surprised to see that this film had such rich characters and that it was as funny as it was.
HollywoodSnitch.com: Have you been in any other films with as many special effects as this one and what was your take on the zombie effects here – the crushing, the shooting. Was it fun to watch them do that on the set?
HARRELSON: I think that is always neat to watch. A healthy level of destruction and mayhem is a good thing to take in during the course of one’s day. I also think that we really felt at the end of the day that if we had slaughtered thirty zombies, we had actually done something.
EISENBERG: We felt like Roman Polanski.
HARRELSON: I knew you were going to try to work him in. We were just debating the whole Roman Polanski thing – should he be going to jail or not?
MovieRetriever: And what do you think about that?
HARRELSON: He is pretty decided about that.
EISENBERG: Yeah – you don’t touch children. That is the worst thing in the world. You don’t know how badly that screws up kids – it screws them up for life.
HARRELSON: I feel kind of the same way. I have a daughter who is 13 and the thought of some guy giving her a Quaalude … then I was torn over the fact that it had been 32 years and the girl had forgiven him, so I don’t know. I do think that what he did was wrong.
EISENBERG: Kids are sexualized in the media more than ever. That is why the girl in our movie is such a great role model for kids. She and her family are aware of the way that kids are objectified and sexualized in movies even at her age and so they don’t put her in anything revealing or in any films that would put her in a compromising position. They put in her roles that present women in good ways.
Chi-Guide.com: You guys have done a lot of interesting roles where you have doing some great acting but I have to ask a question about the scene in the movie where you guys walk into a store and just demolish it. At some point, I think everyone dreams of going into someplace and just destroy it. Tell me what filming that day was like.
HARRELSON: That was among the more cathartic days.
EISENBERG: That scene is maybe an exception but when you watch a movie, the most exciting scenes to watch are usually the least exciting to film because they require so much vigilance and calculation in order to ensure that glass doesn’t get into your eye and stuff. That scene was the exception because there was no continuity – you don’t have to set up for another take if you are smashing up an entire store. That was pretty cathartic. We knocked down half the store in one take and had eight cameras set up to catch it from every angle.
HARRELSON: Even when they would say “Cut,” we kept smashing shit up because we were having so much fun.
MovieRetriever: I think that people will see this movie and think that because it is so much fun to watch, it must have been fun to make. Do you want to correct that or was it a blast every day?
HARRELSON: I had a blast – I think Jesse may have had some issues but I had a great time.
EISENBERG: I thought it was stressful to do a film over such a long period of time but you just have to get used to that. The other thing was that in the other films that I have done, there are usually two camera angles per scene and very small set-ups. I was doing 20 takes a day on this movie that I thought were awful and if you do that on a smaller movie, they wind up in the movie. With this, there were so many angles that they could cut around and I didn’t have to stress out over being perfect.
Twitch: You guys really have had the fortune of contributing to the iconography of what people think of in popular culture through things like Natural Born Killers and Adventureland. What is it like dealing with something like that?
EISENBERG: I don’t think of myself like that but I always thought of him like that – someone who is iconic, who no one else is like and you have specific associations with him that you think are awesome and make you want to hang out with him,
HARRELSON: I don’t know. I think that when both of us watched it – I watched it first in Orange County and I honestly thought, and this was probably part of the trepidation that took me so long to read the script with my agent nagging me, that I had a sense in my stomach that this was going to be terrible. Then I watched it in Orange County and I never saw an audience respond to a movie like that, at least not any movie that I had been in. It was like being in a rock concert – it was outrageous. Then we were in Miami and I kept trying to tell him that it was great and that he had to watch the movie – he was afraid to watch the movie because he was afraid of being disappointed. He was sitting next to me and at one point, he went, “This is good!” It was great to see that response from him.
EISENBERG: I’ve seen it four times and I am in shock every time at how good it is – everything works so well.
HARRELSON: It is ironic because with Reuben [Fleischer] being a first-time director, who could guess that he would have the facility to do what he did. Even in the credits before you meet the characters, you have already laughed several times. It is put together really well.
EFilmCritic.com: One of the really impressive things about the film is the way that it effectively blends together comedy, which usually requires a certain looseness and spontaneity in order to succeed, and special effects, which usually require the kind of meticulous control that doesn’t exactly mesh well with performance rhythms. Was it difficult for the two of you to adjust your acting approaches to finding those rhythms despite the challenges posed by the effects?
EISENBERG: The script was written well but the ability to execute that difficult balance that you are talking about comes from a director really making sure that the actors are in a place that seems natural enough so that we will seem funny. You really have to account for the naturalism that you are referring to to make it funny – if you don’t have that realism in the acting, then it is just cute and kitschy and then the effects take over. In our movie, the special effects are great but it isn’t an effects-laden movie like 2012. You need to have those quiet and natural moments relating to the people.
HARRELSON: That is what drives you through a movie. I haven’t watched the new Transformers movie but I assume that if you don’t care about those characters, then the movie fails regardless. I guess it was really up to Reuben to make sure that you had enough investment in the characters so that the big effects don’t interfere and the story moves along.
MovieRetriever: How much did he allow you to bring to the characters and how did you two go about developing your on-screen dynamic?
EISENBERG: Well, in terms of the dynamic, I had my final audition for the movie with him and part of the reason that they cast me was because we worked well together.
HARRELSON: He came in for that audition and I was really gratified because we were sitting in front of Amy Pascal and all the brass at Sony – I had the part but if I had been in his shoes, I would have just been … He comes in and oh my God, he was so funny. He was improvising and I was kind of taken aback because I wasn’t expecting him to do that. We were kind of playing with it right there in that very first audition, which I would love to see. It really kind of set the stage and when he left the room, I was like “I don’t think we need to go any further.” Of course, they still brought in the other people.
EISENBERG: And he said the same thing about each one.
HARRELSON: I like to pander. No, he really was so funny right from the start and there was a lot of improv.
EISENBERG: I remember that before we shot, I would get together with Reuben and make a list of all the lines that I didn’t like and try to come up with alternatives. We would argue for like three hours about one line and when we would get on the set, he would go “Just say whatever you want.”
MovieRetriever: Are there any lines that you are particularly fond of?
EISENBERG: My favorite line that I came up with is one that nobody laughs at – the thing about getting a 4:30 shadow instead of a five-o-clock shadow.
HARRELSON: I love the one that he came up with on the last day in what is our first scene together. He came up with the thing about tossing the drink and saying “One and done, that’s what I always say – well, I said it once.” I thought he came up with some great shit.
HollywoodSnitch: I have to ask – are you a Twinkie fan?
HARRELSON: I think the last time I ate a Twinkie was about 25 years ago.
EISENBERG: Speaking of improvisation, Woody did that with everything in the Bill Murray scene and that is about the funniest scene in any movie. The part where he says “Bill F**king Murray – I know that isn’t your middle name …,” no one gets to hear the line he says afterwards, which is “I’ve been a fan of yours since I could masturbate – not that they are related.” I never heard that line in the movie and I finally had to ask him what he said.
Twitch: We have been on sort of an apocalyptic binge in pop culture in America for a while – besides this, there are films like 2012 and The Road coming soon as well. You two are known to be socially conscious and very aware of these issues – do you feel like you are contributing to helping people work through the zeitgeist? One of the first things that came up in this interview was “eight years of Bush” and we are all still working through that. Have you considered that at all?
EISENBERG: When my girlfriend saw the poster for the film, she was furious for a week because I am holding a gun and her students were going to see it – the movie could be rated “R” but the poster is on the streets to be seen by everybody. So yeah, I do think about that. Of course, if they did a sequel, I would jump on it in a second.
HARRELSON: I think that there is a real sense in our culture that we are heading towards some kind of apocalypse – maybe it is part of the Christian concept of the apocalypse but I am not saying that is an exclusively Christian concept. Maybe that is one of the things that make people resonate with these apocalyptic movies. I did this junket for 2012 and people kept asking me if I really thought that it was going to go in 2012 in the way that it seems to be going and I said that ecologically, we seemed to be right on target. I am really concerned with that because we are moving towards a very difficult time. Under Bush, we had eight years that were rough in every way, not the least was the assault on Mother Nature. However, I am not loving Obama – he made this statement when they were talking about trying to accomplish with the new legislation about global warming and he said “Let’s not let great be the enemy of good.” That just stayed with me and haunted me. “Great be the enemy of good” – let’s not make great, firm international legislation and try to settle for what we can get. LBJ probably would have said that.
EFilmCritic: Woody, in your career, you have worked with any number of well-known filmmakers – Oliver Stone, Paul Schrader, Michael Cimino, and the Coen Brothers to name just a few. When you are working on a film like this with a first-time director, what do you get as an actor from someone who doesn’t have an extensive filmmaking background to draw from?
HARRELSON: I was really nervous about working with Reuben because he was a first-timer and I felt like the scope of this thing was so huge. One of my early conversations with him was about making sure that this thing wasn’t broad because if it is too broad, it was going to be really stupid and silly and people weren’t going to like it. He was assuring me that no, we were going to play everything for real and we did. In terms of working with him, I gotta say that he was incredible because he was so open to everything while a veteran director might have been like “No, we aren’t going to try that idea” and have his own set ways. Now some of the best directors that I have worked with, like Milos Forman, are open to trying anything – the set is your playground with him. He was great to work with and in the end, he hit it out of the park and that is what matters.