Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
True story: Cinema going audiences love zombie movies. Our fascination has ranged from everything from the traditional of DAWN OF THE DEAD and WORLD WAR Z’s undead, to the unconventional zom-rom-coms like WARM BODIES and SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Now director/ co-writer Christopher Landon (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES) teaches us a very important set of skills on how to survive a zombie apocalypse in the raunchy, zany zom-com, SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. In the film, three high-school scouts – Ben (Tye Sheridan), Augie (Joseph Morgan) and Carter (Logan Miller) – and a cocktail waitress (Sarah Dumont) must band together to survive a zombie uprising that’s taken over their town.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, we spoke with the affable director about everything from zombie choreography, to gaining Dolly Parton’s blessing, to a zombie-fied Cloris Leachman dining out at Denny’s.
FreshFiction.tv: Were you the one that filmed that 80’s-style scouting video at the beginning?
Yes. It was awesome. And we had a much longer version of it too.
FreshFiction.tv: Do you think that’ll show up on the DVD or be a viral video?
I think they are including the slightly longer version. I thought it was a cool way to wink at the audience and let them know what they were getting into. It’s not really about setting the tone, but about my way of saying, ‘I love these movies.’ Stuff from the 80’s was the whole inspiration for this movie – THE GOONIES, GREMLINS, and all of that is what inspired this movie. The idea that Rogers made his own instantly crappy, dated feeling recruitment video was a funny way to get things going.
FreshFiction.tv: Was there a lot of thought process put into the making of your zombies to make them different than in other films and shows – like their look and how they walk?
Yeah. The general rule that I had was if you were slow and lazy in life, you’d be slow and lazy in your afterlife. If you were fit and healthy and quick, you’d be the same as a zombie. It was the condition you left your body in is what would inform your movement. Part of that was we had a lot of extras and a lot of zombies so I made a video walking as a zombie to show people a version of what I was into. And then thank god somebody smarter than me brought in a zombie choreographer who worked with all of our extras and all of our actors. It was to avoid a certain level of sameness. We wanted variety. He was great at giving each person some kind of distinct movement. For me it was getting to dream up the ridiculous; you’ve got the stripper zombie, the homeless Britney Spears-singing zombie, the cat lady zombie (Cloris Leachman). There was a lot of really fun background zombie action; we’ve got roller derby girls, a yoga zombie. That was fun getting to come up with those characters and working with my costume designer to find appropriate vibes.
FreshFiction.tv: Did you want to make a cameo in this disguised as a zombie?
I didn’t. I wanted to be a zombie at one point, but I realized there was never an opportunity to sit in the chair long enough to do that. It was literally an impossibility. My line producer was at lunch, and I think the makeup designer was like, ‘You’ve got to come in and sit in the chair!’ He was like, ‘No!’ So my cameo in the movie is in the cat sequence in Mrs. Fielder’s house. There’s a shot where all the cat paws are reaching under the door. I’m one of the cat paws. That’s my moment of pride.
FreshFiction.tv: This film is a hard-R. Was there any question it wouldn’t be when the script came your way? Perhaps to tone it down to PG-13 for a bigger reach?
…Which would have been the normal way things would go. This was unusual in that when I came on and got involved, because there was a script, that script was PG-13. My gut reaction was this is wrong. I don’t believe that parents would take their kids to this type of a movie no matter how much you try to make it look cute. You’re still dealing with dead people, eating people. I felt if I was going to see this, as a fan of the genre, I want the goods. I wanna see gore and inappropriate stuff. That’s where I felt the movie belonged. I was lucky and grateful the studio supported that.
FreshFiction.tv: I think that’s the correct decision you made.
I just felt like you risk alienating both audiences which is your worst nightmare. At least this way I knew that I could get the genre fans there. But also because it’s really hard to make a zombie movie without blood. How do you do it? They’ve done it – WORLD WAR Z did it and they were pushing it, but I know that was really hard. For me, I couldn’t get away with the fun stuff without going R.
FreshFiction.tv: It occurred to me during this that you’re teaching kids good life skills; like how to change a car tire fast. Were there certain “wisdoms” you wanted to impart to audiences?
If there was a moral lesson to be learned, it’s about the value of friendship. That was important to me and keeping that in tact. In terms of all the other stuff, it was coming up with the fun, unique, inventive ways to apply the scouting skills in certain dangerous situations. That was the challenge and the fun for me.
FreshFiction.tv: Were you a scout and know this stuff beforehand?
No. Not at all. I had to learn it, which was fun for me. Also getting to work on designing badges and help create the uniforms for them.
FreshFiction.tv: Did the boys get to choose their own badges?
They didn’t. No. I definitely chose their badges for them but there was a ranking that was there as well. Carter, for example, had the lowest ranking. When you look at his uniform, apart from it being filthy because he doesn’t care about it, he also has the least amount of badges. Whereas Augie is covered in badges. Ben’s in the middle – he’s got a decent amount of badges and his uniform is in good shape. That was just a function of character and story.
FreshFiction.tv: So take me back to the day when you tell Cloris Leachman she’d be biting a young man’s ass?
She was so ready. I’ve never seen anyone so ready. Her first day, I was with Logan and we were waiting outside Cloris’ trailer waiting for her to arrive. She’s a legend! She pulls up, gets out of the car, looks at Logan and says, ‘I’m gonna eat your ass!’ First words out of her mouth. She meant it. When we shot that scene, we’d call ‘Cut,’ and she’d still be going. She was committed. She had no fear. That’s just her as a human being. When you reach a certain age, and you have no fucks to give anymore, you can do whatever you want.
FreshFiction.tv: When that scene played, I could sense there was a story there.
She’s hysterical. She was waiting in her trailer and we were running a bit behind and she was hungry – we didn’t have the best food that day. Cloris decided, in full zombie makeup, that she was just going to go to Denny’s and just left. I’m sure she scared the shit out of people there.
FreshFiction.tv: Listen, it probably depends on which Denny’s.
…Yes! Or she blended in. She’s wild.
FreshFiction.tv: Let’s talk about Denise (Sarah Dumont). I saw her as the guys’ “Lisa” from WEIRD SCIENCE.
Nailed it! She’s very Kelly LeBrock for me. When I came onto the movie, there was no Denise. There was a Kendall, and she was sweet and the object of Ben’s desire, but where’s the tough girl? If I were a girl, where’s the girl I want to root for? That was why I created that character. I felt like for the comedy you needed a counterbalance. She fit in so easily. Helping Ben find his guts and to think for himself was another good message.
FreshFiction.tv: Did you have to get Dolly Parton to sign off on her likeness? Obviously, for music rights, yes.
Yes, everything. Dolly and her people were amazing and so cool. I had a gut feeling she’d go for it because I know she’s got a great sense of humor and a great sense of humor about herself. I’m a massive Dolly fan. What I heard through the grapevine, because I didn’t get to speak with her directly, but apparently she really loved my dad [Michael Landon] so I think that helped a little bit. I really been heartbroken if she didn’t go for it. It’s such a weird detail but…
FreshFiction.tv: …but it’s handled with reverence.
Complete reverence and such a part of who I felt that character was. I just loved that he was a major closeted Dolly fan.
SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE opens on October 30.