The ten years since Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wrote Zombieland have been pretty good to the Hollywood scribes. The pair entered into a very fruitful partnership with Ryan Reynolds that has lead to two Deadpool movies (well, two and a half), the underappreciated space horror Life, and the upcoming reboot of Clue. Over the course of a decade, a Zombieland sequel has shambled behind them like an undead shadow, existing at one point as a TV show (Amazon passed) and always as a hypothetical follow-up film to the smash hit from 2009. Then last year, Reese and Wernick confirmed to Vulture that they were finally at work on a feature-length return to Z-Land with the original cast in tow, and now this weekend, Zombieland: Double Tap arrives in theaters with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) all returning to slay some automatons and sort out their found-family foibles.
“It’s like putting on that old comfy sweater that just makes you feel warm inside,” Wernick says of his experience bringing the story back, if that sweater were covered in gunpowder residue and stained with the entrails of exploding zombie parts. Before Double Tap’s release, Vulture spoke with Reese and Wernick about why it took so long to “get the band back together,” and the simple joy of ending the world before the current presidential administration had a chance to take power.
So, it’s been a decade. What took you guys so long?
Rhett Reese: Essentially, we wrote Zombieland 2 on the heels of Zombieland 1, and the movie took place right at the end of the Zombieland 1, with Little Rock being a 12-year-old girl and all the characters just where we last left them. For different reasons, partly script but mostly scheduling, it just didn’t get going. Years started to pass and I think the combination of Ruben [Fleischer, the director] going off to do other movies, us leaving to do Deadpool, and Abigail Breslin growing up left the project in a state of limbo. We had to kind of redesign a story that would take into account that she’d become a young woman. So Dave Callaham and Oren Uziel came in — two really excellent writers — and helped sort of reconceive an idea in which Little Rock went on the road and the others had to go save her. Then ultimately we came back for a couple of years to rewrite what they had done. You add it all up and it was ten years later. It was definitely one of those exercises in delayed gratification. We had to all kind of relax and hope that someday it would get there, and it did. Now we’re here and we’re going to pretend like it never happened!
Paul Wernick: We didn’t think it would ever come together. All the actors are so sought after. With Emma and Woody and Jesse and Abby, the stars needed to align. Literally. Hollywood’s a crazy place, and we just thought we were one and done. Everyone got a Zombieland and it turned out great and we moved on, as much as we love the franchise and as much as we love each other. I think it was that love that made everyone want to get the band back together and do it again.
Does this mean we’ll see you here again in another decade?
Wernick: We’d love nothing more than to continue to tell stories in Zombieland. That’ll be up to the audience pending Zombieland 2’s success. There are still more stories to tell, and these are still characters we absolutely adore and want to continue to live with for as long as people allow us to, and I think the cast and Ruben all feel the same, too. Woody was telling me the other day he wants to make ten more of these, but I don’t know how realistic ten more of these are.
The first Zombieland really feels like a crazy combination of luck and timing, getting the actors you did ten years ago and landing that Bill Murray cameo for a glossy zombie comedy. With the success of the first in your pocket, did that make it easier to get what you wanted for Double Tap?
Wernick: Yeah, a lot easier. Getting people for the first Deadpool was super difficult. We got a lot of no’s, just like we got a lot of no’s on the first Zombieland. Ultimately, we ended up with Bill Murray, but we got a lot of no’s getting to him. Getting Bill on the first one was like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe it! He’s not going to show up. Is he gonna show up? How do we get him? Do we go on plane and actually just grab him and put him onto a plane?” And this one, it was like one call.
Rhett: You would expect that in Hollywood after you’d succeeded once that you’d be left alone the second time, but really more often it’s the opposite. If you’ve succeeded once, there’s more scrutiny, because suddenly the project is a tent pole, right? It’s a franchise. It means a lot to the studio. Well, what we’ve been fortunate about is that both Fox and Sony in the case of Deadpool and Zombieland specifically, they really bucked what’s the usual trend of extra scrutiny and extra cooks in the kitchen. They really did let us go largely make the movie we wanted to make. I mean, you get studio notes. You always get studio notes, but they were helpful and they were not obtrusive. We really weren’t meddled with that much.
And since sequels are generally bigger and more expensive than a first film, did you have a crazy wish list you put in with the studio?
Reese: For sure. We have stuff like monster trucks and people falling off towers and the leaning tower of Pisa falling over. There’s no question. You tend to think a little bit bigger, and yet at the same time we never felt like budgetarily or otherwise that this should be a massive movie. It’s a reasonably sized movie that’s not about necessarily saving the world. It’s grounded, and it’s about these four people, some new friends, but we wanted to make sure it kept that kind of neighborhood-y, independent feel and didn’t become a massive, bloated sequel.
Speaking of new friends, how much of Zoey Deutch’s character Madison is what you guys built into the character, and how much is her just playing it to the hilt?
Wernick: I’d say we gave her the framework on a page, but my God, she ran wild in a way that just brought a great delight to us! In the wrong hands that character would have been, “Oh, God. She’s super the worst!” But she’s so delightfully bad. She’s endearing and, you know, dumb like a fox. Zoey is a force of nature, and we hope to continue to work with her for a very long time. Ruben and Zoey were even talking at one point about spinning off the character into her own Zombieland movie where we track Madison in the postapocalypse.
There has been a run of very good, very somber zombie movies over the past few years, but suddenly there’s this rush of zombie comedies like Little Monsters and The Dead Don’t Die and One Cut of the Dead. Did you realize you’re part of a movement to bring the fun back to zombies?
Reese: Generally when we’re knee-deep in a genre, we’re trying to clear our heads of our competition as opposed to seeing what they’re up to. So, we haven’t seen those movies, but I think from the original George Romero movies, there was always a wry sense of humor involved. I think it was probably time again. These things ebb and flow. Walking Dead is so serious, and hopefully people are ready for the lighter side of the postapocalypse. Paul, you always call it wish fulfillment.
Wernick: Yeah. We always think, “Oh, my God. It’s the postapocalypse! How terrible this would be!” And we’re like … actually it would be kind of fun to able to drive any car you want and go in any store you wanted. There is some wish fulfillment to being able to have no consequences. Sure, there are zombies out there, and yeah, they can kill you. But there’s also a lot of fun. You can go stay at the White House.
Reese: Paul wants to be off the grid. This is his escape.
Wernick: It’s the truth! But think about it; you’re being hunted by flesh-eating monsters, but you get to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom if you want. That’s pretty awesome. There’s some benefits to lawlessness out there, Jordan. Believe me.
I’m realizing that, because the Zombieland world is basically frozen in time, we’re experiencing an apocalypse that started ten years ago, meaning there’s no awareness of why the world would end in the ways we joke about it ending now. Perversely, that makes Z-Land feel like a safe place to go back to.
Wernick: You’re so right. The world is terrible in 2019, so there’s something nostalgic about the world ten years ago where it’s like, “Oh, it was a simpler time than the world that we’re all currently living in. If we could only go back to 2009 and watch the world end!”