I recently went to see World War Z. In this summer of bombs, it’s the best Big Movie I’ve seen so far. After reading a Vanity Fair June cover story detailing the film’s torturous path to completion, I had expected something worse.
The Vanity Fair piece was a familiar tale of hubris and its comeuppance. In it, the mighty are laid low. Fools and knaves fritter away fortunes. Hollywood insiders fret another concoction of box office poison is being brewed.
Here’s the tease:
[A]mid delays, on-set drama, and rumors that the budget had ballooned above $200 million and that Pitt had clashed with director Marc Forster, Hollywood began to wonder if Paramount’s thriller was dead on arrival.
I’m not particularly proud to say this but I love these kinds of schadenfreude stories. (Leave it to the Germans to invent a word for the pleasure one feels in the suffering of others.) I secretly delight in the box office travails of the big summer flops. When movies made for sums that could bail out Portugal backfire, it’s what passes for victory to a public bludgeoned by soulless cookie-cutter mega-movies.
After seeing World War Z, I am reassessing my position. I think there is a fascinating story about the making of this movie but it’s not the one Vanity Fair told.
Before seeing World War Z, I wouldn’t have believed there was any juice left in the zombie apocalypse trope. Yet the movie brings several new elements to the table. It envisions zombies not as a shambling, easily killed menace but rather as a fast-moving swarm that mimics a virus. The movie also manufactures a very modern and appealing heroic character for Brad Pitt. His Gerry Lane is a former United Nations investigator who has left behind the war zones to be with his wife and two daughters. Imagine Jason Bourne meets Contagion and you have a sense of it.
The Vanity Fair article describes the first cut of the movie. It involved a big action finale that takes place in Russia. In a final battle “the undead lay siege to Moscow’s Red Square but are beaten back by an army of thousands, who, enslaved by the Russians, are forced to fight in ragtag battalions, lopping off the heads of the surging zombies with shovel-like weapons called lobos, short for “lobotomizers.”The Russia battle not only was the pivotal action scene for the movie’s ending but also set up Gerry Lane as a leader in the war against the zombies for potential sequels.”
I’m exhausted just from reading the description. The ending the filmmakers envisioned sounds like the same-old summer blockbuster recipe: ear-splittingly loud, unimaginatively composed, gratuitously violent and special effects driven. All of it market-tested, aimed at teens and teed up for IIs, IIIs and more. Yet something interesting happened along the way to producing yet another piece of expensive schlock. People with creative integrity intervened.
Pitt acknowledged the last 12 minutes of the movie — the giant action set piece in Russia — didn’t work. So the filmmakers jettisoned it, hired new screenwriters, spent an estimated $20 million and created a new ending. Rather than see this as a sign of desperation, as Vanity Fair did, the move should be lauded, particularly for the new direction in which the filmmakers went.
The ending you’ll see at the multiplex is confined, intimate and suspenseful. It takes place on a human scale. The hero follows an emotional journey that is both consistent with the rest of the movie and satisfying. It transcends the cartoon and becomes three-dimensional.
I’m sure everyone involved with this movie wished they hadn’t taken such a torturous road to completion. The Vanity Fair piece talks about fights between the star and the director, budget overages and location disasters. Sometimes the journey is messy and the view inside the sausage factory is rarely pretty. The final product can be Waterworld or Casablanca and you won’t necessarily know until you see it.
I suspect that by the time the article was in production, Pitt understood what he had. Maybe that’s why he agreed to put his face on the cover of Vanity Fair. The movie has since scored at the box office. All the public will remember is a decent movie and a smiling Brad Pitt. Wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood also absorbed the lesson that big doesn’t always mean better.