Fresh Visions: zombie Shakespeare

Continuing our series on up and coming directors, we talk to Ryan Denmark about Romeo And Juliet Vs. The Living Dead.

by Jennie Kermode

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark - at least it smells that way. Could it be a zombie? As I arrive in the bar where I've arranged to meet director Ryan Denmark I discover that he's been joined by his friend Jason Ritter, co-writer, co-producer and star of Romeo & Juliet Vs. The Living Dead. Fortunately neither of them seems to be in the mood for eating human flesh today, so instead we get to discuss what the film is about and why it's attracting so much excitable word of mouth. I start by asking what seems to me to be the obvious question - how on Earth did they get the project off the ground?

"That's the beauty of a self-financed film: you don't have to pitch it to anybody," says Ryan with a grin. "We came up with the idea when Jason had created a number of horror-comedy mash-ups on stage..."

"We did Hamlet The Vampire Slayer and Macbeth In Space," Jason explains, "basically taking Shakespeare and adding in some modern horror or sci-fi elements. That was on stage, and then Ryan and I were talking about doing another project and he suggested Romeo and Juliet Vs. The Living Dead. It was originally going to be for the stage, too, but then Ryan had a gap in his schedule so we decided to rewrite it as a film."

"I had this break," Ryan continues. "I was about to go work on Spike Lee's Miracle At St. Anna and I had three or four months off before that - so we just moved it forward. We liked the script when we wrote it, it came together and we felt we had the right cast and crew. So yeah, it's great being able to develop something more experimental without having to pitch it to people who are more concerned about whether or not it's a sure fire hit."

It certainly seems to have caught a trend, with several similarly titled projects currently in the works. Did they have a problem competing with these?

Ryan shakes his head. "The book of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies is out right now but I don't know if they've finished signing their option off to anybody for the film. Pride And Predator, the other project, I heard they were going to try and shoot later this year, but we've already have our world premiere, so before either one of them has even wrapped shooting, we're out in the marketplace. Any attention that they garner, we can benefit from, especially in today's internet environment where when you rent something and you like it you're offered suggestions of similar titles. But no, we hadn't heard of them before we started - we'd actually finished the film and started submitting it to festivals before we heard anything. Anyway, I think Pride And Prejudice And Zombies is going to be very action focused and our film is a romantic comedy, so it's a very different film."

How about Tromeo And Juliet? Was that an influence?

"I've never seen it," Ryan says.

"I haven't seen it either, though we both were aware of it," adds Jason.

"From what I understand," says Ryan, "there's no zombie theme in that film. I'm not particularly influenced by Troma. Their work is usually a lot more violent than what I do. We have a prerequisite amount of zombies eating people and that kind of thing, but we're not a particularly violent horror film. We intentionally went about trying to make a comedy that would be a good movie you can take a date to, where nobody would leave angry. It's funny, it's got some zombie stuff in it, but it's primarily a 1980s style teen comedy. When we showed our first cut to test audiences they loved it. I enjoy some Troma films but I can't imagine myself making that sort of thing - I don't know that I'd be any good at it."

So is it closer in style to, say, Shaun Of The Dead?

He nods. "I think that's probably the closest thing. I intentionally avoided watching Shaun Of The Dead, because I'd wanted to see it when we started making this but I decided it was best to stay away from it and avoid getting my mind muddled up with it too much. Having watched it now, I think it's more of a standard zombie movie than our film, although it's cleverly written."

With the decidedly cheap looking special effects in their film, were Ryan and Jason making a few jokes about the genre?

"Oh yes. With a low budget picture like this we couldn't afford to have a special effects and make-up person on set every day, so we had to use make-up which I could reproduce myself. So we went with something very basic and theatrical and counted on the actors to bring a sense of character to the zombies. They have personalities - they have to in order to survive within the Shakespearean world and play these scenes. I think Jason's Romeo is kind of like an unhip Grinch."

And how about the menial jobs done by the zombies in the film - is that a reference to the similar approach taken by people like George Romero?

"Yes, very much so. And in the Eighties romantic comedies that we're parodying - all those teen movies like Pretty In Pink and Some Kind Of Wonderful and all that - they're all about people from the wrong side of the tracks, sort of thing. They're also all very heavily influenced by Romeo And Juliet. Most of them don't really make a secret out of it. We're not trying to make any grand statements about class but it's definitely something we wanted to use. The zombies in our story are people who were turned into zombies by a passing comet and they were able to be cured just enough to make them functional in society. One of the other films that I waited until we were finished to see was Fido, and it uses a similar device where the zombies are able to be domestic servants."

One of the things that struck us about the film was the absurdity of having a twentysomething actress playing the role of an adolescent girl, but then, that's usually the way that adaptations of this play work, isn't it?

Ryan agrees. "There hasn't been a major version of Romeo And Juliet that I've seen which actually casts a 13-year-old, although she's 13 in the play, so yes, we played it for a joke. I think Hannah was 22 when we shot the film. If you look at Shakespeare in its day it wasn't quite as creepy then as it is now, having a love story between a 13 year old and a guy who's probably in his early twenties."

I note that this also ties in pretty well with the whole notion of hysterical teenage romance in the Eighties high school movies Ryan has cited as his inspiration.

"Absolutely," he says. "Those things are all about hysterical love. I mean, my parents were high school sweethearts so I guess it works to an extent, but I think for most people, and especially with modern high school relationships, those people you meet then are not really the greatest loves of your life. It's a very immature approach to love, and that's what Romeo And Juliet is and I've never seen as as an example of the greatest love story of all time. They hardly even have any stage time together in the play; they're always apart. I think there's really no more reason why Juliet falls in love with Romeo in Shakespeare's play than why our Juliet falls in love with zombie Romeo."

"The hatred between the families in Shakespeare's play really makes the love between these young people seem more exciting," observes Jason. "We play off that idea as well - all the Capulets are enraged by the idea of Juliet being with a zombie. We were interested in the idea of how 'love' can be fuelled by the idea that it shouldn't be and how that makes it more appealing - the whole forbidden fruit thing."

"It makes it more appealing to me in my romantic entanglements," Ryan laughs. "Which is why I'm single at 33."

What really makes the film work well, though, is that it's played absolutely straight, especially by Hannah Kauffmann as Juliet. Was that difficult to do?

"The toughest thing for me, playing Romeo, was trying to give a zombie some sort of emotional character as the scenes progress," says Jason. "I concentrated on facial expressions and it was great to play off of Hannah who did play it absolutely seriously. The most fun and also the hardest thing about it was trying to create a character that was interesting to look at for the majority of the movie, as opposed to just your standard living dead zombie, which I though might get old after 10 or 15 minutes."

"My direction to the entire cast was to try to play it as straight as possible," says Ryan. "To me that's the heart of the comedy in this - it's the juxtaposition and the conflict between a very serious Shakespearean performance and a very cartoonish zombie flailing around in front of them. If the humans had been reaching for laughs it wouldn't have worked."

Finally, what about the choice of language in the film? Much of it hinges on the original dialogue, adding an extra layer of absurdity.

"We used as much Shakespeare as we possibly could," says Ryan." We worked out our story, did our plot outline, then went to the play and pulled out as much text as we possible could and then filled in the gaps with our own stuff. If you're familiar with Shakespeare I think you'll be interested to see how we took lines from certain scenes and moved them to different parts of the play and put them in different characters' mouths but maintained the context and the original meaning, particularly with the Queen Mab speech, which is speaking against the kind of hysterical love that Romeo happens to be in with Roselyn at the time and later transfers to Juliet. I don't think Shakespeare really believed that these two people were in love either - Romeo is just in love with anything. So we tried to retain as much of it as possible because I think it retains the interest and it's also just amazing dialogue."

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