When asked to label his new movie, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, writer/director Burr Steers just chuckles. “A zom-rom-com action/period.. .dram,” he laughs. But he’s not kidding. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a film that defies characterization by being so many things simultaneously, and doing them well.
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies opens February 5 and is based on the popular 2009 book by Seth Grahame-Smith, which is in turn based on the classic 1813 Jane Austen love story. Grahame-Smith took that text, characters and all, and added in zombies. The book was a big hit and Hollywood immediately took notice. Since its release, several major filmmakers and stars tried to bring it to the big screen (Natalie Portman and David O’Russell among them) but it wasn’t until Burr Steers took over, director of 17 Again and Igby Goes Down, but best known for his role as “Flock of Seagulls” in Pulp Fiction, that it finally happened.
“The first writer-director who was on it made it a movie about things he was interested in. And I, even more so than Seth, I took this back to Jane Austen,” Steers told io9. “I went back to Jane Austen because it occurred to me that Jane Austen always works. You could take the characters and the template and it would work in any setting. I mean this really put it to the test, but it’s true.”
The original Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet (played by Cinderella’s Lily James here), one of five daughters who develops a flirtatious rivalry with a would-be suitor, Mr. Darcy (Maleficent’s Sam Riley). This, and many, many other melodramatic happenings occur against the setting of the Napoleonic Wars. That made the transition to a zombie movie rather simple, according to Steers. “It was structured to have that big thing going on.”
But as you’d expect, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t the usual zombie fare. For starters, it has to make the undead more than a mindless mob to fit in with the feel of the Austen text.
“The idea here was more Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend,” Steers said. “That the creatures were retaining some of who they were as humans and, after a hundred years, this disease was evolving. They aren’t thinking of themselves as zombies, they’re thinking of themselves as a competitive race with humans. So it wasn’t just mindless zombies wandering around waiting to get decapitated. They were dangerous. They could think.”
The other big zombie challenge, especially in a world where The Walking Dead is the number one show on TV, was figuring out a way to make a PG-13 zombie movie scary and satisfying. Steers had to dial down most of the blood, but had another idea that’s employed throughout the movie to get that effect.
“The other thing was zombie perspective,” he said. “You’d be in the zombie’s head as he’s being pummeled or decapitated. So you wouldn’t be seeing it from the outside, which would have been the gory thing. But it’s still happening. It’s still frightening.”
And yet, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was never going to work unless the film balanced the humor and structure of Jane Austen with the horror elements and, most importantly, the romance. This is something it does very, very well.
“You have to be true to [the romance],” Steers said. “You have to have the audience invested in that or you don’t care if they’re about to be killed by zombies.”
Tone is always the biggest challenge in filmmaking and ultimately, balancing that, multiple genres, the period setting and more—all of which are new to Speers—is what drew him to the material.
“It’s good material,” he said. “And it’s inventing, getting the opportunity to take something old and find a fresh way of doing it. And that challenge? It’s fun. It’s engaging.”
Image credit: Sony Pictures