PETER GRUNWALD & BERNIE GOLDMANN Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
June 16, 2005
Largely credited as the filmmaker who defined horror's subgenre of zombie flicks with his classic trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, writer/director George A. Romero returns to the trenches of undead cinema after a lengthy hiatus with Land of the Dead. In this chapter of his ongoing signature series, the world has been overrun with legions of the walking dead. Only pockets of humanity still exist, holed up in walled cities and scavenging for resources. But even in this apocalyptic, alternate reality, money talks, and huge economic disparities separate the haves from the have-nots.
The opportunistic Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) oversees Fiddler's Green, a secluded community where society's elite live in obscene luxury high above the less fortunate, who wallow in poverty and hopelessness. When Kaufman backstabs the equally opportunistic Cholo (John Leguizamo), his artificial paradise is threatened, and he must resort to enlisting the help of Cholo's former colleague, Riley (Simon Baker).
In this interview, producers Peter Grunwald and Bernie Goldmann talk about getting Romero's vision to the big screen.
MEDIA: What were some of the challenges of getting this movie made?
PETER: Basically, there were very few challenges. If you're talking about getting it started, it went from zero to full speed really fast. George had written the script somewhat before 9/11, the first draft. And unfortunately, we took it out right after 9/11 when people weren't particularly interested in seeing this type of film. So we shelved it. We did a re-write maybe eight or nine months later, got into negotiation with a different studio, which went on for a very long time. But then when [Atmosphere Entertainment] saw the script, they bought it basically within a week. We had our deal negotiated within ten days. We were in pre-production three weeks later.
BERNIE: The interesting response was in Hollywood, where there's a lot of, obviously, reverence for George, there was a number of studios that were asking the question, "Does George still have it?" And frankly, the only studio that didn't ask that question, that jumped right aboard, was Universal, who couldn't have been more thrilled to work with George. And it was interesting 'cause the other studios were all like, "Hmmm...well, George...is he too old?" And there's sort of this ageism thing, I think, that goes on in Hollywood. And the great thing about the people at Universal is they recognize that George is unique to the genre, is unique to what he does, has a unique point of view. So it was really great enthusiasm from the people that we ended up making the movie with that helped us go so quickly.
PETER: And that actually bore itself out when the film was finished. And one of the most gratifying responses we got the first time we screened the film for the studio was people just standing up and turning around with these big smiles on their faces, saying this film could only have been made by George Romero. There's something so individualistic about the way he makes his films, and so good. So the risk that they took up front was really satisfied when we delivered.
Why did it take so long for another George A. Romero zombie movie to finally come to light?
PETER: Well, George is my partner, so we spent a number of years going on different meetings on different projects, and whenever we talk about other projects, everybody always says, "Do you want to make another zombie film?" George didn't. Not because he wasn't interested in the genre or the other films. Actually, the other way around--he really loves his fans, he likes these films a lot, and he just didn't want to do one until he felt he could do it well. Until he had something that would make it fresh. There was a lot of pressure at different times just to cave in, take the dough, do another one. And he just didn't have anything in particular he wanted to say at that point. He uses these films, as you probably know, as a little bit of a platform to say what's on his mind about what's happening in politics and the culture. But then he started thinking of some stuff that he did want to say, and from that point forward, it was, as I said before, very fast. He wanted to do it because he felt there was a good film to be made. And I think when we started going out with the script, other people felt the same way.
BERNIE: Yeah, that is definitely it. The script itself gave the movie a reason to be. And I think what differentiates and distinguishes George from other filmmakers who work in the genre is that he approaches it more as a science fiction writer. You can see the movie on one level and see the horror and see the gore, or you can see it on the other level, which I think is what George brings to it, which is social commentary. And it's not heavy-handed, it's fun. And I think that there's a great sense of humor and a great insight into what's going on in the world. And frankly, you have to have something that's new, something that's evolving, and George had that. And so the reason was very clear within his own writing.
How much creative freedom did George have with this film?
PETER: A lot. We got very little interference from the studio. Most of the comments that we got were intelligent. When we didn't feel they were in intelligent, the studio didn't insist. There was a lot of respect for him as a filmmaker. It was a good relationship. I think he feels it was a good relationship, too.
BERNIE: Again, I think, as we were saying in the beginning, the nice thing about it was they got who George was before we walked in the door. So their expectations were, "we're gonna get a George Romero movie," not "we want George to change his style and become an MTV director to do this movie." [They wanted] George's sense of humor, George's sensibility. The greatest thing you can, frankly, have as a producer is a director with a point of view. And in George, you do have someone who you know has a point of view that distinguishes him from every other director. And it's what makes him unique. So it's great when you have a studio that understands what you want to do, they appreciate what the director wants to do, and they support that vision. I felt like Universal was incredibly supportive and kept reminding us of the movie that George had set out to make, which is what you want a studio to do.
Would this movie have had such an easy time getting made if recent films like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later did not achieve success?
PETER: No, because it's a business, right? I think probably this picture would have gotten made. I don't know whether it would have gotten made on the budget that we ended up with, and it wouldn't necessarily have the profile that it has now. There's no question that 28 Days Later, which is not really a zombie movie but is perceived as one, and Shaun, and the Dawn remake made people hungrier to go back to the guy who invented the genre. It's practical calculation. I think we would have gotten it done. I just think it would have been different.
How quickly can a Land of the Dead sequel get rolling?
BERNIE: I think as quickly as George can write something that he feels is meaningful. We had a good time making the movie, and I think it was fun. There was, obviously, bad times because making movies is difficult. But I think for the most part, we had a really good time, and I think it got him excited about doing it again. And should it work, I think we'd all be really excited to make another movie with George.
PETER: The original conceit for this script was that it would start, if successful, a new cycle of George Romero zombie films. We talked about that even before the script was finished. Not in the way that years and years passed between Night, Dawn, and Day, but in the sense that this film establishes a new set of characters, slightly different world, and you could actually go from chapter to chapter from Land to a new one to a new one. And taken as a whole, the new films would be one big story. So obviously, our hope is that that will happen, and if [Land is successful], it will and there'll be another one.