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June 2005
Land of the Dead: An Interview with Director George A. Romero

Land of the Dead: An Interview with Director George A. Romero

By Todd Gilchrist

George Romero, like his contemporaries Wes Craven and John Carpenter, has persevered in a hard-luck industry for more than three decades; unlike them, however, he has wisely chosen not to render himself irrelevant with derivative rehashes of past glories and otherwise unfitting cinematic ventures. That said, his new film is a long-awaited follow-up to one of the great horror series in cinema history: "Land of the Dead" ends, and perhaps, begins again, more than forty years of movies about zombies, a genre Romero practically invented with his "Night of the Living Dead". Romero recently sat down to discuss his latest opus, which stars Simon Baker, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, and described the process of raising the dead one more time.

Was there any pressure on you returning to the dead series after such a long time away from it?

George A. Romero: This is the pressure right here. There wasn't so much pressure; sort of few and far between. I actually started the idea for this before 9/11. I had this conceit that I did one in the 60's, 70's and then 80's and I missed the 90's because my partner Peter and I wound up in development hell out here. There was about eight years where nothing happened and we couldn't get a movie made. I wound up making more money during that period because I wound up working on all of these high profile projects but they never happened. So I fled and we raised five million bucks and I made a little move called Bruiser that nobody saw.

I saw it.

GR: Hey, alright! And so I missed the 90's. After licking my wounds from Bruiser I started to write this. I wound up having something I thought was presentable so I sent it around literally a few days before 9/11 and then everybody just wanted to make soft fuzzy movies so I put it on the shelf for about a year and a half and then came back to it with the idea of reflecting this idea of the new normal and the war. So in a way I think it is a much more interesting film now. Initially it was about ignoring the problem and there was the Kaufman character in there and it was Fiddler's Green and it was more about ignoring social ills like homelessness and Aids and just telling people, ŒDon't worry about it, that's their problem' and I think this is more impactful. I don't try to put it right in your face I just try to get it in there. Maybe it's a little too on the nose when he says, ŒWe don't negotiate with terrorists'. I have to say somebody noticed. A reporter I talked to earlier today said, ŒBoy that truck when it comes down that little street in that town you just can't help but think of Iraq'. So I guess the stuff does get noticed but I try not to put it right up in there.

Congratulations on your return.

GR: Thank you. I didn't know I'd left (laughs).

Fans are going to want to know how you are going to follow this up, is there going to be a World of the Dead and could you talk a little bit about Masters of Horror?

GR: Masters of Horror is something I am hoping to do. Mick is an old friend and I'm hoping to do it. It's going to depend I guess. It's sort of related to what happens with this. If this opens strong I might be in a situation where I might have to do another one of these or would be asked to do another one of these right away. In which case I've sort of left the characters and the truckŠ I'd almost want to make chapter two of the same movie if that happens. Just sort of finish the story and I have an idea of where to go with and in my mind just think of them both as one movie. If I have to do it next year unless we get nuked (laughs) or something and there is something else to talk about. So that's it and if that happens I may not be able to do the Masters of Horror. I've been so tied up on this thing that I haven't been able to write a script for it. Mick sent me a couple of scripts and a couple of them are pretty nice. I'm still hoping that I can get a couple of weeks and still be able to do that. I have a couple of other things that we are working on but everything would get trumped if they want to do a sequel to this.

How much pressure did you face trying to update this for today's modern audience and teen audience as well as trying to maintain the integrity of the series approaching it several decades later?

GR: I don't think necessarily in those terms. The scope of this film was much bigger than anything else so it needed money. Although still we weren't rich. We were under twenty million after they threw money at it in order to get it finished after they changed the date. They wound up having to spend more money having everybody working overtime from sound mixers to CG guys. But it's still under twenty and it was still pretty much guerilla film making. On the set there was basically not a big difference. In fact we were much more relaxed shooting Dawn. We had forty-two days to make this film. The crews were fabulous; the cast were great. Nobody finked out. Everybody was there to do it. And it was all night. I think of the forty-two we only had I think eight days indoors and it was all night in freezing Toronto weather. So it was very, very hard. As far as the sensibility I've sort of made slight stylistic changes in all of them to more reflect the cinematic style of the decade as well as the politics or the social. So that was a conscious decision too. I had a wonderful DP. As far as it fitting into the group I haven't really changed my attitude toward the zombies. They don't run. I always say that my guys will take out library cards before they join health clubs. I'm more interested in their mental evolution. I also don't find them as threatening when they are running at you. I say it's like a first person shooter game or something and I don't find that as threatening. I grew up on the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy, these things that sort of move at you slowly but their hard to stop. You have to find their Achilles heal. That's just my personal take.

What do you think you know now as an older film maker that maybe you didn't know when you made Night of the Living Dead?

GR: Mostly what I have learned has been about craft. I still feel like I am learning. John Ford made a couple hundred flicks. You develop a lot of tricks that you can keep in your hip pocket. I think I know how to move the camera better. I'm more sure of myself. I know if we are pressed for time that I can eliminate this shot or that shot so it still tells a story. It's mostly that and it's also as you get older you get less intimidated. You feel more like you can do what you want to do and worry a little bit less about protocols. You feel more free to just be yourself which is just something that comes with age.

Earlier today Simon Baker mentioned that you really know what you want when it comes to the zombies and that you know what doesn't work when others might think it will work. What do you see in zombies that others might not?

GR: I don't think that I necessarily see anything in them. As I say I like them being personalities. I think that what maybe I've done that I haven't seen in some other films is that their not just a pack of people in clothes from the Gap. You can give them personalities with wardrobe. One of the first things that I asked the wardrobe designer to do was to make sure we know who they are because they're us. They come from different walks of life. I started really doing that with Dawn. It's that but I've always had sort of real characters, real zombie characters from Dawn on. In this case it's shooting them; giving them close ups. Treating them like real players which they are. They're not just masses and I was really trying to work with that on this of course with Big Daddy and particularly his central core of people that come from the town all have distinct personalities. But I don't know what he means exactly by that, what works and doesn't work. I guess what gets unbelievable sometimes. When you have a bunch of zombies in front of you, you can't go like this. (George does the standard zombie imitation with arms outstretched in front of him.) Then all of a sudden everyone does that. So I prefer to let them do their own thing and sometimes you get some outrageous way over the top stuff. So I'll say that's too much or that doesn't work so maybe he is talking about something like that I don't know. It's all about believability. It's a ridiculous premise to begin with so how do you keep people from laughing.

As you said earlier you haven't gone anywhere. You have always been here ready to make films or making films. How do you feel that it took the success of a remake of one of your films to put you back in the spotlight so to speak?

GR: You know I don't feel that it did. I was obviously a little frustrated when those films came out first but we were already in negotiations. I don't know if I told this story to you guys yet but we were in negotiations with Fox for like a year and a half on this film and that started right around, ever prior to the release of 28 Days Later. But Dawn wasn't out there yet. It's just one of those things where the contract dragged and dragged and lawyer were taken a week to a month to get back to each other to change a sentence. Before long it was a year and a half and it was just coincidental that they said they wanted to make the deal. So I think it would have got made. I think that what happened is because of the success of those films that Universal was more willing to pony up a little more dough which they did even during the shoot. It was originally around fifteen or fifteen and a half or something like that and they ponied up money during the shoot, extra dough. Then in the end when they saw the film and liked it they gave us a little more money to go shoot three more days. The scene where they chop through the fence and see the targets and the city was in the original script but we just ran out of time and that was the one we decided to drop. We had forty-two days and that was it. There was just no more money to shoot even an extra day. One of the three days there was money to shoot but it would just have been inserts like clocks and watches, all of the basic story telling stuff. Then we got a third day to try and improve on some of the gore things and dance around the MPAA a little bit by doing the shadow thing and smoke thing to indicate what was going on without actually having it in your face. I used Kubrick's trick on green screen I shot figures walking by so if there was a particular gory shot I could walk somebody in front of and composite it and walk someone in front of it. It's amazing sometimes that the MPAA will do a frame count. Like nobody knows what's going on here? If it's eight frames shorter it's okay? But I guess they have to do diligence and that's the only way that they measure it. Make that a little shorter so it will be alright.

But it doesn't corrupt them to watch it though.

GR: No, I guess not.

Going off of that this is the shortest of those movies. It is really tight at about eighty-eight minutes or so. Was there more that you shot in terms of storyline that will return on the DVD etc?

GR: There's a few things. There is one scene in particular where Cholo before he meets Kaufman he goes into a neighboring penthouse and finds a human that hung himself and has to kill him. And that was a scene that we felt didn't turn out as effectively as it could have and we didn't think it was necessary so that's really the only major scene from the original script that's gone. The DVD version we are working on it now and I thing it's about six minutes longer but it all just adding back or putting in some F/X that were excised and putting in some little things like little bits of dialogue in existing scenes that we cut out just to tighten the pace. It's mostly that and that penthouse scene.

In the recent zombie movies that have been coming out which one have you liked the best.

GR: Shaun.

Shaun of the Dead? How difficult was it to get Simon and Edger to do the cameos for you guys?

GR: Oh man, difficult? They flipped to do it. They are great guys. They sent me a print while O was on a little island near Florida and Universal sent out a courier with a print before it was released here. So I sat in this little theater all by myself one morning and watched it and flipped for it. I called them up right away. We've sort of been in touch ever sense. They're great guys. They would have been there hell or high water.

You had previously established in Dawn of the Dead that money was worthlessŠ

GR: Yeah, worthless to that group.

So was it difficult to try to establish that is this film?

GR: Well it's different because in Dawn of the Dead it's about the stuff. It's about consumerism and if you got a pair of Nikes that's all you need. This is much more modeled after this administration. It's all executive. It's fancy stuff for people who can afford it. The administration is dealing in big, big bucks and doling out little bits as he says to keep people off the streets. But the operative of it the sort of service personnel are relegated to a very different lifestyle. So it just seemed natural because that is what really this is about right? I mean this is Halliburton. So it's a different era. But of course it is there own. It's probably not worth anything in Union Town. So that is the difference. In Day it was this little community living down there and it had nothing to do with money.

When you cast Dennis Hopper did you know that he was a republican?

GR: Who knew huh, that Easy Rider was a republican, God damn it! But he came in knowing what it was and the first thing he said to me was, "People want me to play my villains way over the top. I'm not going to do that here. This guy has to be Rumsfeldian. I'm not going to go over the top with this at all." He has that one moment where he shoot at Big Daddy and gets really angry but he kept it pretty restrained. But he got it. We never had any big arguments about politics.

Given the illustrious history of this series there must have been a lot of people eager to work with you like Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Can you talk about the process of assembling this cast?

GR: Well Asia, I've always thought of Asia because I've known her since she was knee high through her dad. So I went in saying that I would love to use Asia and the studio went along with that. Simon I had never met. He shot a series in Pittsburgh called the Guardian. He was there for three years so we at least had some commonality there. Dennis I'd never worked with or never met either. Again we had that 60's commonality you know that frustration. Gees it's too bad it didn't work out. Easy Rider and Night came out within a year of each other so we had a lot to talk about. Robert Joy I had worked with before. Leguizamo again I was saying right at the beginning of casting, "If we could get someone like John Leguizamo." Mark Canton arranged a call and it turned out that John knew my work and said yes right away. I was in hog heaven. This cast really came to work. Nobody was hiding in their trailer. It was a rough, rough shoot. Everybody was right out there crawling around in the mud and doing it. Everybody took it quite seriously. Got it and got the point of it.

What sparked your interest in filmmaking to begin with and secondly what are some of your interests today outside of filmmaking?

GR: I used to paint. I went to college to study painting and design and found out I wasn't good enough. It was at Carnegie Mellon and they had a wonderful theater school there so I transferred into that department. But all the while never thinking thatŠ I thought you had to be born into royalty to make movies. Even though I had an uncle when I was a kid who had an 8mm camera and I tried to make a couple of little movies of my own but never taking it that seriously. It was just sort of a hobby. And when I was in college schools like Carnegie Mellon, very few schools had equipment. The class just sat down and watched the Battleship Potemkin and talked about it a lot and that was pretty much it. So I never had any hands on but I always loved movies forever since I was a kid. Influences I would have to say Michael Powell probably he's my man and Orson. When I came out of school I left without ever graduating and in those days cities the size of Pittsburgh had film labs. So I just went down and hung out at one of these film labs. My first job as a PA was literally bicycling news, news was on film. These journeyman guys splicing this shit together while smoking cigarettes over flammable glue pots (laughs). It was like a press room. It was in one of those labs that I learned the basics. Then we started a company to do commercials on film and that's how our little group got together. I always loved movies I just thought that we would never try to do it. I didn't approach it, I didn't try to go out and get a job or anything I guess I always had that audacity to say, "Come on guys!" You know the old thing, hey we can have the dance right here. And that's how Night of the Living Dead happened.

That line that Dennis Hopper says about zombies creeping him out, was that him or was that you?

GR: No that was him.

Did he improvise that on the set?

GR: Yeah he did and he picked his nose (laughs). That was all him.

What is the process of shooting in Toronto rather than in and around Pittsburgh?

GR: Purely financial.

Is that a regret that you have?

GR: I wanted to do it in Pittsburgh but it was purely just for nostalgia. I mean there was no real functional reason. There is an actual shot of the city of Pittsburgh in the film. That big shot of the city and we had to put the building in it. Had we shot the movie in Pittsburgh we would have still had to put the building in it. So there was no practical reason to necessarily shoot it there and it's always financial. And that's purely what it's about. I'm telling you that if this country and more states would give serious incentives and police like the unions, police the regulations more and all of that we wouldn't have this problem. Productions wouldn't run away.


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