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On Set: Love and Bloodshed in “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES”

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It’s not every day that FANGORIA is invited to London for a set visit to a Jane Austen-inspired film. What’s not to love—the incredible location, classic language, gorgeous period clothing—oh, and a rotting corpse or two.

This, or course, isn’t your typical Austen adaptation, but a reimagining as co-written by Seth Grahame-Smith: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. The novel has now been adapted for the screen and directed by Burr Steers for Sony/Screen Gems release, plunging Austen’s classic 19th-century tale of tangled relationships among different British social classes into the midst of a zombie outbreak. Heroine Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), now a master of martial arts, brings the pride, handsome Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), here a fierce zombie killer, is the prejudice, and the two must overcome their differences to take on the undead hordes.

It’s a chilly Friday evening when we’re whisked away to the village of Old Basing in Hampshire, UK to visit the busy set of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. The title may elicit smirks, but it’s clear from the on-site zombies and the sizzle reel we viewed that this was no joke. “We’re very much stuck to the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE elements,” producer Sean McKittrick explains, “and we’ve allowed the zombie aspects to come out of that. So it’s very true to Jane Austen’s storyline and characters. Burr didn’t veer it off into what Edgar Wright would do with a film, like SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and he didn’t veer it off into such a serious version like Joe Wright. He kind of created his own universe. It’s very honorable toward the original material, but it exists in our own little world of zombies as well.”

Another of the producing team, Allison Shearmur, notes a scene that stood out to her: “There’s an opening scene where ordinarily you’d meet the girls and they would be doing needlepoint or something very domestic, but in this case they’re cleaning their weapons. It’s subtle, but it is very specific in its action. It is a zombie movie and a martial-arts film, but it is still one of the greatest love stories any of us have read or seen in the movies.”

We then have the opportunity to chat with Steers, James and Riley, along with co-stars Bella Heathcote and Millie Brady, who play Bennet sisters Jane and Mary, respectively. Here are some highlights from those conversations:

BURR STEERS

Q: What was clear in your head about how to portray this so everyone understood the tone?

STEERS: The big wink of the movie was not to wink, it was to play it straight, which is what I’ve tried to do. It’s got humor, but it’s not like a sketch. The idea was to create this alternate world where this pandemic has taken place and then to stage PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in it. That doesn’t sound very funny, but it is, because ultimately it’s absurd, but you play it straight. No one is playing it hitting punchlines.”

PRIDEPREJUDICEZOMSET

Q: How much of the fear factor are you putting into the zombies?

STEERS: They’re frightening. That’s the whole idea—that you’re afraid of them, that they’re a threat. My idea was to do the zombie movie as well as I possibly could, do PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as well as I could. Why not [laughs], as far as plans go?

Q: Zombie movies are so popular these days. Is there anything you consciously wanted to avoid doing ?

STEERS: One of the big influences on this for me was Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, and having them see themselves as a race that was competitive with the human race and have them cogniZant and more formidable. They’re not just wandering around waiting to be decapitated.

Q: Has it been hard to keep it within a PG 13 rating?

STEERS: As far as not having spurting blood, I’ve avoided that. When you suggest violence, it’s so much more frightening than showing everything. We’ve become so desensitized to it when you see it. I still think one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen recently in a movie was in THE PROPOSITION, when Danny Huston stomps the guy’s head. It’s totally off-camera, and you just hear the sound effect, and that’s worse than any graphic shot I’ve seen recently.

LILY JAMES

Q: Were you a big fan of the source material?

JAMES: Um, no [laughs]. I hadn’t heard of it, in fact, so when I saw the title, I thought, “What the hell is this?” I wasn’t so sure. Then I read the script, which I thought was really brilliant and funny, and within the first opening sequence, when Darcy sort of gallops up on a horse and gets stripped down and all that stuff, I thought, “Yeah, this is cool.” Then I read the book in two or three days on the set of DOWNTON ABBEY. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Q: Is this part refreshing after DOWNTON?

JAMES: Oh yeah. I think period dramas just need zombies (laughs).

Q: If the zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow, how would you prepare?

JAMES: I’d run and find myself a badger den, burrow down with some canned fruit and hide.

Q: What’s Liz’s weapon of choice?

JAMES: I have daggers hidden everywhere! Liz Bennet is a dagger/sword ninja, so I always fight with two. She has a dagger on her at all times, because there could be a zombie at any moment. I’m getting to let out all my pent-up rage in this film.

SAM RILEY

Q: Could you talk about your take on Mr. Darcy?

RILEY: Well, essentially he’s got the exact same issues and pride and repression as in the Jane Austen novel. But he is a zombie-killing expert, and he is particularly resolute in his hatred of them and wanting to have them all wiped out. His father was infected and he was forced to kill him, so he’s not very popular. And he’s rich.

Q: How have the zombies affected this society? Are people still very uptight?

RILEY: Yeah, there’s still a huge amount of snobbery, and there’s now even another underclass, which are the dreadfuls—the undead—but there are also little things. Like the Bennet sisters, although they’re wealthy, their father could only really afford to send them to China to train, whereas anyone who’s anybody trained in Japan. So it’s a bit like public school vs. private school. There are still all the layers and protocols of polite, decent society.

Q: How does Darcy feel about the Bennet sisters being such badass warriors?

RILEY: Well, I think he’s oddly attracted to them. He doesn’t want to like Liz Bennet, but there’s something there. And when he sees how much she’s kicking ass, it really does something to Darcy’s insides.

Q: Who would win in a fight—your Darcy or Colin Firth’s?

RILEY: He wouldn’t stand a chance, really. He wasn’t trained in Japan. He doesn’t have three guns in his horse holster. I mean, hand to hand—well, I’d win. But against Liz Bennet, I lost. She kicked my ass.

BELLA HEATHCOTE

Q: Can you give us some of the basics of your character?

HEATHCOTE: The things I love about Jane are that she is optimistic without being naive, she’s the eldest of the sisters and she’s aware of that degree of responsibility. I think unlike Liz, she chooses to see the best in people instead of perhaps believing the worst. She’s also very strong and quite a romantic, so there are things in there that might seem contradictory.

Q: Jane is usually portrayed as quiet and demure, and now that she can also kick ass, has that allowed you to make her your own, or at least feel you’re playing a version of her that hasn’t been seen before?

HEATHCOTE: Yeah, I love it. It’s great, because it gives her another dimension, and she does feel strong. It was very early on in the shoot that I got to do some of the fighting stuff and kill a zombie. I think she perhaps takes it more personally or is more affected by the killings than some of the other sisters are. It’s not as intimidating, because I’m obsessed with the BBC version and the novel, so it’s nice to have something else to make it feel different, and not like I’m trying to equal that.

Q: How would you survive a zombie apocalypse yourself?

HEATHCOTE: Probably exactly as these girls are doing—just train the hell up.

MILLIE BRADY

Q: Mary is kind of the oddball in the books. How is she framed in this film?

BRADY: I’m still a bit of an oddball, which is great, but this book and script give her the opportunity to have a bit more pazang about her. She’s still that bookish Mary everyone knows, but then she gets down to business and she’s also funny and sassy, and it’s good that you’re not expecting it. She’ll just come out of nowhere and gets really aggressive in fight scenes, and it’s great to have those differences—to go from the Mary everyone knows from the original book and have that complete switch that gives her another dimension. There’s just a bit more of an air of confidence about her, but she’s still kind of goofy and lovable, so it’s been nice to get that side of her.

Q: Does she ever kill a zombie with a book?

BRADY: [Laughs] Oh my God, that would be great! No, I’m more for the dagger business, but we’ve all got our different weapons; Bella snaps off a candlestick. That would have been amazing, if I was to smack a zombie around the head with a book.

Q: How does your character feel about killing zombies? Does she react afterward at all?

BRADY: She’s actually quite stony-faced about it. It’s really cool that we’ve all got our different styles, so Bella is very elegant and quite reserved but very beautiful when she does it, Ellie is so energetic and Suki straight in there and quite deadpan, and I’m very aggressive and Lilly’s very impressive. When I was thinking about how my character would do it, I wanted it to be a big contrast to how she is; you find that a lot with people, where if they’re an introvert they’ve often got something they’re very passionate or feel quite aggressive about, and I think this would be something she’d take no rubbish with.

At the end of yesterday, I had no voice whatsoever; we were just screaming. This was our first big fight, so I was taking on these two 6-foot-2 men. I’d never seen then before and they had blood everywhere, so when they were running toward you, you were just like, “Ahhh!” It was great, because I got so much aggression out. I was like, Mary would love this—get out of her bookish time and just kick some butt.

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About the author
Cheryl Singleton

Cheryl Singleton joined the Fango team in 2012. She lives and writes just outside of Toronto, Canada.

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