“WORLD WAR Z”: Max Brooks’ Battlefield Report, Part Two
More ink was spilled on the film version of WORLD WAR Z than on any other horror flick in recent memory. First early gossip pegged the troubled production as DOA months before it even opened, but WORLD WAR Z (now available on disc, including an extended version Blu-ray) ultimately emerged as a summer blockbuster, grossing over $540 million worldwide.
One voice noticeably absent in all the WORLD WAR Z movie hoopla was original author Max Brooks, whose best-selling novel became a Brad Pitt blockbuster with little in common with its source material. Now Brooks, who discussed his new zombies vs. vampires Avatar comic THE EXTINCTION PARADE here, gives Fango the scoop on his WORLD WAR Z experience.
FANGORIA: WORLD WAR Z just hit disc. Can you provide a postmortem?
MAX BROOKS: You know, in a nutshell, it’s a really interesting, tense gripping movie—a summer blockbuster that just happens to have the same title as a book I once wrote. I don’t think that’s a big secret. It’s a part of the narrative now that they made a huge departure from the source material, and they also made a mountain of money, and that mountain just keeps growing. So, clearly, their business model worked. They’ve got their movie, and I’ve got my book.
FANG: Do you wish you were more involved with the movie or are you glad that they went off on their own?
BROOKS: I don’t know. It’s weird. I always found that the road to madness in Hollywood is speculation, just sort of wondering, “What if we did something different?” The truth is, I don’t know. It might have actually driven me crazier. But I didn’t want to be involved because the truth is, I would have had no power. Even Brad Pitt had to surrender a lot of his power because with Brad Pitt, if he’s going to star in your movie, there’s going to be a lot of economic rules that he has to butt up against. I can’t imagine somebody making a $190 million Brad Pitt-starring movie where Brad Pitt doesn’t save the world in the way that a Mel Brooks movie HAS to be funny. When Brad Pitt decided to star in it, he brought with it a certain amount of expectations that he had no control over.
FANG: You initially praised J. Michael Straczynski’s screenplay draft. Was there more of your book in there?
BROOKS: Oh, yeah! Yeah! But that was also before we had a director; that was before Brad decided to star in it. What most people don’t understand is that the development process for a movie is so long and so complicated. It’s like Vietnam. The Marines that splashed onto the shores in 1964 Da Nang were very different than the ones jumping onto helicopters from rooftops in Saigon in 1975. I remember when I AM LEGEND was going to star Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1986. That’s how long that development process went on for.
I had so little involvement. It was so emotionally removed from me, and even seeing the movie I had a good amount of emotional distance because it was so different. Once we got past the opening title sequence, it was like watching somebody else’s movie.
FANG: Yeah, there were tidbits here and there, but it was pretty much its own animal.
BROOKS: Yeah, it really was. They kept the title, they made their own movie, and to Paramount’s credit, even though I wasn’t involved, I was very honest with them for the reasons why I didn’t want to be involved. I said to them, “Look, I do a lot of conventions. I do a lot of signings. I’m a really shitty liar, so don’t tell me anything that you don’t feel comfortable with me telling the general public.” So that created a lot of distance between us. Maybe that was a good thing because since I decided to not be heavily involved, I chose not to read the script. I said, “What’s the point? If I’m not going to have a seat at the table, it’s better for me just to show up and see the finished product.”
FANG: For me, it was more so the smaller changes that bothered me, rather than the big ones. For instance, substituting Korea for China…
BROOKS: That was an economic decision. That’s the freedom of writing a book. The truth is I can write a book and it doesn’t cost me anything. It doesn’t cost Random House anything because I don’t take advances when I write a book. So there’s no pressure. I literally don’t answer to anybody when I write a book. I’ve actually turned down two Chinese publishing deals because of that. They wanted to censor me. They wanted to change the name from China or take those sections out, and I said, “Absolutely not.” If it cost me $190 million to write my book, I don’t know what I would do.
For me, there was only one part of the movie that was actually true to the book, which was the Israeli Counter-Intelligence expert. That was actually pretty spot-on. But watching a movie that was so different from the book, I had a lot of emotional distance, and it was kind of a teaching moment where it was like, “Oh, my God, now I must know how Stephen King must have felt watching THE SHINING. He must have been tearing his hair out.” I never had that, “Hey, Gerry Lane would never say that!” moment. I didn’t invent Gerry Lane! There was one scene, a pivotal scene, which was not in my book, but I actually wished I had put it in there which is really in tune with what I was trying to say. It was when the guy accidentally shoots himself. Basically, the whole philosophy I have whenever I write is full attention to little details, which are not cool or sexy so you’ll never see them in a movie. But for me, those are the differences between life or death. But really, for this guy who never handled a gun and has no firearms training, that’s really frickin’ dangerous. The fact that he runs away, slips and the gun goes off into his chest, I thought, “Wow… that was pretty good. That was something I probably would have written.”
FANG: There was ton of bad press for the film before it came out, in regards to its delay, reshoots and all that. But ultimately, it was a box office smash, mostly favorably reviewed and now they’re talking franchise.
BROOKS: I don’t know the people at Paramount very well, and I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but, wow, wouldn’t it be amazing if this was the greatest PR conspiracy in film history? If you think about all the bad press the movie got, it was never about the movie, it was about the production. So it lowered expectations while at the same time, it generated interest. So millions of people flocked to the movies to supposedly see this train wreck and they all loved it, so it became one of the biggest hits of the summer while so many other movies just carpet bombed.
FANG: Did you see the film’s original cut or the “Battle for Russia” ending that was canned?
BROOKS: No! I haven’t seen anything. This is actually something that I learned growing up at home, which is if you don’t have power, don’t get involved because it’ll just drive you crazy. And I gotta say, one of the guys who was really helpful to me in emotionally navigating this weird process was Frank Darabont. When I saw the trailer [for WORLD WAR Z] and had to confront that this wasn’t going to be my book, my wife said, “You know what? Give Frank a call.” Nobody’s been through the wringer more than Frank. He creates THE WALKING DEAD, the only successful zombie TV show in history and the most successful TV show AMC has ever had, then they turn on him and fire him. So Frank was cool. He said, “You know what, buddy? You’ve got your book and nobody can touch that. It’s not like having a screenplay that they mess with and then everybody thinks that it’s your vision.” Frank’s done that many times, where he’s written a script that either gets rewritten or the director throws it away. Nobody knows his vision, but with me, everybody knows that my vision is pure. What was so cool about Frank was that he passed along my email to a friend of his, who wrote back and said, “Frank, tell your friend two things: one, I read your friend’s book and really liked it, and two, the movie, no matter what it is, gives his book a second life. A lot of people will be exposed to his book and that’s good.” That email was from Stephen King. I’m very lucky to have good friends in situations like this.
FANG: Have you seen the new extended version that came out on Blu-ray?
BROOKS: No! I probably should. To tell you the truth, I’ve been so involved in my own stuff. To me, I still look at it as a Brad Pitt movie that has the same title as my book.
FANG: If you had your druthers, where would you like to see the sequel go?
BROOKS: I don’t know. That’s a good question. The truth is the rules of the movie are so different from the book that I don’t know how they could come back to the book. I honestly don’t know. It’s very… for me, it’s a big question mark. I will say I respect Brad Pitt because he understands my position, and he understands what deviating from the book meant to me. When I saw him at the after-party for the New York premiere, he looked at me and said, “So, did you cringe?” He gets it; he’s not an idiot. He’s a very smart guy and a very sensitive guy, and because he could be so honest with me, the least I could do was be honest with him. So I said, “You know what, Brad? Of course I cringed. But I’m the author of the book; it’s my job to cringe. But the truth is, if I was anyone else but me, I might really like it.” So we have a mutual respect for each other.
FANG: Ever since your books became bestsellers, not a week goes by where another zombie book comes into the Fango office. You’ve spawned this amazing cottage industry, everything from zombie cookbooks to zombie Christmas carols to zombie love stories. You’ve basically spawned a new section in bookstores.
BROOKS: For me, it’s all about motive. If you get a guy like Dr. Steve Schlossman or Dr. Dan Drezner, who wrote a zombie book just to get his students intrigued in international relations. So when I see things like that—and he says that he wouldn’t be able to do that without WORLD WAR Z—then my chest just swells with pride. But when I see people who are just literally trying to make a buck, like there was this guy, and I won’t say his name, but he wrote an article in WRITER’S DIGEST about how to cash in on the zombie craze if you’re not into zombies. That just churns my stomach because what that means is that there’s going to be a bunch of hacks just trying to make a buck, and they’re going to write crappy zombie books and that’s going to turn people off to the genre. What I don’t want is people saying, “Oh, God.” As far as I know, the next WORLD WAR Z is out there. Some kid, somewhere, is writing a novel that’s going to blow WORLD WAR Z out of the water. The problem is I don’t know if anyone is going to read it because they’re all going to be deluded by all this hackery. What I’m afraid of if that people are going to go, [sigh] “Another zombie book?” Then the next great zombie book will never get its day in court.
FANG: What do you think of THE WALKING DEAD?
BROOKS: Honestly, I thought the first season was unbelievable. It was some of the best television I’d ever seen in my life, and then they fired Darabont. So as far as I’m concerned, they can go to hell. I know that I’m in the minority, but I just think that Darabont should get a statue on the Mall in DC. It’s a travesty what they did to him and it keeps going. The number one TV show on cable. Number One. Don’t you think the people over at AMC should give Frank Darabont a parade down Constitution Avenue? The truth is [THE WALKING DEAD] could have gone another way. In the wrong hands with the wrong people, that really could have become a really crappy series that had a six-episode run and then died. But Frank brought his cast, he brought his crew, I have it on good authority that he supervised every script. When Frank commits to a project, he commits. I’m convinced that he was the difference between THE WALKING DEAD being a potential failure and an unbelievable success. When everyone says THE WALKING DEAD, they should say FRANK DARABONT’S THE WALKING DEAD.
BROOKS: I do have a graphic novel coming out in April, but that’s historical, World War I; it’s not full of monsters. As far as zombies go, right now I’m in talks with a video game company for a zombie video game, and once again, I’m approaching the game the same way I approach my books, which is, I’m just trying to answer my own questions. I play a lot of zombie video games, and I see a lot of questions that nobody is tackling that are interesting. I would want to design a game that I would play, not just to make a buck. Now that philosophy may not fly. We’ll see what happens.
FANG: Any final words?
BROOKS: One thing we can go over is just how long of a journey that not just THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE but the whole genre has gone on. When THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE first came out and nobody understood it or thought it was a freaking comedy book, it was my early interview with FANGORIA that changed [that perception] because nobody was writing about zombies. Random House put it in the humor section, and I remember them saying, “This is a great social satire. This is wit!” And I said, “No! I’m a genuine zombie nerd.” That’s who I am, and that’s who I’ll always be. I always wanted to thank FANGORIA for letting me have my day in court. That’s important to all authors to prove what they’re worth. Guys like us, we’re defensive, and if we think anyone is making fun of us, we get mad.