Fool’s Gold Q&A Vol 5: Ruben Fleischer

Posted on Oct 29th, 2009 in Behind The Scenes > FG Q&A by Mr. Goldbar

Just in time for Halloween, peep our exclusive FG Q&A with acclaimed director Ruben Fleischer, who’s debut feature film Zombieland is sure to scare up (har har) some more biz this holiday weekend. Find out how Ruben made the leap from music videos (including our own “Pro Nails”) to Hollywood flicks, learn some of the unexpected cinematic influences on Zombieland, and get more behind-the-scenes insight after the jump.

FG fans know you from “Pro Nails” of course, but you’ve done tons of interesting music videos, commercials, television production… how would you describe your life in moving pictures leading up to Zombieland?

I started out doing super low budget music videos. My first for a real band was Gold Chains, “I Come From SF” which we made for $50 bucks (to cover the cost of fare cards and D batteries). I was just making stuff because I was excited about the music and excited to try something new. I was very experimental, doing guerrilla type stuff, motion graphics, performance, and conceptual stuff. This one video I did for DJ Format “We Know Something You Don’t Know” got a lot of attention and led to me getting the opportunity to direct commercials. Once that happened I could support myself as a director instead of just living off of credit cards and amassing debt, which was my previous strategy (I don’t recommend this approach). Once I got more established I could take the time to pursue more narrative projects, which were the short films I did with Nick Thune, which I guess were the most directly related to me getting the job directing Zombieland. But yeah, lots of hard work starting on a very small scale and then building from there gradually.

What first got you involved with the film? Was it a pet project you had been wanting to make for a while, or something else?

They had the script and basically were auditioning different directors. Somehow I talked my way into the job. Once they hired me we made some pretty significant changes to the script and then cast it. Once we got Woody [Harrelson] involved the whole thing gained a lot of momentum and it started to feel like a real movie coming together.

When we first started working on “Pro Nails,” you made a point to us how great videos are always remembered for specific ideas. “This is the video with the ______” – hence the finger dancing. How did that approach translate to a feature film? What’s the “blank” in Zombieland?

I guess Zombieland is the zombie movie with heart. Shaun Of The Dead can claim the “funny” zombie movie, so I can’t really say that. But with Zombieland we tried to focus on the characters and the relationships and really work on the “story.” I’m proud that the movie works with or without zombies. It’s a classic coming of age story, and Columbus [Jesse Eisenberg] transitions from being a total coward wimp to a zombie-blasting ladykiller. I also hope that people recognize the performances in Zombieland and appreciate the fact that there are three Academy Award-nominated actors in a zombie movie!

Before shooting, what was your vision for the final project? Were there any other films you took particular inspiration from, stylistically or otherwise?

I was watching a lot of Sergio Leone westerns and 80’s comedies, which I feel like Zombieland represents. Movies like Midnight Run, Blues Brothers, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Planes, Trains And Automobiles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Once Upon The Time In The West.

As your debut film, I’m sure there’s hundreds of amazing “first time” moments behind the scenes, even more so considering how effects heavy the movie is. What surprises / learning experiences stand out for you?

The key lesson I learned on this movie which I would impart is that, if given the opportunity, you should work with the absolute most experienced and talented people you possibly can. They will elevate your filmmaking and save you from making the classic first timer mistakes. I feel so lucky because every day felt like film school for me, but at the same time, I was directing a movie and getting paid to do it! If there was ever a case of learning on the job, this was it. I was surrounded by extremely talented people who have worked on some of my favorite movies ever. They raised the bar on everything we did, and were able to solve any problem we were confronted with. It was an extremely collaborative and supportive environment. Don’t go into any project thinking you know it all. This will be your undoing. Go into with an idea of what you want to accomplish, but rely on the people you are working with to help you get there.

Other than hundreds of swarming undead extras, it’s a relatively small cast. How did the chemistry like between Woody, Jesse and Abigail develop? Did you have them in mind from jump? Did you guys hang out a lot beforehand / off set?

It worked very much to our advantage that we shot the amusement park stuff first. While it was technically challenging, and for me as a first time director who had never done any action scenes (or anything with a gun or zombies in it before) it was super hard to try and slay the amusement park dragon, but luckily, because there weren’t an immense amount of “real acting” scenes, we pretty much all got to hang out for three weeks running around an amusement park. And it was during this time that the cast got a sense of each other and got a sense of me. We all gelled. Woody had the chance to explore and define his character Tallahassee, Abbie and Emma became as close as sisters, and Jesse got to develop a rapport with Woody and Emma. It was a great gestation period, and apart from the kiss, where Jesse finally gets the girl, there weren’t too many crucial scenes other than action. So when we got out of the park and started back at the beginning of the script where Jesse meets Woody and Woody and Jesse meet the girls, everyone already had a sense of their characters, had a sense of me, and had a sense of where we were going. It was a very fortuitous though unintentional scheduling scenario.

Where do you think this falls in the pantheon of buddy pictures? Zombie ones?

I can’t answer this. But according to Box Office Mojo, it’s the most lucrative zombie movie of all time. As for buddy comedies, there’s so many great ones, I can’t begin to quantify it’s standing.

You’ve worked with some of the same LA folks on different projects through the years – did you bring any of them in for the film? Any cameo appearances from the Ruben-verse?

The only real person I worked with before was Mike White, who gave me my first job. He has a cameo in the girls’ flashback scene. It was an honor for me to cast him and work with him when he used to be my boss. It was a cool situation and he was also incredibly helpful in the editing room giving invaluable feedback on the cuts. Other than that, I was a lone wolf on this picture, and there wasn’t a single person on the set I had worked with before. This was both a very scary and a very liberating thing. On the plus side, there were no previous conceptions or negative associations. I was the director of this movie, and though I had never done anything before this, people treated me as a movie director. On the negative side, I had no one I knew I could rely on and I had to develop a trust with every single person I was working with and to a degree prove myself. It’s interesting moving forward, because I will take some people with me to the next one, and others not.

Did you work with a music supervisor for the film or just tap into your own collection? Coming from such a solid music background, how central was the soundtrack and general sound design to the film?

I had the great pleasure of working with a few incredibly talented and instrumental people when it comes to the music in the movie. First off was Lia Vollock who is the head of music at Sony Pictures, and who also acted as a music supervisor on this film. But more than that, she was like a creative director for the musical component of the film. She introduced me to the other two key people, my composer, David Sardy and my music editor, Carl Kaller. The music editor temps in all the music alongside the picture editor. He is setting the tones for the scene with temp score, and also working with me to choose music cues for the scenes where songs are necessary. Carl has worked with Cameron Crowe on most of his movies as a music editor and there is no one better in the business. He works immensely hard and his instincts are impeccable. Then, once we have a pretty solid cut, we turned to Dave to create original pieces for these scenes. Dave had only composed the score for one other movie, but he has four Grammys for albums he’s produced for bands ranging from Oasis to Jet, Wolfmother, Slayer, Johnny Cash, you name it. He’s amazingly talented and has an incredible studio where he recorded the score. All the music in the movie was made by just Dave and a percussionist. It’s pretty incredible. So Carl and Dave work to make the original music fit the tone of the scenes. We had a really rock and roll score. I’m very proud of it. And then we all, Lia, Carl, Dave and myself worked on music cues for the movie. I was very proud I got some of my favorites in there – Black Keys, Band Of Horses, Metallica, Van Halen, Velvet Underground, Hank Williams, Raconteurs, Sea Wolf, Metric, Willie Nelson, and even a song from the soundtrack of the musical Wicked.

There’s been a lot of “genre” press (nice Fangoria cover!) around the release, have you had any struggles setting the tone of how Zombieland is being marketed?

Zombieland is what it is. It’s called Zombieland, it has a ton of zombies in it. So first and foremost we have to secure the zombie audience. But I hope people will recognize that it is more than just a straightforward zombie movie. It’s a buddy road comedy and there is a very sweet romantic component to the movie. It seems audiences just view it as a comedy and that is enough for them. Whatever you want to call it, I am just glad that it works!