PRIDE and PREJUDICE and ZOMBIES
You've never seen Jane Austen done like this before... Pride and Prejudice and Zombies director Burr Steers talks to Ian Berriman
and the director.
Someone better have the smelling salts ready. Back in 1995, a BBC adaptation of Pride And Prejudice gave some Jane Austen purists an attack of the vapours when Colin Firth emerged from a lake in a dripping wet shirt. They may require resuscitation after they see the brooding Mr Darcy jabbing a broken glass in someone’s throat, or clap eyes on the Bennet sisters swaggering into a society ball – concealed knives strapped to their thighs – and taking out a bunch of zombies with samurai swords. Not that the arrival of a movie called Pride
And Prejudice And Zombies should really take anyone by surprise. It was back in 2009 when Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel – which interpolates the undead into the original text of Austen’s classic 1813 novel – became a phenomenon. The book’s journey to the big screen has been unusually protracted, so much so that Grahame-Smith’s similarly historically cheeky Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter beat it to the punch by nearly four years. But the man who’s finally made it happen, writer/ director Burr Steers (17 Again), had no hesitation about taking the project on.
“With George Romero’s movies,” Steers says, thinking back to the likes of the director’s 1968 classic, Night Of The Living Dead, “they’re set in that repressed American society, then they stick these agents of complete chaos into it and overthrow white male hegemony… that’s a great setup! And here you’ve got Regency England. There’s no more repressed society that you could possibly have, and then to throw zombies into it was a great idea.”
As someone whose first studio movie was the romcom How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Steers is an admirer of Austen’s Regency romance.
“The template is something that everything is based on,” he explains. “Pride And Prejudice always works – whether it’s Bridget Jones’s
Diary or PD James’s sequel – in all its different forms, if you can stick to that, and you have the characters, and you’re true to the characters.”
And on rewriting an earlier iteration of the screenplay, Steers was surprised to see how easily zombies can be slotted into that structure.
“There was a natural place to put all this action,” he explains. “In all of Austen’s books, the Napoleonic Wars are going on. They’re never explained – they just are. You have these handsome officers riding through. So you remove the Napoleonic Wars, and you stick in the zombie plague and the coming zombie apocalypse. There’s a place for it structurally, as a backdrop. And then you have Pride And
Prejudice playing out in the foreground.” Steers says that the key to his take on the material was to draw further on the original text, and establish a believeable milieu.
“I went back to Austen more. For interstitial scenes, I really got into some of her other writings for dialogue. The idea was that you create this world where this zombie plague happened 80 years before this alternate reality, and then you stage Pride And Prejudice in it.”
When it comes to the tone of the film, you may be surprised to find that it’s not as goofy as that provocative title might suggest.
“The mantra throughout was that that there is no ‘wink’,” Steers says. “You play it straight. Then you’re invested in the characters, and are actually frightened for them. And the humour isn’t broad, it’s stuff that arises because of the imaginary circumstances that you’ve set up.”
In preparing to make the film, Steers went back and looked at every one of the previous major adaptations of Austen’s novel. Of them all, he was most influenced by the 1940 film version starring Laurence Olivier.
“The script is very funny. And they cast Mary Boland, who was this great old Broadway actress, as Mrs Bennet. She had this very fast,
WC Fields delivery, which was really something that stuck in my mind.”
Another major inspiration was a 1968 period drama by British director Tony Richardson.
“One of the things I had firmly in mind as I was doing was it The Charge Of The Light
Brigade. That was such a dry movie, and so great. Actually, all the movies from the end of the British New Wave – the Richard Lester films, and things like that – were tonally something that I was influenced by.”
When it came to the zombies, the director was keen to ground them in reality, a decision which led him to research the effects of both meth drinking and rabies infection. He was also keen to have an original spin on the undead – something that’s always a pretty good idea nowadays, when the horror landscape is so crowded with shambling ghouls…
“My zombies are more I Am Legend,” Steers explains, doffing his hat to Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel – which, though technically a vampire tale, was also a major inspiration for George Romero. “They’re more cognisant and have retained more of who they were. My whole idea was that the zombies now think of themselves as being a competitive race with humans. Some of them can ‘pass’ now, if they haven’t been bitten on the face. They’ve evolved.”
Pitted against those zombies are a predominantly British cast, including Sam Riley as Mr Darcy and Matt Smith as Mr Collins. Front and centre is Lily James, perhaps best known for her role as Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey.
“She’s so charismatic,” Steers says of his female lead. “She comes into a room and it’s palpable… It’s like tripping on a light.”
James plays Elizabeth Bennet, who while still every bit as quick-witted as Austen’s original heroine, has been raised with a very different idea of what constitutes “suitable female accomplishments” – one that includes firing muskets from horseback and roundhouse-kicking people in the face. As Lizzy’s father states in the film, “My daughters are trained for battle, not the kitchen.”
“It’s really expounding on Austen’s themes of young women being empowered,” Steers explains, “Only now they’re not just the brightest people in the room – at least in Lizzy’s case – but they’re the fiercest warriors as well.”
So can you go so far as to say that Pride And Prejudice And Zombies is a feminist movie?
“Yeah, I think you can easily go that far,” Steers says. “I mean, they’re not waiting for men to give them the opportunity. They’re going out and getting it for themselves.”
Much of the ass-kicking that results was filmed in just the sort of National Trust properties where you’d expect to see a straight production of Austen being shot – the likes of West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire. It sounds like it was an amusingly subversive business to be part of.
The young women are the fiercest warriors as well
“Invariably, in these estates, the families that used to own them have been given an apartment somewhere on the grounds, and they’re hovering about. And explaining to them what we were doing…”
Steers trails off and laughs. What? Did he feel the need to cover up the words “And Zombies” when showing people the script?
“Exactly! You’d be mumbling at the end! You’d go, ‘Pride And Prejudice And ahumhum’!”
Having smuggled zombie carnage into the stately homes of England, Steers is now looking forward to pulling off a Trojan horse manoeuvre when the movie opens, and sneaking a little classic literature into the lives of an audience who’d normally never dream of picking up a 19th century novel.
“In America, you’re pulling in a demographic that don’t know Austen,” the director explains, sounding more than a little appalled. “I mean, they were polling them, and only 10% of American teens have ever heard of Jane Austen or Pride And Prejudice. It’s depressing… though as you listen to Trump’s campaign, it’s not that surprising, I guess! The fact is, we’ve made a real movie within a genre movie. It is Austen dialogue. That we were able to smuggle in so much Jane Austen and still make it a commercial movie is kinda fun. It’s a testament to how strong the characters are.”
Pride And Prejudice And Zombies opens in cinemas on 12 February.
He’ll be back, probably.
“We shall defend this lovely house to the death!”
Before the carnage starts we’re thinking…