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

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

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.”

MATHE­SON MAT­TERS

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…

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