Director Burr Steers shares how he wrangled zombies into submission in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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Feb 9, 2016, 3:32 PM EST (Updated)

Under the cover of night in rural western England, we had the chance to visit the production set of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where producer Sean McKittrick and director Burr Steers were in the last days of shooting their adaptation of the bestselling Quirk book of the same name. A mashup of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen's seminal regent comedy about social classes and independent women, and a straight-up zombie flick, the book that defied adaptation for some time. In between takes, we got the bigger picture from the two men about how they cracked the challenge by going back to the original story for guidance. 

Sean​, how did you get involved in producing the book to film?

Sean McKittrick: An agent called me and said, "We submitted this book to the studios and I thought you, in particular, would like it."  He emailed me the book three or four  months before publishing, and I saw the cover of it and called my attorney about making an offer for the morning. I literally judged a book by the cover. And Natalie Portman was involved.

P+P+Z has a lot of development before director Burr Steers won the job. What made him the right person for this film?

Sean McKittrick: Multiple filmmakers and writers each had a different take on the material. It never came to fruition until Burr became involved and took it upon himself to steer the difficult tone. Burr brought it all together: the tone, the adventure, the comedy and the romance without veering off a very thin line. Burr stuck to the P&P elements of it and allowed the zombie aspect to come out of that so it's very true to Jane Austen's characters. He didn't veer into what Edgar Wright would do with like Shaun of the Dead, doing comedy. It also wasn't a serious Joe Wright version.

How different were the various iterations?

Sean McKittrick: In every different version, the zombies were different. Aspects of how we dealt with the Bennet sisters and how they would fight and physically how we would do those fights onscreen. What Burr made sure of was nothing was kitschy and nothing was jokey. It's true to the nature of the original text.

How would you describe your zombies?

Sean McKittrick: The zombies are very traditional. It's not a Danny Boyle virus zombie. It's not the original mummy zombie that moves incredibly slow from original lore. They exist in the middle.

Are there many changes from the Quirk book?

Sean McKittrick: There are things that people can expect from the book they will enjoy seeing, and there are things Burr adapted from the spirit of the book. A lot of the sisters' fighting abilities you will enjoy seeing.

Burr, it was you who were able to wrangle all the disparate tones into balance. What was your through line to achieve that?

Burr Steers: Well, the other versions were really broad, so my mantra on it was that the big wink of the movie wasn't to wink but play it straight. It has humor, but it's not like sketch [comedy]. The idea was to create this alternate world where this pandemic has taken place and to stage Pride and Prejudice in it ... which doesn't sound very funny, but it is. It's absurd but you play it straight, and no one is playing it to hit punch lines.

Is everything from the Austen text in this?

Burr Steers:  The themes and issues that [Austen] had -- class, money and young women being empowered -- we kept. Specifically for the Bennet sisters, not having any brothers meant their father, who was lower gentry, had to train them to defend the estates because they had no option. It was in the [Quirk] book with the Bennets having trained in China. The wealthier people train in Japan and are snobby about it. I set it up that China was this lesser school from the point of class status. With the Chinese, karate is more presentational and almost like dance. Japanese is more brutish. The challenge and fun thing for me was to create this coherent world. England was in Asia at this point, and they were bringing back tea and gunpowder, so why not bring back martial arts as well?

Anything else you boosted from the book to flesh out the movie version?

Burr Steers: One of the things I did was bolster Wickham and Darcy. I made Wickham more formidable and not just a foil. He's a big presence, and it was one of the reasons to cast Jack Huston. Having Jack up against Sam [Riley] just works, because they are almost two different sides of the same coin. Wickham is much more dangerous than the book, and there's more action for him.

What's your backstory for the zombie plague?

Burr Steers: The pandemic happens 70 years before, and things evolved with that going on. I used the Black Plague as the model for people moving out into the far, far country. It just exaggerates all the themes in the [book], like the female/male dynamics and the class dynamics. There's the idea of 1 percent controlling everything while the rest of the country is in jeopardy.

One of the big influences for me was Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and having the zombies see themselves as a race who is competitive with the human race and them being cognizant as formidable. They aren't just wandering around waiting to be decapitated.

There are various degrees of zombification in this story. Explain.

Burr Steers: The idea is that there are different stages of the disease, with four stages. You become infected, and then you become a full-blown zombie and you start deteriorating. You have crypto-zombies, which are those who haven't gone fully over and are in between. The evolved ones are the ones who are able to maintain human intelligence and become the leaders.

It's a big coup that you got Matt Smith (Doctor Who) to join your cast. How did you woo him?

I was talking to Matt about what he could do with the part, and he had a really interesting take on it. But a lot of people I brought into this are people I knew could take it and run and create something, like Sally Phillips as Mrs. Bennet and Dolly Wells as Mrs. Featherstone. It was just about collaborating and creating something new and different with them.