In his 2001 independent drama “Monster’s Ball,” director Marc Forster didn’t have a scene that had more than a few actors. It was a small, intimate film with a modest budget of $4 million. Forster, for the most part, was stress free. Twelve years later, Forster is at the helm of one of the biggest potential blockbusters of the summer, the zombie thriller “World War Z.” With an estimated $200-million price tag and scenes involving 1,000 extras, Forster is having a few nightmares (and they’re not about the living dead).
“You want to know what gave me the most nightmares during filming?” Forster, 43, told the Current during a phone interview. “It was waking up and thinking about having to shoot another scene with 1,000 extras and having multiple cameras on the ground and choppers in the air.”
During our interview, Forster, whose other films include “The Kite Runner” and “Stranger Than Fiction,” talked about the pros of making a big studio-financed movie like “World War Z,” adapting an un-adaptable novel, and the post-production problems on his film that have been reported in the trades over the last year.
You’ve gone from making intimate films like “Monster’s Ball” and “Stranger Than Fiction” to more blockbuster-type films like “Quantum of Solace” and “World War Z.” How does your process as a director change when the project you’re working on is bigger in scope?
You’re under more pressure because there’s more money involved and the pressure to succeed intensifies. The pros are that there is a big machine behind you that markets your movie. With the little movies, you don’t have that kind of power behind you. You’re left with having a word-of-mouth type of existence.
Can you tell me what the initial conversations about this film were like with the studio? Did they tell you that you had free reign or did they tell you how to incorporate or not incorporate the original book into the film?
No, basically it was just me and Plan B [Entertainment] developing the screenplay. They did say the movie had to be PG-13. So, early on, I designed the movie to be an intense ride instead of a gory one. I wanted to make the intensity extremely real. I felt Max Brooks’ book was written like that. I felt the movie had to feel the same.
Speaking of Max, what was your take on what he went on record saying about the film? Can you empathize with him since he is the original writer?
When I met Max he was very enthusiastic about me directing [“World War Z”]. Any writer who writes a best-selling book and sells it to a studio must have an awareness that things will change, especially for a book that has like 54 storylines. That particular book can’t be adapted the way it was written. I’m sure he was aware that he would have to be open to interpretation.
Was adapting a book like “World War Z” similar in any way to adapting a book like “The Kite Runner?”
No, it was different because “The Kite Runner” was a more linear story. I was very faithful to “The Kite Runner.” But in “World War Z,” I wanted to capture the essence of the book. If I had been faithful to it, it would’ve been more of a documentary. It would’ve been a different kind of movie.
As the director of the film, do you worry about what fans of the book are going to think of the changes you made or would you hope they understand the film and the book are two separate things?
I think it’s important to understand the film is a companion piece to the book. They both exist in their own right. For fans of the book, they have their own movie in their minds already. But I’d hope they could enjoy the film on a whole new level.
Over the last year we’ve heard a lot about the problems your film was experiencing during post-production. Every film has its problems. Do you think news about your film was exaggerated?
Honestly, once people heard we were reshooting the ending they thought the film was in trouble. The reason we redid the ending is because there was a massive battle at the end. Like in a lot of blockbuster films, you try to have the third-act set piece be bigger and louder than the rest of the movie. The rest of the movie was already big, so it was very hard to make the third act even bigger. Once we did the battle scene, we never tested it. So, instead, we decided to redo it with a more intimate ending. For me, that was very important because it’s what I had done in a lot of my other movies. I felt it was much more interesting to create this haunted house kind of idea with only Brad in the space instead of having another huge battle where you could risk audiences having battle fatigue.
During those little hiccups in production, was there something specific that frustrated you about the filmmaking business?
Apart from the ending, the production itself went really smooth. I shot the movie in the allotted days I had. I didn’t let things get out of control. As a filmmaker, there are always things that frustrate you. Sometimes you have to compromise. For example, here I had to shoot for weeks after weeks with 1,000 extras. I got to a point where I just wanted to shoot a scene with two people having coffee. You always get to that point. But while I’m making a movie, I am always so passionate. I have this vision and I need to complete that vision. Once you finish it, you’re so exhausted. You hope everyone else will share your enthusiasm for it. Sometimes that is the case and sometimes it’s not. I hope it is the case with “World War Z.”
You’ve worked with some amazing actors over the years – Heath Ledger, Halle Berry, Johnny Depp, just to name a few. Can you break down the type of actor Brad Pitt is?
He’s a very instinctual actor. His instincts are extraordinarily acute. He was a producer and actor in this and he did both very well. As an actor, he was very professional and had very clear dialogue and communication with me. When we wrapped, he became a producer and wore a very different hat. He really differentiated those two roles very well. He’s open to direction. He listens. He has his own ideas as well like every big movie star. You’re always trying to figure out different nuances, but it was a really great collaboration.
Do you think most fans of the zombie genre are interested in movies that make you think on a more complex level about things like politics and social issues or do you think most just want to see cool kill shots?
I’m sure there are both kinds of fans out there. That camp is very divided. I think you have a lot of different splinter groups. You wouldn’t be able to satisfy all the hardcore fans. Ultimately, it was all about making a film I felt satisfied my vision. For me, it never was just a zombie movie. It was way beyond that genre.
If there was a zombie attack in real life, are you the kind of person that would follow the “Zombie Survival Guide” page by page or would you try to survive you own way?
(Laughs) I definitely like Max [Brook’s] “Survival Guide.” I think that would definitely help me survive because I’d be lost without that book.
Can you talk a little about the zombie pyramids you created in the film? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in a zombie movie before. Was it important for you to find different things to do with a zombie story?
Yeah, I really wanted to create my own zombies. That imagery came from my childhood. We had this anthill behind our house. I was fascinated with the ants and how they crawled on top of each other. I felt that image was so powerful. It’s like, “This is the end! We can’t escape them!” I thought the swarms would be the perfect metaphor to use.