Burr Steers on the Stages of Becoming Undead in ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

     January 12, 2016


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could hit it big with an especially wide viewership. You’ve got the fans of young adult book-to-film adaptations, those who dig zombie apocalypses and the Austenites, too. However, director Burr Steers isn’t quite breaking it down that way. He’s well aware of the wide demographic, but all he’s focused on is simply making a good movie.

The film is an adaptation of the Seth Grahame-Smith novel which is a retelling of the Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies. While in England visiting the set of the film back in November of 2014, I got the chance to be part of a roundtable interview with Steers during which he told the group of visiting journalists about his decision to play everything straight, the depiction of the different fighting styles in the film, what it means to become infected and then turn in this specific zombie outbreak, and loads more. You can catch it all in the interview below.


Question: We heard about how it took a long time to figure out the right way to approach this film and that when you came to Ali [Shearmur], you had the right look for it. What was it that was so clear in your head that made everybody understand the direction you needed to go in?

BURR STEERS: It had to be a musical with fabulous hats. [Laughs] No, we reinserted Pride and Prejudice into it. I think that always works as a template, Pride and Prejudice. The other versions were really broad and sort of my mantra on it was the big wink of the movie was not to wink, was to play it straight, which is what I’ve tried to do with it.

How about after the fact? Do you envision an end product that has some humor to it?

STEERS: Oh, it’s got humor, yeah. But it’s not like sketch. The idea was to create this sort of alternate world where this pandemic has taken place and then to stage Pride and Prejudice in it. That doesn’t sound very funny, but it is [laughs], because ultimately it’s absurd but you play it straight. No one’s playing it hitting punchlines and things like that.

Do you know that something like that will work when you hit the edit room or are you already seeing those moments work well on set?

STEERS: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. They are really funny because you’re playing it straight. One of the movies that was an influence on this was the old British new wave, The Charge of The Light Brigade, and even some of the later Richard Lester stuff, like the Three and Four Musketeers where you had characters that you were invested in and you had humor almost Monty Python-esque humor, but then drama and you were invested in the characters, you cared about them and you didn’t want to see them killed, hopefully.

How do you balance a world with so much fighting with the original Pride and Prejudice? We noticed, for example, their dresses have places to hide daggers and that that style has changed.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Image via Screen Gems

STEERS: Yeah, if you think about it, the pandemic happened 70 years earlier and things evolved with that going on.

Was it like with WWI, how that changed things? Especially for women because they were expected to go to work. Do you think this is partially a war movie?

STEERS: Yeah, it definitely is a war movie. And it’s funny, one of the reasons Jane Austen came back into vogue was almost as propaganda because of the whole stiff upper lip thing that she has in it during the Napoleonic Wars where they’re never mentioned. The British government pushed her back into public circulation. One of the things that made this easy was that you have that, you have the Napoleonic Wars which she never explains. Especially as an American you’re thinking, ‘Why are all these guys dancing around in uniforms?’ So you replace that with this horrible pandemic.

How did you interweave themes of class with fighting zombies?

STEERS: Well, the class thing, there was another thing with themes and issues that she had, class and money which were really different, but also young women being empowered were themes that we kept in this. And then the class thing, specifically for the Bennet sisters not having any brothers, that their father who’s lower gentry had to train them to defend the house because they had no option.

How much of a fear factor are you putting into the zombies?

STEERS: They’re frightening. Yeah, that’s the whole idea is that you’re afraid of them, that they’re a threat. My idea was to do everything as well as I possibly could – do the zombie movie as well as I possibly could and do Pride and Prejudice as well as I could. Why not? [Laughs] As far as plans go, you know?


Zombie movies are so popular nowadays. Was there anything that you consciously wanted to avoid?

STEERS: One of the big influences on this for me was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and having them see themselves as a race that was competitive with the human race and to have them more cognizant and more formidable, that they’re not just wandering around waiting to be decapitated.

What kind of direction do you give to someone playing a zombie in that kind of situation? Just so we can get a picture of how they’re behaving.

STEERS: There’s a great documentary on meth addicts [laughs], and also the way they deteriorated, but that need for it, that need, that itch, that horrible itch and that these guys were getting that itch squared. It was incredibly intense for them.

Can you talk about how Matt Smith joined the project?

STEERS: It was talking to him about what he could do with the part and he had a really interesting take on it and a lot of the people I brought in were people who could take it and run and create something with it. Sally Phillips is Mrs. Bennet and Dolly who’s playing Mrs. Featherstone, Dolly Wells. So it’s really just talking about collaborating and how he would be able to create something new and different with it. Because it’s been kind of a specific since the BBC series.

You chose to set this 70 years after the outbreak. How does that affect the design of the Regency period we’re seeing here?


STEERS: Well, one of the things of age of industry and that happening with this in mind and protecting people from the plague and the sort of flight from London, which I use the Black Plague as a model of, and the people moving out to far, far country. But then it really just exaggerates all the themes that were in it as far as the female/male dynamics and class dynamics, the idea that you have this one percent that’s controlling everything while the rest of the country is in jeopardy. Truly it’s the British Revolution that never happened, and they’re undead [laughs], but other than that it’s happening.

One of the interesting things we saw in the footage were scenes where characters would normally be talking firmly at each other, but they fought or sparred instead. Was that something that was part of your version?

STEERS: One of the books that I picked up when I was looking at this was a book on game theory that was based on Jane Austin. The way she designed her scenes are almost like sparring matches with punch, counterpunch, and you see it within it. All of this stuff’s brilliantly constructed. But then to do it literally, to tie those in, and so all of the violence in it is character-based, all that comes out of specifically who’s doing it and why they’re doing it. So you don’t have these disconnected, arbitrary action scenes where you know they’re doubles. Everyone’s really athletic and can really fight in this, too.

To what extent do you want to create distance between the two genres that you’re working in?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Image via Screen Gems

STEERS: I didn’t. I wanted to create a cohering. That was the challenge and the fun thing to do, was to create this coherent world and the idea – England was in Asia at this point. You had missionaries going to China and Japan and bringing back tea and gunpowder and all these things that were Asian that became very, very English and the idea that they bring back martial arts as well. It’s one of the weird things in all these estates, you find Chinese and Japanese art from this period in these estates.

How involved were you in choosing locations to shoot in?

STEERS: I did. I scattered everywhere and figured it out.

Do you have a favorite location?

STEERS: No. I mean, there’s some places that I didn’t like shooting in like the House of Detention, which I’ve gotta go back to next week, underneath the ground, it’s sort of a cave. But no, they’ve been fantastic.

Did you shoot in any of the same locations as the previous Pride and Prejudice?

STEERS: We have one location that’s the same, which is Netherfield, but we use it in a very different way and then ours are augmented because the house is quite different. Our house isn’t on the ground. The first floors are burned out.

What are the zombies doing in their off hours when they’re not fighting the Bennet sisters?


STEERS: Well, the idea is that it’s a disease and there are different stages of the disease. We have four stages of it, so you’d be infected and then you’d become a full-blown zombie and then you’d start deteriorating from the point where you were bitten. And then you have crypto zombies [who] are the zombies that haven’t gone fully over, they’re sort of in between.

So they can still talk?

STEERS: Yeah. The idea is that it’s evolved, the virus or whatever you call it has evolved and the ones that are able to maintain more of the human intelligence are the ones that are sort of becoming the leaders amongst the zombies.

How is the shooting schedule for you? I think someone said 40-something days which doesn’t seem like much for something like this.

STEERS: Yeah, I would think more. [Laughs] No, but it’s been good. It’s an incredible crew and cast. It’s been a breeze so far.

Do you anticipate additional photography?

STEERS: I haven’t gone over. I’ve never been over schedule. I don’t know, I mean, you never know. And then there are a lot of visual effects in this. I think we have one big sequence coming up, but so far we’re totally on schedule.

Ali [Shearmur] was telling us that there’s an end to the story like the book, but there’s also a place for it to keep going on. When you’re conceptualizing how to make the story do you think about where the mythology goes or are you just getting this one done?


STEERS: No, I was thinking about where it goes. I was thinking about what I was setting up. And one of the things I did was bolstering Wickham and I actually bolstered Darcy as well. I made Wickham more formidable and not just sort of a foil. I mean he’s a big presence, and it was one of the reasons to cast Jack Huston, and Jack up against Sam [Riley], it works because it’s almost two different sides of the same coin.

So is Wickham the main antagonist?

STEERS: Yeah, but in a much bigger way, more testicularity than in the book. He’s much more dangerous. And more action between the two of them.

How much did you consider leaving things open so there could be a second film?

STEERS: It was something I thought of that played out naturally in it because the things I’ve set up haven’t been resolved in this. The Pride and Prejudice resolves, but then the other big issue hasn’t been resolved.

If you were to do another film, will that then be completely new or would that be following another book?

STEERS: The great thing about this, and one of the other things I was thinking about, I was aware as I wrote this was Death Comes to Pemberley and the idea that you take these great characters and you take them on to different stories and different adventures. You know, they’re fantastic characters. So they’d be Bridget Jones. [Laughs]


Do you have to pinpoint an audience before shooting? I look at this and think fans of zombie movies, fans of YA movies with strong female leads, fans of the original Pride and Prejudice

STEERS: Don’t forget the Austenites. They’re like Trekkies, and scary too. [Laughs] I’m trying to make it as well as I can, but I am aware of the demographic that each genre brings in, but I’m not pandering. I’m still doing it as well as I can.

What’s your approach to the action, fighting and training your leads?

STEERS: They all went through training before we did it. And again, the idea that the action would be character-based and would come out of who they were and through the model of the Seven Samurai where they have that first scene, each of their fighting styles established who each character was, that’s the model we’re going with. But then really doing it, I mean, you’ll see they’re doing their action in it and they love it, and they’re really badass young actresses.

How much is real fighting styles?

STEERS: For me it was the rules and it was the idea that, because it was in the book about the Bennets having trained in China and then the wealthier people having trained in Japan and they were snobby about it so I sort of set it up as being, ‘Where did you prep?’ That they had sort of gone to Eden, the wealthier people, and that was Japan, and then China was sort of a lesser school. It was sort of a point of class and snotty-ness.

But in terms of a specific fighting styles, was that developed by you or the fight choreographer?

STEERS: No, it was the fight choreographer, but the idea also that the Chinese karate was more presentational like dance, whereas Japanese stuff was much more sort of brutish in the way that it looks.


We actually see those fighting styles come together in one of the scenes with Darcy and Elizabeth. Does that scene sort of bring out those two fighting styles and suggest that training in Japan wasn’t necessarily more effective?

STEERS: Yeah, I think there’s always that question about what’s more effective, but there are other things that are sort of playing in that that isn’t just surely a combat. I actually don’t know. They’re both really effective.

What’s your visual approach to the action scenes?

STEERS: A lot of coverage. Just covering them from a lot of different positions, really moving around them so you can edit if you need to add speed to things and keep them interesting, and then low angles coming up for the violence, which I think is effective.

Speaking of the violence, has it been challenging to keep things in the confines of a PG-13 rating?

STEERS: It always seems so arbitrary, but as far as not having spreading blood, I’ve avoided that. But then there are things when you suggest violence and it’s so much more frightening than showing everything. You become so desensitized to it when you see it. I still think one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen recently in a movie was in The Proposition where Danny Huston stomps the guy’s head. That’s totally off camera and you just hear the sound effect and that’s worse than any graphic shot I’ve seen recently.

pride-and-prejudice-and-zombiesHow about getting newcomers up to speed? I feel like so many similar movies completely sink in the first act because it’s information, information, information. How are you going to approach that where it feels somewhat natural?

STEERS: I made a point of keeping it engaging and I also think there’s a basic thing in watching movies of just knowing who the good guys are and the bad guys and then you know who to root for and then everything else is sort of a given. I mean, that’s it. And as long as it comes out in something that they’re interested in, in a conversation that they’re interested in, scenes and characters that they’re interested in, you get away with it.

For more from my Pride and Prejudice and Zombies set visit, check out the links below:

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