Welcome to the Empire podcast, and we are joined today by our very special guest Max Brooks, the author of, among other things, World War Z. Welcome!
Thank you, and you can say 'Zed', I won't get offended.
We have arguments about this. Sometimes it's best to just say 'Zee' just because it rhymes with three - though you will get accused of being American if you do.
You're not the first person to say that, strangely enough. This is weird - I guess this is I guess a Commonwealth thing - but the English people I meet are okay with saying World War 'Zee', and the Canadians are not. Their national identity is very strong. They need to force that 'Zed'.
Right, well we finally found something that Canada is not tolerant about. So, let's start at the beginning. How do you go from working on Saturday Night Live to writing about the undead?
I actually wrote my first zombie book way before I got the job on Saturday Night Live. It was the late '90s and people were starting to flip out in America about the Y2K scare. And I'm not talking about the crazy survivalists who wanted it to happen, I'm talking about the grown-ups with jobs and lives buying tins of beans and generators. So all these survival guides were coming out. I thought, 'Well, why not one for zombies?'
So I went looking for a zombie survival guide. Nobody had written it, they were all off 'having a life', and I didn't have that problem so I thought, 'You know what? I have two extraordinary gifts: I have an excessive compulsive disorder and unemployment. And I'm going fuse them into a book.' So I sat down and wrote zombie survival guide.
Then I stuck it in a drawer for years. I didn't think it was ever going to get published. I mean, c'mon, who's going to want a very well researched book about something that's not real? It's not a comic thing. It was really me thinking, 'What if there was a real zombie plague? How would I survive? How would I purify water? And what guns would jam?' All those real questions that you don't see in the movies.
I am a history nerd before I'm anything, and history teaches you to omit the obvious. You assume things, like whatever country has more firepower wins the wars and that's actually not true at all. Or you think about things like what made Britain a world power? It wasn't guns or steel - it was limes. Vitamin C was the difference between Britain and France, so those little details are very important to me.
World War Z took inspiration from [Studs Terkel's] The Good War [An Oral History Of World War Two], didn't it?
It's an amazing book. In America, I grew up on World War II stories but they were always sort of Private Ryan-esque stories. They were always about small units of Americans somewhere, probably in Europe, and you think growing up 'Well, that's World War II.' And then you read The Good War, which is interviews with people who have been in the war from every different country and every different walk of life, not just soldiers, and you think, 'My god, this was a whole planet, submerged in flames.' And that was my template.
Zombies are a global plague as well, but every zombie story I'd ever seen was about a small survival unit, and I thought, 'Well, nobody's answering my questions.' How did the governments deal with it all? How did different governments deal with it? How did the countries deal with it? So I thought I would just answer my own questions.
Where are you getting your zombies from? Romero?
Yeah, I'm Romero-esque. And there are a few things where George and I disagree, only because I think he's a better storyteller than I am, so therefore his zombies I think are more interesting than mine. They experience emotions and fear fire and they use tools sometimes, and they evolve and they adapt, and I think that makes for better storytelling. But for me it's the inhumanity of them that scares me. It's the fact you're essentially fighting a walking virus that you cannot negotiate with, I think that is what's truly terrifying.
Your dad, Mel Brooks, was a World War II Veteran. Did you pick up your interest in the period from his stories of the time?
Yeah, with all his brothers, he told me stories. Remember, I'm an anomaly because I'm a Gen X-er but the child of World War II parents. My parents had me very late in life. Most people my age in America, their parents talk about sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and growing up in front of the television. My parents talked about growing up in the depression; sacrifice and service. And my father's war stories I thought were interesting not because of the combat element but the smaller things.
For example, he had to avoid getting his feet frozen by rubbing bacon fat all over his feet and then putting on two pairs of socks. He'd then rub his socks and feet constantly for about 10 minutes to get the blood flowing and that's how he kept all his toes. It's those minutiae that have always driven me to be as detail-oriented as possible.
Do you have any favourite vignettes in World War Z?
It's like choosing your favourite children, but I think there were certain elements I had never seen anywhere that I still wanted to explore. I refer to it as the Alan Alda chapter because in the audiobook he reads it. It's Arthur Sinclair describing how do you reorganise the economy, and these are questions I have always had.
We live in such a service-based, globalised economy where very few people actually make anything and the people who do make stuff... it's all part of a massive global supply chain. So what if all those chains were suddenly cut, how would you make something? How would you keep people alive? And that was something I wanted to explore. To me that was interesting.
And you see when you study history that when economies change, societies change and needs change, and the top of the food chains often suddenly find themselves out of work. They have to adapt or die, and that was very important for me when I was analysing the labour force in Hollywood. In L.A., where I'm from, most people don't really do anything, and the truth is that Hollywood is one of the last few bloated, communist-style economies where you look at a production company or a movie studio and for every one person who has a real job you think, 'Who are these other seven people? How are they getting paid? Why are they getting paid?' And I thought, 'How would these people survive in a zombie plague?'
So who's gonna survive in Hollywood?
That's a really good question... I think Frank Darabont, who created the Walking Dead.
John Milius, without question.
Maybe John Milius, yeah, so maybe Frank and John Milius and that's about it.
You'd think George Romero would...
Well George lives in Canada, so they wouldn't necessarily have a zombie problem, they have socialised medicine so the moment someone gets infected they'll be fine.
Did you see they actually debated zombies in the Canadian Parliament in February?
They did! I do zombie self-defence lectures and I always say, 'Listen, fellow Americans, don't think you can just flee north, 'cause they're gonna be waiting for us. They're gonna slam the maple leaf curtain down and they're gonna be waiting with a sharpened hockey stick and a Molson.'
Roy Elliot is the film director who in World War Z makes a series of documentary propaganda films to boost morale. Who did you have in the back of your mind when writing him?
It was kind of a mix. It was Spielberg, a little bit of Rob Reiner and ironically a little bit of Frank Darabont - who then reads it on the audiobook. And what was so great about it that Frank is not really an actor. He was very nervous to do it. He asked me, 'How do you want to do this?' I said, 'Frank, just be you.' Because the character Roy Elliot is enthusiastic. He loves cinema and he can't wait to talk about the power of cinema, which is how Frank really is, so literally all you had to do was stick him in a booth and watch him do it.
In your book, zombies are a metaphor for globalisation. It starts in China, which the film is going nowhere near for reasons of... commerce, really.
Probably. I don't know the film makers' reasons because I was not part of the process, but I can tell you me as an author that I turned down two Chinese publishing deals because they wanted to censor the book.
The first time they said I should change China's name to some fictional country. It was a very Chinese communist argument. It was sort of like, 'Look, everyone knows it's China, you're not hiding anything, all we want you to do is just change the name...' I said, 'No, China is China, I'm sorry.'
The second time, they said to me, 'You can keep the China name, but we want to put it online. We're gonna take the chapters out of the book and put them on the internet.' I said, 'No, no, I'm sorry. I know there's like a billion of you, and if you all gave me a dollar that would be really awesome, but China's China and I have to be true to my book.'
So you think there's a problem with Hollywood self-censoring?
Please, it's Hollywood. We're talking about the same industry that brought The Great Gatsby in 3D.
Were you asked to write the script for the film?
I wasn't asked, and that's just basic economics. A movie that big, everybody has to justify the decisions they make, so for a budget of that size nobody is going to allow a guy who has never written a major-produced screenplay before get behind the wheel of that. That's just not the way Hollywood works. You have to have solid, mainstream credits in order to be able to justify that job.
Did you talk to the guys who did write the screenplay?
Actually, I spoke to the first writer, J. Michael Straczynski, who I am a huge fan of. I admire everything about him. So we actually hung out for a while, but then he moved on and then they brought in Matt Carnahan, who I have yet to actually speak to. I mean I know what he looks like from his IMDB page and that's about it.
The Straczynski version sounded like it was going to be a lot more in keeping with the spirit of the book in the sense that it was unsparing in some of the bleaker details.
|I'm not a fast zombie guy, I'm just not. But I'm not so naive to not understand why they went for fast zombies.|
Maybe. I don't know because I haven't read the Carnahan draft and I certainly haven't seen the movie, so I really don't know how much of Straczynski is still in there.
Let's talk fast zombies.
I'm not a fast zombie guy, I'm just not. But I'm not so naive to not understand why they went for fast zombies. The bottom line is I'm a slow zombie guy - I'm always a slow zombie guy but I also know I'm in the minority. The truth is most people who are not zombie fans think that fast zombies are more exciting. I mean, even in the TV show The Walking Dead when they sort of lock in on their pray, at least from what I saw in Season One, they started doing some sort of hyper limp. They sped up and that made it more cinematic, more interesting. But that's just not how I think.
How do you think nations would respond when the zombies come? How would Britain do in a zombie apocalypse, for example?
I hate to admit this, but I'm an anglophile. I think that Britain would respond magnificently. I used to live in England, you know. I used to live in Islington when I was working for the BBC and I'd get in these constant arguments with my English housemates, because their attitude was if you're nationalistic then you're a child. And I used to try to perk them up and be like, 'Guys, c'mon! England! Britain!' So I think that Britain would take its lumps just like America but I think both countries would come out swinging in the end. And maybe your zombies would queue and you could just lop their heads off one by one.
In the book, The Queen is seen rallying the troops in the way that her parents did before. That was a lovely little touch.
Well that always struck me as fascinating about the Royal Family, and maybe it was pragmatism, maybe they were like, 'Look we better lead from the front or we're going get our heads cut off like the French royalty.' But for whatever reason I thought the British Royal Family has been magnificent in times of crisis. I mean the fact that Queen Elizabeth actually was in the army, and she's a mechanic, that's incredible. I'm not a mechanic. If Queen Elizabeth and I are driving in a car and the car breaks down, she can fix it and I can't. That says something.
There's an interview with you where you said you were a movie ruiner for your friends - that you're the one that sits there and picks holes - so what movies have you ruined recently and what are your biggest bug bears?
Okay, my biggest problem, which is why I find zombies so scary, is that in every other horror film you have to go find the bad stuff. Every other horror film is essentially I think a punishment film, so I lose myself in that. You watch a film like Chernobyl Diaries, which has Americans wandering round Europe going, 'Wow, everything is so old' and you have to have that scene where one guy says, 'Dude, have you heard about Chernobyl? It's like the worst nuclear disaster ever, we should totally go check it out.' And so right away I'm like, 'Check please!', because you totally deserve it, and that's pretty much how I am with every horror film.
Always relying on the easily broken-down door.
Right, you would have no movie otherwise. I always say if you had a bunch of college kids and they heard something in the dead of night they'd be like, 'Wow, nobody leaves this room, let's turn on all the lights, then wait until dawn and get in the car and go.' That would be ten minute movie. So I always ruin them, which is why zombies are so scary to me because they're the only monster where you can just sit at home - minding your own business, chilling out and watching some Family Guy - and they're still going to come for you. And that's really scary.
Aside from Romero's zombie movies, which other zombie flicks are you fan of?
Shaun Of The Dead is an amazing zombie movie but it's also an amazing cultural essay of who Britain was at that point. I think it's sort of the Clerks of Britain. Real emotions, real drama... I mean, what a movie.
How about the likes of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies?
I haven't actually read it, so I'm not in a place to judge it. But Seth Graham Smith, who I've met a couple of times, is a very cool guy. He's very humble and he's honest. He says, 'Look, my agent gave me the title, I thought it was cool and basically the book is 15% me and the rest is Jane Austen.' And I'm like, 'Wow, okay, so he owns it.'
I'm not into zombie comedies generally though. I mean other than Shaun of the Dead, 'cause Shaun of the Dead was a real movie. But most other movies that make fun of zombies... I can't get behind that. In the '80s, we had The Return Of The Living Dead - 'Back from the grave and ready to party!' - and it was to the zombie genre what Adam West was to Batman, in that it was a sort of cute and campy thing and I think it ruined the genre for about 20 years. It made it fun, and I'm sorry, zombies aren't fun to me, they're terrifying.
What's your stance on zombie Bill Murray then?
Well that's, you're talking about Zombieland, and they weren't zombies. It was like some weird mad cow disease.
Closer to the infected in 28 Days Later, you mean?
Oh, you want to talk about ruining a movie? Because the scene where the military commander in 28 Days Later says, 'I'm waiting to see how long it takes for the infected to starve to death.' I thought, 'Well, if they eat... then they drink right? They need water?' Well, after four days the human body starts to shut down, so in a purely realistic movie, the dude would wake up out of the hospital and London would just be littered with dehydrated corpses and the movie would be called Four Days Later.
Where did you come up with the notion of 'Zack' as your shorthand for zombie? And the Zack-sickles - the idea that they freeze and then there's like a weird spring of zombies?
I just figured that if the snow and ice didn't kill them, it would become a generational threat. Northern countries would have the temporary advantage of winter, they'd get a rest... but then they'd have to worry about it in the Spring. And the notion of calling them Zack, well, I think that's just a very standard idea for me. Like I said, I'm a history nerd, and that's what you do in war: you dehumanize. You call them Charlie or Fritz or Ivan to sort of lump them into one big enemy.
Is there a story that carries on where World War Z left off? Because it's a world where there are still zombies, obviously.
Yeah, and everyone asks me if I'm going write Spaceballs II: The Search For More Money. And I pretty much say, if one morning I wake up and I've got the idea and I'm like, 'Yeah, let's do this!', then I'm going do it. But I'm not going to do it for profit because everybody would know that and I would know that. My rule is that whatever I write has to start with its first fan, which is me, I have to love it, because if I don't love it then it's not worth doing.
Where did the idea of the Parisian catacomb sequence come from?
For me that was an important chapter because I didn't just want to deal with the physicality of fighting underground in the sewers. The more research I did on underground Paris, the more terrifying it got. But I wanted to also play with the notion of needing heroes, of a nation that has, I think, not recovered from the defeats of World War II and of losing all their colonies. You British, you just gave 'em up, you said, 'You're gone, get, go go go go go, get a job.' The French fought tooth and nail for every one of their colonies and had to be wrenched from them and I really don't think that it's healed, and I wanted to explore that.
You don't revisit a character in the book. They have one vignette, by and large.
No. We hear their stories, which is how it happens in real life: a real aural history, and I get a lot of criticism for that. But I wanted to stay in character and in a real oral history you hear someone talk, they tell their story and then you move on. I thought if this is going to be an actual oral history, and not a twist on it to appease readers, it's going have to be like this.
So I understand that the book doesn't naturally lend itself to cinematic adaptation, obviously. The funny thing is the main narrative of this movie is that there's going be a lot of people who love the book that are going hate the movie. But what I see for every one of those people, there are going to be a hundred other people that will love the movie and hate the book. They're probably going love this alpha male-led film and when they open my book they'll say, 'What the hell is this crap?'
'Who's this guy? Is it Brad Pitt?'
|The publisher wanted to put Brad Pitt's face on the book. I said, 'Absolutely not.' And I have nothing against Brad as a guy, I love his work, but his character does not appear in the pages of my book.|
Yeah, well, that's actually a funny story. That was a huge fight I got into with [the book publisher] Random House. They wanted to put Brad Pitt's face on the book. I said, 'Absolutely not.' And I have nothing against Brad as a guy, I love his work, but his character does not appear in the pages of my book. And I think I do not want anybody buying it because they see that book and are expecting the further adventures of Gerry Lane. I don't want to false advertise. So then we got into another fight where they sent me a poster to put on the book cover of running zombies forming a tower to jump on a helicopter. I said, 'Look, that's cool-looking, but guess what? Zombies in my book don't do that and can't do that, so I'm sorry, I won't use it. So they sent me a generic war cover, and I said that was fine but I will not mess with the integrity of the book.
World War Z's director, Mark Foster, said his take on the zombies had a hive mind in so far as they'd cooperate like ants.
We shall see. I mean that's one of the reasons didn't read the script and I haven't looked at any of the dailies because I have no creative control. It just doesn't help me in any way. And I've also told Paramount this. I've said, 'Look, you guys need to know something. I'm a really crappy liar. That's one of the reasons my wife married me because she knows I can never have an affair, so whatever you tell me or show me, it's going out there. If I go to a convention or a signing and somebody asks me a question I'm going answer it, so don't show me or tell me anything you don't want out there.' So I've been pretty much in the dark.
But are you looking forward to seeing it?
I'm curious, I'm curious. We've all been waiting for this thing for what, seven years? And then you hear about the changes and this and that, okay, and it's so huge. So let's see.
Will you see it at Paramount or will you pay for it?
I'm going to see it in New York, I guess the world premiere is in London, but I'm going to be in New York, so I'll see it then. So you may see me coming out there with duct tape over my mouth. Maybe Paramount will march me out with a gun to the back of my head as I shout, 'It was wonderful!' I don't know, we shall see.
Or maybe you'll be leaping from your seat, joyful...?
Yeah, maybe I'll be going 'Oh! How lovely! What author doesn't want to see this happen to their book?' Just ask F. Scott Fitzgerald... (laughs)
There are other things you're working on at the moment, though - like The Great Wall, for example?
The story behind Great Wall is I do a lot of creative work for Legendary. [Legendary founder and CEO] Thomas Tull and I are friends and we have a mutual respect for each other, and every now and then he sends for me like the Don. And I don't take meetings with anybody, but I do for him. So one day he called me in the middle of the night and he goes, 'I've got to see you tomorrow. I've got an idea.'
So I go in and he says, 'Listen, all right? There's a Marco Polo-esque guy, European-y, and he goes to China and he comes over this hill and he sees this wall and he's never seen anything like it, it's huge! And the Chinese are frantically trying to build it, and he says to this one Chinese guy through an interpreter, 'Whoa, what are you doing?', and the Chinese guy is like, 'You need to grab a shovel and help us right now.' 'Why right now?' And he goes, 'Because they're coming.'
And then he just stopped and said, 'Who's coming? Throw me a monster!' Because that's what I do - I world-build for him, I build him backgrounds, I build him monsters, I build backstory for him. So, I developed, I wrote a story of this Great Wall, and we passed it along and... I'm not sure what's happening to it. I know there are issues with financing in China right now but I don't know, I pass the torch and I just say, 'Go for it.'
That's the key difference between Legendary and some other studios at the moment. Thomas Tull is a genuine fanboy. He genuinely loves what he's doing. I always say had he not become a gazillionaire, had he not been in movies, he'd be at Comic-con. He would be dressed as Boba Fett.
Also you've got Extinction Parade coming out very, very soon.
Yeah, that's the big one. That is based on a short story I wrote a few years ago about a zombie plague. It's a comic book series, only 12 issues - a limited series told through the eyes of vampires. For me it's an exploration of privilege, because I look at all human accomplishments as overcompensation for the fact that we're at the bottom of the food chain. We're essentially weak, so we learnt how to organise it and adapt, and invent. But if you were a vampire you're at the top of the food chain, and you've been spoiled. You're essentially the aristocracy. You have all these gifts: speed, strength, immortality and anonymity. Could you adapt to a world where your only food source is being eaten out from under you by zombies? Would you have what it takes as a species to rise to the occasion? So that's what I'm exploring in Extinction Parade.
And so what happens if a zombie bites a vampire or vice versa?
Well, that's another thing. Zombie flesh and zombie blood is toxic to a vampire, but zombies in my story ignore vampires - they don't see them as food they walk right past them, and initially the vampires think it's awesome because they've been so hemmed in with the rise of civilization and especially the rise of the middle class. You can't kill anybody anymore; everyone's got a pay cheque and are paying their taxes. This isn't Victorian London where there is the one per cent and everybody else isn't worth spit.
So they love that society is imploding, it's like Mardi Gras for them, and then eventually they have this inconvenient truth moment where they realise that all the humans are dying or turning, so what are they going to live on? And that's when things really start to get crazy.
So are they the handsome, Brad Pitt-type vampire...?
No, no, no, no, no, these are aristocratic. Just beautiful, young... they're what everybody would want to be. That was one of the reasons I started writing this, because I see a lot of young people who would love to be vampires, but I also see a lot of people who want to be the Kardashians, or any of the other sort of modern day aristocrats, and that worries me in America. I don't know about in this country but in my country, the culture is shifting towards a desire for aristocracy, a desire for a status symbol that means you don't have to work. That if you can get up every day and you can just go shopping and party it's a good day and that's really scary for me, so I want to really explore that.
And what about the graphic novel about World War I that you've been working on for fourteen years...?
I wrote it as a screenplay originally. It's called the Harlem Hellfighters, and it's a true story about a unit of American soldiers that the US government actually set up to fail. They did not want them getting in combat, they did not want them becoming heroes, so they threw barrier after barrier in their path, and this unit of Americans overcame it all and became one of the most heavily decorated units in the United States army.
They wanted them to fail because of the colour of their skin. This was a time when black people were moving en masse from the south, from the American south into American northern cities and suddenly racism became national instead of local. And so, there were a lot of people in the American government and in the halls of power that thought, 'Oh my god, the last thing we need is for black people to see black heroes coming home.' Basically saying, 'Yes we can!', so they did everything they could to say, 'No you can't.'
And I can't believe this story hasn't been told before. In America we know about the Tuskegee Airmen, we know about the Buffalo Soldiers, but this story has completely gone under the radar and I've been waiting for someone to do it, and I thought, 'You know what, I've got my script, I'm into comic books now, I'm gonna do it as a graphic novel.'
And it's obviously the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, so obviously that was on your mind.
It was, it was, and as someone who loves history, the research behind it was insane. The different nations and how they fought with them, because these Americans were not allowed to fight with the American army. So the French took them. The French wanted anyone. They were desperate, they wanted anybody who could hold a rifle. But also the French had used black African troops in combat, so they already had a history of that. So the first American to win the Croix De Guerre was a black guy, and nobody knows about it. And their regimental band was how jazz came to Europe. This guy James Reese Europe, he brought jazz to France so if you hear it played in France to this day it all goes back to this guy.
Your mum is Anne Bancroft and your dad's Mel Brooks - what were you watching as a kid?
You know, I get asked that a lot and I'm not sure what people want to hear, and sometimes depending on who it is, I just make stuff up. I'm like, 'Oh my God, the amount of cocaine they used to do... And the knife-fights my dad and Karl Reiner used to get into! And man, you didn't want to look at Merv Griffin the wrong way, 'cause he hits you with a brick if he doesn't like you.'
I mean the truth is, I have World War II parents, so that generation of Hollywood was very sedate. My father was home at 7.30pm every day or if he was shooting a movie he was home at 8.30pm every day, so my mother read to me every night. In fact, the reason for my love of audiobooks is that if my mother would go to shoot a movie and she was in the middle of reading me a book, she finished recording the book on tape so I could play it every night going to bed.
And what about the films?
That's a good question. A lot of my parents' films. But my dad loved musicals, and he was never allowed to express that because he was a comedian, and the world expected comedy but his favourite movie was Top Hat. He loved that stuff. I guess you could say what was different about my childhood was I thought everybody was that witty. I grew up with Gene Wilder, who's like my uncle. Alan Alda was my mentor - he taught me how to write. I used to bring him my short stories when I was 14, he'd critique them -like really seriously critique them and talk about language and dialogue and I thought everybody was like that. Then I'd get out into the real world and I'd see people's 50th birthday parties and they'd do little skits and I'd be like, 'Wow, those people aren't as funny as my dad...'