“The general premise is that anything can happen, in any kind of scenario, on any given day...”
—Director Marc Forster
On an ordinary day, Gerry Lane [Brad Pitt] and his family find their usually quiet morning drive interrupted by urban gridlock, which suddenly erupts into chaos. Something is causing hordes of people to viciously attack each other…a lethal virus that is spread through a single bite, turning healthy humans into something unrecognizable, unthinking and feral.
The situation quickly becomes pandemic. As the infected overwhelm the world’s armies and rapidly topple its governments, Lane, a former United Nations crisis investigator, is forced to return to his dangerous former life to insure the safety of his family, leading a desperate worldwide search for the source of this plague and a means to stop its relentless spread…
Producer and star Brad Pitt describes, “Max’s book [WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks] treats the zombie genre as a global pandemic, spreading much like we’ve witnessed viruses such as SARS travel. What happens…when everything we concern our days with is rendered useless…when power structures and societal norms are obliterated? How will we survive?”
Director Marc Forster adds, “It’s not just about zombies, it’s about a global apocalypse that happens to be spread by zombies. The great thing about Max’s book is that he set it in a realistic time frame and within a reality-based framework. That’s what really intrigued me…I wanted to create a movie that feels real, so audiences feel like this could happen, this minute, to any one of us. The general premise is that anything can happen, in any kind of scenario, on any given day. No one is spared. Everyone is susceptible. That’s the plotline in the movie, but it’s also real life.”
Pitt notes re: his choice of Forster to direct, “His most memorable moments on film are intimate and human. It was this quality juxtaposed against our massive apocalyptic crisis that we believed would lead to an unusually authentic and grounded action thriller.”
To keep it real on such a global scale, Forster enlisted Production Designer Nigel Phelps and Set Decorator Jennifer Williams SDSA, frequent collaborators whose work has covered a wide range of films and scope, bringing authenticity and creative realism to scenes small, large and huge…a definite requirement for this film!
“There was at one point, a lovely image of hundreds of airplanes on the tarmac at an airport,” describes Williams, “Visually delicious, until you realize no one will open the door, because the passengers might have been infected. Once bitten, there is an immediate compulsion to pass on the virus, to bite someone else, so if one infected person had boarded, the entire plane would have become infected. Therefore they had absolutely refused to unlock the planes. That was the essence of this philosophy, which was actually much more terrifying and much more real than most films of this genre. And that was always going to be how we tackled it…as a viral pandemic.”
“Early in the film during an escape by helicopter, there is an intense conversation where Gerry’s wife Karin, the mother figure played by Mireille Enos, asks, ‘Can’t we take more people?’ And the helicopter pilot responds, ‘Well, how do you decide?’
How do you decide who you save and who you can’t save? It was really a frightening prospect, and very tangible, very real. And that was what they wanted from us, to make it as real as possible.”
Producer Dede Gardner agrees, “We worked very, very hard to render the movie with authenticity.”
Pre-production began during the Arab Spring of 2011. “The images coming from these major events were amazing and compelling,” Williams recalls. “I presented some as reference to Brad, and he said, “This is exactly what I think it should be.’ We had images of people demonstrating…fires being lit in the squares…people streaming out of countries. There were long queues of people trying to get onto boats to get away. The airports were clogged. And masses and masses of buses and cars with luggage piled up on top, every road looking like a long caravan of refugees. It was that whole thing about getting somewhere…finding somewhere…that was still safe. And that’s what we tried to achieve.”
Producer Jeremy Kleiner adds, “The world scale…the intersection of zombies, politics, institutions…intrigued us and added really cool, contemporary elements unusual in the zombie genre.”
“The making of the film was a long haul, but I think we all felt totally committed to it,” Williams reveals. “And it was absolutely collaborative. There was a great openness and responsiveness to ideas. I would go to Marc with ideas or show him elements, and he’d show them to the others…the same with Jeremy or Brad. And it was lovely. It was all about making a film, telling the story in the best way possible.”
As Gardner rather dryly points out, “First of all it’s called ‘World War Z’ so it was critical that we represent the globe.” Thus, filming commenced all over the world, with locations standing in for other locales: Glasgow, Scotland for Philadelphia in the dynamic opening scenes of increasing chaos, a London market warehouse became a Philadelphia supermart, ships in Cornwall and London were transformed into an American aircraft carrier, Jerusalem and its port of entry were created in Malta…Budapest, Hungary was used for creating parts of Russia, places in the UK countryside for scenes in Korea and other countries, and a plant in Kent, UK was reconstituted as the WHO laboratories in Wales.
For this massive undertaking, Williams had a team of assistant set decorators, buyers and props persons. Throughout the film, key were: Assistant Set Decorators Sophia [Sophie] Chowdhury, Laura Marsh, Moni Kovacs [Hungary]; Prop Master Dennis Wiseman and his crews; head Buyer Charlotte Crosbie and art department assistant Alice Phelps.
Williams brought over SDSA Associate Member Lisa Goldsmith to serve as key assistant set decorator for the American scenes. Goldsmith had been living in the US recently, so Williams felt she would add “a fresh American eye” and would be able to shop for elements that couldn’t be readily found or created in the UK. “It’s great working with Jennifer,” Goldsmith relates. “She’s is very specific, very detailed and knows what she wants.”
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA The city square…
For the streets of Philadelphia, Goldsmith and Williams had a couple of containers shipped from Los Angeles, filled with particular street dressing items, which included American newspaper stands and mailboxes.
Goldsmith says, “I had traffic signal lights and street signs made in London, as they’re really good at manufacturing anything needed. They’re very film savvy over there. What can make it challenging is when you’re trying to be spot-on with all the American props that have to be replicated in London. With every detail, you have to make sure you that you not only have ‘American’, but that you have Philadelphia-style, not New York, nor Los Angeles. They are all slightly different… even the blue and white police barricades, for instance. So while there were some American items available in the prop hire companies/prop shops in London, most of it we had to have made. We were ordering stop signs, snow plow signs, taxi signs and more. Just figuring out the quantity needed for 3 miles of street dressing and crashes, and determining how many duplicates would be required for things that are going to be damaged, you can spend a lot of time just on the street dressing!”
Even with all the people and vehicles filling the streets and sidewalks, and obscuring much of the background, windows were dressed, shop signs and lights were hung. Williams’ attention to detail comes to fore here as well. Goldsmith reveals, “Everything that we put on the film had to be somewhat related to zombies…for example, a dentist’s office with a display of teeth. For a dress shop, we had mannequins with antlers on them, sort of a taxidermy Alexander McQueen-ish style. We wanted to show that death was around in inconspicuous ways. We also would show this on massive billboards we had produced. Everything we used was a little sign that led you to the feeling that something was wrong. It’s all about the subtle signs we showed the audience along the way. That was very important.”
From the huge street scenes, the action moves into another large scale set, an American super-store where people are desperately looting. “This was shot in a massive empty supermarket warehouse that had partial shelving, but the shelving obviously was English-sized. So the product we used had to be English, because if we brought in American products, they would be too big for the shelves,” Williams discloses. “So, we had to make English product look as American as possible and put whatever American product we had in the foreground on some American-type shelving Lisa found.”
“This set was also very challenging,” says Goldsmith, “We had to have massive amounts of American-looking food products in a very specific muted color palette, as we didn’t want it to look like a commercial, with pops of color. It’s all supposed to be gritty and grimy.”
“And then of course, it’s in the midst of destruction,” Williams notes. “Actually, it was one of the funniest moments, because we had dressed the whole thing out, with the shelves all full and it was a complete supermarket. And then I said to everyone, ‘Okay, ready, steady…loot!’ And everyone started just throwing stuff around, and I said, ‘No, no. This looks like an earthquake. Actually loot.’ Everyone grabbed a cart and start looting and scooping things off the shelves. And that’s how we did it,” she smiles. “It was quite fun.”
USS Harry Truman…
“This was another last minute change of location,” reveals Williams. “An extra challenge, but we made adjustments and it worked out well.” The British Navy vessel Argus, based at Cornwall, stood in for the American aircraft carrier. Filming the arrival sequence was quite a feat, featuring helicopters, 500 extras, dozens of military vehicles, hundreds of crates, miles of line and netting…and of course the huge, powerful and elegant ship itself…with set dressing modifications few would realize, but which once again added to the authenticity.
“We did a lot of research and we looked at the de-commissioned ships in London, what was on their ships, determining the differences between the British and American carriers. Even the junction boxes had to have the right detail…it has to be the right box, the right size,” Goldsmith emphasizes. “As Jennifer says, it’s got to make sense. So we went to salvage yards and nautical salvage yards, and kept searching to find the right ones. We did have some things brought over from ISS and we had a lot of the weaponry brought over from the States.”
Williams points out, “That is one of the things about working here in England, you get to do all the hand props as well as action props, it all comes under our umbrella.”
Camp Humphreys, South Korea - military camp… Gerry’s investigation takes him to all parts of the globe. He travels light, with only a small backpack. “Brad had a very distinctive idea of what he wanted his backpack to be. The bag went through several metamorphoses, and it turned out eventually that it was a Moochi bag that we used. It was interesting, quite fascinating…when you are doing hand props with your actors, it makes such a difference when you can have proper conversations with them.”
Gerry’s first stop is a military encampment in Korea, where he interviews a captured former CIA agent, semi-toothless, caught for selling arms to North Korea, who divulges that the entire population of that totalitarian country was required to have their teeth removed so that they could not bite and infect others. “There was a terrific bit of drama where he was pulling out his teeth one by one,” says Williams. She provided the bloody teeth, pliers and a physical map of the mouth. “Unfortunately, they had to let that go because it didn’t pass the PG 13, it was just too graphic.” However, a burned out infirmary and zombie detritus did pass muster! Surprisingly, part of the action escape scene includes bicycles. “I found some wonderful old bikes from this very eccentric bike man in Glasgow. They were lovely, old-fashioned sit-up bicycles,” she recalls. “Marc and Brad loved them.”
Jerusalem, Israel… Gerry’s hunt takes him from Korea to Israel where he witnesses first hand their indigenous, time-honored form of containment and protection…walls and barricades, some ancient, some new…all designed to keep their people safe. Until they don’t.
Shot in Malta, the sets, again huge in scope, involve a serpentine maze of buildings to reach the Mossad headquarters and a large, heavily guarded active marketplace. Williams describes, “The whole thing about the Israeli marketplace was that everyone felt safe there. It felt normal, and then all of a sudden the whole thing was overcome.” Williams and her team created the mammoth market…and the aftermath, as well as the over-flowing city center. “They were great sets to do, so many variables…I shopped in Morocco for quite a lot of that, and in Malta.” There was also a striking bus station and a huge, busy airfield.
Gerry rushes to the World Health Organization laboratory in Cardiff, Wales. The jetliner crashes in the hills nearby. “The jetliner was a build…a rather beautiful build, actually,” Williams mentions. “By the way, a note for anyone who watches the BBC series TOP GEAR, one of the locations we shot in the UK was the airfield where they do their test runs.”
A closed-down Pfizer plant in Kent became the WHO complex. “Pfizer was fantastic to us, all the people there were,” says Williams. “We supplemented quite a bit, but it all had to happen very quickly, because we had been holding out for another location. When that didn’t come through, we literally had 10 days to put this one together. Thank god for the people at Pfizer! They were amazing.”
“I think the most blood I put in a set dressing-wise was in the WHO,” she continues. “They just tracked [the camera] down one of the hallways…what Marc wanted was evidence that something was going on, something sinister. So we had fun. We did a lot of egg throwing, because we had loads of incubating egg trays and things like that. The most ominous was the autopsy gurney covered in blood…which couldn’t be red blood, it had to always be black blood. This is again PG 13 and the color of the blood is important.”
“Yes, we had zombie bodies along the streets and in small piles,” concedes Williams. “Those were dummies we had made. But most of it, especially the swarms, were CG. Our mandate was to convey life around the world and how people reacted to this apocalyptic situation.”
Foster observes, “Several times in the movie, Gerry says that movement is life and he urges people around him to keep moving. I like that phrase a lot, because ultimately in life we can’t stand still, we have to move with the current otherwise we’ll drown. But all the while he is observing and adjusting…as the zombies take over, he sees little signs and starts to put things together. He makes crucial decisions in the moment. He is chosen for this journey because he has the unique ability to be thrown into extremely dangerous, chaotic situations and survive.”
“Observing and adjusting…thrown into chaotic situations…making crucial decisions in the moment…” This could be the description of a top set decorator, and Williams does it with aplomb, wit and style.