“World War Z,” a zombie film written by the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft (Max Brooks) and starring Brad Pitt opened in theaters today after a tumultuous series of filming experiences. First, there was a bidding war with Leonardo DeCaprio’s production company. Pitt’s 11-year-old Plan B company won the book rights in 2006 for $1 million. In the book, survivors of a zombie Apocalypse give first-person accounts of their experiences. That idea quickly went out the window, as did several screenwriters and production people.

Marc Forster, the Director of the film, was quoted in Vanity Fair June, 2013 issue saying, “We started shooting the thing before we locked down how it was going to end up, and it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.” [That’s a little like your 10-year-old, having just burned down the house, saying, “We wanted to light a candle to have a little bit of light, but it set fire to the curtains and burned the house down.”]

Since 2006, when Paramount optioned the book, four writers have been hired, an experienced producer and Oscar-winning visual effects artist (“Gladiator” helmsman John Nelson ) left, and an expensive 12-minute climactic Russian battle scene was rewritten, scaled down and reshot, moving the budget ever upward. (Sources say it probably cost at least $250 million to make and will need to make $400 million, worldwide, to break even). All this in the name of creating a new franchise for the studio, since Paramount lost its business partnerships with DreamWorks and DreamWorks Animation when Walt Disney bought Marvel in 2009.

Marc Forster, the 43-year-old German/Swiss director, seemed like an unlikely choice to helm a big budget over-the-top film. His previous credits were smaller films like “Finding Neverland,” and “Stranger than Fiction,” although he did have the dubious distinction of directing “Quantum of Solace,” a Bond film not held in high esteem.

First script submitted (by J. Michael Straczynski, well-regarded screenwriter of horror and science fiction scripts, known for TV’s “Babylon 5”) was rejected. Straczynski was quoted this way in the Vanity Fair article: “Marc wanted to make a big, huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge action pieces in it. If all you wanted to do was an empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?”

A good question.

The ending was eventually reshot to make the main thrust of the film focus on Brad Pitt’s desire to reunite with his family. Personally, the Russian ending originally planned sounded interesting. It was filmed in Red Square with the undead fighting an army of thousands of soldier slaves forced by the Russians to lop off the heads of the zombies with shovel-like weapons called lobos (short for “lobotomizers.”) I’m not giving anything away with that grim bit, because those scenes (12 minutes) ended up on the cutting room floor.

My very own “World War Z” poster from Opening Night.

Shooting began on June 20, 2011 in Malta (an island south of Sicily) and V.F. informs us that over 45 tons of equipment and props were brought in in 25 full shipping containers for the three-week shoot. As many as 1,500 people were on set some days. All sorts of logistical headaches followed with the person in charge eventually quoted this way, “The movie started out small, then grew into a monster,” and “We were feeding half the city.” (You will notice that the scenes shot AFTER the Israel sequence, set in the World Health Organization lab, are considerably scaled down in terms of how many people are involved and special effects costs.)

The first big action sequence of the plot begins with a Philadelphia scene (actually shot in Glasgow, Scotland, because it was cheaper) in which Pitt and family are caught in a car amongst a crowd menaced by zombies. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt’s character) is a hot-shot ex-troubleshooter for the U.N. who is lured back into service to help fight the plague of the undead by promises of safety for his family (Brad’s wife is played by “The Killing’s” female cop, Mereille Enos.)

First, Brad is off to North Korea taking along a 23-year-old specialist in epidemics who turns out to be particularly hapless. He accidentally offs himself early in the film, but not before pontificating about epidemics: “Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one’s better. Like all serial killers, she wants to get caught.” North Korea has met the challenge of the zombie invaders quite creatively, by pulling all the teeth out of 23 million people within 24 hours. (“Otherwise, they’re bitin’ everything like fat kids love Twix,” says a soldier who seems immune to the hordes.)

Israel recognized the zombie problem, becoming the first to know and the first to act. They built a Salvation Wall, but then fail to properly supervise the wall after it is built. Says the Israeli hot-shot Brad has come to consult, “The trouble with most people is that they don’t believe something can happen till it does.” It’s not long after making that prophetic statement that the wall defense develops major issues. (Ironic.)

The globe-trotting hero carries on, heading for the WHO (World Health Organization). This destination was added after the Israel sequences instead of the film‘s original Red Square Russian sequences, which were scrapped so that a more character-driven ending could be developed. Some of the scenes of Brad en route to WHO you’ve probably seen in trailers as an airplane sequence. Pitt does so much traveling that the movie almost becomes a giant game of “Where’s Waldo?” It was an exciting action-packed, suspense-filled game, for the most part, so carry on, Brad. Maybe plug a few plot holes (Salvation Wall supervision being one) and aim for the noggins of those fast-moving creatures. Plus, don’t forget to carry your weapon at all times. (Fireman’s axe: don’t leave home without it.)

The Balkans were not “berry, berry” good to Brad and company. The Hungarian Anti-Terrorist organization seized weapons meant for filming with claims that a crucial pin needed to be removed to render them harmless. Dede Gardner (Pitt production partner) said, “It is a very normal hiccup on a big production. Things like that happen every day.” The Hungarian Counter-terrorism unit did drop the case after four months, but, as Paramount spokesman Adam Goodman said of the Budapest finances, “When you are that deep in production and your budget has taken hits along the way, you put it back on the filmmakers and say, ‘You’ve got to absorb those hits and figure out how to make the best with what you have here.’” Therefore, underground prison factory scene (escape sequence for Pitt): out the window. Likewise, water gag with cold water dumped on zombies: ultimately not in film. It was cold enough filming, as it began at night about nine o’clock and the temperatures sank below freezing, with hundreds of extras pretending to fight with zombies that were added later via computer. As second-unit director Simon Crane is quoted in the Vanity Fair article, “We had 750 extras not used to being on a film set, fighting an imaginary opponent.”

The talk is that the first film was to be Number One in a trilogy. Hopefully, it hasn’t run out of steam right out of the gate. “World War Z” was suspenseful, scary, and exciting in 3D, and I’d still like to see those twelve minutes of Red Square film. I find the back-story regarding filming problems as interesting as the actual film. But any time they send Brad Pitt to my theater, in person, to hand out tee shirts (this actually happened in Chicago and elsewhere), count me in.

It’s an exciting film throughout, although it is interesting to watch the numbers (of extras) shrink as the film progresses, which does not in any way detract from the suspense the fairly predictable solution to the world’s zombie plague problem provides by film’s finale.

Kudos to the tooth-clacking zombie in the World Health Organization lab and let’s get this bad boy trilogy back on the road with better supervision/leadership in the future. Quote from Director Marc Forster (Vanity Fair, June issue), “You are having a meltdown while you are
working. So, I don’t usually know what is going on.” Then he added, “For me, it’s like, I had a good time on this film. I didn’t feel like it was a big drama. I feel like, yes, the ending didn’t work. Yes, we all thought it was going to work. Yes, we decided it’s not the right ending. Yes, we decided to change it and spend more money. Yes, it never happened to me before on any of my other movies. But I think this movie is more original and bigger and more special than I have ever done before.”