Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Set Visit: Cast and Crew Talk Kicking Ass!

The grey sky hangs dull overhead. Rainwater flows along drains and falls from above as the public huddle in the nearest alcoves. Others stagger oddly in the wet… uncoordinated and careless amongst the crowds.

All in all, it’s a pretty standard November afternoon in Great Britain as we prepare to head from London to the beautiful rural village of Old Basing.

Once there, the drab mood delivered by the weather quickly lifts amidst the bustling activity on director Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies set.

Based on the hit book – itself a reworking of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice by author Seth Grahame-Smith – the film takes Austen’s classic tale of social drama and romance, and transports it into a world plagued by the living dead.

Over the next few hours, we’re given the chance to see filming taking place, gingerly walk our way across a set strewn with decapitated corpses, severed limbs and gory puddles, and talk to cast and crew.

What did we find out? Well, loosen your corset and pull up a pew… this is gonna be a long one…

Anyone familiar with the source material (whether Austen’s original novel or the … and Zombies variant) will know what, at its core, Pride and Prejudice is all about – the sisters Bennet, as they navigate the unsteady world of high-class social politics, morality and romance… especially the particularly rocky one between second eldest Bennet daughter Elizabeth and the often bullish Mr. Darcy.

This hasn’t changed. What has is the fact that the drama is now set 70 years after a viral pandemic left Britain’s lands coated with the walking dead. Society now functions behind defensive lines, and travelling to the Far East to learn the art of combat is the norm for those in high places. In fact, it’s a sign of social standing – the wealthiest train in Japan, while those of lesser standing are relegated to the teachings of China.

We’re told that the film spent around 5 years in development hell, finding various industry players attached and detached – Natalie Portman was once set to star, while David O. Russell penned a draft of the script – but each iteration failed to truly come together. That is, until Burr Steers got his hands on it.

Speaking with the director, he tells us, “The other versions were really broad, and my mantra was that the big wink of the movie was not to wink… it was to play it straight.

“It’s got humour, yeah, but it’s not like sketch [comedy]. The idea was to create this alternate world where this pandemic is taking place, and to stage Pride and Prejudice in it. Ultimately it’s absurd, but you play it straight while hitting the punch lines. The themes that [Austen] had, of class and money… and also young women being empowered were themes that we kept in this.”

We’ll get to the powerful young women in a bit, but first, we sit down with their leading men, Douglas Booth, who plays Mr. Bingley, and Sam Riley, the legendary Mr. Darcy. Booth echoes Burr’s thoughts on the tonality of the film, saying, “Why this works in my opinion is that there’s no winking at the camera and that sort of stuff. How would [these people] cope in those situations? They’re trying to maintain their way of life. All their mannerisms, all their pomp… they’re trying to cling to that… it’s hilarious to see how they survive and all of the zombie defences. It’s really clever how they merge that world.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

“Seeing how these people try to survive in a world like this… this is just how people are living and surviving, and that’s what’s interesting, and what I find engaging. After 70 years of this plague, how people are getting on.

“The tone is the most important thing in this film. I think Burr has a really great understanding of that. David O Russell wrote the original script, and I think one of the things Burr did is that he went back to Austen… all her original texts, all her original letters… and then put back in some beats [from those].

“I watched the original Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth, with my mum when I was much younger. I deliberately didn’t go back to it [in preparation for the role]. I think avoiding is better for me… why would you go in with someone else’s work subconsciously printed in the back of your mind? It’s going to be fresh and new and different… especially with the zombies.”

With martial arts and blade-based combat playing a major part in the story, we ask Booth about his character’s fighting abilities. Is he one to get his hands dirty when it comes to slaying the undead? Not so, he reveals: “My character isn’t the best fighter. The good thing is, my future wife is fucking great, and so is my best mate Darcy, so they keep me protected. I don’t get to kill too many zombies. I often get to look at people killing zombies and be quite impressed at their skill… and quite useless myself.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

“Bingley’s been very mollycoddled his whole life. He’s very privileged. He has an amazing heart… he wants to be having the most fun.”

Still, Booth is very admiring of his female counterparts – not only their characters, but the actresses themselves, who take the lion’s share of the action sequences while decked out in full period garb. He says, “The costumes aren’t particularly practical in any aspect of fighting, he laments, “but ask the girls – they’re in full corsets! I don’t know how they’re doing some of the fighting stuff!

“I think the Bennet sisters are extraordinary. They aren’t necessarily the norm. There are scenes addressing that… with what is appropriate for a woman and what isn’t. They deal with all of the issues of the day in terms of what women should and shouldn’t be doing, what men should and shouldn’t be doing.

“It addresses women’s struggles and oppression… and that gives them avenue to fight for women’s rights and who they are… the Bennet sisters are at the forefront of that, and that’s why I think you grow to love them as characters.”

Sam Riley’s take on the Darcy character, one that’s imprinted in everyone’s minds by Colin Firth’s performance in the BBC’s classic series, seems like a surprising departure from what you may expect. Riley explains, “Essentially, he’s Mr. Darcy – exactly the same issues and pride and repression as the Jane Austen novel, but he is [also] a zombie killing expert… particularly resolute in his hatred of them and his want to have them all wiped out. In the beginning he comes into this room, and everyone is terrified of him because he’s such a militant bastard. He’s not very popular, but he’s rich, so…

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

“He’s oddly attracted… he doesn’t want to like Liz Bennet, but she stirs something [in him]. And when [he sees] how good she is at kicking ass… it does something to Darcy’s insides.”

When asked about his particular approach to the character, and what he believes he’s personally bringing to the role, Riley quips, “I don’t really think anybody wants to see another Pride and Prejudice, but this way I get to play Darcy but at the same time fulfil my other ambitions of being an action hero. I think that like so many people have played Hamlet or something, everybody brings their own personality to any character.

“Other than the leather coat, or the katana, I’m bringing the fact that he’s the best zombie killer. It’s impossible – I’ve been trying to explain it to my grandmother for like three weeks! ‘Are you a zombie?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is a zombie?’… I now just tell people I’m doing Pride and Prejudice (laughs).

“I’m taking a mix of things like Colin Firth, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Sean Connery in Dr. No… and the voice of James Mason.”

Riley embraces the inherent absurdity of the setting, and his leather coat-wearing, sword-swinging Mr. Darcy, but still appears to be very much in tune with the intentions of the script and his director. “It’s a mix… we’re trying to avoid it being too camp. We want people to feel the romantic elements of it and believe that this is 17-whatever and society is more or less unchanged, because the British like to pretend things aren’t happening around them, but there’s this horror going on that people have become accustomed to as well.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

“[The wealthy] have been trained enough to protect themselves, and the army is now used primarily to deal with the zombies. It’s fucking ridiculous… but that’s why I really liked it. I read the first 15 pages – and usually that can be all you need to read to know whether you want to carry on reading or not… and the way Darcy is introduced seemed like it was either going to be a disaster or a lot of fun. I wanted to be involved either way!”

Moving on to the ass-kicking ladies themselves – the Bennet sisters – we speak to Bella Heathcote, who finds herself landed in the role of eldest sister Jane Bennet. Of her part, she says, “The thing I love about Jane is that she is optimistic without being naive. She’s the eldest of the sisters, and aware of that degree of responsibility. Unlike Liz, she chooses to see the best in people.

“It’s interesting, because I think she takes it more personally, or is more affected by the killings than maybe some of the other sisters are. It’s not [too] intimidating, because I’m obsessed with the BBC version and the novel… so it’s nice to have something else to make it feel different, and not like I’m trying to reach that [level].”

Still, it sounds as though being one of the strongest ladies on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies screen is making for a great experience for Heathcote, as she laughs, “It’s so fun being the girl rescuing the boy, I have to say! I think I get to rescue [Mr. Bingley] at least once, which is just fantastic for my ego.” And being such an admittedly huge fan of Austen’s novel, we ask Heathcote whether this new experience will have any effect on that enjoyment. Will she ever be able to read Austen’s work the same way again? “Again and again and again and again. I love it,” she smiles. It seems like this particular Austen fan is right where she belongs.

Next up is Millie Brady, who talks of her character, the bookish Mary Bennet, with a degree of warmth. “The script gives her the opportunity to have a bit more pizzang about her,” Brady explains. “She’s still that bookish Mary that everyone knows, but then she gets down to business. She’s funny and sassy, and it’s good that you’re not expecting it because she’ll just come out of nowhere and in fight scenes gets really aggressive. It’s great to have those differences… to go from the Mary that everyone knows in the original book and then to have that complete switch where you go to another dimension.

Pride and Prejudice and zombies

“She’s often known in the original book as the sister who doesn’t ever get the chance to shine, but in this one she does. She’s funny, and she’s comfortable with how she is, being a bit of a bookworm. There’s more of an air of confidence about her, but she’s still goofy and loveable. It’s been nice to get that side of her.”

Talking of the action sequences and weapon-swinging combat, Brady seems to be having the time of her life as she enthusiastically explains how the action sequences relate to her and her co-stars’ characters: “I’ve got my daggers. I’m all for the dagger business. We’ve all got our different weapons. Bella snaps off a candlestick [for example]. We’ve all got our different styles. Bella is very elegant – she’s quite reserved but very beautiful when she does it. Ellie is so energetic, and Sookie is straight in there and quite deadpan and I’m very aggressive. Lily’s very aggressive as well.

“Thinking about how my character would do it, I wanted it to be a big contrast to how she [normally] is. You find that a lot with people, if they’re quite introverted and they’ve often got something that they’re very passionate about or that they feel quite aggressive about, and I think this would be something that she’d take no rubbish with… she’d just go for it. It’s great to have the Mary that we all know and just let her go… have her strutting through with blood covered knives. It’s really, really fun.

“I get so aggressive – at the end of yesterday I had no voice whatsoever because we were just screaming. This was our first big fight… I was fighting these two six foot two men, and I’d never seen them before and they had blood everywhere. So when they’re running towards you, you’re just like (battle cry)! (laughs)

“You should have been here yesterday. We came off the scene… Ellie had gone through one of the stunt performers’ shirts and her knife was bent at a 90 degree angle! The stunt people are so good. They’re amazing at reacting to something. I had to stab this guy and grab his head and pull him over – and he didn’t know what was coming, but they just have to react. It’s quite rare that we can hurt them, because they’re just so good at seeing where it’s going and getting out of the way and doing a reaction. They’re so amazing.

“We couldn’t tell [who was who] when people are made up. We could not tell who was real, and I was like ‘Should I just put my foot on this dummy’s neck?’ and this man [on the floor] just goes ‘Well, I mean I like the view, but…’ (laughs)”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Front and centre of the sisters is Lily James’ Elizabeth Bennet, whose tumultuous romance with Mr. Darcy is one that has lasted the literary ages. Surprisingly, despite being no stranger to period drama (having held a place on television’s acclaimed Downton Abbey, James had never been exposed to Austen’s novel prior to receiving the script for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. “No, I hadn’t heard of it, in fact,” she admits. “When I saw the title I thought ‘What the hell is this?’… and then I read the script, which I thought was really brilliant and funny.

“Then I read the book. I [actually] read it in two or three days on the set of Downton [Abbey] and was pissing everyone off because I had Pride and Prejudice and Zombies up, but I thought the book was just brilliant. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I think that period drama just needs zombies! (laughs)”

Given the film’s propensity for translating Austen’s battles of words and wit to ones of clashing metal and flying fists, James has much to say of the physicality of the role. “It’s been really good getting fit, and working with the stunt guys on this has been awesome. I feel like I could get into some fights now and be a little more victorious!” she declares. “Liz Bennet is a dagger/sword ninja. I always fight with two – but she has a dagger on her at all times. I think we always have a weapon because there could be a zombie at any moment.

“In the marriage proposal [scene] I get to hit [Sam Riley]. I throw books at him. Sam was… it was like The Matrix. He dodged the books. It was really flukey, but it looked so good. Yeah, I’m getting to let out all my pent up rage in this film! (laughs)

“I haven’t got any injuries, but I’ve definitely injured other people, like poor Sam. We had the proposal scene, where suddenly I start beating the shit out of him and I just get sucked away in the moment. Even though they’re plastic swords, they really hurt if you jab them at someone. To be fair, though, I had bruises all up my arm after that, and I was kicking him in the shin and really near his face so when we were rehearsing I was [thinking] I just can’t give him a black eye because we won’t be able to shoot! (laughs)”

The hottest topic of the day for Dread Central was, naturally, the film’s approach to the zombies. It’s no secret that a PG-13 rating was on the cards from day one, but how did director Steers and his effects team approach such a restriction for a film that so openly advertises violent fisticuffs and the gruesome, brain-eating walking dead? Effects supervisor Chris Reynolds stepped in to tell us all about it.

“It’s quite difficult to do something completely different because there’s been so many zombie films done before,” he says. “What really differentiates it from any other film is the fact that it’s period zombies. We’ve concentrated on creating looks that go with the costumes and the hair styles of the period.

“It’s like an infection, so when they get bitten it’s like a disease that spreads through them… and there are two types. It’s one infection, but if they’re eating pig brains, the infection doesn’t spread very quickly. If they’re eating human brains, the decomposition progresses rapidly, so there’s a differentiation between two types of zombie – the pig brain-eating ones, and the human brain-eating ones.

“We are sticking to the general rules of skin falling off, bodies rotting, diseased looking, goopy, bloody zombie look… [but] we’re aiming for a PG-13, so I don’t think there’s any tearing of flesh and chomping down on bone and muscle, Walking Dead style. It’s a bit more implied… a creepy look rather than out-and-out gore. A lot of it will be fleeting glimpses and slightly off screen.

“We do have full-on falling apart flesh and bits of cheekbone and jaw line showing through skin that’s fallen off… bodies with heads chopped off and everything else. I think it’s the way it’s filmed really, [so that] you can get away with it.”

Steers paints a similar picture of his zombie presentation, and when asked specifically about the comedic aspects of the film and whether they will affect the undead antagonists, he’s quick to shoot down any notion that they’re played for laughs. “They’re frightening. The whole idea is that you’re afraid of them – that they’re a threat,” he assures us. “My idea was to do everything as well as I possibly could. Do a zombie movie as well as I possibly could and do Pride and Prejudice as well as I possibly could. Why not [do that]?!

“One of the big influences on this for me was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Having them see themselves as a race that was competitive with the human race. To have them be more cognisant, more formidable. They’re not just wandering around waiting to be decapitated.

“The idea is that it’s a disease and there are different stages. You’d be infected, and then you’d become a full-blown zombie and start deteriorating. And then there are crypto-zombies, people who haven’t gone fully over and are sort of in between. It’s evolved… and the ones that are able to maintain more of their human intelligence are the ones who are becoming the leaders amongst the zombies.

“As far as not having spurting blood, I’ve avoided that. When you suggest violence, it’s so much more frightening than showing everything – you become so desensitised to it when you see it. I still think one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen recently in a movie is in The Proposition, where Danny Huston stomps the guy’s head, and that’s totally off camera… you just hear the sound effect but it’s worse than any graphic shot I’ve seen recently.”

Given the amount of work that’s gone into creating this crazy new world, Steers appears rightfully attached to the property and its future potential. He speaks of the enjoyable challenge of translating Austen’s words into fists, saying “One of the books that I picked up was a book on game theory that was based on Jane Austen and the way she designed her scenes almost like sparring matches – punch, counter-punch – and you see it within it… all of her stuff is brilliantly constructed. [Then we] do it literally, to tie those in so that all of the violence in it is character based… so you don’t have these disconnected, arbitrary action scenes.

“[The cast] all went through training before we [started shooting]. And again, the idea that the action would be character-based and would come out of who they were, and through the model of Seven Samurai… where each of their fighting styles came out of establishing who each character was. And they’re really doing it. You’ll see that they’re doing their action in it, and they love it – they’re really badass young actresses.

“That was the challenge, and the fun thing to do – to create this coherent world. England was in Asia at this point, missionaries going to China and Japan, bringing back tea and gunpowder and all these things that were Asian that became very English – and the idea [is] that they’d bring back martial arts as well.”

Given that, from all appearances so far, this challenge has been ably met, the possibility of sequels or an ongoing franchise comes up. Steers is definitely up for the idea, telling us, “It was something I thought of… because the things I’ve set up haven’t been [completely] resolved. Pride and Prejudice resolves, but the other issues haven’t been resolved.

“The great thing about this… is the idea that you can take these great characters and take them on to different stories, different adventures. They’re fantastic characters.”

Yet, there’s a definite cloud that hangs over Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – one that naturally can’t be avoided with such a wild genre mash-up: demographics. Can this truly hit home with a certain audience, or could it actually, in fact, be the crossover hit of the year?

“I’m trying to make it as well as I can, but I’m aware of the demographic that each genre brings in… but I’m not pandering. I’m doing this as well as I can in both genres,” says Steers. Meanwhile, Sam Riley believes that “There could end up being a lot of boys that would never dream of watching Pride and Prejudice finding themselves sitting through a version of it… and enjoying it as Pride and Prejudice while seeing, you know, young lovelies tearin’ it up.”

Finally, Douglas Booth covers the crossover potential in his own humorous way with his wish: “I really hope some grannies wander in and don’t know. They don’t bother quite reading to the end of the showing and go ‘Oh, Pride and Prejudice, let’s go and see this!’… and get the shock of their lives!”

Us too, Douglas. Us too. We shall indeed see when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies bursts into theatres across the US on February 5, and the UK on February 11. Until then, stay sharp!

A zombie outbreak has fallen upon the land in this reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England. Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) is a master of martial arts and weaponry and the handsome Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) is a fierce zombie killer, yet the epitome of upper class prejudice. As the zombie outbreak intensifies, they must swallow their pride and join forces on the blood-soaked battlefield in order to conquer the undead once and for all.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies UK

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Gareth Jones

Copywriter and critic sporting a lifelong obsession with all things horror. A little bit sane.

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