With 'Zombieland,' D.C. Native Ruben Fleischer Turns His Directorial Debut Into a Hit

Actor Woody Harrelson, left, works on a scene with Fleischer on the set of
Actor Woody Harrelson, left, works on a scene with Fleischer on the set of "Zombieland," which has earned nearly $60 million since it opened Oct. 2. (Columbia Pictures)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009

It looks as if Washington native Ruben Fleischer manages to sneak in a little shout-out to his home town in the very first shot of "Zombieland," his directorial debut, which has stunned Hollywood by earning nearly $60 million since opening Oct. 2. With the Capitol looming in the background, what looks to be an undead congressional staffer -- a re-animated corpse in Brooks Brothers -- staggers toward a news camera before the shot blacks out.

"I wish I could take credit for that," Fleischer said recently from a film festival in Sitges, Spain. "Unfortunately, that was already in the script." So much for what could have been a hilarious allegory about the District's cannibalistic political culture. Instead, "Zombieland," which was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, turns out to be just plain hilarious, as Fleischer manages to keep the gore apolitical, the gross-outs appealing and, in between, the story surprisingly touching. (The film stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin.) But Fleischer allows that there's something symbolic at the core of why zombie movies -- be they dead serious or scathingly satirical -- continue to fascinate audiences.

"In a way, zombies are expressing anxieties that we have about ourselves as a people," said Fleischer, 34. As you would expect, the guy who made vampires seem so yesterday had a brainy reason zombies are so right now. "Originally, with the [George] Romero zombies, it was more about being a mindless member of a horde and not seeking individuality. But the more-modern zombie movies are more of a statement about our society, where there's a lot of anxiety about pandemics and viral diseases, and there's concern about our food supply and contamination and the way the environment is being threatened. It's just general anxiety about the future and what catastrophes could possibly happen."

Friends who knew Fleischer growing up in Washington might be surprised to learn that an over-the-top zombie comedy is how the budding filmmaker finally made his mark. Fleischer still evinces mild surprise that this is how he's making his big debut. He attended Lafayette Elementary and Georgetown Day School (his father is a physician and medical school professor at Georgetown; his brother, Lucas, works in new media at the Democratic National Committee). After majoring in history at Wesleyan University (where he didn't enroll in the school's prestigious film program), Fleischer moved to San Francisco, unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. "I ended up doing Web stuff at the very sort of genesis of the Internet," he explains, "working on Web sites for General Motors and Microsoft. In 1998, I got a job in L.A. doing some Web stuff, but the company, like most start-ups, quickly folded and I was stuck needing a job." He landed one as a production assistant on "Dawson's Creek," where he scored a priceless mentorship, working as writer Mike White's assistant. White later got Fleischer a gig as director Miguel Arteta's assistant on the 2000 movie "Chuck & Buck" (Fleischer also worked with Arteta on 2002's "The Good Girl"). It was while watching indie good-guys White and Arteta as they worked, Fleischer recalls, that he "first considered being a director myself."

Arteta remembers Fleischer's attitude on "Chuck & Buck." "He was very observant and very committed to making the movie happen, and always absorbing things like a sponge," he says. "By the time we did the second film, he was really acting as an ambassador for me with all the departments. His learning curve was spectacular."

Still, even with connections and on-the-job experience, Fleischer stuck to bootstrapping his way up the Hollywood ranks, directing obscure music videos and commercials that managed to make it to MTV and other outlets. "I did a $50 video" about San Francisco rapper Gold Chains, he recalls, "and then my budgets grew from $50 to $500 to $5,000." Along the way, he met skateboarder Rob Dyrdek and his friend Big Black Boykin, who became the protagonists of Fleischer's MTV reality show "Rob & Big" in 2006. And he picked up the odd jobs -- really odd, like filming behind-the-scenes footage for Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles on the "Borat" movie, which gave him a front-row seat at the, er, dress rehearsal for the notorious naked wrestling match. (Fleischer's early work can still be seen on his Web site, http://www.ruben.fm).

Arteta credits Fleischer's indefatigable work ethic for his newfound success. "A lot of people who want to make movies ask me, 'What can I do to be a director? Will you read my script?' " he says. "They always want somebody else to do something for them. My advice -- and no one's ever taken my advice other than Ruben -- is if you want to be a director, direct a movie. Cut it, finish it, and do one every month. You can get your own camera, get your friends to be in it, make a video about your dog and put some music to it. If you come back at the end of the year with 12 films, I promise you, people will be hiring you. Because you are a director. You've done it."

Fleischer, Arteta notes, did come back a year later with 12 films, "and one of them was a video about his dog. A really awesome video about his Dalmatian. And a half a year later, he was getting paid to do music videos and commercials."

Still, none of these rookie credits explains just how the bigs at Columbia Pictures decided that a smart, soft-spoken, self-described "nerd" from D.C. with a bunch of webby-telly credits to his name was just the guy to make "Zombieland." Fleischer still seems puzzled. "It was a huge leap of faith on their part to give me the job, but I was just very excited about it and had done a lot of preparation during the several interviews I had with various people to get the job," he says.

When Fleischer first got the script for "Zombieland," it was after another project he wanted to do had fallen apart, White recalls. "It was amazing how, through all of those years where he had been making anything he could, whether it was music videos or reality shows or the interstitial stuff he was doing on 'Borat,' he was preparing. He was totally ready to swing for the fences." For Fleischer's part, even though he wasn't a zombie-movie aficionado (he gave himself a crash course once he got the gig), he knew "Zombieland" was the right fit. "The cool thing about 'Zombieland' is that it's a combination of five genres at once," he notes. "It's a road movie, it's a buddy comedy, it's obviously a zombie movie, there's a lot of action in it and there's a little bit of a love story, too. So when I was thinking about my first film, I just really thought there was an opportunity to try a lot of different things and show what I could do."

Boy, does he. In "Zombieland," Fleischer oversaw the wanton destruction of a tacky trading-post gift shop, a slightly creepy amusement park, the town square of Newnan, Ga., and the actor Bill Murray, who signed on for a cameo just 36 hours before the cameras rolled in Atlanta. "It was a very last-minute thing," Fleischer says, explaining that another actor (reportedly Joe Pesci) dropped out without warning. "Luckily Woody offered to call his old friend Bill, and it's the most memorable part of the film."

White recalls the first test screening of "Zombieland," when it became clear that Fleischer had made a hit. Columbia Pictures chief "Amy Pascal was there and seeing the movie for first time," he says. "The studio executives were hopeful, but they weren't cashing their check yet. They were already talking up the movie, but with some caveats. And then we got in there with this crowd at the mall, and the people just went nuts for it. Absolutely nuts. It was just tickling. And I was just looking at Ruben [thinking], 'Now you're an overnight star.' But the long road to becoming an overnight star is something only people who've been in the trenches can know."

Fleischer theorizes that it's precisely the mash-up of genres and tones in "Zombieland" that accounts for its surprise success. Clearly, its core audience of zombie-movie fans made a difference, deeming the Fleischer flick worthy in a tradition defined by Romero and, more recently, "Shaun of the Dead." But between the splats and squishes, there's lots of genuinely funny verbal sparring and a sweet love story involving Eisenberg's and Stone's characters, making it appealing to a much wider audience.

"One thing I was always fighting against was the title 'Zombieland,' " Fleischer says. "Because I was worried that it would put women off. If you ask your girlfriend, 'Do you want to see "Zombieland"?,' she'd say no. But if you ask her if she wants to see the guy from 'Adventureland' and the actress from 'Superbad' and the kid from 'Little Miss Sunshine,' she'd say sure. It's managed to get beyond just being a zombie movie and crossed over into being a satisfying, entertaining film."

So satisfying and entertaining that the Hollywood Reporter wrote a giddy story about Fleischer last week (headline: "Helmer in Demand"), claiming his name "is suddenly on the lips of producers and execs all around town." Fleischer says offhandedly, "Oh, yeah, I haven't seen it." So is he really weighing whether to make one of Will Ferrell's next comedies, or Jonah Hill's "reboot" of "21 Jump Street"? The filmmaker is characteristically modest. "I have nothing lined up," he insists. "I'm just trying to read as much as I possibly can so I can make a good decision. They're all really cool projects. I guess it's just figuring out which one I can do the best with.

"I don't know," he says a little unsteadily before signing off. "It's a little overwhelming to have all this opportunity after so long not having it. I'm just trying to be really deliberate with the choice and make the right call. So I'm taking some time just to sort it all out, I guess."

There's always that D.C. political zombie movie that gets rewritten every term.

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