Zombieland is coming back from the dead. After a failed pilot, a successful film, and a failed film sequel, Amazon announced this morning it has ordered a pilot for the anticipated series. That pilot, which was shot in Atlanta over 10 days in late February and early March, will premiere on Amazon Instant in mid-April.
"The show picks up two weeks after the movie — so they are leaving Los Angeles," the project's writer Paul Wernick explained in an interview today, along with his partner Rhett Reese. "We think of the movie as the pilot episode and, now that we're doing a series, we're hitting the road, on Amazon, in little half-hour movies."
"There is a serialized nature to it, for sure," Wernick said. "The characters are going to have arcs and develop over the course of seasons, but we do feel like they are little self-contained half-hour movies."
Reese and Wernick point to Friday Night Lights, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and M*A*S*H* as examples of movies that have made the film-to-television transition successfully — but Reese and Wernick said they don't exactly think of it as an adaptation, because Zombieland was originally conceptualized as show, rather than a film, back in 2005.
"We sold it to CBS, and they ended up not shooting it, which was probably the greatest blessing in disguise of our careers," Reese said. "At the time we were disappointed — but had they shot it, and had it not made the air, it would have died right then. And instead it kind of transformed into a movie."
When they pitched it, there had never been a zombie show — and network executives weren't convinced a zombie show would really work. Happily for them, in the intervening time, a little show called The Walking Dead has changed that thinking.
Reese and Wernick say they have never actually watched the show. "The reason that we have not watched it is because we were intending to do our own thing, and we didn't want to have our minds too cluttered with what they are up to," Reese said.
"They are two very, very different shows," Wernick said. "I think Walking Dead, not having seen it but knowing about it, is a little bit more dark and dour, and the threat is greater — and obviously, they are not playing it for laughs and we are entirely playing it for laughs."
The Zombieland pilot script is adapted from the unfilmed sequel to the film. Pages from a Zombieland audition script that were leaked online sparked speculation about what a Zombieland series would have in store for fans — like the romance between Columbus and Wichita. The writers were wary of saying too much, but would confirm, "We're picking up where the movie left off" — i.e., with the couple's first kiss.
A few things that will not be the same as the film, though, are the actors playing those roles. All four of the main characters have been recast.
Instead of Woody Harrelson, shotgun-toting Tallahassee will be played by Kirk Ward. Columbus, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in the film, will be played by Tyler Ross; Emma Stone's Wichita will be played by Maiara Walsh; and Izabela Vidovic plays Little Rock (Abagail Breslin in the film).
"No one is ever going to forget the performances Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin gave the world," Reese said. The important thing to the two of them when auditioning for the show, he said, was the idea that "we weren't auditioning actors to play other actors, we were auditioning actors to play characters."
"We found really, really great actors to fill those roles," Wernick added.
The other big change, of course, other than the fact that it would be a series rather than a film is that it will be a series on Amazon.
Reese and Wernick claim to be excited about the possibilities of debuting on the site. "We obviously loved the opportunity to have the creative flexibility that Amazon has given us to do it — you know, we can swear and show blood and violence and do all of the stuff that we couldn't otherwise do on network or basic cable television," Wernick explained. "It really allows us to hit that exact tone of the movie."
The Zombieland series will join Amazon's growing roster, which at this point boasts a mix of established shows (Downton Abbey, Justified, and The Good Wife) and original shows, which include six comedy pilots chosen from an open call last year and six children's shows.
In the announcement this morning, Amazon explained that the pilot for Zombieland, like the pilots for six other original comedies commissioned by the company, will be made available for free on Amazon. After they are released, viewers will review the shows on the site. In an American Idol–like twist, Amazon will use that information to decide which pilots to develop into full-season productions, the company explained in a press release this morning.
The six comedy pilots already scheduled to appear on Amazon include Alpha House from Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau; musical comedy Browsers from Daily Show's David Javerbaum and Don Scardino (late of 30 Rock); animated series Dark Minions, courtesy of Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie (Stuart and Kripke from The Big Bang Theory); Onion News Empire from the good folks at The Onion; Kristen Schaal's Supanatural; and Those Who Can't, produced by Denver-based comedy troupe the Grawlix, whose work you have seen on Funny or Die.