Case Study: World War Z‘s Rough Road to the Big Screen

Breaking down the lessons learned from a new exposé about the Brad Pitt movie

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Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

It’s no secret that World War Z — the  big-budget adaptation of Max Brooks’ 2006 zombie-horror bestseller — has been a troubled production. Over the past six months, reports have swirled around the Internet, describing last-minute rewrites and reshoots, as well as escalating tensions between producer-star Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster.

The June issue of Vanity Fair, on newsstands this week, has a compelling piece on the movie, which opens June 21. Read an excerpt of their exclusive here (or the whole thing in print)—particularly if you have any Hollywood aspirations. It’s a cautionary tale of how a movie that reportedly started with a budget of $150 million ends up costing up to an estimated $250 million. Here’s what we learned:

Know what movie you’re making. There was confusion from the beginning. The source material (written by the zombie-obsessed son of Mel Brooks) is an oral history of a global outbreak of the undead—an acclaimed book but hardly cinematic in structure. Pitt—who doesn’t comment in the VF story—reportedly loved the book’s themes enough to have his production company, Plan B, outbid Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company for film rights in 2006. But turning the book into a script required the services of no less than four different screenwriters. It took two writers to fashion Brooks’ sprawling oral history into a more conventional action-movie script with a central character; Pitt didn’t sign on to star until 2010.

And the confusion continued. When filming began in June 2011, the movie’s ending hadn’t been totally ironed out. Would Pitt be a family man or a zombie-slaughtering hero? How would it stay PG-13? And more importantly, could the ending be left open for a possible sequel? An entire action sequence, the movie’s climax, ended up getting cut and reshot, pushing the release date from December of 2012 to this summer and costing tens of millions of dollars.

(WATCHThe World War Z trailer)

Know how much you’re spending. It helps to not misplace millions of dollars if you want to keep a movie on budget. After shooting scenes in Malta (standing in for Israel) that involved nearly one thousand extras wearing complicated costumes—and an incident involving an unnamed actress who trashed her hotel room—someone packing up the set found purchase orders that had been stashed in a drawer, surprising producers with the news that the budget had been blown on just a small portion of the filming.

Know who’s in charge. Perhaps the problem was lack of leadership: though nobody comes out and says it, a theme of Vanity Fair‘s interviews is that nobody ever—at least not until deadlines approached—stepped in and and assumed command of the out-of-control production. Pitt’s Plan B doesn’t have a huge amount of experience with movies on the scale of World War Z (one of their biggest movies to date is Eat Pray Love). The director, Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace), seemed to clash with many of the crew members. And, in a fumble that was perhaps nobody’s fault but provided plenty of bad publicity for the movie, an October 2011 shoot in Budapest ran into problems when the guns needed for the action sequence were raided by a Hungarian SWAT team.

World War Z might yet be a huge hit—VF estimates that it needs to make $400 million to break even—but what went on before its release is certainly something a producer would not want to repeat. Future zombie filmmakers of the world: take note.