Why it took 10 years to get a 'Zombieland' sequel

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Tallahasse (Woody Harrelson) in Columbia Pictures' ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP.
Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Tallahasse (Woody Harrelson) in Zombieland: Double Tap. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

When you think back on it, Zombieland — the zom-com about a ragtag foursome (Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin) that wages war against the undead as they road trip their way around post-apocalyptic America — certainly feels like a cult classic.

But that would be underselling the film’s success; after all, cult classics don't generally pull in more than $100 million (£82 million) worldwide during their theatrical run.

Also, cult classics don't typically generate sequels. Now, after years of speculation, and almost exactly a decade after the release of the original, Zombieland: Double Tap will blast its way onto big screens.

As the highly anticipated sequel was in the final stages of post-production, Double Tap director Ruben Fleischer, who made his filmmaking debut with the 2009 original, welcomed Yahoo into his edit bay on Sony's lot in Culver City, California.

Here are five things we learned:

The sequel wasn’t planned to release around the original’s 10-year anniversary, it just worked out that way

Early marketing for Zombieland: Double Tap leaned into the neatly symmetrical return of Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Little Rock (Breslin) and Wichita (Stone) by premiering new posters alongside the older ones with that hashtag of short-lived popularity, #10YearChallenge. But according to Fleischer, Sony Pictures ordered up a sequel almost immediately after the original proved a sleeper hit, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) swiftly obliged with a new script.

"But it kind of wasn't quite what it wanted to be," said Fleischer. "It didn't miss the mark, it just wasn't spiritually the appropriate sequel. And I'd only made that movie so I wanted to try other stuff. And you know, Emma and Jesse went onto their newfound success. And it just wasn't quite the right time."

Fleischer went on to helm the action-comedy 30 Minutes or Less (2011), the Ryan Gosling-Sean Penn drama Gangster Squad (2013), and 2018's antihero mega-hit Venom (2018), while Eisenberg and Stone did indeed see their careers buoyed by more commercial hits and Academy Awards attention.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 10:   (L-R) Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, and Ruben Fleischer attend the European Premiere for 'Zombieland' at the 42nd Sitges Film Festival on October 10, 2009 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Robert Marquardt/WireImage)
Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, and Ruben Fleischer attend the European Premiere for 'Zombieland', 2009. (Robert Marquardt/WireImage)

"Some time after Gangster Squad, after I'd made a couple other movies, I was like, 'In retrospect that Zombieland experience was about as good as it can get, both between the cast and the world of the movie and the way it was received. I was like, 'We should probably do another Zombieland.'"

So this time — "about four or five years ago" — it was Fleischer who approached Sony, and the studio was once again on board for a follow-up. With Reese and Wernick tied up with Deadpool, they brought on Dave Callaham to write the original story, with Reese and Wernick eventually sharing writing credit on future drafts.

"It took a while just to get the script right," Fleischer said. "And Woody especially was very exacting to make sure that we were all starting in a place that we felt very confident in. He said of all the movies he's made, Zombieland is kind of the one that people talk to him the most about. So he felt a real responsibility to the fans that if we're gonna do it, it's gotta be great. So he didn't want to proceed until he felt super confident in the script. We got a great draft, and then it was just a matter of scheduling."

With Fleischer still on Venom at the time, and his four principals "spread all over the four corners," they eventually locked in January 2019 as start of production. "It was almost 10 years to the day of when we started the first one," Fleischer continued. "And then it's just been a race to get it all cut and edited and the visual effects done in order to put it out in October."

Director Ruben Fleischer (left) and Woody Harrelson on the set of Columbia Pictures' comedy ZOMBIELAND.
Director Ruben Fleischer (left) and Woody Harrelson on the set of Columbia Pictures' comedy ZOMBIELAND.

Fleischer almost never made the first Zombieland movie

"When I first read it, I passed because I was like, 'I'm not a zombie fan, I don’t really understand that world,'" admitted Fleischer, who came from a background in comedy and worked on Between Two Ferns and Jimmy Kimmel Live! prior to making his feature debut.

"And then my agent was like, 'Well, just figure out a way you can get your head around it because no one else is offering you a movie, so see if you can't go chase this one down.' And then I realised it's basically Vacation with zombies. It's about a family on a road trip and the kind of classic road trip movies, whether it's The Sure Thing or It Happened One Night or Blues Brothers or Midnight Run. That's something that I know and love very well. So similar with this one, it has that character-based comedy in a road format. Fun stops along the way."

It was important to Fleischer, then, not to depart tonally from the first film. "I think it's a comedy first and everything else second," he said. "It's a character-based, grounded comedy."

Double Tap captures the spirit of the first film, while adding a slew of new characters

Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) in  Columbia Pictures' ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP
Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) in Columbia Pictures' ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP

Fittingly, the sequel opens 10 years after the events of the first film, with the zombie-killing crew now taking up luxurious residence in The White House (a setting that, as evidenced by one scene he showed us, allowed Fleischer to do his best West Wing-style Sorkin Walk-and-Talk impression). Sisters Little Rock (Breslin) and Wichita (Stone) have clearly become bored by their not-so-new environs, however, and when they take off, Columbus enters into a new relationship with the dim-witted Madison (Zooey Deutch, primed to be the film's biggest scene-stealer), who's been living in a freezer in the mall.

A desperate Wichita later returns, though, in need of help finding her younger sister, who's taken off with a guy from a hippie commune (Avan Jogia's Berkeley). This leads them on an all-new road trip, which includes a stop at the Hound Dog Hotel, a makeshift Elvis Presley museum lorded over by the tough-as-nails Nevada (Rosario Dawson). Other new characters include the aptly named Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch).

"It's definitely just as funny," Fleischer said. "I think it might even be funnier. And the action [has] bigger stakes. And the world's bigger with all these new characters that we meet and the locations, whether it's the White House or this Hound Dog Hotel or the Babylon Commune, we really tried to elevate it. And with the action as well we've elevated it a lot. And I've just learned so much as a filmmaker in the 10 years since we did the first one… This is now my fifth movie and I just had a lot more to bring to the table."

The production felt like a family reunion for Fleischer and cast

Fleischer clearly connected with the actors from the first movie. He'd go on to cast Eisenberg in 30 Minutes or Less, Stone in Gangster Squad, and Harrelson (albeit a setup cameo role) in Venom. And they bonded amongst each other as well, which made a sequel all the more appealing. "They all really wanted to do it," the director said. "I think they had such a great experience on the first one, they've each told me separately it was for them just a great memory and one of their favourite experiences making a movie. And obviously they've all gone on to lots of great things since that time but we all have a real nostalgia. Especially for Emma and Jesse and me, it was before things kind of changed.

Tallhassee (Woody Harrelson), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg),  and Wichita (Emma Stone) in Columbia Pictures' ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP.
Tallhassee (Woody Harrelson), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), and Wichita (Emma Stone) in Columbia Pictures' ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP.

"We've all stayed together. Woody and Jesse did Now You See Me movies so they've been together, and I know Woody and Emma have stayed really close and hang out a bunch, so we're all really close. And then people like Luke Wilson, he's a good friend of Woody's, or Rosario was in Seven Pounds with [Harrelson], so we brought people in that felt like they'd be good spiritual fits.

“So we tried to like maintain that same spirit of just a great experience and I think it informs the movie. Because we truly did have so much fun making it together and I think you can feel that when you watch them. The chemistry among those people is something that you can't manufacture. It's just real. You see it, it feels like a family when you watch it."

Fleischer sees it as a positive that Double Tap follows 10 seasons of The Walking Dead

Make no mistake: The first Zombieland played a major role in the most recent rebirth of the zombie genre. When the first film opened, AMC's future hit The Walking Dead hadn't yet aired. Now it's going on its 10th season, and also spurred a spin-off (Fear the Walking Dead), while other zombie-related fare (like Jim Jarmusch's June release The Dead Don't Die) is practically as common as the rom-com.

"I actually think that works to our benefit, because I think perhaps zombies had a bit of a stigma in the past. It felt like a niche genre," Fleischer said. "But I think The Walking Dead proved that it can have a real mass appeal. So hopefully people who come for the sequel who might be predisposed to zombies can appreciate it's just entertainment at the end of the day. And zombies are kind of the window dressing.

“And also just in those 10 years, theatrically it did well but probably the majority of people who have seen Zombieland saw it either on TV or DVD… think the majority of people who've seen Zombieland didn't see it in the theatres. So I think our audience has grown a lot, too."

Almost like a cult classic.

Zombieland: Double Tap opens 18 October 18.