Ruben Fleischer began laying the groundwork for his film making career while working as an assistant for Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl). It was there where he began to see what life behind the camera was all about and it was these experiences that began to fan his creative flames. Fleischer threw caution to the wind and spent the next two years experimenting with various low budget music videos and short films to develop his skill set. It didn’t take long for people to take notice of his considerable talents and things quickly snowballed for the young director. He poured his heart and soul into his work and each project led to something bigger — bigger commercials, bigger videos, bigger budgets. It wouldn’t be long before Hollywood knocked on his door.
While Fleischer may have not set out to become a director initially, there is little doubt that he made a huge impact on the cinematic landscape in 2009. His directorial debut, Zombieland featured Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as survivors in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by flesh-eating zombies. The refreshingly different, delicately balanced mix of comedy and horror became an instant hit with audiences and critics alike. No small feat for a first time director!
Icon Vs. Icon‘s Jason Price recently caught up with Ruben Fleischer to discuss his past, his experiences while on the set of Zombieland, the status of the highly anticipated sequel, his work with Funny or Die and what lies in store for this amazing filmmaker in the months to come!
Where did you grow up and how did you get involved with the entertainment industry?
I grew up in Washington, DC. I went to college in Connecticut and then I moved out to San Fransisco after college. Actually, I didn’t know why I moved to San Fransisco. I ended up doing a bunch of web stuff, just because that was the industry at the time, this was 1996. It was kinda the beginning of the Internet, as we know it now. I lived there for a couple of years and then I moved down to Los Angeles for a web job, which quickly ended. I was out of work and broke! I needed a job and I got one being a production assistant on the television show called ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ mainly because I needed a job, not because of any grand ambitions for Hollywood. If you are here and you can get a quick job as a production assistant, it’s a good way to go. I took the job and got to work with a guy by the name of Mike White. He kinda became my mentor. He went on to write and star in a movie called ‘Chuck & Buck’. He got me a job being the assistant to the director of that film. It was my first real taste of production, film making, cameras, lights or anything else.
Who were some of the influences that you looked to as you came into the industry?
When I started directing my own stuff, the path I took was doing music videos, so Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer and Mark Romanek were my music video influences. Once I started doing more narrative stuff and doing comedy, I would say my influences were more along the lines of the classic 80s movies directors that I grew up on like John Hughes, John Landis, Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis. They were big influences.
What was it about ‘Zombieland’ that jumped out at you and made you want to tackle this as your first feature film?
Honestly, at first I wasn’t too sure about the zombie component of the movie, because growing up, I wasn’t a huge zombie fan. I wasn’t a huge genre fan but I just loved the characters and I loved the comedy. They felt very real and they were guys that I wanted to go on a journey with. It is really about their relationship, the kinda ‘Odd Couple’, buddy comedy aspect of it that I was most excited to explore.
You mention the mix of comedy and horror. Was it difficult to find the right combination of actors to pull those elements off?
Well, as scripted, the characters were very different on the page. It was definitely that classic dynamic between “tough guy” and “nerdy guy”. Woody Harrelson was my first choice and he is who I went after for the part. When he agreed to do it, and I honestly can’t think of anyone better who could have done it, we did a pretty thorough series of casting to find Jesse (Eisenberg). He was a leading candidate but we did read three people opposite of Woody. Jesse seemed closest to the person on the page that we had all kinda fallen in love with.
One of the biggest on-screen surprises for your film or any film in 2009 was the appearance from Bill Murray. How did that come about?
That was purely Woody pulling a favor at the last minute. We had originally scripted the part for other people but they had fallen through, so we were kinda scrambling the week before shooting. Woody offered to make the call to his buddy, Bill. Honestly, their couldn’t have been anyone better or more exciting for that role. It really took the movie to a whole different level and it is part of what makes it so special.
I come from a low-budget background where we never have enough money to do what we wanted to do, but you have to solve those issues in creative ways. ‘Zombieland’, while it was a big studio movie, certainly didn’t have a major action movie budget. We had to get really creative on how to accomplish some of those stunts and to pull off the whole film. Coming from a low-budget background like that really impacted the approach to the film making of ‘Zombieland’.
You certainly accomplished making it look like you had a big budget and the film had a very cool look to it throughout.
Looking back on the film making process for ‘Zombieland’, what was the biggest challenge for you?
I guess that it is probably the same as what any first time film maker might say, but the duration of the shoot was a challenge and having to think of the movie as a whole. You know, spread out over 41 days as opposed to a video that will be shot in a day or two or a commercial that is shot in a day. It was a matter of trying to manage the whole story and keep it in my head, because obviously you don’t shoot it all in order. There was a lot of thinking about the scene that preceded a certain shot or that might follow, one that we might have shot two weeks ago or might not have shot at that point. Trying to keep it all clear and knowing where their characters are at, for each point, so you know what the performances should be like so that it all fits together, it’s a big challenge.
What is the status of the sequel, ‘Zombieland 2’?
We have been talking to the studio and we pitched them some ideas that they seemed to really like. We are definitely doing the film in 3D. Sony has their own 3D division now and we are going to go get a little tour of that on Tuesday (3/2/2010), of the 3D department. I know that the cast are all excited to be a part of the sequel, so it should be a great, fun movie to make! The script is about to be written and hopefully we will shoot it sometime towards the end of the year or early next year.
Did you have any reservations about doing a sequel?
I didn’t because the movie was originally conceived as a television show, so it was kinda always meant to lead to another episode. There was no finality to the characters or the world in the original concept, so it’s not like we are stretching it. That’s why ‘Zombie Kill of The Week’ is ‘Zombie Kill of The Week’, because that is the kill of the week and next week there will be another one. That’s why I don’t feel that we are being oporrtunistic or too exploitative of the success of the first film. I feel that this is the way it was always intended to be.
You mentioned 3D and at this point everyone has seen James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’. As a director, how big of a game changer was that film for you and will it have any bearing on what you try to do in your film?
Yeah, I feel that ‘Avatar’ has bearing for everybody who makes or watches movies. For me, it was such a significant advancement in entertainment. I loved it and was transfixed while watching it. If we want to tackle 3D, we will need to bear the lessons of that movie in mind and try to create a world with as much dimension, texture and wonderment as that film. I feel like that film didn’t exploit the tricky, “gun barrels in your face”, gimmicky 3D, which I appreciate but I think we will be more prone to have things flying at you than ‘Avatar’ did.
Will you be shooting with 3D cameras or is that something you are more likely to handle in post-production?
Nothing has been determined yet but just from the little that I know about 3D, I would greatly prefer to shoot it in 3D.
Well it seem you have plenty on your plate for this year. What else do you have coming up in the near future?
I am kinda working on this bank heist movie that is a kind of a dark comedy. That will hopefully shoot this summer. No one has really been cast yet but it is a dark comedy called ‘Thirty Minutes or Less’. Ben Stiller’s company, Red Hour, will be producing.
You have done a lot of stuff for Funny or Die in the past. How did you originally get involved with them?
I have had a long relationship with Funny or Die. Actually, I met with Adam McKay and Chris Henchy even before they had the website up and running. I showed them this little thirty second video that I had shot with Nick Thune, who is a really funny comedian, called “Masturbation”. It is just the most basic kind of stupid humor. They loved it and said that they would put it on their site. “Masturbation” was one of the earliest videos on the site and I think it has been seen over two million times by now. That lead to doing a bunch of other Nick Thune shorts and I have done a fair amount of little things for them. When they were launching the television series, there is a comedian named Rob Huebel, who I have known through comedy circles, and he wrote and was starring in this thing called “The Holdup”. He asked me to direct and we shot it in a weekend, a couple of weeks after I finished shooting ‘Zombieland’. It’s actually a bank heist thing too, really funny! It has the most incredible ensemble cast that we could ever have hoped for Funny or Die.
I saw the trailer for it on your blog and it looks like it is going to be great!
Yeah, just having Ed Helms, Rachael Harris, Rob Huebel, Creed Bratton, Tom Lennon, Brandon Johnson, Jerry Minor and Malin Akerman, is just an incredible cast for something we shot in a weekend. It really turned out great and I am very proud of it!
You do a lot of projects based around comedy and you clearly do it very well. Is there any other genre that peaks your interest that we might see you tackle in the near future?
I definitely like the action stuff in ‘Zombieland’ and there is a nice action component in ‘Thirty Minutes or Less’. I don’t know if I could ever do anything, purely action but I really love it. I think that there would have to be a hint of comedy but action stuff is very funny to shoot.
Social media is playing such an important role in the marketing of films in the past year. How has it affected you as a film maker and how do you think it will affect film making?
I think the immediacy of the reactions is the biggest thing. I feel like people have been using the internet to promote and market things for a while, whether it is commercials, trailers or online ads, and people are going to be swayed by marketing just as they were before. The biggest change for me is that instant feedback of whether something is good or bad, it is no longer just word of mouth. It is a much more direct feedback loop, whether it is on Facebook, Twitter, Blogs or whatever else. Whether it is something really good or something really bad, you hear about it quickly and that will have tremendous impact.
As a young film maker yourself, what is the best piece of advice that you would give to someone looking to take that career path?
Definitely go shoot stuff! Technology is so affordable at this point that you can have a really great camera with relatively good sound for not that much money. You can do editing and pretty sophisticated visual effects on your computer these days, so there are pretty much no limitations for people to make their own stuff, which is how I started. I started doing low-budget music videos or short films on my own with my computer and my video camera and made a ton of stuff that way. Now there is the internet which provides a great forum for people to see the stuff that you make. You can build a reel and shoot stuff and have people see it, be it on YouTube, Funny or Die or your own website. There are no excuses not to be making stuff. That is how you learn, by teaching yourself how to do it and hopefully it is how you get discovered as well. There are plenty of people that I know, including myself, that were doing things on a small scale and then it got popular and recognized on a larger format and lead to greater opportunity. The only reason that I got to make a movie is because I made a music video that was a viral video before YouTube existed. It happened to get seen a couple of hundred thousand times, back in 2001-2002. Then I got opportunities to do commercials and other projects but it was purely because I had made something on my own that got seen be people. There is no reason why that anyone else can’t do that! I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t have a lot of money, I just did it — and I feel like everybody can.
You are getting to the point in your career where you can look back and see some pretty big milestones. Large or small, what has been the most exciting thing for you so far?
Some of my greatest memories from the past year, beyond making ‘Zombieland’, are getting to watch it with an audience in theaters. Hearing the laughs from the audience was an incredible experience, particularly because as a commercial director, you don’t typically get to watch your stuff with people. It is usually just on TV or on internet. It was really exciting to get to hear the public feedback. The movie gets a lot of laughs, so it was really fun. Then, there are some of the people who I have had the opportunity to meet through the film’s recognition. I got to meet Ivan Reitman, John Landis and some other people that I really have been a big fan of, so getting to talk shop with them has been pretty neat.
It seems like your schedule is pretty full for 2010!
Yeah, it’s been great and I can’t complain. I am a lucky guy!
Thank you for your time, Ruben and I wish you all the best!
Thanks, man! I appreciate it.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.