On one hand, with fingers left to spare, you can count the number of local authors who've had their books turned into movies. The youngest and newest in that elite club is Isaac Marion, a scruffy, friendly guy in his early 30s who recently sat down for a conversation at Lighthouse Roasters, with the massive roaster churning behind us.
WARM BODIES Opens Fri., Feb. 1 at Pacific Place and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes. Also note the benefit party at Fremont Abbey, 4272 Fremont Ave. N., 414-8325, fremontabbey.org. RSVP recommended. $10 suggested donation. 21 and over. 9 p.m. Fri., Feb. 1.
Like many writers, Marion takes his laptop to coffee shops, favoring "the energy and visual distraction" instead of playing at home with his cats. From such work habits was Warm Bodies hatched a half-dozen years ago—initially as a story he posted on his website (isaacmarion.com), where readers could comment on his first draft. "The short story was kind of a lark," he recalls. "I hesitated to post it. I wondered, 'Is this a really dumb idea?' "
That idea, translated into movie form, goes like this: In a postapocalyptic wasteland, a zombie known as R narrates his tale of discontent. ("What's wrong with me? I just wanna connect.") Alienated, shuffling R can't speak properly and feasts on flesh, but "at least I feel conflicted about it." Not all of this interior monologue is direct from his book, Marion explains, but screenwriter/director Jonathan Levine stayed true to its mopey-funny spirit, and even invited Marion to give notes on the script and visit the set in Montreal.
Warm Bodies isn't a horror tale so much as a love story, as R (English actor Nicholas Hoult of A Single Man and the forthcoming Jack the Giant Slayer) begins to lose his pallor while crushing upon and semi-abducting Julie (Australian actress Teresa Palmer), daughter of a zombie-hating militia leader (John Malkovich). He's a hoodie-wearing emo zombie with an extensive vinyl-record collection back in the 747 fuselage he makes his home. He eventually lets Julie return to her walled compound, by which time she's warmed to him a little—and he in turn feels a warm new sensation pulsing in his previously cadaverous chest.
By 2010, Marion had expanded his story into a novel, self-publishing a 500-copy run printed at Kinko's. "I sold at cost, $10 from my website," he explains. "I wasn't knocking on doors at bookstores. It was always with the goal of getting real distribution." That came with an agent—a deal with Atria Books. And the movie rights sold immediately.
All this may sound like a thunderbolt of luck for a dabbling young musician/painter/novelist who didn't train in a college writing program (or any college, for that matter), but Warm Bodies is the product of hard DIY application to a craft. "It's been such a long process," says Marion. "This actually is my fourth novel. The other three are bad."
Modesty aside, he doesn't consider himself a zombie- horror genre writer: "I read a lot of Stephen King when I grew up. I grew up on that pulpy stuff, but always wished there were a smarter version of that. A lot of my favorite books take some kind of genre element to explore higher ideas."
And though his novel bears a glowing blurb from Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight franchise was filmed by Summit Entertainment, the same teen-centric studio that made Warm Bodies, Marion says he's no young-adult author, either. "There's that misconception, mainly because of Meyer's quote. People ask, 'Why do you write for teenagers?' And that's not the case."
Still, it's mostly teens who'll see the movie. But having endured one dreadful Twilight installment, I can vouch that Warm Bodies is about 10 times better. Its star-crossed teen lovers are funny and self-aware, and there's a fairy-tale sweetness to R's gradual return to life and love. With a balcony scene and a magical kiss, this is not a zombie movie in the George A. Romero tradition. Nor is the gore anywhere close to warranting an R rating.
Yet Marion isn't done with zombies yet. This week he's releasing The New Hunger, a prequel novella to Warm Bodies, as an e-book on zolabooks.com. In it, we'll read how R became infected, and possibly learn his old name and human identity.
Late last month, Marion attended a Seattle press screening of Warm Bodies. There, he says, "It was really cool to see the crowd react. People were laughing harder than I did. It's just such a surreal experience. I can't think of anything else in life like that—when you have a dream in your head and then you see it onscreen."