Recapturing the personality of a successful film for its follow-up can be a challenging task for a filmmaker, given the story told, characters involved and especially the time passed between installments. But even after 10 years, “Zombieland: Double Tap” director Ruben Fleischer knew exactly what to focus on to ensure that his sequel lived up to its 2009 predecessor.
“We really tried to carry the story forward as if we were picking up with them where we last left off,” Fleischer tells Variety. “But what I love about the first movie is the chemistry between the characters — that sense of family.”“Zombieland” was Fleischer’s first feature film, a low-budget, runaway success that launched his eclectic, thriving career. The members of that makeshift family he assembled on screen — including Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg — have since become a hallmark and good luck charm for his work. That is why he elicited their involvement each step of the way as the long-awaited project came into focus.
“Part of why the cast and I were so excited to make this sequel was because it was such a fun experience,” Fleischer says. “We all collectively have a lot of nostalgia for the first movie, not only because the result was great, but the experience ofmaking it was just really fun.”
“On every movie I’ve done, I’ve included one of them in it. Jesse was in ‘30 Minutes or Less,’ Emma was in ‘Gangster Squad,’ Woody was in ‘Venom,’ ” he says. “So we
were all very rigorous about making a movie that could stand side by side with the original.”
Fleischer never foresaw himself as a director when he began his Hollywood career. But a soup-to-nuts internship on Miguel Arteta’s “Chuck and Buck” gave him an inside look at virtually every job on a film set. It taught him a humility about what he knew, and didn’t know, as a filmmaker that he carried with him onto the set of “Zombieland.”
“For my first movie, it was really important to me that I be the least experienced person on set,” he says. “I had the instinct to surround myself with really talented people to help me make the best movie I could. And that’s something that I’ve tried to stick with throughout all the future movies. I always try to get the very best person for every job and give them the space and freedom to make it their own, and to make it great.”
Though she was still largely unknown to audiences who would later embrace her as a movie star and Oscar-winning actress, Stone says she took to his unique sensitivity
as a director.
“I love Ruben’s honesty, his directness, his humor and who he is at his core,” she says. “We became great friends during the first ‘Zombieland’ and I just love working with him because he never bullshits, he doesn’t coddle and he makes me laugh. I love those qualities in a director.”
“I love Ruben’s honesty, his directness, his humor and who he is at his core.”
Co-star Eisenberg says Fleischer is a leader on set who is open to input and he routinely filters and redirects his interests to serve his films.
“Ruben is unusually ego-less, and not just for a movie director,” Eisenberg says. “He has no vanity, no interest in plaudits and is candidly self-critical. He is probably the biggest comedy fan I know. But what’s great about his directing style is that he resists the temptation to show the audience how cool his taste in comedy is. Rather, he prioritizes the more important elements of the movie — the characters, the story, the tone — and then infuses it with his love of comedy. The end result is a movie that pleases broad audiences as well as comedy aficionados.”
Gavin Polone, who produced both “Zombieland” films, was among a chorus of former and current collaborators who celebrated Fleischer’s selflessness.
“What means the most to me is how Ruben listens to everyone and is always willing to use someone else’s good idea,” he says. “Many directors are too wrapped up in their insecurities to hear a good suggestion from another person on a movie. Ruben puts the film ahead of his own ego and that, ultimately, is why there is no director I’d rather work with.”
After the original “Zombieland,” Fleischer took chances not on projects that he knew would replicate the commercial success of his debut or even exploit it to rub elbows with Hollywood A-listers, but those that would challenge him to explore material outside his comfort zone, acquire new skills as a director and possibly help him develop a directorial personality.
“Soon after ‘Zombieland’ came out, I was in a meeting with Tom Cruise and he was saying, ‘I hope I’m lucky enough to work with you someday,’ and I honestly felt like I was being punked,” he says. “But instead of doing, like, a big anonymous studio movie, I decided to do something a little darker and edgier and funnier, which was ‘30 Minutes or Less.’ I thought, maybe there’s a way for me to announce myself despite not being a writer-director, trying to convey my sensibility by doing a super dark comedy.
“I’m really proud of that movie, but it certainly didn’t connect with an audience or critics, and that was a real kind of heartbreak.” he says. “And then with ‘Gangster Squad,’ I think it kind of missed the mark tonally, but it was a great learning experience.”
|Ruben Fleischer with Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg on “Zombieland: Double Tap”
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
A slew of television projects followed, but he also took time off to have a personal life, including starting a family of his own. He’s served as a director and exec-
utive producer on such shows as “Superstore,” “American Housewife” and “Santa Clarita Diet.”
In 2018, he helmed Sony’s “Spider-Man” spinoff “Venom,” which grossed more than $850 million at the worldwide box office, putting him back at the top of the industry’s moneymakers while further refining what it is that distinguishes his work.
“His visual skillset was honed and mastered on ‘Venom,’ that ability to make large-scale action mixed with his self-reverential comedic sensibility,” says Sanford Panitch, president, motion picture group, Sony Pictures Entertainment.
“Ruben has built a career on stories of original characters told with an offbeat sense of humor, and his warm gentle affectionate sensibility is what makes him so special,” he says.
Harrelson, who’s previously worked with Oliver Stone, Milos Forman and the Coens, among other marquee name directors, says it’s Fleischer’s disposition as much as his talent that makes him a filmmaker worth working with.
“There’s some directors who are really quality directors, but I don’t want to work with them because they’re not nice people,” Harrelson says. “That doesn’t so much speak to the talent of the individual, but it speaks to the quality of the individual, and Ruben is so kind and thoughtful to everybody — he’s just a real mensch.”
After five features, a few dozen episodes of television and more than a billion dollars in worldwide box office revenue, Fleischer has more than enough muscle to call the shots on any project he chooses. But it’s the fact that he wields it with such discipline, and even kindness, that guarantees that his success will continue. “I feel like the role of the director is to always inspire everyone else to bring their best and to have this fountain of energy and enthusiasm to get everyone on the same page, because it’s my name on the film,” Fleischer says. “I have to be twice as invested and twice as inspiring as everyone else. And when people are ready to give up, you’ve got to be the one who keeps pushing to get their best.”