George A. Romero's seminal 1973 horror thriller gets remade in Perry, Georgia with Timothy Olyphant, Danielle Panabaker, and director Breck Eisner

In 1973, after finding cult success with the landmark horror film Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero set out to make a politically charged thriller about the dangers of chemical warfare. With this personally envisioned nightmare, Romero Imagined the side effects of a manmade combat virus as it overtakes a small rural town in Pennsylvania. As the military tries to contain the rampant disease, the infected succumb to insanity and death. It was a horrifying social tale that held a mirror up to our country's problems at that point in history. Now, director Breck Eisner, best known for his action adventure film Sahara, is attempting to remake The Crazies for a whole new generation of filmgoers.

As with the more recent spat of successful horror remakes, Eisner isn't content with resurrecting a carbon copy of Romero's Trixie virus. This is a reinvention. It is a continuation of the story more than a pure retelling. He's taken Romero and Paul McCollough's original script template, and from that has created his own vision of Hell on earth. In this new film, a small town sheriff (played by Deadwood alum Timothy Olyphant) and his trusting depute (The Ruins's Joe Anderson) must save their town from the rampant side-effects of a government made disease that threatens to consume all life as we know it. The film is currently being shot in Perry, Georgia. We recently paid a visit to Peach County to take a look at some of the madness going on there.

Arriving on the scene, the local Peach County high school had seemingly been invaded by the U.S. military. Real helicopters circled the building as the locals were corralled into a large fenced off area. More were being brought in by the school bus load. Some of the infected folks were being herded into a cattle truck. Others were being shepherded through a contamination tent complete with a toxic wash. Stepping outside of the school to witness this madness, a chopper flew overhead, blowing over one of the tents. It seemed as though the entire town of Perry, Georgia was under military surveillance. Most of the surrounding townsfolk had shown up to participate as extras. It was midnight, and their excitement was certainly waning. Their down energy and annoyance with the "hurry up and wait" aspects of filmmaking played into the genuine reaction of a group of small town dwellers dealing with an outside contaminant. Ah, the metaphors that abound in this typical type of filmmaking setting.

Director Breck Eisner is extremely excited about the changes he has made with this new version of The Crazies. It promises to be a faster, more brutal experience than the one delivered in 1973. The scenes being orchestrated on the night of our arrival involved over four hundred extras. It was going to be an exhilarating challenge for Eisner to pull off, though he wouldn't dive into specific details about what he was preparing to shoot. Before charging into this madness face first, he gave us a moment of his time. Here is our conversation:

With this being a remake, what are the parts of the original that you wanted to change?

Breck Eisner: Anytime you do a reimagining, you want to have target aspects of the movie that they didn't have access to when they first made it. My theory on remaking movies is that you should have something in it that they weren't able to do the first time around. You don't want to just redo a perfect film. You want to tackle something that was riddled with limitations. One of the limitations for Romero was budget. I think he had $200 grand to make the entire movie. We are spending more money than that. It is not a big budget movie by any means. We have more assets, so that we can represent the government on the scale that it needs to be represented. This is very oppressive and very realistic.

The original film gave us two different points of view. We saw what the protagonists were going through, and what the military was going through. How is the disease represented in this film?

Breck Eisner: There is no military point of view at all. The original script was mostly about the military. It was an action movie. When I came onto this, I wanted to get away from the Military's point of view. When you have that, it pulls away from the horror aspect of the situation. It becomes more about action tension. Not scary tension. I was more interested in it being from the point of view of our townsfolk. The military becomes this faceless, oppressive force in bio-containment suits. This is the force putting these people through the terror. They are sort of responsible for these foaming-at-the-mouth crazies terrorizing the town.

There is this idea in the original that these people might not actually be going crazy. That the military is inspiring it. Are you going to take that theme from the original? Or are there other commentaries to be taken from this film?

Breck Eisner: There are a number of commentaries to be made with this film. That aspect was fun for me. We have Ogden Marsh, which is the name of the town where our heroes live. It is a perfect place, but we are not painting it as an ideal landscape. The idea is that the characters are natural and real. Underneath, there are these competing agendas. A lot of times in a small town, people will say, "It's perfect. Its small town America. Its ideal. It's like the 50s. Its so easy." But that's not the reality. We tried to paint a more complex version of that persona. The idea for me was, when you unleash this disease, it unlocks these hidden qualities in people. It brings them to the forefront. They lose control of their stated personas. We meet these two hunters. They love the act of hunting. We stumble on a plot point which ends with the heroes discovering this. These hunters will come back in the movie in a way that they are now infected by the infection. It affects them quite profoundly. This is not a zombie movie. It doesn't turn them into people that have lost all of their agendas. They retain their identity to a degree. They still have their drive, or their persona. It just becomes extremely heightened and focused. To a point where it's almost absurd. That was the point we have been playing with. What exactly are the effects of this virus?

Is there a notion of social commentary here?

Breck Eisner: Sure. There is a measure of social commentary here. The film was first being produced under the regime of George Bush. We have social commentary about the use of military as a machine. How that machine operates. How the ends justify the means. We were very careful about presenting the military as a machine, versus the individuals that are directly involved with the military. There is a clear delineation between the foot soldier that is ordered to do something, and the mechanism of the military to accomplish a means to that end. Definitely, that concept is presented as a strong message in the movie. That is why I didn't want to have the government's point of view. I didn't want to watch them debate what they should do. I didn't want to see their rational one way or the other. I simply wanted to see the effects of their decisions. And how that changes the lives in this small town.

What makes this story still resonate today?

Breck Eisner: This is a theme that has been tread on over and over again. Horror is best when it deals with themes that are part of reality. Your latent fears are brought to the surface. You believe that this could happen, and we play into those fears. We see that happening over and over again. In terms of Romero, and how we are changing and playing with the themes that he presented, we are hoping to dive into those exact concepts. We want to look at what he created in a Post-Vietnam world. We want to look at a country that is at war. One that is not in an economically viable time. That is us, right now. We are fighting two wars, and the economy is crap. The populace feels this terror about where we are headed. And about what the government is doing. Or what they're not doing about it. Those themes reflect the times we live in. They also reflect the times when Romero made the original. It felt like this was the right time to propose those same questions.

Are there physical changes to the Crazies?

Breck Eisner: Oh, yeah. There are five stages to being a crazy. The first is, nothing really happens. The fifth is when you are dead. The second stage is a performance-based craziness. A person you know will act a little differently, but they won't look any different. Then the next two stages are three and four. These are various different stages of physical changes. We did a lot of different tests, and the challenge was making the crazies look interesting. We wanted them to look iconic, but we didn't want them to look like zombies. We wanted you to believe that a sickness could have done this to these people. I also wanted an iconic quality to it. I wanted something specific to look at. You will see this when they are at the latest stages of the disease. It is pretty pronounced. We used Ebola. We used Tetanus. We used a little bit of rabies. There are a couple of other disease references. We used Stephen Johnson syndrome. We went through these really horrific books of disease, and tried to pull from the best. We decided to accelerate the effects. Instead of weeks, we looked at what would happen over twelve hours. With rabies, it tightens all of the muscles in a human. We have the neck tensing up for that. There are definitely different stages for this disease.

What are the levels of violence that we are going to see?

Breck Eisner: It's definitely not a balls-out, in your face horror movie. It is not that. It is horrific. It's certainly graphic. But to me, I felt there should be a real quality to it. I thought it should be real. We are showing death, and we wanted that to be realistic. We are showing blood when it is appropriate. We are not shying away from that. It's not a blood bath by any stretch of the imagination. It is visceral, and horrific in that aspect. We are going for an R. I want us to know the characters that are being horrible to other characters. What I love about John Carpenter's The Thing is that we knew all of the characters before events turned. We didn't know whom to trust. In this movie, I felt that the characters you come to know on an intimate level are the best ones to have go crazy. We didn't want the generic background characters to go crazy. It is a lot less interesting to watch them turn. I don't want to give away who turns when. It's not exciting to watch them turn. Its more exciting to watch who turns. There are characters that you love, and trust, and follow. They are the ones you want to believe. They are your heroes. So it's hard to watch them succumb to this disease.

After speaking with Eisner, we were ushered back into the Peach County High School to chat with the cast behind The Crazies. First up was Timothy Olyphant, who plays the local Sheriff. He took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. Moments later, he would be heading into the world of The Crazies. We had this conversation:

Can you tell us a little bit about the character you play?

Timothy Olyphant: What do you know so far?

We know you are the sheriff. You have a pregnant wife. You have a best friend that is your deputy.

Timothy Olyphant: That is all correct.

And you go crazy!

Timothy Olyphant: Noooooooo! No, no, no! But all of that other stuff is true.

Are you fighting for survival throughout the whole movie? Or do you turn into a badass action hero by the end?

Timothy Olyphant: I want you to go see the film. Hopefully we have a bit of an arc in the story. This is a guy that is in a situation, and he thought it was going to be a cush gig. When the shit hits the fan, he thinks, "This is not the job I signed up for." The character starts from there.

What appealed to you about the character when you read the script.

Timothy Olyphant: The thing that appealed to me most when I read the script was the title. I just couldn't get enough of that title. I thought it was great. I thought there was a pace to the movie that I really liked. There was this simple plotting. Things don't ever seem right. They just get worse. Things continually roll out of control. Fast. There is a nice puzzle that you are trying to figure out. This has a simple through line. The character, when we first started, was not all that appealing. We've fleshed him out. Breck Eisner and I have been able to collaborate, and we found something that I really like.

Do you write your own backstory, or ask for that kind of input from the director?

Timothy Olyphant: The last couple of jobs I've done have allowed me to weasel in and participate as much as they will let me. On this one, I got very involved. It has been a nice back and forth with Breck. We've been doing that since we first met and started talking about it. I don't think I've become so involved that I have gotten into the sheriff's backstory. I do get into the story a great deal. The last couple of films, I have gotten involved in a lot. A lot more than I have in the past.

Can you talk about some of the complications of having a pregnant wife in the midst of this madness?

Timothy Olyphant: It elevates the pressure of the situation. What I thought was interesting about it, especially in the beginning of the movie, is that it taps into that feeling of being an expectant father. No matter who you are, or what your feelings are, you just want to run. You want to get out. You could be married for ten years, and the moment you hear your wife is pregnant, you go, "Ah, Fuck! I am stuck. I am so stuck." You just want out. There is that terrible panic that you've made a mistake. Even if it is a fleeting moment, its still there. We certainly tapped into that. We allowed that to heightened the whole situation. He starts out doing a job that he thought was going to be rather easy. I equate it to lifeguarding. You think it's going to be no running, adult swim, everybody get out of the pool. It's that easy. But when someone drowns, you think, "Ah, fuck. This is not the job I signed up for." You add to that the fact this guy is in a small town. He isn't really committed to the job. His wife is pregnant. Now this shit goes wrong, and he can only think, "Please, God! Get me out of here!" It all happens so fast that there is no getting out of it.

In the original, the two main characters were helicopter pilots from Vietnam. Do you guys have a similar background? Or are you new to this type of situation?

Timothy Olyphant: We don't have any history like that. It would be nice. You get why they did it with the original. We are conscience that this isn't about your average Joe. This is about the Sheriff. He is a guy that is capable. But we don't get into his past experiences.

What was your first reaction to the Crazies make-up, since it is so different from the original.

Timothy Olyphant: I think it looks great. I think they did a great job. Either way, you are still doing what you're doing. You have the same actions. You are still fighting the fight. These guys don't go zero to sixty in three seconds. There are stages of the disease. So, there are a few times during the movie where you see that. Breck was always breaking things down into the four stages of the virus. The first wasn't recognizable physically. You could pick little things up. Then it gets to a place that is nuts. I don't know what you guys have seen. But there are veins and bleeding. It is pretty horrific looking. They are strained, almost. It's like rabies, or something. Their bodies and backs are arched. And their veins are popping out. Their eyes are bloody. It is pretty fanatic looking. The movie itself is gorgeous. When you see the stills, you can't imagine that this is a horror film. Because it is really stunning. It is unbelievable how beautiful it all looks. This is a really fun movie, and it does feel like a hybrid. There are times when I feel we are making an action film. That is what the set feels like. There are other times when it feels like No Country for Old Men. There are some really nice scenes, and some nice characters, and just nice relationships. When you take it out of the activity, and you are just sitting with these characters, it feels like they have a real nice voice. It feels like we got away with something at times. It feels like I can't believe we got away with that nice scene in the middle of this movie. Without actually stopping the film. I think we did a nice job of moving the story forward. We are never slowing the movie down. Sometimes, we have these scenes that are nasty. They are down right fucking scary. They are fun. You always try to find the humor in it without losing the truth of it. It has been good. It feels good.

In a film like this, is it challenging to keep the tension? Especially with the wide birth of the landscape. And the amount of people around you. Or does the director keep that in check?

Timothy Olyphant: I feel that is partially my job. Breck and I have had a real nice relationship. We have had an ongoing dialogue about what we've wanted to accomplish. Months before we shot anything, we felt we were really on the same page. It has been a fantastic collaboration. This movie came to me about a year ago. I was doing a movie in Puerto Rico with Steve Zahn. I asked him what he thought of Breck. Zahn said, "He's fantastic. I love him. And you'll love him. He'll love you. And it will be great." As I am fond of saying, Zahn was half-right. He loves me. That was a year ago. When I got back from Puerto Rico, I sat down with Breck to discuss this project. It feels like we have really been rolling up our sleeves for the last two months, and have really been getting into it. We are always in contact over phone calls and emails. I am always bugging him about some idea.

What needed to be changed about your character? You said you weren't happy when you got this.

Timothy Olyphant: Well, I just didn't feel there was a character there. I felt like there were hints of a character. Neither one of us thought there was a real character there. We got that something was a little funny. We couldn't quite figure it out. Shit gets worse. Then we have what you are seeing tonight. This military presence. Mass confusion and hysteria. Then it all gets crazy. It gets out of control from there. What I didn't feel was that there was a real presence involved. From the jump, my character is integrated into every single part of this process. You really get to watch this guy go through the whole ordeal. We are halfway through the movie, and I haven't had a day off. It is a lovely situation in terms of my involvement and the character's involvement in the story. But I felt he was a cliché. I get that he is the sheriff. And I get that he is in this spot. But I didn't get where he was coming from. I thought it would be great if we knew before the movie started. On day one, we need to know who this guy is. We needed to commit to that, and flesh it out. It is always hard to tell, because the character is in there. It's about bringing him out, and showing a side of him that is presentable. Here is a guy whose father was the sheriff, and whose father's father was the sheriff. Watching this unfold, we see him figure out if he took this job for the right reasons. And if he is the right guy for the job. The fun of it is that he doesn't know why these things are happening. His confusion lets the audience in on the joke. We had the wife that was pregnant. But that simply wasn't enough.

Sitting at our desks in a round robin discussion group, Danielle Panabaker was the next actor to pay our classroom a visit. It was her night off, but she was still kind enough to spare a couple of minutes of her time to chat about the film. She plays one of the four survivors struggling to make out alive. Here is out chat:

What did you think of the script?

Danielle Panabaker: Its good. I love that it starts moving right away. There are no secrets about what is going on. There is something wrong in this town, and it takes off from there. I like that idea.

Your character is not in the original, right?

Danielle Panabaker: I haven't seen the original. I read the description on IMDB. I need to see it. That is my homework for the weekend. The character is sort of there. She is new. There are four instead of five in this one. There is a lot going on between my character and Radha's character, which I found really interesting. It is like a surrogate mother daughter relationship. And I love working with Radha Mitchell. You don't meet my real parents in the film. My character works with Radha Mitchell at her doctor's office. They have a good repertoire. They tease each other. They talk about boys. They are involved in each other's lives, which is good.

Can you tell us about the Car Wash scene? It sounds pretty amazing.

Danielle Panabaker: We were there all last week. From what I here, it is going to be really cool. I am too afraid to watch playback or dailies. But Radha and Tim, and Joe, were really excited about what they were seeing. Everyone is saying great things about the dailies. It was intense to shoot. We certainly went all the way with it. I am certainly excited to see it. It is a whole long sequence. We pull into the car wash to hide from the helicopters. Things go very wrong. We are in the car wash, and the car wash is moving. People get wet. Everyone involved gets soaked, actually. It wasn't freezing, but it was cold. We committed. We were there. The car wash is one of those things where you get in, and you put your car in neutral. And it moves. Versus one of those where you park your car and the stuff moves around it.

How involved is your character?

Danielle Panabaker: It's the four of us doing the best we can to get out of this really awful situation. Things get progressively worse, and exhausting. My scenes are pretty hardcore. Adrenaline is constantly running. We were rehearsing in the car wash. It was just the four of us actors and Breck. We were committed. The scene was going, and going. And Breck looks at Joe and says, "Are you okay!" Joe just goes, "I'm acting!" So, we were there. We were getting very intense. There are takes where my heart is still beating afterwards. It is scary.

Do you and the Depute engage in a romance?

Danielle Panabaker: Is there a romance? Joe's character takes care of my character very well. He is very thoughtful. He gives me his jacket. I don't think it is a romance, per say. We are not making out while the crazies are attacking. Maybe next time.

What did you think of the make-up when you first saw it?

Danielle Panabaker: This feels like a real infectious disease. There is something awful about it. To see the actors in full make-up is grotesque. I am used to it. But I have a big appreciation for the make-up. The pieces are so cool. I am so fascinated by it all. The effects people have their own trailer. We actors aren't really allowed in there. Sometimes we go and take a peek.

The Crazies is set to hit theaters on September 25th, 2009. We will have more from the set with actors Radha Mitchell and Joe Anderson in the very near future, as well as interviews with Make-up effects designer Robert Hall and production designer Andrew Menzies. Stay tuned.

B. Alan Orange