Spoiler warning: The following story reveals some surprise elements of “Zombieland 2: Double Tap.” Do not read before seeing the movie if you want to keep all the secrets unspoiled.
Arguably the funniest moment of 2009’s undead comedy “Zombieland” comes when the intrepid gang of survivors Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) discover comedy legend Bill Murray found a foolproof way to survive the zombie apocalypse: disguising himself as one of the walking dead.
“He was the highlight of the first movie,” said Paul Wernick, who, with Rhett Reese, co-wrote the script of both the original and its sequel.
But Murray’s attempt at pranking Columbus backfires and he is accidentally killed, limiting his cameo potential for the sequel.
“There is no world of ‘Zombieland’ without Bill Murray,” Wernick said. “So we thought, how do you top a Bill Murray cameo in the first movie? You put him in the second one.”
In theaters now, “Zombieland: Double Tap” features a post-credits Murray cameo that is meant to predate the events of both films: The comedian is seen sardonically promoting the fictional “Garfield 3: Flabby Tabby” at a press junket when the zombie apocalypse breaks out.
“We hint at it early on when they’re at the Hound Dog Hotel and Nevada mentions to Columbus how Bill Murray died,” Wernick said. “We thought, ‘How fun would it be to call back the line from the first movie where Little Rock asks him what his greatest regret is and he says, ‘ “Garfield?” ’ “
“People always ask us whether we write these jokes where actors make fun of their previous projects like Ryan Reynolds does with ‘Green Lantern’ and Bill Murray did with ‘Garfield,’ ” Reese, who also co-wrote both “Deadpool” films with Wernick, added. “The answer is we would never have the guts to do that. Those jokes come from the actors themselves and then we just riff off that.”
Though his cameo would become one of the most beloved scenes of the first “Zombieland,” Murray’s role had originally been written for Patrick Swayze. After the “Dirty Dancing” star had to drop out due to illness, the writers got to work reshaping the role to fit a new actor.
“We ended up writing 12 different versions for different actors to try to convince them to do it,” Reese said. “We went through guys like Sylvester Stallone, Mark Hamill, Jean Claude Van Damme, Matthew McConaughey and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. But ultimately when Bill Murray took the job we just felt so lucky that none of the other people said yes because he’s better.”
The part was conceived as a zombie, but he agreed to the role with the caveat that it be fleshed out.
“He said, ‘You know, I really love this script, but there’s not enough for me to do. Is there any way I could be alive and actually speaking?’” Reese recalled. “And we thought, ‘Let’s have him pretend to be a zombie because that could be funnier and allows Bill to do more.’”
Imagining a new cameo for the actor following his on-screen death proved more challenging. In the10 years between sequels, the writers conceived several story lines that were ultimately scrapped.
“Originally Rhett had written a ‘Ghostbusters’ cameo,” Wernick said. “It was Bill on a golf course with Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis and they’re trying to convince him to do ‘Ghostbusters 3.’ And then the zombie apocalypse breaks out and he’s forced to use the tools of the golf course to survive and fight off his fellow ‘Ghostbusters’ cast who are now all zombies. This was obviously pre-'Ghostbusters 3'” and Ramis’ death in 2014.
Instead it was decided that Murray’s would be the sole meta role. “We were still going to have some fun cameos in the movie, but we were not going to have someone playing themselves because we just couldn’t do better than Bill,” Reese said.
Rather than playing themselves, Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson turn up in a different kind of cameo role: as the spiritual doppelgängers to Columbus and Tallahassee, dubbed Flagstaff and Albuquerque.
“They’re reminiscent of Woody and Jesse in a way that made us laugh,” Wernick said of the casting. “They’re wonderful actors and wonderful improvisers. And the way they played off each other, I think, is pretty magical onscreen. It’s one of our favorite moments of the sequel.”
The original scene called for just one doppelgänger, then known simply as “Alpha Tallahassee.”
“He was this guy who was kind of like a bigger, brasher, tougher, cockier version of Tallahassee,” said director Ruben Fleischer. “He was like this heightened version of Woody’s character.”
“And somewhere along the line someone had the idea of, ‘Well, if we’re going to do it for Tallahassee let’s do it for Columbus too,’” added Reese.
Flagstaff and Albuquerque were the original drafted names for Columbus and Tallahassee, but after deciding to film in Georgia rather than the Southwest they were renamed to make more sense geographically. That backstory makes the scene an even bigger Easter egg, in addition to supplying one of the funniest moments in the movie.
“That was, on the page, my favorite scene in the movie,” Fleischer said. “It was just such a funny idea conceptually, and then once we cast Thomas Middleditch, who is just a world-class improviser, he kind of jumped into the role with both feet and elevated it beyond my wildest imagination. So many of my favorite jokes in that exchange are ones that Jesse and Thomas improvised.”
Fans of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” are likely familiar with Middleditch’s Eisenberg-esque brand of nerdy humor, but Wilson is not quite as intuitive a counterpoint to Harrelson.
“Luke’s got that laconic cowboy feel to him, which is very Woody Harrelson,” Fleischer explained. “He and Woody are also close friends, so there was a natural rapport. Woody called him and asked him if he would do it, and I can’t think of anyone better to play the part.”
“He read the script and really took to it,” added Wernick. “And he and Woody know each other’s mannerisms pretty well. Some of the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor is so funny because it’s just them kind of needling each other in ways that old buddies do.”
Originally both sets of twins were meant to react to each other competitively, but Eisenberg and Middleditch improvised a different take for their characters.
“They started to make it less competitive and more of a mutual admiration society,” Reese said. “And that really made us laugh, this idea that these two guys were discovering their long lost twins when they found each other. It was just a whole different way to look at it and it started to get laughs and the guys ran with it.
“It makes for a richer scene than it would have been had they just been one-upping each other,” he added. “They seem to have the same cultural influences and very similar outlooks. And so why not have them bond instead of being at each others throat?”
Observing the scene with disinterest is Wichita, who does not get the doppelgänger treatment.
“We didn’t give Emma a doppelgänger because we thought at that point it was a little too coincidental,” Reese said. “It was already stretching credulity to have one or two, so to have three or more felt like it was stretching it. But it’s also very difficult to find somebody who could go toe-to-toe with Emma Stone. Emma’s one of a kind; she’d be hard to replicate.”