Several years ago, when Robert Rodriguez first jotted down the ideas notes that would eventually
become the screenplay for PLANET TERROR, he thought he would be resuscitating a dormant genre.
"No one had made a zombie movie in such a long time," Rodriguez says of his initial impulse to make PLANET TERROR. The visionary multi-hyphenate was a fan of zombie and horror films, but he wanted to write a movie that would be something truly different, surprising and unexpected. He sought to make a zombie film that was character-driven, frenetically paced and over-the-top. He continued fleshing out his ideas, but writer's block and work on other projects stalled his efforts.
Greg Nicotero, Rodriguez's longtime collaborator and friend, describes the protracted gestation of the script for PLANET TERROR from his point of view: "I remember during SPY KIDS, maybe even as early as THE FACULTY, that Robert said, 'I've got this cool idea for this zombie movie. I don't know exactly what's going to happen yet, but there's going to be a doctor and his wife, and they're going to be working in a hospital, and there's going to be this really great scene where we see a girl on the road, and every time a car passes we reveal silhouettes of zombies getting closer and closer to her.'"
Rodriguez gave Nicotero the first thirty pages of this screenplay, which included these pulsepounding moments. "I remember reading it and I said, 'Where are you going to go from there?'
"He said, 'I have no idea.'"
"I never got past those thirty pages," Rodriguez says, "and of course zombie movies started coming out one after another."
21 DAYS LATER, DAWN OF THE DEAD, LAND OF THE DEAD and SHAWN OF THE DEAD invaded movie theaters and revived audiences' appetites for screen representations of flesh-hungry monsters by offering new, unusual takes on the plight of the undead. Instead of discouraging Rodriguez, these movies whetted his appetite and challenged him to be even more inventive when writing. In the years that had passed, Rodriguez developed his child-like imagination with the SPY KIDS trilogy and with the smash hit SIN CITY. These films showcased his capacity to create a fantasy world that is unlike anything audiences had ever experienced.
Rodriguez returned to PLANET TERROR fully committed to fill his screenplay with "things that I hadn't seen in other movies. A lot of it has to do with the characters." Included in the population of Rodriguez's tiny, anonymous Texas town are a barbecue-obsessed business-owner; a stoic and
suspicious sheriff; a gun-legged go-go girl-turned-vigilante; a syringe-wielding, wobbly-wristed doctor on the run from her abusive husband; a pocket-bike riding mysterious hero, and pair of psychotic identical babysitter twins. In PLANET TERROR, disbelief isn't just suspended -- it's annihilated.
As with SIN CITY, stories weave in and out of each other and circumstances escalate to absurd, impossible levels.
Although Rodriguez has a commitment for storytelling that is fresh and radical, PLANET TERROR has its roots in classic films beyond those of grindhouse era. The dialogue between Wray and Cherry is noir-inspired, and their love story is similarly elevated. The political paranoia and vague allusions to espionage are great throwbacks to films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, KISS ME DEADLY and other cultural remnants of the McCarthy Era.
Nicotero received the script for PLANET TERROR, unaware that Rodriguez had resurrected the project: "Lo and behold, I get this script and I start reading it and I think, 'Hey there's a doctor, and his wife,' and then I get to the scene with Tammy on the road and I think: 'I've read this before.'"
"You would think a zombie movie is just people running away from zombies," Michael Biehn, who plays Hague, jokes. "But we all have our relationships with the other people in the movie that are very strong. The characters are really well written. I think that that's what's going to make it all pull together, because it's a pretty crazy movie."
Rose McGowan, who plays Cherry, was so in awe of the script's unusual circumstances and such sharp, funny dialogue. She also couldn't imagine how anyone could think of outfitting a character with a gun for a leg. (The image of McGowan and the leg has already become iconic among the fanboy set following the exciting debut of a teaser poster at Comic-Con in June of 2006.) "I asked him, 'How did you come up with the fact that Cherry has a machine gun leg? He said, 'Well, I was sitting in traffic…,' and that's where the explanation stopped. OK, I sit in traffic, too, and I don't often have machine gun legs that pop into my head. But that's just me."
Rodriguez looked to his favorite films and television programs, his family, friends and his previous collaborators to assemble the impressive and diverse cast of PLANET TERROR. Marley Shelton, Bruce Willis and Quentin Tarantino worked with the director previously. Joining them are actors who are familiar to genre enthusiasts: Naveen Andrews of "Lost," Rose McGowan of "Charmed," Michael Biehn, who starred in ALIENS, THE ABYSS, and THE TERMINATOR, and Jeff Fahey, a favorite for THE LAWNMOWER MAN and BODY PARTS. Tom Savini, one of the founding fathers of horror movie makeup, portrays Deputy Tolo. Rebel Rodriguez, Rodriguez's son, plays Tony, and Elise and Electra Avellan, Rodriguez's nieces, make an impressive debut as the Babysitter Twins. This group of actors, along with Freddy Rodriguez and Stacy Ferguson, makes the high drama of PLANET TERROR seem real, believable and very, very scary.
McGowan has a global following for her scene-stealing roles in SCREAM and THE DOOM GENERATION and for her turn as Paige on the television series "Charmed." She embraced the truly unchartered dramatic territory that her role in PLANET TERROR would offer her. Cherry is on an emotional rollercoaster the moment she appears on the scratched (digital) celluloid, crying on the stage of her go-go club. "She's kind of a wanderer, and things never just really seem to pan out for her. She's just really down on herself and her life."
Cherry's turmoil dovetails into a fateful run-in with her ex, Wray, played by Freddy Rodriguez. But Cherry's bad night doesn't end there: Her leg, one of the tools of her former trade, is ripped from her body in a roadside attack. That's when the fun really begins. "PLANET TERROR is absolutely a wild ride," McGowan says. "I don't even really know how best to describe it. Cherry starts out as a normal girl whose life is a bit on the skids, and all the sudden she has to save the universe."
McGowan spent much of production shuttling between Austin and Los Angeles, where she was completing production of the final season of "Charmed." Once the show wrapped, she was free to devote her attention to Cherry's adventure.
Joining McGowan is Freddy Rodriguez, who has become a sought-after character actor since his Emmy-nominated five season stint on HBO's "Six Feet Under." PLANET TERROR marks Freddy Rodriguez's debut in a science-fiction or action film. He plays Wray, a tough loner whose identity is shrouded in secrecy.
"Wray is kind of a mysterious character," Rodriguez says. "The film takes place in Texas. Because of his appearance, the way he talks, and the way he behaves, Wray is clearly not from Texas. We really don't know who he is or where he's from. He's kind of a loner. As the movie unfolds, you see different layers of Wray, and as the different layers are peeled away, and you see more and more of who he is."
McGowan, for one, was extremely happy with the pairing. "Freddy's got this great edge in this character and he just really nails it. He's very, very focused," McGowan says. "He definitely has the 'cool' thing going on. He's got swagger going into it, and swagger coming out of it."
Marley Shelton, who made a memorable appearance alongside Josh Hartnett in SIN CITY's brilliant opening sequence, returned to Troublemaker Studios to play Dr. Dakota Block: "I'm an anesthesiologist, and I have a terrible relationship with my husband," Shelton says of her character. "We have a stale marriage -- a Cold War marriage. On the night that the movie takes place I'm about to leave my husband, played by Josh Brolin."
Dakota, like Cherry, is prepared to take strides in reclaiming control of her personal life. Dakota also has her own set of unusual physical challenges to work through: "The funniest thing about my character is that for the first half of the movie I lose the ability to control my hands. Funnily enough, I can actually move my wrists in a really bizarre way. Stupid human tricks. Playing with Dakota's frustration was really fun for me. She's a doctor who's rendered awkward. She's someone who's hyper efficient, a real type-A personality, who's always in control and who is now out of control. She can't protect herself, and she can't protect her son, and she can't escape."
(Not only can she not escape, Dakota can't even turn a key: She busts her tooth within moments of her introduction. Shelton had to get used to having the eyes of crew members fixate on her blackedout tooth during on-set conversations.)
Dakota's problems are not just plot points or gimmicks for Shelton. She approached Dakota's unusual circumstances with respect and believability and tempered her performance with humanity: "It's a wild ride and her evolution is great. The more horrific, traumatic things that happen to her, the more sort of unbridled and unleashed she becomes in terms of connecting to herself, and reconnection with her father, and connecting to her son."
Shelton loves that her character has a devilishly heroic upswing: "I have a secret stash of hypodermic needles on my garter belt. Once my hands come back to life I'm able to use to defend myself against the evil rapist played by none other than Quentin Tarantino," Shelton says. "One bad thing after another is happening to me, and I'm on the run, but I have this great comeback moment where I get to shoot my needle gun, and then twirl it in like old-school western movie fashion just like my dad, Quick Draw Earl McGraw would." Tarantino and Rodriguez fans will remember Earl McGraw played by Michael Parks, appeared in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and KILL BILL and who has a cameo with Shelton in DEATH PROOF.
Dakota Block exists in the Rodriguez-Tarantino shared movie universe that also includes Red Apple cigarettes and Chango Cervesa. She took her addition to this legacy very seriously. "That syringe moment shows that Earl trained his daughter well. She's got chops. She can twirl a gun, which she probably learned when she was six years old. I was terrified of the gun twirling. I spent months trying to learn how to do it, and of course Robert made me look much cooler than I really am. He's just brilliant at that."
Josh Brolin portrays Dr. William Block, Dakota's suspicious and controlling husband. He shared many of his scenes with Shelton, who found the actor distractingly charming: "Our characters hate each other -- we're killing each other, we're fighting, we're violent. But Josh is just the most magnanimous guy. He's so charismatic and funny. Between takes we were cracking up."
Despite their kidding around, Shelton appreciated his similar commitment to the role and his dedication to making his character as "real" as possible. "He gained twenty-five pounds for the role. He plays this brooding Texan with a beer gut -- just this crazy guy who is a bitter, male chauvinist pig. He did an amazing job, and he's so funny in the movie, and so menacing, and so scary."
Brolin has known Rodriguez for years, and the part of Block was written specifically for him. He wasn't aware of the specifics of the project or of the imaginativeness of its plot, so he was pleased when he finally read the script for PLANET TERROR. "Why would you not be a part of something that's that fun; that's that involved," the actor says.
The character was a small role that was developed and fleshed out during a meeting between Rodriguez and Brolin. "He came in with a beard, and that whole character we kind of came up with based on him just coming in and reading," Rodriguez says. "You don't know he's a villain until there's a scene where he turns. You're sympathetic to him until you realize he's out of his mind. And this is before he's turned into a zombie. He's crazy and deadly before he even gets infected. So I wanted--I battled that a long time. I thought the character was someone who was never going to get infected. He was just going to be more dangerous than anyone just because he was out of his mind, jealous, and crazy, after his wife for cheating on him."
Michael Biehn plays Hague, a small town sheriff who must unite with Wray to overcome a zombie enemy. Biehn has been a screen presence for nearly thirty years. He has come against some crippling other-worldly forces throughout his career, having appeared in THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS and THE ABYSS. Though playing the stoic, brave Hague had its own creative rewards, showcasing the set to his son was a special perk: "When my fourteen-year-old was out here visiting he always wanted to see the zombies and explosions. He'd say 'Dad, are they going to shoot zombies tonight? Are they going to kill zombies? Who's going to get bloodied?"'
As with Brolin, the creation of the character of Hague was developed and tailor-made following the casting of Biehn in the film. Rodriguez comments: "I had only had the part half written when I met him and cast him, and then wrote the rest of it based on what I could do with him. It's just like with Quentin and Zoë. Once you know someone, you can write for those specific people."
Jeff Fahey plays Hague's brother JT, who is "fortunate enough to be the owner and proprietor of the best damn barbeque joint in Texas - period. He's working on the perfect recipe in the midst of all of this," Fahey says. "He's just concerned with getting the perfect recipe, and he's just about there, and then all hell breaks loose."
"The wonderful thing for me and for this character is that in the midst of all this insanity and this wild ride he's got one thing on his mind and that's that barbeque sauce."
Stacy Ferguson, also known as "Fergie" from the immensely successful band "Black Eyed Peas" plays Tammy, whose fateful journey is cut short when her Volvo overheats on the wrong road. Ferguson filmed her role in PLANET TERROR while she was touring the globe and recording an album. In fact, the actor and singer made some extreme adjustments in order to accommodate the production schedule.
She whisked up to Luling, TX set to shoot a scene with Jeff Fahey after performing a concert with the Black Eyed Peas to a sold out crowd in Dallas.
Tammy is Ferguson's third big-screen movie role, and PLANET TERROR completes an unusual hat-trick for the actor: "I was in a horror film when I was little called MONSTER IN THE CLOSET. I died in that. I died in my second movie, POSEIDON, and I die in this one. Three's a charm."
Ferguson had an instant fan in Felix Sabates, who was deemed Coolest Dad In The World after introducing his daughters to Ferguson: "Fergie was just a ball of fire. She's great. My daughters were here and Fergie took them to the dressing room. She was very, very nice to my daughters. And in my book if you're nice to my kids you're in." Sabates was extraordinarily well-suited for the role, despite not being an actor by trade--he's an ophthalmologist in Kansas City and an emergency room physician in Houston. He also does head and neck surgeries. He previously made a brief appearance in Rodriguez's SPY KIDS 2: THE ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS, graciously accepted the offer to portray a version of himself.
"Probably the most fun experience I've had making movies when I did SHARK BOY AND LAVA GIRL and the first five days I got to work with Rebel," Rodriguez says of the casting of his son in the role of Tony. "When I was writing the script I had a little boy, and he was so inspiring because he has the bowl haircut that reminds me from the kid from THE SHINING. In those horror movies kids always have that old bowl haircut, and they always have that same look."
Tom Savini, who designed the zombie effects for the horror classic DAWN OF THE DEAD, portrays Deputy Tolo. Though he is best known as a horror makeup artist, he has proven himself as a gifted actor.
"We built this character together," Rodriguez says. "Tolo's probably somebody who should have been sheriff but probably a little too shell shocked. He'll shoot the wrong person. He might even shoot you (laughs) in a panic. He gets to do some heroic stuff, but he's not like that the whole time like he was in FROM DUSK TIL DAWN. These people are being surprised that his range is really fantastic."
Nicotero, Savini's former protégé, comments: "He's a great actor. I was sitting on set the first night he was doing his big scene, when he loses his finger. I was so proud of him. We were sitting in the car driving back from set, and it was six o'clock in the morning. He was in the front and I was in the back, and I just patted him on the shoulder."
Rodriguez wrote the roles of the Babysitter Twins for his nieces, Electra and Elise Avellan. He would ask his nieces about their after-school job (babysitting, of course) and kidded with the pair that their experiences may make it into one of his movies.
Thankfully for children everywhere, Elise and Electra are nothing like the hyper-aggressive characters they play in PLANET TERROR. "I bet all the parents that ever hired us are going to say, 'Wait, aren't those the babysitters we had a year ago?'" Elise jokes.
"'Is this what they do when we're gone?'" Electra adds.
Finally, Bruce Willis, who acted for Rodriguez in SIN CITY and Quentin Tarantino, who appeared in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN stepped in and took on cameo roles. Tarantino's role offered him the opportunity to act opposite two of his DEATH PROOF stars, Marley Shelton and Rose McGowan.
Tarantino was honored to be asked to play such an interesting role in the film. "Rapist #1" also points to the originality of Rodriguez's script. "It's one of the things that happens in Robert's movies that I like a lot: Two of the most dangerous characters that pose the most important threat to the heroes of the movie are not the infected people. It's Josh Brolin's character, and Rapist #1, who becomes a main villain for the third act of the movie."
"I don't think Quentin was originally going to play the rapist," McGowan says, "He was at the script reading. He was so good and treacherous and funny at the same time, I think he got hired on the spot."
"I think I have a lot of fans out there that don't even know that I'm a director," Tarantino jokes. "They just know me from acting in Robert's movies."
READ MORE ABOUT SICKOS, SHORT SKIRTS, EXPLOSIONS AND BLOOD
ROBERT RODRIGUEZ (WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY/EDITOR)
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING