November 18, 2018

David Light’s View of Zombies, Being Married to a Rabbi and the Trump Era

ZOMBIES - David Light, screenwriter. (Disney Channel/Edward Herrera)

David Light, 44, is a Los Angeles-based comedy writer whose first produced feature — Disney Channel’s “Zombies” — premiered last month to an audience of more than 10 million. Co-written with partner Joseph Raso, the song-and-dance musical tells the story of star-crossed high-school freshmen (a zombie and a cheerleader) who learn to love each other despite their differences.

Outside of Hollywood, Light is best known as the “rebbetzin” at IKAR, the politically progressive activist community founded by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous. “When I was going around for meetings when I first got to town, the idea that I was a comedy writer was not particularly interesting, but the fact that I was married to a rabbi was — and still is,” Light said. We caught up with him last week to discuss the relationship between Jews and Zombies, how Camp Ramah inspired his writing career and why Hollywood could be a vehicle for decency.

Jewish Journal: The last time I interviewed you was in 2007, for a story about what it’s like to be married to a rabbi. Now you’re a big Hollywood writer. Which job is harder?

David Light: (laughs) Don’t you mean which job is more fun?

JJ: “Zombies” is about a zombie and a cheerleader who are both outsiders. How does being Jewish give you insight into the marginalized, especially since American Jews today are so well integrated?

DL: Being Jewish makes you both an insider and an outsider, and we’re constantly balancing between those worlds. I grew up the Jewiest kid in public school, so navigating that taught me a lot and gave me experiences to draw from.

JJ: Can you elaborate on how being Jewish informs your writing?

DL: I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), [and] there was ‘mail day,’ when you’d send a letter home to prove you were alive and surviving at camp. But I figured out how to game the system, since [the counselors] weren’t checking content; they just wanted an envelope. So I started to address empty envelopes and send them home, week after week. After like, six weeks, I finally got a “package” slip — and [I] opened it up and it was empty. My mom totally one-upped me. When I got home, I was grounded until I could write a letter for each week of camp. Out of that moment, I fell in love with writing.

“What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster.”

JJ: “Zombies” incorporates the timeless appeal of people from different backgrounds being attracted to each other. How do you reconcile that cultural trope with the fact that you’re part of a tradition that discourages intermarriage?

DL: Ugh. [laughs] So you’re asking me to answer why ‘star-crossed lovers’ and make the case for not marrying out of the tribe?

JJ: I’m just curious how you square “loving the other” as a broad cultural value with the fact that Judaism discourages the intermingling of difference when it comes to romance.

DL: Look, I think we’re living in a profoundly indecent time. It just feels like the world is so polarized right now and we wanted to do a movie that values open heartedness and decency. And in the Disney canon, a movie about humanity makes sense; but right now, it feels countercultural. So we thought if our cheerleader could find a way to open her heart to a monster, that there’s real humanity to that.

JJ: Even if the monster is, say, the NRA?

DL: Oh, gosh. That’s the Rorschach you’re putting on this?

Some of us might have different ideas about who the monster is. So are we talking about being open-hearted to all monsters or to a certain kind of monster?

I don’t think being a card-carrying NRA member makes you a monster. But I do think we should hear more voices coming from those members who are more moderate about gun control and sensible reform. I keep wondering, where’s the law enforcement that’s in the NRA? How can they possibly want more assault rifles on the streets?

JJ: Movie monsters have often been a political or cultural metaphor for the prevalent fear of the moment. What do your zombies represent?

DL: Are you asking me, “Are the Israelis or the Palestinians zombies?” (laughs) What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster. They don’t have the sex appeal of a vampire or the cool powers of a witch. They’re just relentless; they keep coming. The [Centers for Disease Control] even did a whole zombie-preparedness campaign because it helped people think about, “What if it all goes wrong? What if the apocalypse really does come?”

JJ: IKAR, the community your wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founded, and which you helped build, has developed a national reputation for political activism. How are things going during the Trump era?

DL: IKAR was founded during the (George W.) Bush years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance. I think there was a lot of core value alignment during the (Barack) Obama years and now we’re back to a moment of resistance and opposition.

Best place to avoid a zombie apocalypse?

Max Brooks, son of the comedian behind “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers,” is convinced that Jews are uniquely positioned to face a zombie apocalypse. And he’s not joking.

“Gentiles don’t understand how truly dangerous the world is. Jews do. It’s part of our national culture,” he said. “We’re the only ones who actually have a national freaking holiday about running for our lives. We call it Passover.”

As the author of “World War Z,” the book upon which the new Brad Pitt movie of the same name is loosely based, Brooks, 41, has given zombies more thought than most. His 2006 book takes the form of an oral history looking back at humanity’s long fight against a pandemic of flesh-eating creatures.

While there are many differences between his book and film that opened June 21 — Brooks played no role in molding the latter, and Pitt’s character (a former U.N. field investigator traveling the world in search of zombie-fighting intel) does not even appear in the former — the Holy Land’s swift reaction to the outbreak of the undead is notable in both. As the threat spreads and other countries struggle to deal with it, Israel distinguishes itself from the rest of the world by walling itself off from its attackers, becoming an island in a sea of zombies.

Brooks said his overall treatment of Israel, which differs in other respects from the movie, was based on real research.

“I’ve studied a lot of Israeli military strategic tactics,” he said. “I’ve studied all their weapons systems, and they’re very practical. … The Israelis don’t have time to screw around. They don’t have the luxury. It made sense to me that if there was a global crisis coming they would be the first to jump on it, because they literally don’t have time to learn from their mistakes.”

To wit: In both versions of “World War Z,” a character says that Israel adopted a policy following the surprise Yom Kippur War in 1973. It requires that if nine intelligence analysts come to the same conclusion about something, it is the duty of a 10th to disagree. No possible threat — not even the undead, apparently — is to be dismissed.

For Brooks, whose funnyman father, Mel, served in World War II, there’s even a parallel to be drawn between zombies and Nazis, who left Jews no hope for negotiation or common ground.

“The fact that I am part of a tribe that was almost exterminated for no other reason than that we existed leaves a pretty heavy mark,” Brooks said. “And that kind of terror is also how I feel when I think about zombies, because they are coming after me no matter what I’ve done, no matter what kind of person I am.”

On the silver screen — where “World War Z” took in $66 million during its first weekend — positive images of Israel abound. The nation’s flags wave proudly as it receives refugees of all faiths, and a soldier more than has a chance to prove her mettle. 

The undead may have their own place in traditional Jewish lore — the golem, for example — but Brooks said his interest in the genre comes from an intensely personal place.

“I was always scared of them,” he said. “They terrified me because they broke what I considered to be the one sort of golden rule of monsters, which is you have to go to find them. … They came to you.” 

A Los Angeles resident who is married and has one son, Brooks first turned his fascination with zombies into the New York Times best-seller “The Zombie Survival Guide” in 2003. It was an attempt, he said, to answer his own questions about them. He remembers seeing his first zombie film when he was about 12.

Brad Pitt in “World War Z.” Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

“For me, the most terrifying moment of it was not the flesh-eating, which was pretty fricking scary. There was a scene in the U.N. where we understood that it was a global problem. And I think that was the thing about zombies — that they’re global. There’s no safe place to go.”

That’s also part of what makes zombies — which are much, much faster in the movie — so popular these days (think “The Walking Dead”), Brooks believes. People are uncertain about the future and don’t want to face their fears directly. Addressing them under the guise of a zombie pandemic makes it more palatable.

“I think there’s a global anxiety that there hasn’t been in a very long time, not since the 1970s,” Brooks said.

Swine flu. Bird flu. Terrorism. Global financial meltdown. Global warming. 

“You name it, it’s coming.”

A historian by trade, Brooks said that “basically everything that happens in ‘World War Z’ has already happened. I didn’t make anything up. I just sort of zombified real historical events.”

Further, he said, “I didn’t really set out to write a message. I think if there is one it is that there are no more local problems. I think the last decade has shown that. Unfortunately, the good old days of American isolation really don’t work anymore.”

Uninitiated moviegoers may be surprised to learn that a zombie thriller was based on a book by the son of Mel Brooks. Still, Max Brooks — who wrote for two years at “Saturday Night Live” and won an Emmy — insists that he’s a zombie nerd at heart. 

The only problem with his last name, he discovered with the release of his first book? Having it land him in the humor section.

Watch the trailer for “World War Z” here: