Every time you see Tig Notaro in Zack Snyder’s new zombiepalooza smash-and-grab heist movie Army of the Dead, the character you’re watching was originally played by now scandal-plagued comedian Chris D’Elia. Don’t try to picture it; that was the whole point of removing him.
Snyder answered quickly when I asked him if it was a difficult decision to replace D’Elia after he was accused by multiple women of predatory sexual behavior, sometimes when they were underage. “I think it was a fairly easy one,” the filmmaker said, wincing.
“It was an expensive one, that’s for sure,” added producer Deborah Snyder. The husband and wife filmmaking team estimate that Netflix spent millions of dollars to digitally erase D’Elia and stage reshoots with Notaro so she could be inserted in among Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, and the rest of the cast.
Zack put the number at “a few million,” while Deborah aimed a little higher. “It was like the cost of our little German movie,” she said, referring to Army of Thieves, the rom-com themed prequel that they shot overseas—which Netflix will release as a follow-up to Army of the Dead, along with an animated series based in the same universe.
“I will say, Netflix did the right thing. They put their money where their mouth is,” Deborah said. D’Elia was accused in June 2020, after finishing his work on the film but in the midst of the monthslong Hollywood pandemic shutdown. In August, the Snyders and Netflix announced that Notaro would be taking his place, with every trace of D’Elia completely scrubbed.
D’Elia, known for the TV shows Whitney and You, denies wrongdoing and has said he never knowingly targeted women who were underage. Still, nobody wanted to see him onscreen, including the filmmakers, especially as the accusations against him continued to pile up and became even more upsetting.
One challenge for Army of the Dead was that reassembling the cast for completely new takes with Notaro wasn’t an option, since regular filmmaking was still stumbling back to its feet in September when her footage needed to be captured. “What a weird shoot,” said Deborah. “Netflix had only shot one day for a reshoot on Prom. Then we were the next thing that they had during COVID.”
“We were really figuring it out,” Zack added.
It was especially fraught because Notaro is a cancer survivor, which put her at increased risk of complications if infected with the coronavirus. “She was nervous about being immunocompromised,” Deborah said.
All of that meant Notaro would have to go it alone.
Several months ago, Vanity Fair sat with Snyder in his home office as he reviewed the visual shots that overlaid Notaro into existing scenes as the heist squad’s poker-faced helicopter pilot. Some shots, such as Notaro inside a stalled chopper that she is desperately trying to restart as it plunges off the side of a towering casino, are obviously filled with C.G. But other sequences, of her walking in the background with the team while Bautista leads them down a corridor, aren’t the kinds of things that usually feature groundbreaking VFX ingenuity.
“That shot that we did where Tig and Dave are walking and talking in the loading dock, we were pretty sure that we were just gonna have to cut that scene,” the filmmaker said. “When we first talked about it, I was like, ‘This is gonna be really hard because they’re all backlit and haloed and there’s a lens flare.’ But it came out perfectly.”
Fortunately for the Justice League and 300 director, the crew he has built up over the years has become expert at seamlessly adding things to the screen that aren’t really there. “It just so happens that the group makes giant visual-effects movies, you know what I mean? It worked out that we were like, Oh, yeah, I know how to do this. But you know, it could have been a disaster.”
It turned out to be the best possible thing for Army of the Dead. Not only did the film lose the distasteful presence of D’Elia, but Notaro brought an entirely different presence to the character of cigar-chomping Peters. “Tig Notaro Is the Best Part of Army of the Dead—and Wasn’t Even Supposed to Be in the Movie,” wrote Men’s Health.
While Bautista’s squad is breaking into a zombie-overrun Las Vegas casino to recover a lost fortune, Notaro is stealing every scene, all by her lonesome.
“I think the movie is better with Tig Notaro, frankly, because she’s more unexpected and she’s more fun,” Snyder said. “She’s like, ‘Zack, clearly you knew that I had an action hero in here somewhere. I don’t know where it is, but you found it.’ She’s so bone-dry, but in the best possible way.”
Notaro recently told Stephen Colbert that she looks forward to acting again with actual castmates. Snyder said the absence of everyone else was a running joke during their pared-down reshoots. “She kept going, ‘You know, Zack, I just realized that I’m not the star of this movie.’ I go, ‘What do mean?’ She goes, ‘It feels like I’m the star because…’”
“‘I’m the only one here,’” Debbie Snyder said.
“Yeah, ‘I’m the only one here,’” Zack went on. “All these people are here just to film me. So I feel really good about myself. Then you say things to me like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re completely out of focus in this shot.’”
Out of focus, maybe. But still the savior of Army of the Dead.
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