From the start of Zack Whedon’s directorial debut “Come and Find Me,” you’re intrigued. A woman (Annabelle Wallis) catches the eye of a man (Aaron Paul) who hops onto the bus she’s riding in Los Angeles on a lonely evening, only to get off the bus and find that man following her home, yet when it’s time to get out the keys, it is him and not her who opens the door. Once inside, it is clear that Claire and David know each other — in fact, they’re lovers — and yet it’s the space between them that keeps their relationship exciting. Unfortunately for David, things get a little too exciting when Claire’s gone in the morning and doesn’t return, with few clues left for him to figure out where she is or if she’s even alive.
As one might suspect from the younger brother of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” showrunner Jed, there are larger forces at play when Claire disappears in Whedon’s first feature, which sees David leave the home that they shared in Los Angeles for Vancouver in an effort to find her, but there are also larger ideas. Intertwining the mystery of Claire’s whereabouts with one involving who she actually is, the film becomes a riveting romance in which you may only spend time with David, but your mind — and his — keep going back to Claire, wondering with each new revelation whether he’ll love her more or less if they ever see each other again, as well as if there’s a degree of distance necessary to keep a relationship alive. Even with the arrival of Eastern European thugs and federal agents with shadowy intentions, it may just be the acceptance of never truly being able to know another person that is most bedeviling for David and bewitching for an audience.
Whedon, who honed his skills as a writer/producer for such shows as “The Red Road” and “Halt and Catch Fire,” shows an assured hand at finding drama in the everyday and a flair for the unexpected, crafting exhilarating set-pieces that exacerbate David’s increasingly tenuous hold on reality, making “Come and Find Me” itself a discovery. Shortly before the film arrives in theaters, the writer/director and its star spoke about their collaboration and kicking a beehive, both literally and figuratively, to make such an exciting thriller.
How did you guys find each other?
Aaron Paul: It all started at a bar — The Pikey in Hollywood. When I read his script, it grabbed me from the first five pages and I was like, “This is a no brainer.” I wanted to have a beer with him just to see if I liked the guy and I always make a promise [to myself], “Do not tell them in the meeting that you’re going to do it, because you should let things marinate, and digest it and then make a decision. But after having a beer with [Zack] at this bar, I was like, “I have to do it, and I told him, “Let’s make this movie together.”
Zack Whedon: We sat down and had this nice, general conversation, and then Aaron was like, “Let’s do this.” So I tried to remain calm and then went outside and pumped my fist in private. It all came together very quickly. That was in March or April and then we were shooting by July, so it was a whirlwind.
Is it more of a leap of faith when it’s a first-time director?
Aaron Paul: I guess you could call it a leap of faith, but I just knew it was going to be a great experience and my heart is in independent filmmaking. Whenever I read scripts, that’s what I gravitate towards and usually, the scripts that have a giant budget — at least the films I’m approached with, I just am not really into the characters. And [Zack] was such a pro on set. He was really so comfortable and obviously excited this was his baby. He wrote this script a few years ago — and it was on the Black List in 2012 — and it was so great it ended up being the writer of this script holding the reins as the director. He just did such a brilliant job.
Zack Whedon: And it absolutely is a leap of faith to work with a first-time director and every first-time director needs someone to make that leap of faith. It’s a very generous act and it shouldn’t be underplayed what Aaron did for me. It was an amazing thing that he agreed to do it.
Is it true you had Aaron in mind while writing the script? I’ve heard there was a short list of actors you were thinking about.
Aaron Paul: Where did I land on the list?
Zack Whedon: You were number three.
Aaron Paul: [laughs] Alright, I’ll take it. Hey, three’s fine!
Zack Whedon: Mr. Tom Cruise…Harrison Ford…
Aaron Paul: Whut? [laughs]
Zack Whedon: And then you were number three. [both laugh] No, absolutely [Aaron] was, and in everything he does, he brings so much humanity and heart to what he does. Obviously Jesse Pinkman [on “Breaking Bad”] is an enormous amount of material to look at, and I needed [this character] to be emotionally raw, so the audience could latch onto him and be in his experience. I knew Aaron was great at that. And then on set, I was blown away just by the depth of his feeling and how open he is emotionally. I think that’s why people love to watch him because he completely makes himself vulnerable to the audience.
Aaron Paul: I think anyone can really relate to this guy because he’s not this strong, heroic guy. He’s like, “What the hell is happening?” He’s madly in love with this girl and he wakes up and she’s gone, so what would you do? And he never gives up hope. He just convinces himself that maybe she never loved him — and that’s the best case scenario.
Those first five pages Aaron mentions are incredibly bewitching — it’s unsettling and mysterious, but it sets the tone of the film up perfectly. How did that opening come about?
Zack Whedon: That was actually the first thing I wrote — which is the first scene in the movie, so that’s often the case — but I woke up literally in the middle of the night and reached over to my little notebook, and scribbled down this scene where it looks like somebody is following somebody else. If I read it aloud to you, it basically plays almost exactly how it plays in the movie and the entire movie sprung from that scene. Then in shooting it, Aaron and Annabelle [Wallis] together are electrically entertaining. Even when the camera’s not rolling, they have so much fun together and when they get into that house and they start playing off of each other, I think the direction that I called out was “less insane” because they were just bouncing off each other in a really exciting way so pulling that back was [difficult].
Aaron Paul: Yeah, what was so great was [being] the first cast member attached, we were talking about just different ideas for this girl and when [Zack] told me he was really interested in Annabelle, I was just so excited [because] I’ve been friends with her for many years, and I’ve been just such a huge fan of her work. So I’ve been waiting for her to have just more opportunities to shine and she absolutely does that in this film.
Was the shoot structured in such a way where it could’ve helped the performances, perhaps with Annabelle and Aaron together at the start?
Zack Whedon: There’s so many factors that you don’t have a ton of control over what happens when, but fortunately, the first two days we shot them meeting and falling in love — the scenes in each of their apartments where they have dinner together and kiss for the first time. That was really, really lucky because they got to get comfortable with each other and establish that love and connection before we got into the crazier stuff. It gave me such confidence to shoot those scenes first to see the chemistry was there and that’s essential for this movie to work at all – that you’re rooting for this couple and they were great together. As Aaron was saying, Annabelle’s so phenomenal in the movie and is just a wonderful person to work with.
One of the great things about this is that it’s a modern mystery and yet a computer is only used in the film as a storage device for some pictures. Was it tricky to get around the idea of technology?
Zack Whedon: It wasn’t a conscious choice, except that I don’t think it’s that compelling to watch people Google stuff for two hours. But as a writer, our technological advances are a pain in the ass because they make things so much easier and miscommunication is so much more difficult because we can all reach out to each other, so I think there’s a tendency among writers to stay away from that stuff.
Aaron Paul: I also love that he doesn’t have a car. And he lives in Los Angeles. [laughs] It’s great.
Zack Whedon: He’s unusual. He’s a weirdo.
You also find an incredible place where David meets Garret Dillahunt’s character, the federal agent John Hall for the first time. What was it like finding that majestic locale atop a mountain?
Aaron Paul: Vancouver, man. It’s so breathtakingly beautiful everywhere you go. I know when [Zack] scouted, that was covered in clouds, right?
Zack Whedon: Yeah, there was a huge fire when we scouted that place, so you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of you because the smoke was so thick. But we were like, “This works.” And then we showed up on the day of the shoot…
Aaron Paul: …And we were like, “What is this place?!?” We couldn’t believe it and we’re doing such a heavy scene. I think that’s really [David’s] lowest point, where he believes [his girlfriend’s] gone, so shooting that there, we had all the elements. It was nice.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Aaron Paul: They all were pretty crazy. It was a run and gun type shoot. How long was this shoot?
Zack Whedon: Twenty-five days. Which is ambitious for this script because of how many locations there are, so we were bouncing a lot on certain days and those were the most stressful for me. When we shot the chase through the woods, I was very nervous and it ended up going much more smoothly than I anticipated, partially because our [cinematographer] Sean Stiegemeier, who in addition to being an amazing photographer, is also a gifted athlete, so he can run through the woods, leaping over logs…
Aaron Paul: It’s unbelievable.
Zack Whedon: And we thought we’d have to break down [the chase sequence] into five shots, but he could get it in one. He was amazing and able to get us through that day a lot faster.
Aaron Paul: Apparently, we were also shooting [in a place that was] infested with bees, and I’d never been on a set where I had to sign so many medical releases because I’m deathly allergic to bees, and they told me everyone was getting stung by bees. And I thought why am I signing my life away? But I was fine. Did you get stung?
Zack Whedon: Yeah, Sean and I both got stung. [laughs] One of our producers’ assistants wandered down and got stung three times, which is how we knew not to go down there. She had this amazing gift to solve problems by harming herself, and she saved us that day because otherwise we would’ve sent Aaron running through a beehive. It would’ve been a bad day.
Aaron Paul: It all worked out.
“Come and Find Me” opens on November 11th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and New York at Cinema Village and the AMC Empire 25. A full list of theaters and dates is here.