It is fitting that “Life After Beth” only made it to the big screen after being all but consigned to death, sitting somewhere on a shelf at writer/director Jeff Baena’s house for the past 10 years after a previous attempt to produce it proved unsuccessful. Perhaps ahead of its time as it comfortably takes its place now amongst a series of thoughtful, inventive relationship deconstructions such as “The One I Love” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” rolling out this fall, “Life After Beth” had even slipped Baena’s mind until his girlfriend Aubrey Plaza lacked for interesting projects to potentially star in and her agent recalled the script her beau wrote in 2003 about a guy mourning the loss of his significant other shortly after the two had a falling out, only to realize a second chance at love after a zombie outbreak brings her back to life, albeit in rapidly deteriorating form.
Although the ascent of Plaza as a star, helping to recruit a cast of fellow formidable talents including John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Dane DeHaan and Anna Kendrick, only reinforced the commercial potential of “Life After Beth,” the film reveals itself to be as philosophically intuitive as one might expect from the filmmaker who first gained notice as the co-writer of “I Heart Huckabee’s.” With its chaos not constrained to the viral resurrection of the undead, Baena spins “Life After Beth”‘s horrific premise into a vivacious meditation on rekindling a romance that’s gone toxic. Try as Dehaan’s Zach might to make up for the mistakes of his initial courting of Beth (Plaza), he learns no amount of flamenco dancing lessons will prevent him from the same missteps he made the first time, finding himself digging his feet even deeper now that he feels shared responsibility over Beth’s continuing well-being with her parents (Shannon and Reilly).
Shortly before “Life After Beth” hits theaters, Baena spoke about reviving “Life After Beth” a decade after first putting pen to paper, the proper way to escalate calamity in a scene, and the image that inspired him to make the movie.
What was it like to come back to this script after putting it aside?
You come at it from a little bit more of an objective place, and think like, “Geez, what was I thinking? That’s crazy.” But at the same time, it was refreshing that in my mind, it still held up, and I didn’t really have to do much work on it to get it in a good place to be able to shoot it. After putting it away for 10 years, I didn’t really think about it, so it’s almost like my mind unconsciously was letting it stew, but for the most part, I just moved on from it.
You’ve said it was the only script you’ve started from scratch with the idea you’d direct it. Was it something you were passionate about at the time?
I just had the story in my head and I wanted to tell it, and it just felt like it was coming out like a fever dream. There wasn’t really any limitations to it. It was pouring out of me, and so I just captured it. I never really set out to write a zombie movie or a dark comedy or romantic comedy or drama. I just set out to write that specific story, and I was happy with what came out of it.
Did it start specifically as a zombie film or a relationship movie?
It didn’t really start as either. The first image that I had in my head was of a boy whose girlfriend died, and who got really close to her family. Then they shut him out, and then he sees her through the window, so it was that mysterious, enigmatic moment that I’d built the script out from, both forward and backwards. I’ve always been a fan of the fantastic in fiction, and I like the idea of maintain the hesitation between the uncanny and the marvelous, and I wanted to maintain that hesitation for as long as possible to tell this story where it starts off mirroring our protagonist’s emotional state. It starts off somber, then it gets a little bit more upbeat and manic and frantic, and then it gets terrifying. I don’t really know where it came from. I just know that I wanted to tell the story.
One of the great things in the film is how you’re able to allude to a larger world outside of these characters while keeping the focus squarely on them. Was that difficult?
It was and when I was writing, I was conscious of it. I wrote this with the intention to direct it, so I knew if I was going to make this movie, I wouldn’t have a lot of money, and in order to accomplish the sense of world building or scale, it had to be more in the periphery and subordinated to the interpersonal dynamics. At the same time, it’s not even just that I had to make a cheap movie and I didn’t want to show stuff. Personally, whenever I’ve been through any traumatic experience or anything on the scale of a zombie attack — for me, it would be hurricanes because I grew up in Miami — you’re not dealing with an objective experience. You’re dealing with a very personal subjective experience, so instead being the guy that is the meteorologist at the call center figuring out how to save the day from the storm or the fisherman out at sea who has to get back in time, you’re just some guy that’s stuck in a house with your family with the shutters up.
You may be get glimpses of stuff, but it’s never in the foreground because you’re always dealing with people that aren’t dealing personally with a hurricane or a zombie attack. In this case, obviously they’re dealing with a specific person who’s a zombie, but for the most part, you’re dealing with something on a very personal level and instead of trying to wow people with how big of a spectacle I can create in terms of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to make people think for a second, “Wow, these zombies actually are people, and they’re dealing with stuff that we’re dealing with, and they have emotions, and we actually have to contend with that.”
Still, you’re able to build these great moments of chaos even in the most intimate of situations, something I’ve heard your “I Heart Huckabees” collaborator David O. Russell may have been an influence on. Do those moments come as spontaneously as they seem when watching the film or do you have work towards them?
You have to do it in the script, especially in something like this where there’s no margin for error. You don’t have a lot of time to rehearse or to improvise, so you’ve got to make sure the script’s in the place that feels natural. In a lot of scenes that were written to escalate into chaos, there was a lot of banter and back-and-forth talking, a lot of overlapping dialogue and all that stuff contributes to the sense of chaos and confusion and a confabulation of characters.
After working for so long as a writer, was directing what you thought it would be?
It was more than I thought it would be. I always intended to be a director. It just took a little while and I fell into writing, but directing felt natural because I love technical stuff and most of my friends are actors, so I love collaboration. I love working with cinematographers. I love working with crew people. I love working with everyone and when you’re a writer, you’re just stuck in a room on a laptop. Writing it, you’re like a monk living in an abbey by himself in solitude, then when you’re directing it, it’s like you’re thrust into the middle of a bustling city. I definitely prefer to be around people. The isolation of writing is really nice when it comes to organizing ideas and thoughts, but the actual execution and creating something is so much more fun for me.
How did you actually get interested in filmmaking?
Probably like everyone else, I just loved movies when I was a kid. The biggest inciting incident was when I was 11 years old, I was watching cable TV in my room, and my dad walked in, and A Clockwork Orange was on for a second, and I asked my dad what was going on. He said, “Oh that’s that weird movie, ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ You shouldn’t be watching that.” I [thought], “I like it. It’s cool” and the next day, we went to a video store, and I was like, “Hey dad, what’s another weird movie?” He’s like, “I don’t know. This is supposed to be a weird movie,” and he handed me “8 1/2,” which he hadn’t seen, but he’d just heard about it as being a weird movie. I watched it and all of a sudden, I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker. It just was so transcendent and connected with me on such a deep level. I was 11, so I didn’t fully understand all its nuances yet, but I still was deeply affected by it.
You actually cast a couple of filmmakers in “Life After Beth.” Why did you want them in the film?
Garry Marshall was obviously someone I wanted to be in a movie and there was no chance I had for getting him, but Fred Roos — who is friends with Francis Ford Coppola, the head of Zoetrope, the production company that put together this movie — and Garry Marshall fought in Korea together, so there was like a weird, slight connection to him.
For Paul Weitz, one of my closest friends is Miguel Arteta, and obviously, I’m familiar with Paul Weitz’s work as a director and a writer, but his performance in “Chuck and Buck” is so amazing and so underrated. It’s kind of funny, but I probably tried to get him on board harder than any of the other actors in the movie because he had some vacation that he had to reschedule. Most people would have been like, “He can’t do it. His schedule doesn’t work” and I just like insisted and insisted and wouldn’t let it go. With dogged determination, I was eventually able to get him and I just I love everything about him. He’s such a great guy.
What’s it been like to let go of something that’s been with you for a decade into the world?
It’s exhilarating and terrifying. Every single time we bring it to another country, I’m always wondering what will translate and what won’t translate. As confident as I was going into production, I’m equally terrified when it comes to showing it to people. Hopefully, they like it, but if they don’t, that’s awful and the downside to this whole process is that you end up becoming a junkie for laughs. When I set out to make this movie, it wasn’t to create a laugh-out-loud uproarious comedy, it was to tell a distinct, specific story, and the only way you can ultimately gauge how successful it is in the moment is if people are laughing or not. So I ended becoming too clued in to the laughter, which to me is besides the point, but that’s what you end up doing, but otherwise, it’s been really rewarding to travel and show people stuff that you create. It’s fun, but honestly, the production is so much more fun than everything that happens after.
“Life After Beth” opens on August 15th in Los Angeles at the ArcLight Hollywood and in New York at the Angelika Theater. It is also now available on DirecTV.