Baena (right) with John C. Reilly and Dane Dehaan

Director Jeff Baena on ‘Life After Beth’

Discussing Zombies, Aubrey Plaza, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Aug 15, 2014 Web Exclusive
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A romantic comedy set against a zombie apocalypse may seem quite fashionable right now, but when filmmaker Jeff Baena wrote the screenplay over a decade ago—before The Walking Dead, before Zombieland, and, yes, even before Shaun of the Dead—it was ahead of its time. An attempt to make the film in 2003—at the time starring Joseph Gordon Levitt—fell through, and the script wound up collecting dust in a drawer for the next ten years.

The script would finally return from the dead as a vehicle for actress Aubrey Plaza. The actress plays Beth, a girl who dies during a hiking trip only to return to her grief-stricken boyfriend (Dane DeHaan) and parents (John C. Reilly & Molly Shannon) just days after her funeral. Her loved ones are so happy to have her back that they don’t question her rotting skin, cravings for human flesh, or sudden love of smooth jazz.

Plaza is fantastic in her role, taking full advantage of the opportunity to step out of her dry, deadpan shell and give a wild and physical performance. Life After Beth boasts an incredible supporting cast, including Reilly and Shannon, plus Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines, and Anna Kendrick.

Filmmaker Jeff Baena—whose most notable previous credit was penning David O. Russell’s underrated I Heart Huckabees—chatted with us about making his first feature film.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You wrote the script just before this major zombie renaissance hit popular culture. What initially attracted you to a zombie film before it was in fashion?

Jeff Baena: When I first wrote the script I wasn’t thinking of it being a straight-up zombie film. I was thinking of it more as a relationship film that involved zombies. I guess at the time it felt like un-mined territory. Obviously now it has definitely had, as you said, a renaissance, but at the moment there was something very seductive about creating a scenario where you’re not exactly sure why this girl’s come back, but it feels good and makes sense. You don’t ask too many questions and you go along with it, and then before you know it you’ve put yourself in a position where you’re now in danger for your life.

It was never like, oh, we want to do a zombie movie. It was more of a convenient, sort-of perfect metaphor for what I was going for emotionally.

Something both our critic and I enjoyed was how much of the apocalypse plays out in the background of Life After Beth. Save for a few very funny, bigger set pieces, it’s about these characters’ reactions to this single zombie returning from the dead.

It was a stylistic choice from the very beginning, even as I started writing the script, to keep it on more of a micro scale as opposed to the macro. Primarily because I knew I’d be shooting it for a small budget and I wasn’t going to be able to afford to do massive set pieces with a larger scope. At the same time, I felt like we’d seen that so many times, and the emotional carnage is always sort of brushed over, and that was what was more interesting to me.

I grew up in Miami, and if you’re in the middle of a hurricane—which happens at least once per year—you’re not privy to the reason why it’s happening. You’re not a meteorologist at the station, tracking it and figuring it out. You’re not a fisherman out at sea, rushing to get home before it hits. You’re not the freedom fighter—you’re none of these characters. You’re just some guy living in the suburbs, locked in your house with your family and dealing with that. So, for me, a hurricane is more about dealing with interpersonal dynamics than dealing with the bigger picture. You’re not going to get a crane shot from outer space of the eye of the storm; you’re going to be living in it. So that was the more interesting take, from my perspective.

When I went to write [Life After Beth], I tried to minimize and put all of the bigger moments you’re used to seeing on the periphery, and emphasize more of the characters themselves, and their interpersonal dynamics. To me, that was the more interesting side of the story. If this were to really happen, you wouldn’t be the guy saving the day or knowing why it happened. You’d just be in the middle of it and dealing with it.

You’ve had this script in a drawer for something like a decade. What finally got the movie moving into production?

I almost made it back in 2003 and it fell apart. Aubrey [Plaza] had a meeting with her agent and they were discussing future projects, and he remembered my script because he represents Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who wanted to be in it back in the day. He brought it up to her, and she asked me about it, because we’d never really talked about it. As soon as she said that, I realized immediately that we had to make this movie with her in it. From that point on it sort of snowballed, and became a real movie pretty quick.

Were there elements Aubrey brought to the role that maybe you hadn’t imagined when you wrote the script all those years ago?

I think she’s sort of been pigeonholed into deadpan comedy. She has the ability to do pretty much any kind of acting. I think she’s incredibly talented as a dramatic and comedic actress, and she’s just starting to get recognition for that in things like Safety Not Guaranteed and some of the stuff she’s been doing recently. Honestly, I don’t know any other actress who has that kind of range, so when she brought it up it made full sense. There really wasn’t anyone else who could do it.

When I wrote it, I wrote it as a character; I didn’t write it for an actress. I don’t really write for actors or actresses, I just write the movie and cast it after. If I had made Life After Beth in 2003, I don’t know who could have pulled it off as well as Aubrey did.

You put together a terrific ensemble around her. Can you walk us through how a first-time director assembled such a strong supporting cast? How did the pieces fall into place?

I think a lot of it was that people were excited to work with Aubrey. After she was on board, I talked to my friend Miguel Arteta, who is a director and worked with John C. Reilly [on 2002’s The Good Girl and 2011’s Cedar Rapids] and I told him I wanted to approach John first. He’s so talented, and he represents that perfect balance between comedy and drama, he can move between them at the drop of a hat. I gave Miguel a heads-up that I was sending him the script, and John responded immediately and was enthusiastic. We got together for lunch, and he was so excited.

He and I talked, and he’d always wanted to work with Molly Shannon again. They worked together on a couple things, like Year of the Dog and Never Been Kissed, but they’d always wanted to have a more substantial connection in a film. When he said that, just like it clicked with Aubrey it clicked with Molly. That characters is sort of kooky and zany, but so empathic, and that’s really what Molly is like as a person. She’s the warmest person you’ll ever meet in your life, so that was a no-brainer.

Dane [DeHaan] is actually the client of one of my closest friends, who is his manager. I’d met him a year or two before at my house. He came over to play poker, and I’d always liked him as a guy, but then I saw him in Chronicle and Place Beyond the Pines and he was pretty much unparalleled in his dramatic ability. I needed someone who was more of a dramatic actor, and grounded, to be a balance between the comedy and absurdity and give it more emotional gravitas. He was essential in keeping that balance somewhat authentic.

I think I was mostly trying to find a group of actors who could simultaneously be funny but also real; dramatic, but also aware of the strange tone I was going for. They’re all hybrid actors who are amazing.

Obviously, ten years went by since you wrote it. Did you need to go back and retool the screenplay very much before shooting it?

I made a pretty conscious decision that I’d let it be. Obviously, in the interim a bunch of movies came out that explored similar territory. But after thinking about it, I realized there wasn’t anything exactly similar to this, so I felt if I were to be reactionary it would lose some of its charm. For me, the pure essence of it—I didn’t want to butcher that.

The only thing I really had to change what that I took out some references to George W. Bush. There was a little bit of a b-story about a stalker that I also took out. There were a couple scenes I wanted to shoot but we couldn’t afford to, but the film is pretty similar to the script I wrote in 2003.

What are some the scenes you would have shot, had you had a bigger budget?

There was one scene that was actually my favorite in the whole movie, which unfortunately we couldn’t shoot. It would have taken place after [Beth] shows up outside the diner—after a melee between Aubrey and Anna Kendrick—and would have gone to her character’s dance studio, where she does flamenco dancing. She would have freaked out all the dancers and totally destroyed the space. It was just a totally chaotic, insane scene that we really didn’t need. It didn’t add anything to the mix; it was just gratuitous. It was a fun, insane scene that I loved, but I don’t think that we miss it. But I do.

We’ve done plenty of features on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club over the years. Can you tell us how you snagged them compose the film’s score?

So Robert Been, who’s the singer and bassist, is a really close friend of mine. I’ve known him for 12 years or so. Back when I originally wrote this I’d talked to him about working together. At that point they hadn’t even licensed any of their songs for commercials or movies or anything, so it was all kind of new to them and all new to me. But he’s a good friend of mine, and we’d always talked about working together. When this [film] became real, of course I first went to him and Peter [Hayes] and asked if they’d be interested in doing something like this, and they were super excited by the idea. They’d never done a score before so it was a learning curve for them ... but once we found our way, it was so rewarding and amazing.

***

Life After Beth is playing now in select cities. For more information about the film, check out its website. To read our review, click here



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