Interview: Jeff Baena

Jeff Baena has made a different kind of zombie movie for his debut feature as a director. I know a lot of people claim to have had their own spin on the done to death genre, but his send up of romantic comedies mashed up with horror and apocalyptic elements, Life After Beth (opening at The Royal in Toronto this Friday and also hitting VOD the same day), tries to tell a more singular kind of end of days experience.

Baena (who also worked on the screenplay for David O. Russell’s cult favourite I Heart Huckabees) casts Dane DeHaan as Zach, a young man just out of high school who has recently suffered the loss of his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Aubrey Plaza) following an ill fated solo hike where she turned up dead from an apparent attack. Zach soon realizes that Beth isn’t dead after all, but being kept secretly by her mother and father (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly) in their attic because she’s come back from the dead. Beth can only remember the period prior to her break-up with Zach and her death, so he decides to try to make it work with her again. That is, until Beth starts turning into a fully fledged, flesh and organs craving zombie. It’s arguable if this situation is worse than when they first broke up.

Telling a more character based comedy instead of grand spectacle, Baena (who was in Toronto this past June on a promotional stop before headed to Fantasia in Montreal with the film) tried to keep things grounded by putting the story he had in mind first and figuring how everything else would play into it. The result is a consistently amusing and hard to peg down genre experience.

We chatted during his time here about how he never intentionally set out to subvert genres, how the film could be read as a relationship story without the zombies, working with actors who can sell comedy and drama in equal amounts, and why cast member Paul Reiser’s performance in Aliens was a seminal moment for him growing up.

Dork Shelf: This movie is not at all what I was expecting it to be, but as a fan of all the different genres that you’re playing with here, it’s nice to see all of them taken from a different approach. What’s it like trying to take material that has such strong genre elements to it and trying to subvert a bunch of them in the same film?

Jeff Baena: I don’t think I initially set out to subvert genres. I think it just started because I had this story that I really wanted to tell. I think I just emphasized the emotional trajectories of these characters over tropes. It was never intentionally, “Oh, let’s take this part from this genre and this part from that genre.” It was just a holistic approach that I took that played naturally into those aspects. I was never really concerned when I was writing it that they would fit together because they fit together emotionally more than anything.

DS: The tone here is very careful. There are some slapstick elements to the comedy, but it never goes too silly and the horror elements never go too dark. There’s a lightness here that’s endearing and refreshing. I wanted to talk to you about that because it’s hard to deliver a horror comedy with a straight face. It has a great deadpan sensibility to it. When you were writing it and preparing it, what was it like figuring out the tone of the material in your mind before you had any actors or anything else attached to it?

Jeff-Baena-FeaturedJB: It’s weird. Obviously it has a tone that people are picking up on an emphasizing, and again, I think that just comes from the story itself. It was almost like the story came first and then the tone was figured out after. I’m not someone who can’t just vacillate between tones and pick what specifically goes in what places. It was a matter of being in each moment. The choices I made had to be consistent, and obviously they’re pretty insane in some areas, but I guess the idea was that as long as I could stay true to the main character, and I’m following him and his response to everything seems genuine and authentic, then no matter how absurd it gets it will ultimately stay grounded and consistent. There’s horror, slapstick, madcap screwball elements, poignant dramatic elements, but they’re all ultimately servicing this character and what he’s going through.

I think when I was writing it, I never thought about how that would be a challenge. The story just came out of me. I wrote it really fast. It just flowed out. I mean, I wrote this ten years ago, so this was all a while back. At the time I felt inspired and it had an energy to it, and as long as that energy wasn’t flagging, I felt like things were on track.

In terms of the actual filmmaking aspect of it, though, casting Dane was the real coup because he’s such an amazing actor. As a dramatic actor we’ve seen him do a lot of great work, but he’s never had a chance to really push himself with comedy. He’s never really done one. We knew about his dramatic capabilities, but we never really knew about his comedic capabilities. I always thought that the main character shouldn’t be a downer; that he should be more of a brooder than depression and sadness and able to convey this maniacal happiness when his girlfriend comes back. But none of those are funny, they’re just more heightened emotions. I think in order for that framework to work, you need to have an actor who’s solid and grounded. Then everything else can really get that same sense of grounding, too.

Ultimately from the beginning, even when I was writing it and before I knew I would be making it and that I wouldn’t have a lot of money for it, I had to have most of the elements that you see in a genre movie be a bit more in the peripheral. Everything is a bit more subjective and coming almost entirely from the main character’s point of view. I think that helps to ground it a bit and keep things more tonally consistent because we’re with him the whole time. And when you’re with an actor like Dane, he sort of informs those scenes.

DS: The zombies and the zombie problem at large builds kind of slowly, getting worse and worse over time instead of being a full on outbreak right at the start. And as we follow him and stay on his story, that story has to be strong enough so that you don’t need to see too much of the decay around him.

JB: Exactly! Very right. This is not the kind of movie where you have a scene where there’s a general or a cop or a scientist who’s running around and telling the characters what to do. Matthew (Gray Gubler) has the character who’s closest to that, and he’s the furthest thing from a rational authority figure. Those kinds of characters that are normally in these kinds of films are never the people you would be around if this sort of thing were to happen in real life. That’s kind of what appealed to me as a story. There was a specificity to it and everyone is kind of unable to deal with it in any meaningful way. It’s all too much for everybody. Even when Dane’s character tries to come up with a solution, it’s totally farfetched and ineffectual. I really liked that part of it.

DS: One of the things that’s interesting about the relationship between these two main characters, is that for a long period of time, it doesn’t feel like Beth has to be a zombie. It feels like a real break-up story that as just been amplified by using zombies as a metaphor. You have the break-up, you have a period of mourning, and then sometimes you have a very awkward stage where you get back together, and that’s what’s happening with this couple. Even the way Beth’s parents react feels like how they would react following a break-up involving their daughter. Did you write it so it could be viewed as a more serious film about relationships in addition to the genre elements?

JB: It wasn’t on my radar when I was writing it, but I think I knew that I was about to go through a break-up at the time. I had been through several by then, and I think the way the human mind works when you break-up with somebody is unlike anything else you can experience. I don’t even necessarily think it’s particularly about break-ups, per say, but about any sort of personal pain in general. Sometimes you can remember both the good and the bad stuff and other times it’s incredibly traumatic, scarring, and you can have PTSD, but ultimately in a relationship you tend to idealize it and recontextualize it afterwards. You think you made all of these mistakes, you know this other person is no longer perfect in your eyes, you look for ways to fix it and get back with the person. If you do go into that stage when you get back with them, those feelings and intentions are so strong because you find yourself in that “honeymoon period” again. Then as soon as reality starts seeping in and your personality starts normalizing, that’s when the problems reappear. Then you start becoming passive-aggressive and that devolves into anger.

I think that’s a completely legitimate reading of it, though. That wasn’t my intention, but I think on an unconscious level it was definitely informed by that.

Life After Beth

DS: You also don’t let it be known right away why these people broke up in the first place. Beth is stuck in this time loop where she can only remember this very specific time loop from before she started becoming a zombie. She doesn’t even remember the hike she takes on her own, which is the first time we see her as a character. But Dane’s character has this guilt to him where he can’t understand why they ever broke up. He’s very much willing to admit to her that she’s dead and a walking corpse, but he’s deathly afraid of bringing up what went sour for them.

JB: I think for me that sort of emphasize for me the things that would maximize the dramatic tension with Dane’s character. I think on the most basic level you can see that they loved each other, she died, she came back, they love each other again, and then everything’s a nightmare. Or you can skip that first part and read it that everything is still a nightmare and he’s just trying to make it work. For me there was something about them having problems to begin with that would always make everything between them feel unresolved. She does come back and he clearly didn’t want to break up with her. I think it’s pretty clear that she broke up with him, and then she died and she just became more unobtainable.

DS: Even though the film never comes out and says it directly, I always got the sense that there was something he did to warrant Beth breaking-up with him.

JB: Yeah, he definitely knows that he did something. I think in the first version of the script, and I’ll just tell you this now because it doesn’t really matter (laughs), I think it was that they were going to different colleges and she thought that the distance would be too much and her heart was obviously in a different, stronger place. For him, time and distance obviously don’t matter to him. Ultimately, those are all bumps on the surface because at the time all he ever wanted was coming from a short sighted point of view. It wasn’t about someone who was looking at the positive things that happen and all the things that could happen, it was all about denial.

The idea of zombies coming back and reappearing in people’s lives is sort of the most emotionally gut-wrenching carnage you can have. They deteriorate. In front of you is all you ever wanted and it’s kind of failing right in front of your eyes. It’s harder than having them just go away and you never have to see them again. There will come a point where if you’re faced with a zombie, there will obviously be moments of physical violence, but that emotional violence of seeing someone like that hurts even more. Physical scars have the potential to heal, but deep, emotional ones never do.

DS: Going on to something a little lighter, the film has a lot of sort of classic sight gags, like Aubrey poking her head through the ventilation unit on the roof, someone being asked to close the door behind them, but they stay in the room. What was it like coming up with those smaller comedic moments of the film outside of the zombie craziness?

JB: The movies that always resonate with me, especially when I watch a comedy, are the ones where the laughs resonate on the inside as much as they do on the outside. You might not be guffawing, but you could be chuckling a lot. Those are the kinds of movies that I like the most. Those kinds of little moments that you don’t really notice or that have all these little touches that you could either notice or you could skip over, those are the gems for me. That’s the comedy I appreciate and what I made. Those bigger set pieces that go on long are things that people really love, and I appreciate that, but those moments work and are more successful because of those smaller moments that keep people chuckling before the bigger moments hit.

DS: Is that why you gravitate towards people and actors like Aubrey, John C. Reilly, and Molly Shannon who can sell those kinds of small moments and have been doing that throughout their careers?

JB: Yeah! Absolutely. John, Aubrey, Molly, Paul Reiser, they’re all people who have one foot in straight comedy and one foot in straight drama. They can move between both within a single scene or a single line of dialogue if they have to. That’s what we need. You need a hybrid to have material like this work.

John is almost the quintessential comedic and dramatic actor. There’s nothing he can’t do. He can sing, he can, he can dance, he can make you laugh, make you cry, make you fear him. I think by filling the cast out with actors who have those deeper dimensions is what gives the film those moments.

The film was scripted, but when we did rehearsals, if anyone came up with anything that was funny, I would definitely stick it in there. My favourite example of that is when John says, “I don’t know, I’m not a herbatologist.” He came up with that in rehearsals, and I said, “That’s amazing! Let’s go with that.” When you have actors who can bring that and can feel the energy of the material and understand the mood and the tone, that’s just a boon.

DS: And John has great chemistry with Dane in the scenes where they keep fighting and trying to figure out what’s going on.

JB: Yeah, there’s a real cognitive dissonance there. They both sound legitimately crazy and sound insane.

DS: And I was really happy to see Paul Reiser as Dane’s dad, and he’s shaping up to have a really big year.

JB: Man, I have always loved Paul Reiser. I think he had a sitcom a couple years ago he had a sitcom, but he’s a special person to me. My Two Dads was a huge show for me growing up. And there’s this movie that he did called Odd Jobs that I absolutely loved when I was a kid that no one has seen. The thing that sticks with me the most about him, and this is kind of a strange throwaway, but when he was in Aliens, his villain was one of the most amazing villains in the history of film because he’s just playing Paul Reiser. He’s playing this sweet, kind of goofy guy who you really want to believe is on the level, and then when we find out he’s the bad guy, that’s devastating. It’s like a huge betrayal.

DS: And even when you find out he’s the bad guy, he’s essentially still the same person. You just know what his actual motivations are now.

JB: Yeah! He doesn’t even really become all that slimey. There’s something still likable about him, which is even more diabolical. You’re not even so much angry and disappointed, but just in shock that someone could behave like that. It’s like the scene in Anchorman when Ron is berating his dog for eating all the cheese and crapping in the refrigerator. You’re not even mad, you’re kind of impressed. (laughs) I never knew how Paul could do that, and that was really a seminal moment for me in that performance.

I always wanted Paul Reiser in this movie. We had lunch, and he loved it. Originally when I wrote this, all of the characters were supposed to be sort of upper middle class Jewish people, and that’s still in there with the core family when you see the extended family start to come back later on. But Paul is pretty much the only Jewish guy in the movie. (laughs) We sat down and he really understood the cadence and the way the dialogue should read because he knows that world. I guess everyone else just kind of knows that language from just being around Los Angeles and being around Jewish people. (laughs) But he was the only person who lived it and understood it on that level. He totally understood what we were going for.

DS: Towards the end of the film, Aubrey shows a real talent for physical comedy that I never really knew she was capable of. She has to really get into the role and get really physical and make it look like she’s carting an oven around on her back.

JB: And that oven was actually really heavy. (laughs) It was heavier than it should have been, and that was kind of stressful for her, but she’s incredible. She can do anything. Obviously, she’s hysterical, dry, quick, and witty, but I think what people are starting to take notice of is her dramatic abilities in films like Safety Not Guaranteed and About Alex. She’s testing more of the dramatic side and I think she’s really about to hit.

DS: It’s also different for her because even though she’s dead, she’s arguably playing the warmest character. Oddly enough before she starts going mad, she would be the kind of person I would want to have around the most out of all of these people in a situation like this. And when people see her on something like Parks and Recreation, they automatically expect someone to be somewhat sarcastic and controlling. This is something against type for her.

JB: Yeah, and it’s really all that one show. If you watch some of the stuff that she has done beforehand and some of the stuff that she has coming up, she has crazy range. That’s just what she’s known for, and she’s kind of been pigeonholed in that way, which is a real shame.

DS: So what’s it like working with Aubrey to create a character that’s dead, but has to remain somewhat likable?

JB: It was definitely a bit of a challenge. I tried to show as little backstory as possible. I’m super sensitive to when things are expository. I feel like I’m glazing over when I see stuff like that happening. For me, it was all about trying to settle upon this phenomenological experience where you’re watching it unfold around you and all the information that you need is in front of you, and all of those other details, like in real life, wouldn’t be explained to you. There’s enough information to track it, so there’s a real character balance there where we can’t get too expository with her. We establish that they did have problems in their relationship, and in showing his reaction to how she came back, you can deduce the way that imbalance worked out, but compared to Beth who can’t remember everything and has this kind of newfound exuberance to her, you know that it’s masking something else. A lot of it was careful and trying to be judicious with the amount of information we were giving out. But Aubrey and I wanted her to feel lively, bubbly, outgoing, and fun from the beginning so it’s a juxtaposition for later when she becomes demonic, and even then you don’t have to pick sides over who was right.

Watching a guy going through a break-up, you can get sidetracked. Watching a guy go through the death of a girlfriend, you can buy that. You have more empathy for everyone, but every time you just have a guy going through a break-up, you probably just groan and think, “Yeah, man, we get it. In the second act you’re going to meet another girl and everything will work out. We get it. Enough.” This way you get the chance to play around a bit more with the misery and mixed feelings that he feels.

DS: And your movie does have that “other girl,” but she doesn’t make a huge impact.

JB: (laughs) Yeah, we include saying that life goes on and that this person probably isn’t even his soulmate. Then again, given the situation, it’s hard for this guy to find any real connection. He’s got a lot going on.