How’s this for symmetry: Jeff Baena’s script for a zombie rom-com called “Life After Beth” was brought back from the dead after his real-life girlfriend, Aubrey Plaza, decided she wanted to star as the movie’s zombie girlfriend, Beth.
(It is really good for symmetry, trust us).
Baena, 37, had early success as the writer of the David O. Russell-directed “I Heart Huckabees,” a charming indie that helped him score a bunch of studio re-write jobs, which can feel like screenwriter purgatory. But when Plaza, the “Parks and Recreation” star, decided that she liked “Life After Beth,” a spec that Baena had written years ago, his filmmaking dreams were set in motion.
Plaza stars as the title character, a girl who dies before the movie even begins. Her boyfriend, Dane DeHaan, spends much of his time mourning with Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), wishing that he could have done things differently before she passed. And then, out of nowhere, he gets another opportunity, when Beth walks in the front door, with no memory of being dead at all.
The tricky thing about wishes is that sometimes they come true.
The film debuted at Sundance in January, earning strong reviews and Baena a Grand Jury Award nomination. TheWrap recently spoke with DeHaan and Baena about making the comedy.
TheWrap: You made this movie 12 years after first writing it. What was it like to return to the material?
Baena: I tried to maintain what was there without rewriting it too much. It needed a little updating. There were references to George Bush and stuff like that so I had to take that out. Other than that I pretty much kept it the way it is. It’s kind of fun to see. It’s like a little time capsule. It was written in a vacuum. There wasn’t “Shaun of the Dead” or “Zombie Land,” those movies hadn’t come out yet. I figured if I were to attempt to rewrite it at this point informed by those movies it wouldn’t be as pure, so I stuck to the heart that was in there.
What have you been working on in between your projects?
Baena: I did a bunch of rewrites that got made and a bunch of originals that didn’t. When you are a writer the assist-to-turnover ratio…there are a lot more turnovers than assists. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s actually the first spec script I’ve ever written. Other than that it’s been a bunch of studio jobs. So it’s the very first time I have ever written something for myself to direct. My intention was always to direct and writing things just became convenient and happened. After the first time I tried to make [“Life After Beth”] and it fell apart I just put it away for a while, like ten years, and focused on the writing but I always wanted to be directing.
You are directing your girlfriend in this. Was that a strange thing to do?
Baena: No, it was actually not as strange as I was anticipating. I planned ahead with a very pessimistic eye towards the future. I was prepared for it to be really troubling and to have a really awful breakdown at some point and it never happened.
Dane, were you hesitant to play the boyfriend of the director’s girlfriend?
DeHaan: I wasn’t really hesitant to do the project but obviously we do a lot of things in the movie that could have been a lot more awkward if Jeff and Aubrey weren’t so cool about it. We all just recognized that we were making a movie. In the first couple days Jeff came up to Aubrey and said, “I really like that part where you suck his finger, can you do that more?” and I was like, “Okay, this is totally going to be chill.”
Baena: There was a time when they were making out and I had to tell Aubrey to get more into it and moan more. It never felt like she was cheating on me or inappropriate. I mean we were working. I just wanted to make a good movie. Maybe I am just completely closed off inside [laughing] but it wasn’t that hard.
Dane, this is the first comedy you’ve done, and you’re on set with all these really funny people. Was there anyone in particular you gleaned things from?
DeHaan: Carrot Top was a big influence… I learn a lot making movies and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I hadn’t done anything comedic in a while and that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to do it: to not only do my first comedy but to do it with some of the people I think are the funniest people. I learned something from everybody.
This movie has a very different pace, were there any influences while making it?
Baena: I don’t think there were any influences in terms of the pacing. I think that was maybe just the way I do it. I was watching a lot of Robert Altman before. He was probably one of my biggest influences. I don’t think you can extrapolate anything from this movie being some what related to Robert Altman. I think if anything it is maybe to destabilize you.
Dane, what’s happening with the second “Chronicle” movie?
DeHaan: I have no idea, they haven’t talked to me about it. I am not the person to ask.
If someone made a “Life After Beth” sequel but you weren’t involved, what would that be like?
Baena: Ridiculous. I remember when I was in film school. It was my second year and some kid did had this really over religious symbolism like its said “John 3:16” and had angels falling over and it was just this insane–it wasn’t that great. But the lowest thing I have ever seen was two or three weeks later a kid without asking permission did a sequel to this short film using the same symbolism. For me it was the most artistically bankrupt low I have ever seen. Like doing a short film sequel in film school without asking permission. I would probably disown it and kill the person trying to do it.