Interview: Jeff Baena discusses new film Life After Beth
Director talks suburbia, working with his girlfriend and the psychology of smooth jazz
Life After Beth stars Dane DeHaan as Zach, an affluent suburbanite moper whose girlfriend, Beth (Aubrey Plaza), has recently died. Luckily for Zach, it turns out she’s not gone for good. We had a sit-down with director Jeff Baena (and, briefly, his star and girlfriend Plaza) at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss suburbia, smooth jazz and the romzomcom genre. Mild spoilers ahead.
Life After Beth has one hell of a cast – aside from Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in the lead roles, there’s sterling support from Anna Kendrick, John C Reilly and Molly Shannon … How did that all come together?
It was all offers. I wrote this script in 2003, and I almost made it and then it fell apart and then Aubrey’s agent kind of resurrected it. I kind of let go of it, I wasn’t even thinking about it, and when she mentioned the script, it sort of crystalized in my head that she’d be the only person that could play it and once she came on board, we got John C Reilly. My friend Miguel Arteta, who’s a director, introduced me to John – I’d met him a couple of times but didn’t really know him that well – and John responded to the script, so once we had him on board, it snowballed and it was a fairly easy process to start acquiring people so we just made offers and pretty much got most of the people I wanted from the get go.
It seemed like there were a fair few references to The Graduate: Zach (DeHaan) staring into the backyard swimming pool; his overbearing parents trying to set him up with a nice girl next door; the final shot in the backseat of a car. Was that a conscious reference you had in mind?
No, I mean that’s definitely one of my favourite movies and I’m sure on an unconscious level that infiltrated my decisions but that was not intentional. For the staring at the pool, I feel like is… it’s just a great expression of ennui. I mean, he went scuba diving in the pool and in this one he’s staring at the pool, so I guess it’s similar? It’s involving a pool!
The last shot in the car actually wasn’t even in the script. It was like … the light was amazing and we had this camera, the ARRI Alexa, which has a great amount of latitude, so you can get exposures in really low light situations and it was at the end of the day of shooting. I just told my DP (director of photography) to get in there and get the shot, just steal it right away and it just worked out. I thought it looked really cool, but it was more a matter of coincidence and not intention. But yeah, that’s definitely one of my favourite movies.
This is the first feature you’ve directed. You wrote I Heart Huckabees … Do you feel like you’ve got directing out of your system now, or is it something you’d like to do again?
It’s what I want to do. I’ve been a writer for years, but it was mainly as a function of trying to be a director so I just got work as a writer. I want to keep directing.
The zombies aren’t typical movie zombies – or at least they don’t start that way. Was there some scientific rationale to how they degraded over time?
Yeah, absolutely. I think if you look at all the zombies that do occur in the film, they all are physically intact and I guess my idea would be, it’s a slow deterioration and that the ultimate violence that can be perpetrated on anyone is emotional and spiritual violence. Physical violence you can heal from, but a lot of the time you can’t heal from emotional violence, so it seemed to me the most effective way of hurting somebody would be giving them something they wished for and then destroying their lives with it – sort of like the gypsy curse. But it also afforded me the opportunity to really exploit that violence by having them be people that mean something to you who come back, who try to re-integrate back into their lives. You have the illusion that things are gonna be great and then have that completely dashed by their deterioration.
In that respect, it’s sort of similar to Dawn of the Dead: the zombies all go back to the shopping mall because that’s the thing they know. They try to return to their old lives because they’ll have some recollection of it.
Like in Day of the Dead, there’s that dark character, and he’s an amalgam, so they’re kind of experimenting on him and they’re seeing that he has a little bit of an ability to communicate and feelings extrapolate upon that.
There’s a lot of smooth jazz in the film, which hits a nice contrast with the soundtrack by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Are you a smooth jazz fan?
No, I hate it! It was more just... I read an article about how when you’re in a waiting room in a hospital or a doctor’s office, they play smooth jazz because they’ve done studies and for whatever reason, it’s good for your immune system, and it works on a really basic subliminal level, to calm you and heal you, and even if you think it sucks and you hate that kind of music, it somehow is actually positive for you. So my logic was since it works on such a basic human level, and zombies work on such a basic human level, that it would naturally be their favourite kind of music. It’d soothe them, calm them down. I just thought it’d be funny.
The film starts off from a really intimate premise – a guy getting over his girlfriend’s death – and travels really far with it. Did you always intend to end it on such a large scale [spoilers ahead]?
Yeah, but at the same time to maintain that intimacy. The way I designed it when I was writing it and then ultimately shooting it was that it’s a movie that is taking place during a zombie apocalypse but we’re very closely tied with one person. Every shot has him in it, every angle is from his perspective, and the camera is always at his height, so any action that doesn’t directly involve him is on the periphery. It has this contingent nature that appealed to me and when it starts off, it’s more of an interpersonal dynamic between him and the zombie and then by the end of it, you get glimpses of this massive thing. But he’s not the scientist, he’s not the freedom fighter, he’s not in any way aware of why this happened or how to stop it. He just has this specific situation that’s on his hands and that’s what we’re dealing with. So it’s hinted at that there’s this bigger apocalypse happening, but we’re not seeing the inner city burning, we’re not seeing hordes of zombies walking down the street and for the most part, with the way they attack, they just kind of reintegrate back into their homes, so there can be zombies in all the houses down the street and you wouldn’t know it unless you heard weird noises, but you’d probably just ignore it anyways
Another thing I liked about the film was that it was set in suburbia - affluent suburbia - instead of the inner city where most zombie movies take place. Was there a social commentary there?
I grew up in suburbia so it’s what I know, but there is something kind of appealing about showing that there is a dark underbelly, and that there is an inclination to sweep things under the rug when things get a little messy and weird. The idea of suburbia is sort of this weird projection of a perfect utopian nuclear family dynamic that’s impossible to maintain and when I was a kid, all the kids whose parents I thought had remarkable, amazing, perfect relationships, by the time I was getting ready to go to college, there was always some really fucked up, deeply disturbing secret that they had and it wasn’t as perfect as you thought it was. I think that’s just sort of … there’s a denial that goes on in suburbia that I thought was ripe for exploitation.
In addition to the whole ‘Beth being a zombie’ thing, the break-up scenes are quite tender. Was there any inspiration from any real-life breakups that you channelled in there?
Yeah, for sure. Last night we had a screening and they had people dressed as zombies for whatever reason – they thought that would be exciting and it was funny. It was definitely funny. But one of the guys who was dressed as a zombie – I made sure they were able to sit and watch it – and he came up to me afterwards and he was like, ‘That was cool, but why didn’t you do more of an action-packed zombie thing?’ and he seemed a little disappointed that it wasn’t this massive zombie apocalypse action movie. That was never my intention. It was always about interpersonal stuff, so that stuff has to feel real in order to deserve the craziness that comes later, so it’s a little more secured instead of just marvellous and haywire. I think you need to have that sort of humanity to it, otherwise it just goes off the rails completely. I wanted it to go off the rails, but I also wanted it to have it balanced.
[To Aubrey, who has just walked in] Beth goes through this amazing transition from being fairly sentient to being all-out zombie. What part of that process was most fun for you?
Aubrey: All of it was really fun. It was really different when I got to be really physical and destroy things. Like when I’m in the hallway destroying all the pictures and punching a hole through the wall and kicking the plant stand. All that stuff was really fun.
Jeff, in terms of directing it, were there any particular scenes where you could see that Aubrey’s just having a blast and just let it go? Or were you always sort of hands-on with how the scene should escalate?
Jeff: She likes destroying things and going crazy, so it wasn’t that hard to motivate her. I’d just make sure the stunt people and the professional design people had it all set up for her.
I read in another interview view that you (Aubrey) thought that some of the more awkward stuff would be the making out in the film, because you guys are in a relationship. Was there any awkwardness on set? Or was it strictly professional?
Aubrey: It was strictly professional. It wasn’t that weird for me.
Jeff: It’s like a thing you have to get over if you’re dating an actress from the beginning, and then if you’re making a movie together it’s less about protecting the relationship and more about making a movie that’s as good as possible, so I wasn’t jealous of Dane.
Aubrey: Yeah, the movie is just more important than our relationship.
Was there any sort of bond that developed between John C Reilly and yourself? He’s very protective of his daughter.
Aubrey: Yeah, I think so. We totally bonded and I did feel like he was like my bizarre, bizarro dad in another dimension. We’re still really good friends and we totally got along.
What future projects have you guys got lined up?
Aubrey: I start series seven of Parks & Rec in August. I also did a movie a couple of months ago that will hopefully come out this fall. It’s called Ned Rifle. I’m really excited about that but I dunno exactly when it’s coming out.
Jeff: There’s a book I adapted to direct – an autobiography called Lysergic by Krystle Cole.
Life After Beth is on general release from Fri 3 Oct.