When you think about taking a grounded approach to bringing a zombie apocalypse to screen, you might go right to dark, gritty and super violent, but writer-director Jeff Baena took a different approach to it. He strove to make his zombie apocalypse real not by upping the body count, but rather by highlighting interpersonal dynamics and specifically by focusing on what might happen if someone’s (Dane DeHaan) recently deceased girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) came back home in Life After Beth.
With the film making its way towards an August 15th limited release, Baena and DeHaan sat down to talk about developing the idea, its unique blend of comedy and drama, one very heavy stove, whether or not they could survive a zombie apocalypse themselves and more. Hit the jump to check it out.
Question: I read that you wanted to make a more grounded and realistic zombie movie. Where do you even start with something like that? Do you go back to the many zombie movies out there and start saying, ‘This couldn’t happen and this couldn’t happen?’
JEFF BAENA: No, I think you just start with the emotionality of it and just make sure the characters have some depth to them. I think primarily having Dane involved was amazing because he’s such a great dramatic actor so he was like the keystone in the movie. All the actors are capable of doing dramatic roles, you know, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, even Paul Reiser. Dane’s experience is primarily in drama even though he’s completely capable of doing comedy, so I think his ability to sort of focus on his character and know its motivation and know his deliberate actions I think really helps ground it more than – because the story does get a little bit crazy, so I think in order to make sure it stays grounded, it’s more about Dane keeping it together.
Was that character the same before he signed on or did it change?
BAENA: No, I never really did a rewrite for any of the actors.
And how about this being your first feature? I know you wrote a feature before, but directorially, where do you even start when you have this idea and say, ‘I want to get it off the ground?’
BAENA: You start back in 2003 and you write it and then you almost make it and then you wait 10 or 11 years to get another chance to make it, so, yeah.
What was it that made this time right?
BAENA: Back when I was first trying to make it, there really wasn’t as much of an opportunity to do – not that there wasn’t independent filmmaking, but I think producers at the time were just more entrenched in the world of mini major studios and studios, and this time I think people were a lot more open to working with equity financing, and having John and Aubrey come on and then Dane, we got the ball rolling pretty fast and almost snowballed. It just kind of exploded.
DANE DEHAAN: First and foremost it was a really great script. I read the script before I met Jeff to talk about this and I am always looking for different kinds of things to do and this was incredibly different from anything I had done so that was exciting and it was really well written and even though it was this really fantastical circumstance, I felt like everything really made sense, which is important to me. And then I knew Aubrey was doing it, I knew John C. Reilly was doing it, and then I sat down with Jeff and Jeff was a really chill, cool, smart guy so it just sounded like a good opportunity. It just became kind of a logical choice of a movie to make.
BAENA: We’d actually met. He came to my house to play poker one night.
DEHAAN: I did. Yeah, I played poker at his house about – what a year [prior]?
BAENA: A year or a year and a half prior.
DEHAAN: And that was not a welcoming experience. [Laughs]
BAENA: What do you mean?
DEHAAN: [Laughs] I lost all of my money really fast and then I had to leave.
BAENA: Aw, but you had fun.
DEHAAN: I had fun!
Are you good at it?
BAENA: I can hold my own.
DEHAAN: He’s pretty good at poker. Although, when we were filming Life After Beth, one time we had a night shoot and we went to a casino and that night he lost all of his money really fast and I made out pretty well.
BAENA: Yeah, I made a couple of moves. I made a couple of bluffs and got called. [Laughs]
DEHAAN: It’s a really good thing to do before you have to stay up for a night shoot because casinos are open all night long and it feels like the daytime, so it can kind of force you to stay up all night long the night before a night shoot.
BAENA: You know, most times when you’re doing night shoots, you ease into it by doing splits before. If I’m correct, I think that was one of those times where we actually didn’t even have splits. We went from a morning shoot one day to a night shoot the next day, so there really wasn’t an easy transition so I think Dane and I thought the best way to do it would be to go for it and play poker all night.
I love playing this game, so how do you guys think you would do if there really were a zombie apocalypse?
DEHAAN: Well, I think surviving a zombie apocalypse ultimately depends on the team of people that you build around yourself.
BAENA: What skill set do you bring to the team?
DEHAAN: Well, I think that I could be a good team leader, make logical decisions and smart moves, and assign different people roles and tell them how to help save my life. [Laughs]
BAENA: Just organize and delegate.
DEHAAN: Yeah, organize and delegate.
BAENA: Yeah, that’s cool. I think I’m a good shot so I could shoot things. I like problem solving, so coming up with solutions in a pinch. I’m also good with organizing and leading so I think we could be co-leaders.
DEHAAN: We could be co-leaders.
BAENA: He could be more logical, I’ll be more of the at-the-last-second making a flippant decision that might pay off or not.
DEHAAN: Well, you also have a lot of just like random knowledge so you’d probably be good for nutrition and things like that.
BAENA: Yeah, just general trivia. I could tell you what to eat and also entertain you with weird facts.
DEHAAN: Like, don’t eat this berry; do eat this berry.
BAENA: I can start a fire.
DEHAAN: Um … Jeff can.
BAENA: I’ve watched a lot of Naked and Afraid. Do you watch that show?
I do not.
BAENA: Oh, it’s the best.
How do you go about figuring out the rules of a world like this? People do tend to dissect these types of situations.
BAENA: Well, I think I applied more of the Night of the Living Dead rules where a zombie has to be dead first and then resurrect as opposed to it being a virus zombie like 28 Days Later or the more recent ones. I feel like those are the more traditional zombie rules. I think a lot of the other decisions were employed just to sort of maximize the emotional carnage as opposed to sort of a physical carnage. I feel like it’s a lot more devastating and terrifying if you’re being attacked emotionally and psychologically as opposed to physically, so it’s more about making it as horrible as possible.
What about the transformation going on inside people’s heads? How far can you go until you lose yourself to the hunger for flesh?
BAENA: I think it’s a slow process. It’s a gradient. It’s like if you’ve ever known anyone that suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s not binary; it’s a slow progress that’s horrible and depressing. [Laughs]
DEHAAN: [Laughs] And hilarious and provides for great comedy.
How about the balance between comedy and drama? No one’s playing anything for laughs, but it’s really funny and I think a lot of that comes from editing, timing, the music and just putting everything together, so when you’re on set, how do guys know it’s working?
BAENA: Well, Dane actually doesn’t play anything for laughs. He’s playing it completely earnest and sincere, and I believe most of the other actors were, too. I mean, there’s a couple of people that definitely are a little more aware of the heightened reality, but I think one of the boons of having the cast that I had was that they were all capable of switching. They’re all hybrid actors. They’re able to switch between drama and comedy at the flip of a switch and I think it’s more situational than broad, so if you’re playing things sincere in a really absurd, heightened situation, you’ll achieve comedy as opposed to just saying funny lines and one-liners and stuff. So I think ideally, it hopefully came together by everyone just playing it real and then having a situation that was more than real.
DEHAAN: Well, I don’t know if I would ever actually think that of myself, but one of the reasons I wanted to do this was because I got to act with such great comedians and I got to do my first comedy and I knew I would walk away with a lot of knowledge and learn a lot about how they do what they do. Like, how is John C Reilly so funny? How is Molly Shannon so funny? And I think a lot of that is some people are just born funny. John C. Reilly, he’s just gonna go through a circumstance and you’re gonna want to laugh more than other people because he’s just a funny guy and they have funny perspectives on life. So, I found in doing it that anytime I tried to be funny, which I maybe did on the first day shooting, I realized it wasn’t really working, but when I could just play off of them and kind of immerse myself in this really comical world, that’s when the comedy came from the truth of that situation.
WARNING: There’s a major plot spoiler in this answer!
BAENA: Dane also had a joke. This is a spoiler, but you know at the end when you see the tombstone and it has the parentheses with the second date of her death? [Points at DeHaan.] Right here.
DEHAAN: Yes, that was my idea.
END SPOILER ALERT
How do you schedule something like this? The houses eventually get destroyed and it’s a low budget film, so do you have to schedule it in order to do something like that?
BAENA: No, you don’t have the luxury of shooting things in order, especially on an independent film, but there are so many things to consider. There’s the locations, so that is obviously influx, people are in and out of their houses, there’s the actors’ schedules. It’s the strangest calculus to try to figure out how to get them all in the same place at the same time. There’s the weather, there’s lighting, there’s all kinds of stuff that you have to negotiate and yeah, timing is everything.
Can you do that lifeguard stand scene more than once or no?
BAENA: Well, no. I mean, once we burned it, it was burnt so there was nothing you could do. There was a lot of stuff that was like, ‘Let’s hope this works,’ like the stove and the hike. There’s a lot of stuff like that that you’re lucky if it works out.
DEHAAN: Well, that stove was basically a real stove that they hollowed out and then put on Aubrey’s back, and it was really, really heavy.
BAENA: It was a lot heavier than we were expecting.
DEHAAN: It was a lot heavier than probably it should have been.
BAENA: It was definitely heavier than it should have been. I mean, without throwing anyone under the bus, it was a little bit of a snafu.
DEHAAN: But Aubrey took it like a champ. I think I was more worried about Aubrey and the stove than Aubrey was worried about herself and the stove. She really just kind of buckle down and pulled an ab.
BAENA: She literally was buckled down.
DEHAAN: She was buckled into it and she literally pulled an ab from carrying it.
BAENA: Yeah, she pulled a muscle.
I was watching it and thinking, ‘She’s selling this really well. I don’t really get how this is working.’
BAENA: There’s three stoves. There was the stove you see her walking with, which is what Dane is describing, which was a hollowed out stove with some Styrofoam parts. There was a massive Styrofoam block that had green dots on it for when we had to put visual effects on to make it look like a stove. So when she falls back on her back like a beetle, that was actually a stunt girl and a Styrofoam stove and then there’s the real stove, which is what you see when she’s on the ground a couple of times.
To quickly touch on some upcoming projects, Dane, can you tell me about how the Amazing Spider-Man 3 release date change affects you? Does that mean you have to block out even more time for the franchise?
DEHAAN: Yeah, I have no idea. Honestly, I’m finding out about stuff at the same time as other people. I’m reading it in the news at this point, so we’ll see what happens.
DEHAAN: Yeah, I read that, too.
BAENA: What’s Sinister Six?
DEHAAN: It’s like, these six bad guys in the Spider-Man universe. It’s kind of like The Avengers of bad guys.
Is it frustrating at all being attached to a film franchise like this and not knowing what’s coming and when?
DEHAAN: No, it’s an unbelievable gift to be a part of something like that with such talented people. It’s like a childhood dream come true. There’s absolutely nothing negative about being attached to those kinds of things.
How about you, Jeff? Are you ready to jump into your second feature?
BAENA: Yeah, there’s a couple things coming up that look like they might happen.