Writer/director Jeff Baena’s feature directorial debut Life After Beth puts a different spin on the zombie genre by revolving around a guy (Dane DeHaan) who must reexamine his relationship with his girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) when she unexpectedly comes back from the dead. The film just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s a sharply funny spin on the traditional “zombie movie” that blends the genre with a dramatic look at relationships in general; it also features Plaza’s most impressive performance to date. The supporting cast is made up of a bevy of fantastic comedic actors including John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick, and a host of delightful cameos.
Recently at Sundance, I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the film with its two leads, DeHaan and Plaza. During the course of our conversation, the two discussed the appeal of this non-traditional zombie conceit, working with the insanely talented cast, keeping the different stages of zombie deterioration straight while making the film, and more. Additionally, Plaza talks about the “love fest” that is the Parks and Recreation cast and DeHaan considers the craziness to come with the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Read the full interview after the jump.
DANE DEHAAN: Good.
Have you been able to catch any good movies?
DEHAAN: Yesterday we saw, what was it?
AUBREY PLAZA: It was like a zombie drama. A Rom-zom-com. It was probably the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life.
DEHAAN: Yeah we were the stars of it.
It had pretty good leads in it?
PLAZA: It had great leads.
DEHAAN: Great leads. Great supporting cast too.
So what was your reaction when you found out the film got into Sundance?
DEHAAN: I was honestly very surprised (laughs).
PLAZA: Because you think it’s a piece of shit or something? Say how you feel.
DEHAAN: Because it’s called the Dramatic Competition and this is mostly a comedy. I wasn’t surprised we were going to Sundance, I was just surprised we weren’t in the Midnight category.
PLAZA: It’s true. It felt very good to be in the Dramatic Competition category.
Jeff was saying the same thing, but it also makes sense because the film is a zombie movie and it is a comedy, but it does have a dramatic bent to it.
How did you feel tackling a more comedic role than you’re used to?
DEHAAN: I was really scared because I had never done a comedy before and I felt out of my element, but that’s also what I always look for in projects—something that’s gonna stretch me and make me uncomfortable. I had a really great cast behind me and some of my favorite comedians that I got to rely on kind of as a safety cushion. I was very happy that my first time I got to do it with people that are amazing and pros.
Your chemistry with John C. Reilly was one of my favorite parts of the movie. How did you guys find that balance? Because it’s an outlandish premise but your relationship really hits the dad/daughter’s boyfriend dynamic.
DEHAAN: I don’t know. It’s interesting to me because people always ask about chemistry. It’s just like another part of the job, you have to develop a relationship with somebody and you have to think about who they are in this person’s life. To me that’s just a part of it. I think you can develop chemistry with anybody, it’s just about figuring out specifically what that relationship is. I don’t think it’s something like, “Oh my gosh these people happen to get along really well together,” I think that you can develop chemistry with anybody, really. It’s just kind of a part of our job.
The first time we’re introduced to your boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, Beth is already dead, so you have to inform the audience of the history of this relationship without actually showing what they were like together when Beth was alive. How did you guys approach getting that across onscreen?
PLAZA: Well Dane and I went on a very special hike a couple weeks before we shot the movie to get to know each other. That didn’t really help at all though (laughs). What really helped was we played this exercise called “Mirror Mirror” where you look at each other and then you move your hands like this and you have to do it at the same time; it’s an old acting trick. That got us on the same page and then everything else was in the script.
DEHAAN: Yeah I meant the script talks about the relationship so much, like this is what it used to be like and this is what was missing. So it was very easy to imagine what it was like because it’s all there. I think “Mirror Mirror” was more helpful for Aubrey than it was for me.
PLAZA: “Mirror Mirror” is my favorite game.
Do you do it with all of your costars?
PLAZA: Only the ones I like.
One of the things I really liked about the movie is that it touches on the minutiae of relationships like deciding where to go eat and trying to find a place to hook up. Did you guys enjoy digging into that stuff?
DEHAAN: Yeah that’s one of the things I always loved about the script is even as it’s going along, the relationship is always dealt with as a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. The zombie-ness of it never fully takes over, the relationships are always the strongest thing. Which I think is just so smart.
PLAZA: It definitely felt very familiar to me. It reminded me of my high school relationship. I remember trying to figure out where to make out. You have to go in the woods sometimes, cars, just like weird places because you can’t go to your house because your parents are there. But again, that was all in the script and I think Jeff was really good with coming up with small details that just make you feel, “Oh I totally relate to that.”
Jeff mentioned that you guys didn’t shoot in sequence, so Aubrey how did you keep things straight with regards to the level of your deterioration?
PLAZA: That is a good question. I believe I had five stages of zombie, just in terms of my prosthetics and makeup, so that helped a little bit just to kind of remember like, “Oh okay I’m not fully a zombie but partially a zombie.” And then there were some physical things that happen to me like I fall off the roof and I get a gash in my head, and then I get a burn, and then my arm gets dislocated, so there were things like that that helped me physically. I had weird little things like I pretty much always had a rock in my shoe. I kept a little rock in my shoe that made me have a limp so I would never forget to have a slight limp. I’m pretty much like Johnny Depp, or Marlon Brando—is that what his name is? I’m pretty much like Meryl Streep where I’m the best actor ever, so I have many tricks up my sleeve (laughs). I was just trying to be present. I don’t know. What was the question?
PLAZA: Yeah. The physical step really helped me remember where I was at and the other stuff just came to me. In a dream.
Did you guys do much improvisation on set?
DEHAAN: Sometimes. I think mostly we stuck to the script, but we improv’d sometimes.
PLAZA: There were moments.
Did either of you have any initial hesitations about doing a “zombie movie?”
DEHAAN: No, if the script is good there’s no reason to have apprehensions. If you think you have the opportunity to make a good movie—everything’s been done before, all stories have been told. But if you find something that’s a good script and you have a chance of doing it well, people aren’t going to be going back in the catalog of their minds of zombie movies, they’re with you along for the ride.
What is your preparation process for getting ready for a role? Do you have any mainstays that you do before every project?
PLAZA: I have an acting coach that I work with on everything that I do. The thing about my process is I have sex with as many people as I can (laughs).
There’s a cameo by a certain Parks and Recreation castmember in the movie. Did you have something to do with that?
PLAZA: Yeah! Well Jeff is good friends with him also, so we both thought that would be great.
There are a lot of cameos in the movie. Were you guys surprised by all the people coming in? Because the cast is a lineup of fantastic comedic actors.
PLAZA: I’m so psyched about our cast. I think we have the best cast here at Sundance, I’ll say it. Paul Reiser is so hilarious and the best.
This was the second Paul Reiser movie I saw here.
PLAZA: I know, he’s killing it. Molly Shannon is the most amazing actress ever—
DEHAAN: And the best person in the whole world.
PLAZA: A comedy icon. A legend in our own time. Cheryl Hines, hilarious. Everyone’s funny. John C. Reilly, also a walking, living legend. So I feel very grateful, but again I’ve said this a million time today, I think the script was so good that there was no need for convincing. People wanted to jump on board. We were lucky to have people like Anna Kendrick step in to do small parts because I think she loved the script also.
Dane you’ve got a tough job of playing the straight guy to all this comedy that’s going on. And I thought it was interesting in that you had to approach the prospect of this guy’s girlfriend literally coming back from the dead with a mixture of disbelief and elation. How did you approach kind of playing that reaction to the whole premise?
DEHAAN: I mean, I don’t know. That’s just what acting is. You just look at what’s going on and what I do is just fool myself into believing that it’s happening.
PLAZA: Did you fall in love with me?
DEHAAN: Yeah, Aubrey, I fell in love with you.
PLAZA: I fell in love with you too.
DEHAAN: I know, you told me.
DEHAAN: I mean that’s what it’s all about. These were absolutely extraordinary circumstances but that’s not to say that you can’t still fool yourself into believing it’s happening and just let it rip, you know.
This is Jeff’s first film as a director, what was it like working with him on set?
DEHAAN: It was really great, he’s got like a really brilliant mind. He’s very deliberate and he knows what he’s doing. You wouldn’t know it was his first feature, that’s for sure.
PLAZA: A lot of people on the crew I think didn’t realize it was his first movie because he’s so decisive and confident. He truly has a vision. He’s a visionary. But he’s been around, you know. So it’s about time for him to take that on.
You guys have both worked in TV and film. Do you have a preference between the working process of TV or films?
PLAZA: That’s a hard question for me because I never intended to be on a TV show, it was never something I was really interested in, but my show I feel is like a lot of shows where we all really, truly love each other like a family. We have so much fun that it’s hard to not say that I like doing it, because I love doing it, but movies are kind of something that I’ve always wanted to do. They’re very special to me. I don’t know, I like both I guess.
Have you talked to all the Parks and Recreation guys about the renewal yet?
PLAZA: Well Jim [O’Heir] is here, and he’s pretty much how I found out about it. He like shouted it to me on Main Street (laughs). But we all have a mass text chain thing where we’re all like love fest texting.
DEHAAN: I don’t know, I guess not because I won’t really know what it is until it happens. So that’s a really hard thing to prepare myself for. Sometimes I’ll get a bunch of my friends to pretend they’re my fans and then I’ll walk out on the street and I’ll have them mob me just so I can prepare.
PLAZA: That is sick. That is disturbing.
DEHAAN: Well I gotta get ready, you know. Aubrey did it one time.
She was part of your mob?
DEHAAN: Yeah. No, I don’t really have an idea of what to expect. I have a lot of friends that have been a part of big franchises before and they can live pretty normal lives, so I think it’ll be so crazy. But maybe it will be really crazy, I have no idea what to expect.
PLAZA: Teenage girls are gonna masturbate to you in their bedrooms every night, all around the world.
DEHAAN: Yeah but I won’t be there.
To catch up on all of our Sundance 2014 coverage thus far, click here.