It’s hard to do something new with the zombie genre. Zombies have become a staple of our modern culture, and we’ve now seen everything from a “zom-rom-com” like Shaun of the Dead to a weekly television series about battling the undead. First time director Jeff Baena tackles the zombie movie with a different kind of twist in Life After Beth, and the result is a comedy that mixes in dramatic elements alongside the impending zombie apocalypse. Baena also wrote the script for Beth, which revolves around a guy (Dane DeHaan) who must reexamine his relationship with his girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) when she unexpectedly comes back from the dead. The filmmaker put together a stellar ensemble cast that includes comedy pros like John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, and Paul Reiser, and welcome appearances by Cheryl Hines, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Anna Kendrick.
Shortly after the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, I was able to sit down with Baena to discuss Life After Beth. The writer/director talked about first-time director challenges, trying to do something new with the zombie genre, creating new rules for the undead, putting together his cast, his specific visual approach, nabbing the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club to do the score, and much more. Hit the jump to read the full interview, and click here to read my interview with Plaza and DeHaan.
JEFF BAENA: It’s been fun. It’s been really nice, yeah.
How was the reaction to the premiere?
BAENA: Yeah, it seems pretty positive and I hear people were digging it so that makes me feel good. That’s all I want.
What was your first reaction to finding out that you got into Sundance? Was this always kind of the goal?
BAENA: Yeah, it was a dream come true. I was excited and elated. I didn’t think I was going to get into the dramatic competition. I thought if we were going to get in that it would probably be for the midnight movies so that was shocking. But yeah, it was everything I ever wanted. It’s definitely a positive thing.
How did the initial premise come about? Were you always looking to do something in the genre territory?
BAENA: No, I think I was always drawn to the – I don’t know if it’s the genre, but the realm of the fantastic, the Todorovian sort of hesitation between the marvelous and the uncanny, and the idea of approaching a zombie movie where you minimize the tropes and accentuate the interpersonal dynamics, and think of it as more grounded and real how it would probably go down. You wouldn’t be the superhero saving the day, you wouldn’t be the scientist figuring out the cure, you would just be in the middle of suburbia dealing with whatever’s happening. sort of phenomenological response is what I was aiming for.
Did you initially know you wanted to explore a relationship?
BAENA: Yeah, it was always a relationship. it was always a guy’s girlfriend dies and then comes back unexpectedly or without any reason and then trying to make it work again.
That’s one of the things that’s neat about it is it is a comedy and it is a zombie movie, but it also kind of explores this dramatic relationship and what would you do if you had a second chance with your girlfriend? How did you go about balancing those aspects?
BAENA: Yeah, I think I just minimized anything that felt unreal. I mean, there’s definitely stuff that is unreal and insane and absurd and surreal, but just anything that didn’t ring emotionally true I tried to avoid it and if anything felt too jokey I tried to avoid it. At the same time, most of the actors in the film are comedic actors, except for Dane [DeHaan] who is a generally dramatic actor. I think that casting a dramatic actor in that part grounded it more and it raised the stakes and made it a little bit more believable. As the world is kind of going crazy we at least have this touchstone of someone we can relate to.
The cast is incredible, how did you go about assembling this massive ensemble of comedic actors?
BAENA: I pretty much approached the people I thought would be amazing and they all responded so I got really lucky. I’m not saying it was a cake walk but it wasn’t as hard as it probably should have been. It kind of came to me pretty easy.
Did you always know it was going to be Dane and Aubrey [Plaza]?
BAENA: No, because I wrote the script ten years ago. I wrote it in 2003 and I didn’t know Aubrey back then. I didn’t really write the script for any actors, I always write just for the character. I think the way it ended up being Aubrey- she’s my girlfriend, so she went to a meeting at CAA and was asking about upcoming projects that she was interested in and there wasn’t anything that was high quality that she was impressed with, so her agent remembered the script that I had written ten years ago and brought it up with her as a possibility. I never really put it together because I had kind of moved on from hat script, and then once she said it I realized that’s a jackpot. She’s the only person in the world who could play it. When she came on board we got John C. Riley on board and then it pretty much quickly snowballed from there.
I think Aubrey is fantastic. For me personally, I think it’s the best work she’s done. What were your conversations with her about the character? It’s not at all what I was expecting, because Aubrey seems to have a specific type of humor and she hasn’t had a chance to kind of stretch like she does in this film.
BAENA: Yeah, people pigeonhole her as that deadpan kind of thing. I just know that she’s an amazing actress and capable of pretty much anything. I think Safety Not Guaranteed kind of opened up a little bit people’s perception of her abilities. In terms of preparing for the role we didn’t really watch any zombie movies, because I didn’t really want to rely on what’s been done before. I kind of wanted to create my own mythology so I gave her specific indications of what was happening to her body and her mind that were pinpoint as opposed to doing an imitation of a monster. I think that maybe helped a little bit. But the emphasis was always placed on what she wanted and what she needed in that scene as opposed to how it’s going to be funny when she growls.
That’s another thing I wanted to ask. Obviously there’s no science behind zombies, so did you feel free to just do whatever you wanted? Did you take any hallmarks from any movies?
BAENA: Yeah, the shooting zombies in the head is definitely a hallmark of zombie movies. But yeah, I definitely didn’t take any more cues. In my movie when the zombies first come back they’re almost indistinguishable from live people, normal un-undead people. They infiltrate your home because they’re just kind of going back to their old lifestyle and you’ve become accustomed to not having them around anymore, so when they come back it’s of course a great thing because you miss them and you love them and they’re your loved ones, but there’s something a little off about them, and then they slowly deteriorate as decomposition kicks in and their brain starts falling apart. So I think I used that as a sort of launching off point, figuring out what the psychology of that would be. I kind of took some liberties.
That was really fascinating. That was another aspect I enjoyed because I figured she’d come back and she’d be the same and they’d have the same relationship. She almost has a bit of a clean slate, but I like that it kind of explores their past relationship.
BAENA: Yeah, it’s hinted in the script that they were having troubles before she died and that she wanted to break up with him, and then when she comes back she has no memory of that so it’s sort of his dream to be in that situation. All he wanted was to be back with her and obviously not have her dead and he got it.
You said you wrote the script back in 2003, did it change drastically since that time?
BAENA: It changed a little bit, there were more references to George Bush in the script at the time. I think there was many things going on, but maybe one layer I had to get rid of was just sort of the world that we were living in at that time the 2003 world with George Bush in power when everything felt a little bit crazy. So I took that stuff out. Most of the updating stuff I did on the script was just practical knowing that we only had 22 days to shoot it and that we only had limited locations. When I first wrote it I wrote it for myself to direct it and I kept the locations to a minimum, all the stunts and all the crazy visual effects and stuff, I tried to minimize that as well. I had an approach where everything that’s happening it should be as though it’s an experience for somebody. So if you’re experiencing a hurricane, if you’re experiencing a car crash or whatever it is, you’re only experiencing as yourself, you’re not experiencing it from some objective point of view. So you’re getting glimpses of things, you’re not getting the entire perspective. So I used that to my advantage in crafting it so that whatever visual effects we’re using, whatever special effects we’re doing, whatever stunts we’re doing that it’s almost peripheral and the emphasis is placed more on the interpersonal dynamics than on the actual action that’s happening.
It actually reminded me a lot of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds where you’re just following one character through the whole thing and kind of hearing stuff through the grapevine.
BAENA: I never saw that, that’s the one with Tom Cruise?
BAENA: Yeah, it’s all through Dane’s character Zach’s eyes. In the script itself every scene, he’s in it. There’s one scene that we ended up cutting out that we shot that was Aubrey at a telephone- there was a whole subplot that I also took out with a stalker. She had a stalker before she died and then he keeps calling after and then gets her and doesn’t think she’s dead and continues to stalk here. So there was one scene where he calls and she answers her phone in the middle of the night and they have a really weird- he’s asking what she’s wearing and obviously getting off on it and she’s just having a nice, pleasant conversation with him. So we cut that scene out, but that would have been the only scene that didn’t take place with Dane’s character so it kind of would have broken the spell a little bit.
Yeah. What was your visual approach with this movie? I know this is you’re feature directorial debut so how did you approach it? I know you said you shot it in 22 days.
BAENA: Yeah, 22 days, it was shot on the Arri Alexa, my cinematographer Jay Hunter and I had a lot of talks in pre-production about the look we were going to go for. I wanted to keep it grounded and real so I wanted as much naturalism as possible. I think a lot of zombie movies or horror movies now are too high contrast, really grainy, and I wanted to keep it a little bit more even lit. We took out some of the contrast, we made it a little lighter, we did some color stuff where we took out a little of the grains. Also production design-wise I didn’t want to see any red in the movie, so for the first 45 minutes to an hour you don’t see anything red in the movie, because I wanted for when the blood actually shows up to kind of pop a little bit more. It’s a red color that kind of feels a little bit more vibrant than it is.
BAENA: So all the sudden you’re feeling blood. So I think from kind of taking away all that red has an effect. The Arri Alexa is amazing and one of the consequences of it being amazing is that it’s so crystal clear and sharp that it looks a little uncanny, so one of the things that we did was we got film grain from 250 asa Kodak film, I think it was Vision2, and it’s shot on a grey card so we ended up taking an overlay of the film from the 250 asa and put it on top of our film. It’s really subtle so I don’t know if you noticed it. You probably didn’t notice it.
BAENA: Yeah, so I wanted to it simultaneously softens and sharpens the edges, you know? And then something else that I thought would be pretty cool was as the movie, pretty much in the third reel, as it kind of starts going off the tracks that whenever it goes to a nighttime scene- because traditionally in film when you’re using a faster speed you get a little bit more grain, so I added a little bit more grain so it was almost noticeable for a second there and then we kind of dialed it back again. So it almost gets a little bit dirtier and grittier like 3/4 of the way through the movie and then it kind of pulls it self back again.
Yeah, I noticed that. I liked that quite a bit.
BAENA: Yeah, so that was definitely a conscious approach that we took.
You explore the relationship tropes that everyone seems to go through in this film, like debating where to eat, trying to find a place to go fool around when you’re at your parents house. Was that a conscious decision on your part to kind of dig in to the minutia of a relationship?
BAENA: Yeah absolutely, it’s all about the relationship. I think it’s not a zombie movie, it’s a movie about a relationship where there’s a coda to it that you don’t necessarily expect. So yeah, that’s all I was emphasizing and focusing. For me the zombie stuff was peripheral it was not the main area of focus.
With this crazy talented comedic cast did you have any improvisation on set?
BAENA: Yeah, I mean we stuck pretty closely to the script but with that cast there’s so many opportunities for them to just kind of let loose, and there’s a bunch of lines that John C. Riley or Aubrey or whoever just made up in the moment while we were rehearsing it and I thought it was great so we just stuck it in there. It was pretty close. It was like 95%-98% the script. When I wrote it tried to make it sound a little bit more colloquial, you know, sounds like more the way people talk as opposed to something more heightened.
Aubrey and Dane have a challenge in that they have to get across the relationship to the audience without the audience knowing what the relationship was like before Beth died. Were you always planning on opening the film with Beth’s death or did you ever plan on including flashbacks to show their relationship while she was alive?
BAENA: Yeah, it was always my intention- actually it shows more than I intended to. The very first thing that you see in the movie is her going on a hike, which is the hike that she ends up dying on. That wasn’t shot during production. What happened was we got the California tax credit and we had to shoot a day of filming within 100 days of getting the credit in order to qualify so we shot that, which was like an extra scene, in order to qualify and then we were supposed to shoot- you get an extra 100 days to go shoot, but we didn’t end up making it because that would have been in march and we ended up shooting in July. So we just had that footage and when we were editing it together I just remembered that we had the footage of her hiking and I thought that might be a pretty cool cold open to give you some context of who she is, because before when we were cutting it together and seeing it you didn’t really have a context for who she was and it wasn’t until you see her reappear that you know who she is, so this gives you kind of a flavor of who you’re dealing with.
BAENA: I’ve been friends with the Black Rebel guys for a long time, especially Robert who’s the bassist, so we had talked probably ten years ago when I was first writing the script about working together at some point. They had a pretty strong attitude about not selling out and doing film stuff, but they thought if we were gonna do a film it might be cool. So eventually when I got it made we started working together, but you know I’m a first time director and they’re first time composers for a score, they’ve never done it before, so there was little bit of a learning curve that we had to deal with, but once we got into a groove it was pretty amazing. I mean those guys are incredible musicians.
BAENA: I think part of the challenge for them is that they’re used to having the music in the foreground so everything they’re doing is always in your face and emphasized, and the magic of doing a score is you want it to be background and to accentuate what’s on the screen and that isn’t something that came natural to them. So it’s something we worked at and eventually kind of massaged it and found our way, but it was a very- and they were on tour a lot of the time too so when I was there I would be with them as much as I could and try to explain to them second by second what I was looking for, but sometimes they were in Bali, and dealing with diseases and plane crashes and all kinds of shit so it was definitely challenging, but it was ultimately very rewarding because they’re incredible musicians.
How long ago did you guys wrap on this?
BAENA: Post-production or production?
BAENA: Like a week ago.
Yeah, I think it was last Thursday or something is when we were completely done. We didn’t have a lot of time, we were jamming through it.
Since you were a first time director was there anything you leaned along the way that was kind of surprising or you wished you had known before? Maybe it was harder than you thought it was going to be or easier?
BAENA: Not to be negative, but I think the biggest lesson is don’t trust anyone. I think a lot of times you’re put in a position, especially with a lower budget, where you’re just going to use this guy, you know, he’s great, he totally checks out and you don’t really get a chance to meet a lot of people because a lot of people aren’t going to work on a budget, and a lot of times those guys don’t work out. Sometimes they do and it’s amazing and you’re like, “This is the guy I’m going to work with for the rest of my life”. A lot of times it’s a massive disappointment and it’s a bummer.
BAENA: Yeah I’ve been a writer up until now. I went to film school, I went to NYU film school. I am interested in all aspects of filmmaking so I have an opinion on every aspect so sound design, score, cinematography, editing, all that stuff I have experience doing myself so I had a very strong idea of what I wanted and I got, for the most part, people that were able to articulate that idea, which was nice.
Are you a person that writes a bunch of scripts and put them in a drawer or do you kind of take them one by one?
BAENA: This is the only spec script I’ve ever written. I usually jus do like studio jobs, re-writes and stuff. I mean every script that doesn’t get made you put in a drawer, but this one was in the drawer for a while and, you know, resurrected like a zombie.
Do you have one that you’re itching to direct now that you’ve got the first one under your belt?
BAENA: Yeah, there’s a book that I optioned. It’s an autobiography that I’m excited to get into.
Which one is that or is it under wraps?
BAENA: I guess I can say it, it’s Lysercgic by Krystle Cole.
Another thing that I thought was really c was the kind of easy listening that you brought in as a favorite of the zombies.
BAENA: The smooth jazz?
Yeah, how did you stumble across that?
BAENA: I think maybe a couple years before I started writing this, maybe late 90’s or early 2000’s, I read an article about how smooth jazz is really beneficial for your immune system and that the reason why waiting rooms in doctors offices play smooth jazz is because it’s completely soothing on an unconscious level and people, whether or not they actually respond to the music, it calms them and helps heal them. So I thought that was pretty funny, and I thought since it was working on such a base level and since zombies are ultimately working on a very base level that maybe that would be their music of choice because it feels soothing to them, because it’s so fundamental. It’s like the most basic level of musical appreciation, smooth jazz or big band. It’s sort of like that scene in The Jerk when Steve Martin gets rhythm while listening to big band, it’s not that nuanced, it’s pretty simple. So I fell like that’s something that zombies, I mean it’s obviously insane, but I felt like zombies would listen to. They say music sooths the savage beast or whatever so it seems like that would be somewhere along the lines of something that could possibly happen.
BAENA: I just wanted to be pretty close to realism so Autumn Butler, who did our special effects makeup and all our makeup actually, she looked at a bunch of autopsy photos and really gross shit and so that helped inform what we were going for. I think the whole grey skin sunken eyes thing that you see a lot… we were just trying to go for something that was a little more anatomically correct, I guess. And none of the zombies look the same, every single one of them has a different look, because I guess they’re all in different states of decomposition and different climates and temperatures.
Did you shoot in sequence?
BAENA: No, not even close.
How did you and Aubrey figure out “alright we’re at this stage of deterioration now”? Because it’s not just physical, it’s a mental deterioration.
BAENA: Yeah I just kind of broke it down into I think it was five stages so it was like a stage one zombie, a stage two zombie, all the way to a stage five zombie and so as long as we had that little mnemonic device we were able to keep track of it. We definitely didn’t shoot in order.
Click here to catch up on all of our Sundance 2014 coverage thus far.