Fantasia ’14: Writer/Director Jeff Baena on His Standout Zombie Film “LIFE AFTER BETH”
One of the highlights of this summer’s Fantasia festival in Montreal was seeing the terrific horror/comedy LIFE AFTER BETH with a rabid and responsive crowd. The fest also gave FANGORIA the chance to talk in depth with writer/director Jeff Baena about his movie, opening theatrically tomorrow from A24.
LIFE AFTER BETH stars Aubrey Plaza in the title role of a girl who resurrects after apparently dying from a snakebite, much to the surprise of her boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan). He’s at first thrilled with opportunity to rekindle their romance—especially since it had evidently been on the skids before her “demise”—but the love story gets bumpy when her zombie side slowly starts coming out. It’s a deft combination of outrageous, grisly humor and heartfelt emotion, and—especially given that Baena and Plaza are a couple in real life—the first question seems obvious…
FANGORIA: LIFE AFTER BETH’s relationship angle feels like it comes from a personal place; was any of that based on your own reality?
JEFF BAENA: It wasn’t based on personal experience; if anything, it’s more about the universal experience we have with loss, and wanting to reconnect with someone you can’t be with anymore, and then sort of forcing the issue and it goes south. It wasn’t specifically inspired by any breakup I went through, but if you analyze the basic trajectory, it’s about a guy who breaks up with a girl, then tries to get back together. I think the way the human mind often works is, it’s easy to remember the good stuff, but not the pain and the misery, so when you break up with somebody, all you have is regret, and you think about everything you did wrong and how it would be great if you could get a second chance. Then you get back together with them and it starts off great—you have the honeymoon period—and then it kind of goes to pot.
There was a lot of stuff I was thinking about at the time I was writing the script that probably factored into it. I was reading a lot of Jacques Derrida, who actually mentioned zombies in some of his work, and then there’s a poem by William Blake called “Eternity” where the gist of it is that if you hang on to something too tightly or try to control something as it’s happening, it will destroy you, but if you just appreciate things in the moment, that’s eternity.
FANG: Did the zombie idea come to you after you decided to explore those themes, or was it always part of your thinking?
BAENA: When I came up with the story, the impetus for it was the idea of the girlfriend dying, him getting close with the parents and then one day being shut out and seeing her through the window, and realizing something’s going on. I’ve always been drawn to the realm of the fantastic, where there’s a hesitation whether something is the uncanny or the marvelous, and I wanted to sustain that hesitation as long as possible. The zombie aspect came as a function of that, as opposed to setting out to do a zombie movie from the beginning.
FANG: When I’ve mentioned to people that LIFE AFTER BETH is a zombie comedy, the first thing they think of is something like SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but it’s really closer to David Cronenberg’s THE FLY in the way it looks at a crumbling relationship and uses zombieism as a metaphor. Was that part of your thinking, and was THE FLY any kind of an influence?
BAENA: I love THE FLY, but that wasn’t an inspiration. I first wrote this in 2003, before SHAUN OF THE DEAD or any of that stuff, and it almost got made back then. It fell apart at the last second, because I guess the world wasn’t ready for zombie comedies yet, so I let it go, and then 10 years later I resurrected it. I mean, THE FLY and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON—movies that have personal, subjective stories incorporating horror and comedy—were probably an unconscious inspiration, but I wasn’t self-aware about it at the time.
FANG: How did you ultimately get it before the cameras?
BAENA: Aubrey had gone to her agent and asked what was out there; she had been reading scripts, and nothing was really exciting her. Her agent represented Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and back in 2003, he was young and wanted to do the movie, so her agent had always remembered the screenplay and brought it up to her as a possibility. Once she mentioned it to me, it was like an epiphany. Obviously, she’d be perfect for it; she’s someone who could handle the drama and the comedy and the physical stuff, and she has a kind of inner demonic energy that was easy to exploit. That got the ball rolling, and we got Dane, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon and Paul Reiser and the rest of them.
FANG: Did you do any rewriting for Plaza once she got involved?
BAENA: No; I didn’t have to, because it seemed almost like it was written for her, even though I actually wrote it about eight years before I even met her. The only rewriting I had to do was to take out George Bush references, which I guess felt thematically consistent at the time with what was going on in the zombie apocalypse. Then there were a couple of scenes we couldn’t afford to do that I had to take out, including one where Beth takes Zach to her flamenco class and freaks everybody out and destroys the room, and he has to put on smooth jazz to calm her down. In the movie it goes straight from the diner scene to the cemetery, and that would’ve been in between. But it’s ultimately the same script.
FANG: By the time you got the film off the ground, a whole bunch of zombie films and TV shows had been released and aired; were you conscious of trying to make LIFE AFTER BETH different from the stuff that was already out there?
BAENA: I think it was different enough, so I didn’t really worry about that. Obviously, SHAUN OF THE DEAD had come out, so now everyone knows the term “zom-com,” and that movie’s great. Then I saw ZOMBIELAND, which is basically the exact opposite of mine in that it has absolutely no sympathy for zombies; it’s just about destroying them. I haven’t seen WARM BODIES, and I know that’s a zom-rom-com, but people have told me it’s not too similar. I kind of was operating in a vacuum with LIFE AFTER BETH, and I figured the best-case scenario would be to keep it that way, so I wouldn’t feel any of that pressure.
FANG: The debate has long raged about slow zombies vs. fast zombies; how did you approach your own undead characters?
BAENA: I guess the distinction is between resurrected zombies and virus zombies, and I still have a hard time reconciling the virus type as being zombies. I feel like they’re just rabid people, so they don’t feel like zombies to me; those are generally the fast zombies, so I just discount them from the canon. The slow zombies are a far more interesting idea, because they’re dead and alive at the same time; the idea of a zombie is almost like a paradox. In those movies they tend to be strong and violent, so mine start off absolutely normal and then they start developing that strength, but they don’t slow down; I made mine middle-speed. I just sort of maximized the interpersonal, nightmarish aspect of it, keeping them as close to human as possible while at the same time enhancing them with frightening powers.
FANG: The film’s balance between comedy and taking death seriously is very well-maintained. Was it a challenge while shooting to get that tone right, and getting the performances on the right level?
BAENA: It wasn’t a challenge, but it was definitely a consideration. I believe that as long as you track the protagonist’s emotional arc and it feels somewhat authentic, given the absurdity of the heightened reality, you’ll always have some things to keep you balanced, and be sort of a ballast to the insanity. As long as we were true to the emotion, I felt the tone would work. And the cast I chose were all sort of hybrid actors, with experience in comedy and drama. John C. Reilly is the epitome of that; he started off doing dramatic films, and then BOOGIE NIGHTS had some comedy to it, and then you go all the way to TALLADEGA NIGHTS and STEP BROTHERS and see he can be insanely funny. Molly Shannon is another example; she did some of my all-time favorite SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketches with the Jeannie Darcy character, and at the same time she’s incredibly poignant in YEAR OF THE DOG. Paul Reiser is hysterical, but he was also in DINER and played one of the best villains ever in ALIENS. And there aren’t a lot of actors Dane’s age who have his level of dramatic ability, but he also has a good sense of humor, and had never really had a chance to do comedy, so he was a no-brainer. I just tried to get people who could play both positions.
(Possible SPOILER follows…)
FANG: It’s very interesting how LIFE AFTER BETH kind of backs into being a zombie-apocalypse film, were we’re not aware for about the first half of the film that there are other undead around, but then it’s slowly revealed that the whole world is being taken over.
BAENA: Yeah—I wanted the zombies to be more sentient and self-aware and have personalities, because for me, the idea was that these people you wish could come back actually do come back, and try to reintegrate themselves into your life. It seems like a blessing, but ultimately it’s a curse as they start deteriorating. My intention was always to emphasize the emotional carnage over the physical carnage, and to make it a subjective, personal story for Zach. If there was a zombie apocalypse, you probably wouldn’t know what caused it, because you’d be living in the suburbs or somewhere cut off from the freedom fighters and scientists and military generals trying to solve it. You would be dealing with the specificity of it, as opposed to the overall experience.
For me, the best, funniest stuff is subtle and just out of reach, that you just get glimpses of. We also didn’t have the budget to pull off a massive zombie apocalypse, so the idea was always to kind of have it off to the side. I grew up in Miami, where we had hurricanes all the time, but when you’re in one, you’re not seeing the eye of the storm, you’re not out at sea watching a fisherman trying to get home; you’re in your house with your family with boarded-up windows, probably getting into a fight about something. To me, that was the more interesting approach. It’s about the guy down the block from where the zombie apocalypse is happening as opposed to the guy who’s out there saving the day. We’ve seen that movie a billion times, but we haven’t seen the emotional fallout of a zombie apocalypse on a personal level.
For more on LIFE AFTER BETH, pick up FANGORIA #335, now on sale.