All this week Paste is bringing you preview interviews with filmmakers who are taking their new films to Sundance. Jeff Baena, though he wrote David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, is himself a first-time director. His new film Life After Beth stars Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, and John C. Reilly, and it’s got a plot that is probably best left vague. We spoke with him about the film, what David O. Russell taught him, what he’s looking forward to from the Sundance experience, and much more.
Paste Magazine: This is my fourth filmmaker preview interview and every one of y’all is finishing up sound mix right now, so you’re right where you’re supposed to be.
Jeff Baena: Yeah, we’re pretty much done. We’ve got a couple little things that we’re doing, but we’re working on the EEP now, so the home stretch is pretty much over.
Paste: Nice. Well thanks for giving me a little bit of time. I know that, I assume that from the day you heard you were in, up through today, has been pretty crazy days, is that right?
Baena: I would say pretty much from the day of our pre-production until a couple days ago. I mean it’s been so fast. Everything has been so fast; we had zero time. We shot this movie in mid-July and it’s completed now. It’s an insane schedule.
Paste: Wow. That is completely insane. Shot it in July, wow, so you really only had, August, September, you only had 3 months before the submission deadline. So you went through everything pretty quick.
Baena: We submitted in August. Like August 18th or 17th, something like that.
Paste: Oh gosh. So you really only had a month until the deadline.
Baena: Yeah, we literally had like 22 days to edit it, so the schedule was remarkably difficult.
Paste: That’s pretty insane. Well I know you probably don’t want to tip your hand too much, before the festival begins, about exactly what the movie is about and how it’s going to feel, but can you preview it a little bit?
Baena: Yeah, the movie centers around a kid whose girlfriend has just passed away. They were having a couple problems before she passed, and so he feels really unresolved and obviously devastated by her death. And he ends up becoming good friends with her parents, especially her father. And those are the only people in the world that really understand the grief he’s going through. He tries to start sneaking around and looking through their house and in the windows and sees his girlfriend and thinks she’s alive, but it makes no sense to him. Of course, he thinks there’s some kind of conspiracy going on, who knows what. And eventually realizes that it’s not a conspiracy, that she’s back and no one really knows why. And from that point on it goes from a movie about someone going through loss to clearly what he wanted- to get his girlfriend back. And eventually he realized that she came back as a zombie and is not exactly as pleasant as he thought it would be.
Paste: That would be a complicating factor I guess.
Baena: Yeah, that’s the whole general idea.
Paste: So it’s basically exactly the same plot as I Heart Huckabees. I mean they are really very similar right?
Baena: It has a lot in common with Huckabees. Yes. So much. Between those two movies, I’ve pretty much got all my bases covered.
Paste: Well tell me about assembling the cast. You’ve got a really really amazing cast- some real favorites.
Baena: I wrote the script 10 years ago in 2003 as we were wrapping up Huckabees. So I almost had it going back in 2004, and it fell through and I pretty much let this one go. It was dead to me. And then I kinda, like a year and a half ago, Aubrey’s agents were wondering what her next project was going to be, and they were sort of underwhelmed with what was out there. One of her agents remembered my script from back in the day because he represented an actor who wanted to be in it- Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And he said “What about Jeff’s script? What happened to your boyfriend’s script?” She said “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
So we started talking about it, and it was crazy because when I write stuff, I don’t write it for actors, I just think of the character and build it out from there. But if there’s really anyone else in the universe who’s equipped to play that character, and the idea of her being in the movie clicked in my head, it all started kind of falling into place. And once we had her involved, my first thought was to cast her father, and I initially thought of John C. Reilly, even though the character is an upper-middle class Jewish man. Just for some reason, there’s something about John C Reilly that had kind of a Sydney Pollack kind of vibe that I felt like he’d be able to pull off even though he had never done anything like that before. So I pushed him and he was completely into it and we put him on board right away.
And then one we had him, he suggested Molly Shannon to play the wife because they worked together and a couple things- they were in Year of the Dog together, they were in Never Been Kissed together, they never really had the chance to have a full on relationship kind of thing, so when he said that, it made perfect sense. And so we added her, and then Dane DeHaan is oddly one of my closest friends, and so when she suggested him, I had seen him in Chronicle. I don’t know if you saw The Place Beyond the Pines, he killed that movie. He was so good. And one of the things while I was making this movie, one of the ideas that I had going on in my head was you kind of need to have someone super grounded. Because this is the sort of movie that can easily slip away into the ether. I think that because pretty much every single actor in this movie has comedic jobs, like a lot of funny movies, you need someone that can kind of sell the grounded, morbid pathos. So when the idea of Dane came up it was like common sense. And then it pretty much snowballed from there and it all followed suit and we got pretty much everyone that we wanted. It was kind of a dream.
Paste: It’s amazing how quickly, once you get those first couple of people, how quickly people return your phone calls for the rest of the parts.
Baena: Once you get, there’s like a formula and it’s kind of boring, but there’s like a certain place that you can get to where you do critical math and we were almost there when all was said and gone and once we had John on board, it felt real, so people started taking it more seriously.
Paste: That’s fantastic. Well tell me about someone from, someone from your crew that you look back on and you think “Boy, this film would not have been nearly good, if we had not had this cinematographer or this editor, or even producer, or whoever- I know it’s kind of like asking you to choose between your children, but who’s one of your MVPs?”
Baena: Only one? Jay Hunter is such a good collaborator, he made the process so much easier. He knows how to deal with people and all the gaffer and even our sound guy were all from him, and they were all just top notch. I feel like Jay was one of the most important people, if not the most important person.
And then Colin Patton, the editor, he does big movies now, he was such an ally, and it was so good to have him. Because there’s the script you write and the script you shoot, and then there’s the movie you edit and they’re all different, they’re completely different. You know, if it wasn’t for Colin, he was able to finesse the tones so that it was consistent throughout and definitely was a major help. And to be honest with you, the producers were so important as well because they gave me some room. They weren’t all over the place with development, they weren’t all over the place with choices and performances. They just kind of gave me the tools to make the movie I wanted, and I know for a lot of first-time directors that is not a reality, you’re just answering to a lot of people. I got really lucky. They trusted me with the creative stuff and I didn’t have a lot of interference from them, which was really helpful. So literally the three people you named were the three most important people for me- it would be the editor and the cinematographer and the producers. They all just made it happen. I’m sorry I didn’t pick one, I had to pick three.
Paste: No, that’s quite alright. So I’m going to ask you the question that if you’re not already sick of, you’ll become sick of it in two weeks. Do you know what my question is going to be?
Baena: There’s like three of them.
Paste: I was going to ask you, as a first time director, what did you take from your experience working with David O’Russell on I Heart Huckabees that you were able to sort of take with you to do this?
Baena: That’s the first time for that one, actually. People were asking me about the tone, talking to me if I was influenced by other zombie things and what was it like working with your girlfriend? But working with David O. Russell, we wrote like 3 or 4 scripts together and I had the privilege of collaborating with him during a really pensive and creative period in his life. And more than anything he taught me how to come up with a script and how to, you know, it’s something he does really well which he calls critical confabulations, where you know, where you set the characters and then you create a situation where eventually they run into each other in one place, in one location, he has all these confabulations of all these characters with all their diverse needs and spines and desires and sort of interacting and creating a mess. And more than anything, that’s what I feel like I took away from him, was how to create those scenes and how to create a natural chaos that feels more organic and comfortable. You know, where the dialogue is somewhere between banter and the information that you need to know and it has that delicate balance of character and story, I think he’s a master at that. I owe him big time for that. I think that’s probably the most I got from him.
Paste: That’s awesome. So I’m asking everybody, tell me where you were when you heard that you had gotten in to Sundance and what was your reaction?
Baena: I had just gotten out of the shower and the phone was ringing and it was a 310 number that I did not recognize, so I didn’t answer it. I let it go to voicemail. And when I listened to voicemail, it was Trevor Groth from Sundance, saying that he really loved our film and he wanted to talk to me, so it was a little bit of a softened blow. But then I talked to him I wasn’t expecting to get into the competition. I thought we were going to be in the Midnight section, like that. So it definitely took me by surprise to be in the dramatic competition. Looking at I guess the roster on the Dramatic Competition films this year, it looks like they’re branching out and trying something a little different out this year, so I find that kind of interesting.
So it was definitely shocking. I was hoping, you know it’s your dream to get into Sundance when you’re in film school and even when you’re a kid. I remember there was a Sundance movie when I was in high school, I knew it was cool. That was my dream. I honestly did not think I was going to get into the dramatic competition, it’s still a little bit of a dream to me, it’s really bizarre. I was in utter shock.
And the other thing is, I couldn’t tell anyone. We found out in November and Trevor told me not to tell anyone until December 4th and it was just a rule. So if someone tells me something and I say I’m going to do it, I have to do it, otherwise I’ll go crazy. I really told like the minimum amount of people, I didn’t even tell my parents. It felt like I was crazy too because I just wanted to tell everyone, but I had to keep it to myself and people were asking me directly, “So what are you going to do for Sundance?” and I had to say “No, I haven’t heard anything, but I’m hoping it works out.” So that was definitely like pulling my hair out. I couldn’t wait to tell people but I couldn’t and for some reason I can’t violate that rule.
Paste: Alright, well anything I didn’t ask that people should know before they go into your movie?
Baena: Aubrey Plaza is absolutely amazing. Dane DeHaan is incredible, the cast is incredible. And hopefully everyone will have a good time and enjoy it. And hopefully it will get distribution.