Interview with Life After Beth writer/director Jeff Baena
Life After Beth writer/director Jeff Baena was at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss his film.
Previously best known for scripting I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell, Jeff Baena makes his debut as a writer/director with zombie dramedy Life After Beth. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan and John C. Reilly, the film opens this weekend but I sat down with Baena during a busy day of interviews ahead of the film’s screening at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss this film, as well as making the jump to the director’s chair.
So what was it that made you go for this story? Did you specifically want to do a zombie film?
I think I just had the seed of the idea from…honestly, I don’t know where it came from. I think possibly it came from going through a breakup at the time and maybe deflecting that and projecting that onto a story without realising it consciously. But yeah, it was never explicitly a zombie movie, I’ve always been drawn to the realm of the fantastic where there’s that hesitation between an explanation of events and it kind of has that strange, surreal, uncomfortable, unknown element and I built a story out of that, but it was never explicitly a zombie movie.
So it was always more of a relationship film?
Yeah, it was always a relationship film.
It’s your first film as a director. How did you manage to get such an amazing cast for your first time out?
Primarily I think I was lucky. Secondarily, after Aubrey (Plaza) became involved, my friend Miguel Arteta has worked with John (C. Reilly) several times so he made the introduction for me and John read the script and responded. Once I had Aubrey and John on board, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was a fast process getting everyone else involved. It just kinda snowballed and we were lucky in that people responded to the script.
How did you find directing for the first time?
It was a blast. It’s all I ever want to do; it felt really comfortable and fun. I’ve been a writer for twelve years now and it was always a means to an end, I never wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a director so this was always my intention and it felt right.
So going forward do you see yourself directing your own work or other people’s scripts?
Well I don’t think I’m the best writer but I think that if it’s a script I respond to, I’ll end up rewriting it somewhat to match my tone and my voice more but I’m not opposed to directing someone else’s script.
When you were writing Life After Beth, did you put a lot of work into the ‘science’ of zombies or did you just kind of wing it?
I mean, I’ve seen pretty much most zombie movies, from the early days up until the 90s, so I’m very familiar with the genre itself and horror films in general. But for me the conceits of a zombie movie are not canon, it’s a malleable genre. Every zombie movie adheres to certain basic rules but there’s no overarching, absolute set of rules for how a zombie movie has to go down. So I figured I had a little bit of leeway and I took advantage of that leeway.
You worked with David O. Russell on I Heart Huckabees. How was it working with him and how big an influence has he been on your career?
He’s a tremendous influence. We wrote three scripts together and he taught me a great deal about writing and directing and I learned a lot from watching him working, working with him, collaborating.
Has there been anyone who’s been a big influence on you?
Personally or artistically?
Miguel Arteta has been a real big help, especially with this movie. In terms of creative influences, there are so many I could list a bunch. Fellini when I was a kid made me want to direct movies, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Michael Ritchie, Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog. Those are probably the biggest influences.
So not many names who work in comedy then?
Yeah, I mean it’s weird, I collect DVDs ’cause I didn’t know there’d be streaming back in the day and have like a thousand, and very few of them are comedies. Most of my favourite comedies are rooted in character and are more dramedy than comedy. I mean Hal Ashby is another person that’s a massive influence and his movies, as funny as they are, are always deeply sad and morose. One of the things with comedy, especially studio comedies, they’re so big and zany and not rooted in character or grounded in reality and it’s like you’re whoring yourself for jokes. That’s not interesting to me.
Do you see yourself doing more comedies or will you move into heavier dramas?
I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up not doing much comedy in the future. Woody Allen is obviously a massive influence and my favourite Woody Allen movie is Crimes and Misdemeanours, and that movie is not that funny. But it’s got a lot of comedy in it, especially Woody Allen’s part. And Husbands and Wives is heart wrenching but unbelievable hysterical in moments. So for me the drama is always a priority over the comedy. This is my first film so my footing isn’t that strong but as I get more experience I’ll develop.
Is there anyone in particular you want to work with? Actors, writers, directors…
I love actors; I’d like to think I get on really well with all my actors so I definitely want to allow myself that creative process of working with an actor and collaborating with them. So any actor is appealing to me as long as they make sense for the character. I wouldn’t retrofit something to just work with an actor…in the past I’ve just come up with something and the actor has come afterwards. I guess what I’m saying is I’d work with anyone as long as they’re good. I mean who wouldn’t say that?
What have you got planned after this film?
There’s a book I optioned that hopefully I can make into a film. It’s an autobiography and I want to direct. I have other ideas that are in the works.
Life After Beth is in cinemas now and you can read the review here.