Jeff Baena is the mind behind the heady and challenging screenplay for David O. Russell’s 2004 existential comedy, I Heart Huckabees. After the kind of setbacks that come with the Hollywood territory, Baena has finally got his newest movie, Life After Beth, made. Starring his girlfriend Plaza, John C. Reilly, and Dane DeHaan, the film is a horror comedy about a young man whose deceased girlfriend is miraculously reincarnated. There’s just one hitch: she’s come back to life as a zombie. Distributed by A24, the film is receiving a limited theatrical run this weekend and can be watched on DirecTV now. Baena took some time to speak with us last week about the tightknit cast on set, inspiring filmmakers, and his directorial process.
A decade ago you co-wrote I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. What have you been up to in that time?
Writing some original stuff for studios that either gets made and I don’t get credit, or doesn’t get made. So a lot of writing primarily.
Considering Life After Beth did get made, was the process any different?
Well I wrote back in 2003, and almost made it back in 2003, and then it fell apart. So I just shelved for 10 or 11 years. Then Aubrey’s agent mentioned that it may be something right for her, and once he said that, it kind of clicked in my head that it would be absolutely perfect. So we got her on board and then we got John C. Reilly on board and we just started filling out the roles and made it.
Have you had any experience directing?
Yeah, I went to NYU Film School.
Was it daunting working with these talented performers as the freshman filmmaker?
It wasn’t that daunting. I don’t think directing is that hard, you just focus on the project at hand and you’re problem solving and making creative choices. And I like doing both of those things at all times so it’s really exciting. I think beforehand I was maybe worried or concerned that we didn’t have enough time or enough money. But we did a lot of preparation.
Were there any films you were drawing from or thinking of when writing Life After Beth?
I don’t know if there was anything that specifically influenced it. Movies that affected me deeply around the time I was writing it are Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie films. David Lynch and some Woody Allen. I wasn’t trying to imitate a style when I was making it. I was just trying to tell a story.
You wrote the film in 2003 and began directing in 2013, I imagine with that much time you made some alterations in between then …
You know, it was like a time capsule. When I went back and looked at it I didn’t actually change too much from when we went to film it. Obviously horror comedies have come out since. But I figured ours with a pure thing. I didn’t think it was that similar to the other movies that have come out. So I figured if I started overthinking things it would loose its original thrust. In the final draft there were really minor edits that had to be made. For instance, there were some references to George W. Bush that I had to take out.
Most directors would dream to have this sort of cast. Did you have these people in mind from the outset?
I came up with a list of people that I wanted to approach and then luckily most of the people we approached immediately responded and we really didn’t have to go to the second or third people. It was pretty much the first choices we were able to secure.
It’s rare for things to go so smoothly on a film set.
Yeah everyone was great. Everyone really loved everyone. There was a real closeness with the actors amongst each other and with me. Even when we were up at Sundance and showing the movie we all got back together. There was a warm feeling amongst everyone.
As a writer/director, who have been some of the people that inspired you to make movies?
So a laundry list of people …. Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Woody Allen, Michael Richie, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Spike Lee.
Everyone develops their own interpretations of films, which is what makes this medium endlessly interesting. But I’m curious, what do you believe your film means and says?
For me it’s just a subjective, personal approach to a type of movie we’re so familiar with seeing on a macro-level. I wanted to delve into some of the more interpersonal dynamics and emotional terrain of dealing with such traumatic events that you often so. So I wanted to approach it from a more myopic perspective. All the stuff that you normally see becomes more peripheral and subordinated.
What’s next for you?
Well I’m adopting an autobiography by Krystle Cole called Lysergic that hopefully I’ll be shooting next summer.