“For me, emotional violence outweighs physical carnage.”
During this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival I was able to meet with director Jeff Baena in order to discuss movies, zombies and his debut film, Life After Beth.
I saw Life After Beth at the press screening on Tuesday which got a great reaction. What was the response at the first public screening here in Edinburgh?
I’m not the right person to ask. I’m paranoid so, for me, I’d say it was a complete disaster. I’m sure it was great. They [the audience] laughed and stuff it’s just that the experience, as a film maker, I can’t sit there and watch it. I wasn’t there the whole time. I popped in a couple of times.
Have you had a chance to see much of Edinburgh?
Yeah. I’ve gone to restaurants and walked about a little bit. I went to The Witchery last night. I think it’s great. I think it’s a beautiful city. The food’s great and the people are really sweet.
What’s the biggest challenge when directing your debut film?
For me it was mainly time and money. We tried to do it justice but we shot it in 21 days and in the amount of time we had we were combining days that should have been multiple days, shooting twelve pages some days. It was an ambitious undertaking. So for me, as a first timer, obviously you want to give yourself as much padding as possible but at the same time you want to just get it done so, yeah, I’d say time and money.
Was Life After a Beth a particularly collaborative project or did you direct your actors against a solid script?
I definitely allowed for improvisation but it was pretty close to the script. We would do a couple of rehearsals right before the takes and if the actors came up with anything that was funny, or smart or interesting then we definitely would include it but I intended to write it so it sounded colloquial and natural.
Having written the film as well, does it translate from script to screen in the way you wanted it to?
It’s pretty close. It’s an approximation. There’s so many more things I wanted to do that we didn’t have time to do and so many more scenes I wanted to shoot but you take the good with the bad. Given all the considerations, it’s pretty close to what I thought.
Why did you decide to make the film’s central relationship a troubled one?
I think, conceptually, when you go through a break up with somebody you end up idealising the past and you sort of live in a state of regret and remorse about what could have been and how things could have been better. It’s the way the human mind works, for whatever reason. It’s easier to remember the good times than the bad so what you end up doing is getting back in relationships that you shouldn’t be in and they end up becoming a complete disaster. I was using that as the motor for the story, as opposed to her [Beth] being this angelic, Christ-like figure that died and came back. She’s a little more complicated and her relationship was a little more troubled which allows for his [Zach’s] denial in the beginning. When she first comes back everything’s great and he’s able to buy into that because that plays right into his idealised version of the past.
It’s a mixture of comedy, romance and horror but if you had to pick one element of Life After Beth that you really wanted to get across which one would it be? Of course, the film needs all three to work…
I’d say the ‘zombie film’ is the least prominent. I don’t know if I could pick one, it’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice’. It had to be a balance. For me, the beginning isn’t funny so obviously comedy was sacrificed for story. The end of it, I think, starts getting funnier so the trajectory is that it starts off sombre and slowly builds comedy on top of itself as it gets more dramatic. I don’t think you can separate them, it’s a ratio. I think the ratio changes at whatever section of the movie you’re watching.
Did you begin with romance or zombies? Which idea grew from the other?
It’s definitely a relationship movie. The scene that I built the whole movie on is when he sees her through the window and that sort of confusion that occurs. I’ve always been a fan of the genre of ‘the fantastic’ where you have this hesitation between the marvellous and the uncanny and you’re not sure whether it’s something you can explain or something other-worldly. If you can maintain that hesitation for as long as possible I think it’s a richer story so I tried to not establish that she was a zombie and have these questions. I knew as soon as you know she’s a zombie you fall into the trap of just sleepwalking through a genre so I tried to minimise that as much as possible. I think the human condition is that you want to know all of the answers. There’s a couple of threads that [Zach]’s chasing, trying to figure out answers, and non of them really pay off and I think that’s what happens in real life as opposed to a movie where everything makes sense and everything gets wrapped up.
Who is the unsung hero of this project? Who doesn’t get the praise they deserve?
I’ve sung the praises of most people but never sung the praises of the sound person. They did an amazing job. I think it’s pretty rare when you do a movie and you don’t have to do much a.d.r (dubbing) and we didn’t have to do much at all so Devendra Cleary, the sound designer. He did an incredible job. His recordings were crystal clear and he’s a genius and all my mixers and all the people working in post-production were impressed with the sound so I’ll give him my shout out.
Could you see yourself ever directing something that you haven’t written or would you like to maintain control over both?
I definitely would direct something someone else had written. I’d probably want to do a rewrite on it to put my voice into it but if it’s cool it’s cool. I just want to make good movies. I’m not ego-based so as long as it’s good, that’s all I care about.
What is your earliest memory of going to the cinema?
I definitely remember seeing E.T when it came out. I don’t know if it’s a false memory because I was born in 1977 but I have a feeling I’ve seen Star Wars in the theatre but it’s impossible for me to have been a baby and seen it so I don’t know if it was later. I think E.T was probably the first definitive memory of being in a movie theatre, seeing a movie. I remember that really strongly.
What is the most annoying thing people do in the cinema?
[Long pause] Going to the bathroom. They have to walk past you. You move your knees to the side and there’s just never enough room. They have a choice of either putting their crotch in your face or their butt. Either way it’s a losing proposition.
What other art forms are you passionate about, outside of film?
All other art forms. I love music, I love art, I love literature. I think all art forms are equally important to me.
Who is your greatest film-related influence?
There’s a bunch. I don’t know which one the greatest one would be. On a personal level, David O. Russell, obviously. He was a big important person in my life who helped me get my start. When I was 16 years old Woody Allen was a massive influence on me. I dressed up as a FedEx man and dropped off a bunch of my writing to his apartment and he actually wrote me back two weeks later and critiqued it which was really helpful. Firing off a machine-gun it would be…Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Michael Ritchie, David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman, and Werner Herzog.
What’s the best film you’ve seen in the last few months?
I really loved Under the Skin. Some Scottish action and I thought that movie was amazing. I loved Her and I loved the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, I thought that was really good.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem facing the film industry today?
I’d say remakes and sequels. The fact that studios are only making remakes and sequel and not taking chances and the fact that all studios are now multi-national global corporations. Their entire slates are dictated by bottom line and fear.
Your zombies aren’t particularly slow or fast. Where do you stand within the slow vs. fast zombies debate?
I guess I compromise and make medium zombies. There’s always innovation. Maybe, if anything, the middle zombie is the compromise. I’m drawn to that just because it’s more terrifying to have an intimate connection with a zombie that then slowly devolves into a flesh-eating zombie but at first seems like someone that you really care about. So, for me, the emotional violence outweighs the physical carnage.
Do you plan to continue directing? Has this first experience put you off at all?
Yes. No, no, not at all.
Are you, personally, a horror/zombie film fan?
Yeah. I wouldn’t say that horror films are my favourite but I love horror films, I love zombie movies I love giallos, I love pretty much any kind of movie except musicals.
What’s your problem with musicals exactly?
I just don’t like the logic that all of a sudden they break out in song, it just takes me out of it. And then the energy is a little too much for me. I don’t like really big happy energy.
LIFE AFTER BETH WILL BE IN UK CINEMAS FROM 3RD OCTOBER 2014
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.