Aubrey Plaza and Jeff Baena discuss zombie comedy Life After Beth

Best known for US sitcom Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza goes from deadpan slacker to braindead zombie with her new film Life After Beth. Here she and writer-director Jeff Baena discuss bloody break-ups, cult indie hero Hal Hartley, and... stoves

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 30 Sep 2014

“Yes, breaking shit was very interesting to me; I really wanted to break some shit.” Aubrey Plaza has just been asked whether the physical aspects of her role in horror-comedy Life After Beth were of particular interest. Her response also reflects the go-for-broke nature of director Jeff Baena’s messy but fun feature debut.

It’s the story of Zach (Dane DeHaan), a young man whose recently deceased girlfriend (the eponymous Beth, played by Plaza) mysteriously returns from the dead. Her parents (played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) think it’s a miracle resurrection. Zach seems onboard with the idea for a while too, especially since Beth appears to have no recollection of their break-up directly prior to her demise, but he slowly realises that her situation is more zombie than JC. Meanwhile, other departed members of the community start re-appearing with new surges of life. Mayhem steadily escalates to the point where a bloodied, super-strength Beth is lurching around with a stove strapped to her back.

When The Skinny meets Plaza and Baena in an Edinburgh hotel on the day of Life After Beth’s UK premiere at the city’s film festival, the latter is keen to point out that the stove gag was a key visual he had in mind from his screenplay’s inception ten years ago. “For me it was starting off the movie with some dramatic elements and being more rooted in the emotionality of what [Zach] is going through, and then slowly letting that progress to the point where you have [Beth] on top of a cliff [wearing] a stove.”

What's most interesting about Baena's approach is how a lot of the overt zombie elements stay on the peripheral until the film’s final act, and how, were you not aware of the narrative’s direction from promotional materials, one might plausibly believe Beth’s parents' biblical interpretation of their daughter's resurrection. “That was my intention,” Baena says of filtering the entire film through what DeHaan’s Zach sees. “I always wanted it to be more contingent. It’s not like you’re watching a Michael Bay movie and you’re following the lead actors and they’re a military general and a scientist and all the people who know the answers. If it really happened, you’d have no idea what’s going on. Everything would be peripheral, and it was also a function of the budget since we didn’t have a lot of money, so by keeping it more arbitrary we were able to get away with having glimpses as opposed to featuring things.”

Unlike most zombie movies, Life After Beth doesn’t explore any social commentary. Instead it hinges on an emotional undercurrent. “It’s definitely something that attracted me to the screenplay,” Plaza says. “I’d never really read anything like that before, and I thought it was really unique how the movie felt really emotional – it felt like a metaphor for a break-up, and those are the things that stuck with me. And I thought it would be fun to play a more physical character. I’ve never really done that before, and I liked the challenge of trying to figure out the different stages of turning into a zombie and how that manifests physically in your body.”

“I was investigating, I guess, the emotional carnage,” Baena adds. “Like Aubrey said, there’s definitely a through-line of a break-up. You know, if you break up with somebody and you get back together and you try to make it work, it’s always a disaster and it kind of slowly tears you apart. But with the way your mind processes information, you always remember good things and it’s hard to remember the bad, so you end up just getting back into things that are not really healthy for you and then, of course, it rears its head again and it’s a disaster. And I wanted to make it really intimate so that these zombies are actually people. Every single zombie that you see in these movies was a person, whether they have a shred of their humanity or whether it’s full-fledged [zombification]. It’s not something you can brush off and treat lightly.”

Though Life After Beth is his directorial debut, Baena's previous screen credit is as co-writer on David O. Russell’s existential comedy I Heart Huckabees, and that high-profile gig may well have attracted the stacked cast he’s assembled for Beth; not just rising stars in Plaza (best known as the sardonic April in beloved US sitcom Parks and Recreation) and DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), but also the likes of Anna Kendrick, Paul Reiser, and the aforementioned Reilly and Shannon. He also snagged unusual collaborators in another department, with Californian rock band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club making their film-scoring debut. “Twelve years ago, when we first became friends, [BRMC’s Robert Levon Been] knew I wanted to direct stuff and we always talked about collaborating at some point, and they were at a point – this is when they were younger – where they thought doing movie scores and commercials and all that kind of stuff was a big-time sell-out, and they were against it. But they were willing to do it for me, they said, and I revisited it years later and they were OK with it. I think they enjoyed it, so they want to get into it more.”

“I thought it would be fun to play a more physical character – I liked the challenge of trying to figure out the different stages of turning into a zombie” – Aubrey Plaza

With Life After Beth getting buzz at this year’s Sundance festival, are they both now having horror gigs thrown their way? Both express similar feelings regarding genre material: “I’m not attracted to genre or anything like that,” Baena says. “If the story connects and the characters are interesting then I’m interested. I’m potentially developing a TV show with John C. Reilly that has a horror element to it, but that’s me and him. That’s not people bringing that to me.”

Plaza interjects with some surprise that her director has not been offered other horror material, as this has evidently not been the case with her. “I’ve been offered some horror scripts in the past and I haven’t done any of them. I’m not a huge fan of just gory stuff, and I don’t know how that would be to be, like, covered in blood and being in some kind of slasher movie or something. But if it was a good story I would do it. I’ll do anything if it’s good.”

As our time runs out, one final question comes up regarding one of those potentially good projects that Plaza has in the pipeline. Having already featured in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, Plaza has recently worked with another 90s indie darling director in Hal Hartley (Trust, Simple Men), who cast her, along with regular collaborators Liam Aiken and Parker Posey, in his Kickstarter-funded film Ned Rifle, the final part of a deadpan comedy-thriller trilogy that also includes 1997’s Henry Fool and 2006’s Fay Grim. As enthusiastic as she’s been during the interview, Plaza’s demeanour noticeably increases in perkiness when Ned Rifle is brought up: “Working with Hal was really, really awesome. I really like some of his movies too, and so it was really surreal, especially to do the third movie in a trilogy of movies that I had seen. It was really like a weird time to just be thrown into this weird world, and he really creates this universe when you’re shooting with him. It’s like you just get on the Hal Hartley train and you just have to go with it, because the way he shoots is just really different from anything I’ve ever done before. But he’s a really smart and gentle person, and he has a really specific vision in his mind, which you can tell when you watch his movies.

“He’s kind of badass,” Plaza continues. “He doesn’t really care about making successful... anything... he just doesn’t listen. He just does exactly what he wants to do, so I hope it turns out good.” With Ned Rifle and Baena’s TV show in the works, their lives after Beth certainly sound promising.

Life After Beth is released Fri 3 Oct