Life After Beth: director Jeff Baena interview

Andrew catches up with the director of Life After Beth to talk about horror, zombie digestive systems and more...

After the trailer ‘hit’ – as I believe only movie websites say – in July, there’s been a sense of anticipation for Life After Beth, aided by positive reviews (ours is here) and the appealing cast. The film has now landed in UK cinemas, and earlier this year we met with writer-director Jeff Baena (co-writer of I Heart Huckabees) for an exchange of verbal information regarding the film, zombies, and Jason Statham. Here’s how it went…

Hello.

Hi.

Easy question to start off with: do you have any favourite zombie movies, or rom-coms? Anything that was a touchstone while making Life After Beth?

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Yeah, I think, uh, Dawn Of The Dead… Day Of The Dead… and there’s another movie from the 80s that kinda qualifies called The Midnight Hour. It’s ridiculous.

I’ve not seen that.

It’s got this…Peter DeLuise from 21 Jump Street, and Shari Belafonte. It’s a shit-show. I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t recommend it, but it had an effect on me.

A more annoying question: why did you make this film?

What was the drive?

Yeah, what was the drive to make it?

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I think at the time, when I wrote it – because I wrote it in 2003 – I think I was going through a breakup and I unconsciously projected that information onto the story, but I didn’t put it together…yeah, so I had the desire to tell a story about a guy whose girlfriend dies, and he suspects that she’s pulling a scam when she comes back, he doesn’t really know how to make sense of it, and I wanted to maintain that hesitation for as long as possible before it’s resolved.

The zombies in this film aren’t typical – they have a consciousness that’s almost human – when did you decide that had to happen, and were you worried about zombie purists’ reactions?

From the beginning I always saw it as a way of expressing violence, but in terms of emotional violence as opposed to physical violence. That, if you’re intimate with somebody and they go away…and then they come back and they answer your wishes…the most horrible thing could be to see them deteriorate before your eyes, all your hopes and dreams dashed…just that intimacy…is like the ultimate violation. For me that was always a central feature of it.

If you look at zombie movies throughout history, they’re always making adjustments. Even the idea of the virus zombies, and the back-from-the-dead zombies…there’s been tons of tweaks…if you’re reliant on the tropes and conceits of other movies then everything is going to be filtered through those movies, but if you come up with your own little angle it becomes more of a primary experience. It upsets your balance and doesn’t give you anything to hold onto, so it’s like a new experience, it feels a little bit fresher, you’re more present when it’s happening. 

So, it’s a true zombie film by virtue of using them in the way they’ve been used before, which is to be inconsistent in the way they’ve been used before?

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Yeah! Yeah.

This is a facetious question: where does it go when zombies eat people?

Like, physically? Like what happens to their digestive system?

Yeah, I don’t know why it occurred to me during this film, because every zombie film I’ve seen they eat people, but it’s never explained how it works.

For me, all the zombies you do see are physically intact. I would assume if they had digestive system issues when they died – bowel cancer, colon cancer – maybe they wouldn’t come back? If they had an autopsy where their brain was removed and then put back in…their entire nervous system would not be working…

Part of my motivation for having the main characters be Jewish in this is that Jewish people don’t do autopsies, and they don’t embalm people, and so it seemed that they would be the prime people to come back as zombies because their bodies weren’t as mutilated after death, but I thought about that too. A lot.

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Cos even in serious movies where they’re getting shot a thousand times, obviously shot through the neck, the lung, it’s only in the head where they die, so the only thing that matters is that they have brain activity…but they are eating brains and other pieces of bodies so they are getting nutrition somehow…I don’t know if you noticed but every zombie in my movie was physically intact, so I thought about that…but I don’t have an answer.

That’s fine, it wasn’t strictly relevant, more personal curiosity.

No, I’ve definitely thought about that too, that’s why I made those choices, but that bothers me too.

That’s a lot more thoughtful an answer than that question really deserved.

The depiction of suburbia in the film is nicely observed, with the behind-closed-doors aspect of it. Was that something you wanted to convey all the time or was it borne out from having Beth come back to life?

Well, I grew up in suburbia so it’s a world I’m familiar with…but in my experience all the families that I grew up thinking were the perfect families who kept it together…all their secrets would come out and it’d be something dark and disgusting beneath the surface, so I wanted to exploit that.

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There’s also something – for me –  that is appealing on projecting the zombie apocalypse on suburbia because it’s so spread out. It’s not like the rural area where you’re hiding in a farmhouse and you never know where they’re coming from because they could be in the woods, they could be in the barn…and it’s not like a metropolis where, you know, the entire infrastructure is destroyed and its easy to cut off civilisation, it’s kinda this middle ground area.

Besides being familiar with it, and thinking it’s a funny venue for a zombie apocalypse, in suburbia you’re creating this perfect family situation and it’s ripe to be destroyed. 

With the reasoning behind the zombies in this one, with Zach having to come to terms with his loss, are you worried that people might see it as ‘Zombie Apocalypse caused by overly clingy girlfriend’. Do you worry about negative interpretations?

I think the only way for it to be misogynistic is if I portrayed her as the perfect subservient girlfriend, but they were having issues before she died. It’s not working out, and he’s sort of idealised their relationship afterwards because when you go through a break-up a lot of times – in retrospect – it’s harder to remember the pain and the misery, it’s easier just to remember the good times, and you just live in a world of regret and remorse.

So, I think by projecting those idealised version of relationships onto the past – and if we were to get what we wanted in those moments when we were at our lowest, which is to be back with that person, it’s ultimately like the gypsy curse. It’s not going to work out, you’re going to get what you want but it’s going to be a disaster. Having been through breakups when you get back with the person thinking it’s going to work the second time: it never does. I think it’s more about that.

She obviously goes to an intense place, he does too. He’s out of character for most of the movie. He’s completely depressed – he’s basically manic – and so his behaviour is just as volatile as hers although she’s obviously got a better reason. She’s a zombie, he’s having emotional reasons, she’s having physical reasons. You could make an argument that it’s less about gender and more about the situation. If you flipped it, it’s going to be the same thing.

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What do you think would happen if it had been the other way around?

It might be a little bit more violent, because obviously men can be more violent…physically. So for me, if anything, it was sort of cool because it physically empowers the woman, it gives her more physical power and violence which isn’t normally there. I thought about that issue, but for me it’s more about the wish fulfilment and the curse coinciding. It’s a function of the inability to wrap your mind around the reality of just how bad it was before you guys broke up. It’s a reminder of that in a really, really fast way.

Finally, what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

Crank 2: High Voltage.

Good answer, no pause.

Life After Beth is out in UK cinemas now.

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