How many nice Jewish boys from Miami make it big in Hollywood? And how many of those get to write and direct a star-studded zombie movie as their first big gig? Enter 37-year-old Coral Gables native Jeff Baena. He's pushing the envelope with his new non-zombie zombie movie Life After Beth. In a classic case of life mirroring art, he had killed the project off a long time ago (the original screenplay dates back to 2004), only to bring it back from the dead when opportunity came knocking. Ten years later and on a shoestring budget, he pulled it off in an effort that he himself admits was, "ambitious to say the least."
"I emotionally detached myself from it and let it go," Baena admits.
"It wasn't on my radar. I didn't think it would ever happen. When it came back there were feelings of disappointment and unresolved crap, but the rebirth was exciting, and I didn't skip a beat. It popped back into my life and I didn't dwell on it. I just got it made."
His directorial debut threw him right in with the big boys, with an all-star comedic cast of Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick and Jim O'Heir.
The film premiered in competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. According to Hollywood Reporter, "Life After Beth is one of the most emotionally credible zom-coms since Shaun of the Dead."
Variety gave the film a gleaming review saying, "Baena's confidence is reflected in a superb tech package that makes this notably self-assured debut look considerably more expensive than it likely was to make."
Life After Beth centers on what happens when lead character Zach's girlfriend Beth comes back from the dead. It is a rich blend of comedy, drama, fantasy and romance. Baena is very calculated in his endeavor to make it more about the characters' dynamics and less about the zombie element.
"There isn't one shot that Dane DeHaan (the lead) isn't in and the camera is always on his level," Baena says. "He's in every single scene, and it motivates you to feel an emotional connection to him. I put all the zombie stuff in the periphery so that it is more subordinated, so that the emotional stuff will be amplified. The real stuff is in the personal dynamic between the characters."
Baena shot the film in Los Angeles, but he had his hometown in mind when he originally wrote the screenplay.
"We were actually supposed to shoot in Miami, I mean that's how it was modeled in my head, in an upper middle suburban Jewish neighborhood."
Baena is Jewish and he made all of the characters in Life After Beth Jewish: Cheryl Hines is Judy Orfman, Paul Weitz plays Mr. Levin, Aubrey Plaza -- Beth Slocum -- you get the point... though ironically, the only real life Jew in the film is Paul Reiser. Jewish references are weaved throughout the film: the second scene takes place at a Shiva (the customary Jewish gathering following a funeral,) John C. Reilly dawns a yarmulke and kisses a mezuzah.
Baena's memories of his hometown are relatively positive to say the least.
"I went to Killian and grew up between Kendall and Coral Gables. It was a good place to grow up, it's a big city but not too big. I felt a sense of community and you can't beat the weather. At the time, we could play in the street and stay safe. Didn't feel like the once murder capital of the world, or the center of all drug trade and cartel killings, though I did see a dead body in the street killed by a drug gang firsthand. I enjoyed the influx of refugees and immigrants, the Latin and Haitian cultures."
The film reveals what happens when the lead's wish of getting his dead girlfriend back comes true, but Baena believes that the film is not about second chances.
"It's less about second chances and more about being present. William Blake's poem "Eternity" really inspired me to write the film."
As he recites the verses for me,
"He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise."
Life after Beth is in theaters August 15th.