Saturday, September 9, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #11. "Life After Beth" (2014)

Scene from Life After Beth
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Life After Beth
Released: August 15, 2014
Release Number: 11
Directed By: Jeff Baena
Written By: Jeff Baena
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly
Plot: A young man's recently deceased girlfriend mysteriously returns from the dead, but he slowly realizes she is not the way he remembered her.

For A24, The Rover hadn't been the big hit that they wanted in the United States. While it featured an against type performance by Robert Pattinson, it failed to capture the zeitgeist like Spring Breakers or Under the Skin. If anything, it marked a new and less certain era for the studio, which would continue to explore ambitious stories with odd casting choices, but few in the next 10 matched the impact, including director Jeff Baena's Life After Beth. There was plenty of promise for a zombie movie focused around a decaying relationship, especially with Dane DeHaan in his first comedic role. However, it was one of their least successful movies both critically and commercially, proving that the love for the walking dead wasn't a guarantee for big box office business. 

Before Baena made his directorial debut with Life After Beth, he was an occasional collaborator with David O. Russell. Following a bad accident, Baena co-wrote the divisive I Heart Huckabees, which remained his calling card for the next decade. Around 2003, he began to write the script that would form the 2014 movie. At its core, he wanted to explore the subject of a relationship that has died through the symbolism of a dead girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza). The idea was that when the boyfriend (DeHaan) tries to get back together with her, things are horrific and far from the same. While he would go on to publish several scripts, Life After Beth remained in the drawer, as he believed that it wasn't worth making. By the time that he had restored interest from girlfriend Plaza, he had to edit the story by removing references to George W. Bush, and the general belief that the world was crazy at the time. 

Plaza became aware of the script through friends of Baena, who never spoke of it to her. When she finally read it, she became compelled to make it. Even if Baena asked most of the cast personally to be involved, there were certain connections that Plaza had to her TV show Parks and Recreation, including co-star Jim O'Heir and voice work by Nick Offerman (her Scott Pilgrim vs. the World co-star Anna Kendrick also starred). With Plaza set to star as a woman decaying into a zombie, she decided to borrow a voice from her childhood. It wasn't a zombie voice, but a demonic one that fit the character. Over the course of 22 days, Baena and crew shot in limited locations. The opening scene in which Plaza is jogging wasn't actually part of the regular shooting. It was part of a legality regarding a California tax credit that they had to film by a certain date. Once Baena saw the footage in post-production, he felt that it would help provide context.

Another thing that separated Life After Beth from other zombie movies is that Baena didn't borrow mythology from other movies and series. He instead decided to base his look off of how a body naturally decays. Their make-up supervisor looked at old autopsy photographs to perfect the zombie look, which evolved throughout the story. Plaza carried a fake stove on her back which had a real exterior pipe that caused back problems. Baena also decided to use certain camera tricks to depict the grit of the zombie movie, such as making parts of the third act grainier. He also decided to restrain from using the color red in his movie until 45 minutes into the film to help the color pop when a character bleeds. He also claims that he used smooth jazz after discovering that it was used in dentist offices to calm patients subliminally. 

According to Baena, the post-production wrapped less than a week before its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. As a first time filmmaker, he was busy learning everything and putting his New York University education to practice. He was a very curious person who had a passion towards every detail of his movie. The film would end up getting nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Many praised Plaza for her "against type" performance as a zombie who only feels pleasure to smooth jazz. Baena would claim that Life After Beth wasn't Plaza's first sign of charismatic diversity, suggesting that she did great work in Safety Not Guaranteed. Still, the film's modest success set it up for a promising debut.

Despite having Plaza, who was currently a big deal on Parks and Recreation, the film was one of the first to not have great marketing. While it was dubbed a different kind of zombie movie, it wasn't enough to attract audiences. Over the course of its short run, it earned $254,881 total at the box office (the lowest for an A24 movie to date). The reviews weren't much more helpful, receiving a 44% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. It was the second lowest score following A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III's 15%. While Baena loved to joke that the script was resurrected thanks to Plaza, the pun was also applicable to critics, such as Richard Roeper who claimed that "The movie is DOA from scene one and is never resuscitated." Even more optimistic critics like Tim Haridy would claim that "Life After Beth is an irritatingly undeveloped project. A charming cast and a few moments of inspired lunacy make it passingly worthwhile for genre fans." Still, there had yet to be a passionate defense for the movie.

Life After Beth was part of the second tier A24 releases, of which would never be regaled as a masterpiece representative of the studio's potential. It was a fine movie, and one that subverted expectations like most of the previous 10 films. However, it was part of an odd group of films that wouldn't quite strike a chord with audiences or critics, leaving many to wonder if A24 was a very successful fluke. However, the studio kept plodding along by returning to an old tried and true formula. With their next movie The Captive, A24 worked with the Oscar-nominated director Atom Egoyan, whose work in Canada made him a cinematic hero in the country. But would it be enough to make his new film with Ryan Reynolds into something more than another mid-level hit for the studio?

Up Next: The Captive (2014) 

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