ABOVE: MOLLY SHANNON (LEFT) AND CHERYL HINES AT SUNDANCE IN PARK CITY, UTAH, JANUARY 2014.
Supernatural films have featured more prominently than usual at Sundance this year. I Origins grapples with an earthshaking scientific breakthrough; Jamie Marks is Dead imagines a boy bullied to death who comes back as a ghost to haunt his survivors. Neither is as lighthearted as Life After Beth, which pictures Aubrey Plaza as a dearly departed daughter and girlfriend who reappears a week after her funeral, same as ever—save for superhuman strength and an inhuman affinity for smooth jazz. Her boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan), relishes the opportunity to reconnect with her until she becomes slightly too zombified, burning down buildings and eating human beings.
For all its hysterics and slapstick moments, Life After Beth is sort of brainy: its director, Jeff Baena, cites Derrida’s relativism when explaining the ambiguity he sees between life and death (as in zombies). The film is also surprisingly sad, especially for Beth and Zach’s suburban mothers, who cope with the zombie apocalypse as dotingly and harmlessly as they can. Zach’s mother (Cheryl Hines) happily welcomes his resurrected grandparents back home, while Beth’s mom (Molly Shannon) lets her daughter eat her fingers. The evening after the movie’s Park City premiere, we met up with Shannon and Hines to discuss their relationship with the undead.
ZACK ETHEART: Were either of you into the zombie genre before you signed onto this?
CHERYL HINES: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a zombie movie in my life. [laughs]
MOLLY SHANNON: Same with me.
HINES: I didn’t even know that this script had zombies in it before I started reading it, because if somebody would’ve said, “Here’s a zombie movie,” it probably would’ve been at the bottom of my priority list to read. [laughs] Because, Molly, I just have so many scripts to read!
SHANNON: [laughs] I thought you must’ve had multiple zombie movies lined up.
HINES: Yeah, those would be about right under vampires in terms of priority.
ETHEART: [laughs] Well, you read about the zombies eventually. What convinced you to go with it?
SHANNON: Oh, Cheryl and I have talked about this. Just the writing, it felt so familiar to me—Jeff, the way he writes and the way he writes about family. One of my favorite scenes is at the table when it’s all very serious and dark and then Cheryl goes, “You’re not gonna believe who called today! Sharon Wexler!” I hadn’t met Jeff at that point, but I was like, “I love this guy.” His sense of humor, the way that he writes and how real it is, the tone—I just flipped for it.
HINES: And it feels like this isn’t a “Zombie Movie.” It just happens to be a tool that he uses to tell his story. It’s not so much about somebody literally being a zombie; it’s about somebody who’s maybe not dead and asking: who are they, what are they, and what’s your relationship with them? It was just really smart writing.
ETHEART: Do you think this is more of a tragedy or a comedy? Obviously the tone is humorous, but the plotline itself is pretty bleak.
SHANNON: Well, that’s the thing—it has all those elements. I don’t think it’s one or the other. And the ending is hopeful. But I think Jeff mixed a lot of different genres and different tones really well. I know it’s a zombie movie, but it was really based in truth and reality.
ETHEART: It was an interesting metaphor for a breakup, that you can never really revisit the person that someone used to be to you.
HINES: Yeah! [to Shannon:] He’s young, so he probably hasn’t really experienced the loss of a lot of people in his life, but it’s really the same thing. When you’re young, the loss that you experience when you break up with somebody, that’s the loss of a relationship. And the older you get, you actually lose people to death and you lose those relationships, too. [to Etheart:] It’s like you’re saying: Is that person ever going to be the same? Are you even the same? If you get someone back, are they ever really the same person you remember them to be? All the beautiful things that you remember—is it better, maybe, to just let those memories sit?
SHANNON: I loved the scene where Zach got to say what he wished he could have told Beth before she died. That was so touching.
ETHEART: Do you think she’s still there to hear those things? Or is she completely zombified?
SHANNON: I think she hears them. But it’s almost like somebody who’s had a traumatic brain injury.
HINES: Right. They’ll never be the same.
SHANNON: I had a friend who was like that—not a close friend, but they went through that. Her performance almost reminded me a little bit of that, too, where sometimes those people lose remorse or empathy, but then at moments they can still be connected.
HINES: Yes, exactly. Because they’re still the same person, but just not all the time.
ETHEART: What do you think happens to your character, Molly? We never get any closure.
SHANNON & HINES [together]: I know!
SHANNON: That’ll be part two. [laughs]
ETHEART: I was sure Beth was just going to eat her.
SHANNON: You were? I didn’t think that. I really never thought that. I thought that she was just off somewhere, alive, with her fingers cut off—and definitely dealing with post-traumatic stress.
ETHEART: Do you guys have kids?
HINES: Yep, we do.
ETHEART: How would you deal with your kid becoming zombified? Would you be as accommodating as Beth’s parents?
SHANNON: I think that being a mother, you would do anything for your children. Their pain is your pain; if they’re in pain, you feel their pain.
HINES: Oh, yeah. And I’m sure there’s just such a desperate feeling if you’ve lost a child. You’d probably feel so desperate that you would do anything. Even if they came to the door and put a gun to your head, you’d just be happy to see them.
SHANNON: Or it’s like parents whose kids are in a coma who are still showing signs of life. People are like, “Oh my God, she moved her finger!” The love of a parent, that connection, it’s eternal. So I really related to my character.
HINES: Yeah, I did too. I really related to what she was going through and what she was doing.
SHANNON: In real life, my son had a little injury a couple of years ago where we had moved into a new house and he put his hand through a glass window and it cut him really badly. Thank god he had surgery and repaired everything, but I remember I felt frozen I was so scared, and then I realized I was holding my hand just because his hand was hurt. I thought about that for the performance, how his pain was my pain, and how I would do anything for him just to make him feel better.
ETHEART: We never really saw a lot of interaction between Beth’s and Zach’s parents. Do you think they got along?
SHANNON: Yeah, we only overlapped one day working together.
HINES: I think they got along, but I don’t know that they hung out. [laughs] They were “friendly around town.” [to Shannon:] You guys were a little more square than us.
SHANNON: Oh, we’re a little more square? Hm… interesting.
ETHEART: Molly’s husband [played by John C. Reilly] was the one who smoked a joint.
HINES: [laughs] I was just thinking of that one point when I was looking at what John was wearing with his socks and his sandals, and I was just like, “What does he have on?”
ETHEART: The Birkenstocks?
HINES: Yes! God.
For more from Sundance 2014, click here.