ENTERTAINMENT

Zoe Lister-Jones Made A Star-Studded Apocalypse Movie During The Pandemic

The writer, producer and co-director of the Sundance film "How It Ends" talks about creativity in lockdown amid COVID-19 anxiety.
Zoe Lister-Jones' "How It Ends" uses some of the emotions people have felt during the coronavirus pandemic as its characters
Zoe Lister-Jones' "How It Ends" uses some of the emotions people have felt during the coronavirus pandemic as its characters brace for the end of the world.

There’s a scene in Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein’s new dark comedy “How It Ends” where Olivia Wilde, bracing for the end of the world, sits in her sunny backyard in Los Angeles drinking red wine and eating chocolate cake.

Although the film has nothing to do with COVID-19, the image is all too familiar for the millions of us who’ve been dealing with the sobering effects of the global pandemic for nearly a year.  

“We wanted ‘How It Ends’ to be able to mine the emotions that we were all navigating in COVID without making it feel like a mirror of our time,” Lister-Jones, who most recently wrote and directed “The Craft: Legacy,” told HuffPost during a Zoom call last week. Toward the start of the pandemic, she and her husband, co-director and co-writer Wein, were processing their feelings on the state of the world, and the movie’s premise began to take shape. 

“It obviously continues to be such an unprecedented time, but especially when we were all in lockdown, there was so much fear and so much uncertainty and the vulnerability that we were all facing was so loud, you know?” Lister-Jones said. “That vulnerability really translated into an inner child for me.” 

“How It Ends” follows Liza (Lister-Jones) who, with help from her metaphysical younger self (Cailee Spaeny), journeys by foot to one last party before an asteroid is set to hit Earth. Along the way, the pair run into friends (Wilde, Whitney Cummings), lovers (Logan Marshall Green, Lamorne Morris), family members (Bradley Whitford, Helen Hunt) and strangers (Nick Kroll, Charlie Day) as Liza makes peace with her life regrets. 

The movie, which debuted at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, was shot in the early summer following strict safety protocols. On top of testing, personal protective equipment and bucket-loads of hand sanitizer, the actors remained socially distanced in most scenes (which makes for a clever nod to the “now” times). 

In this interview, Lister-Jones discusses her creative process in lockdown, and coronavirus anxiety and depression.

Lister-Jones and her crew filmed in a number of different locations for "How It Ends," making sure everyone felt comfortable
Lister-Jones and her crew filmed in a number of different locations for "How It Ends," making sure everyone felt comfortable and taking pandemic-related safety precautions.

Sundance is a bit different this year, but cool that it’s still happening.

I mean, Sundance is always exciting even virtually. And I think because we made this film during the pandemic and now get to premiere it at a festival while still in it, there is something that feels actually sort of right about that. It’s all of the same moment and emotional landscape. But yeah, I do miss schlepping up and down Main Street [in Park City, Utah]. 

It was just a year ago we were trudging along in our snow boots. 

One of the last superspreader events! 

When did this idea sprout in your mind? I just read your New York Times interview about “The Craft: Legacy” where you said teenage Zoe is still very much present in your life, especially in therapy ― and I thought, well, that’s “How It Ends” right there.

Yeah. I was finishing “The Craft: Legacy” remotely, editing in quarantine, and we were also making this film. So I started sort of getting in touch with teenage Zoe while writing “The Craft” because that was very much about young women coming into their own and sort of facing obstacles before hitting puberty ― not being as aware of how they can overcome them. And so I was doing a lot of inner child work for that movie too, and then when quarantine hit, the inner child work continued and kicked into high gear. [Laughs]

With my virtual therapy sessions we were doing a lot of inner child work as I was trying to figure out how to talk to that very vulnerable self who had sort of been ignored for many years. We’ve all been so distracted and work-focused and, for any one of us, the vacuum of all of those distractions and quarantine really made the inner children more present, at least for me. Whether or not you call them by that! 

No shade to COVID, but living it was enough and continues to be enough. We wanted 'How It Ends' to be able to mine the emotions that we were all navigating in COVID without making it feel like a mirror of our time. Zoe Lister-Jones

Did you have an idea of who you would get to do these fun little surprise cameos, or did you call up your friends in LA and say, “Listen, I’m going to stroll down to your house with a script”?

No, we had an idea. I mean, we knew the people that we wanted to be a part of the film and we knew the characters that we wanted them to play. For us, it was sort of a mixed bag in that we had a very structured outline of the script and then there were many scenes that were written outright ― all of my scenes with Cailee, my scene with Helen Hunt, my scene with Bradley Whitford and all my scenes with Logan Marshall Green. But then with many of the other scenes, actors were able to improvise. That was also such a fun and terrifying challenge, especially in quarantine, because for many of our actors it was their first time being in front of the camera since lockdown. And because it is a comedy, there were some apprehensions around like, “Can I be funny right now? Can I show up and perform in the way that I did before?”

I think because of the nature of the story, which was intentionally paralleling where we were while not being a COVID-specific film, a big conversation with everybody was wherever you are on that day on the emotional roller coaster that is quarantine, that’s where your character can be. And so there was a freedom to it that was really exciting. Obviously a lot of our actors brought their own things to these roles that they were personally dealing with, so I think it was cathartic for everyone.

You chose not to do a COVID movie and I, for one, appreciate it, but did you ever consider doing a pandemic, apocalyptic tale or did it feel too real?

We never considered that because I feel, both together and when we make work separately, [Daryl and I] make films that we want to be watching and we did not want to be watching a COVID movie. [Laughs] No shade to COVID, but living it was enough and continues to be enough. I think we also wanted it to feel like a time capsule in many ways. A big part of our inspiration was the empty streets of LA because we would get in our car and it was just like haunting and surreal to see how few cars and how few people were out. And so we really did want to capture that sort of singular moment in history that I hope will not be repeated again.

Let’s talk about the filming locations ― are these friends’ or actors’ homes that you guys filmed in or did you find little spots throughout LA to shoot? 

It was really all dependent on each actor’s comfort level. We basically said we can come to your backyard, we can find a backyard or a friend’s backyard that we can shoot in and enter through a gate, we don’t have to ever be inside a home. Our first concern was always safety and how to make sure everyone felt comfortable and so some of them are actors’ homes, some of them are friends’ backyards. The home that we shoot in at the top of the film is our home, but outside of that interior we were like, “This is a film that will be entirely outdoors and entirely six feet apart from each other.”

You solo directed “Band Aid” and “The Craft: Legacy,” so what made you want to co-direct this with Daryl? I guess with the pandemic, it was kind of comforting to make it a team effort? 

Yeah, totally. We had written and produced a number of films together and then made a number of films separately, but this is the first time that we’ve directed together so it was a milestone in that sense. It just happened organically because of quarantine and it was a great collaboration. We both were wearing so many hats because it was a really micro crew that it was really helpful to be working with someone whose sensibility is so shared. We communicate through a shared unspoken language and anticipate each other’s wants and needs creatively. It was also, you know, insane when you’re spending that much time with your partner to embark on professional endeavors. But we did it.

Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in "How It Ends."
Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in "How It Ends."

How is it to work with “The Craft: Legacy” star Cailee again, this time on screen together?

It was incredible. She and I formed such a deep bond on “The Craft” and she was part of our pod in quarantine so we were doing a lot of soul-searching together. In many ways, “The Craft” was loosely based on my own experience I had as a teenager. Not that I have those kinds of powers, [Laughs] but in terms of my experience with my mother and moving into her boyfriend’s home and stuff like that. So Cailee and I were talking a lot about my inner child and she was sort of embodying that ― she was sort of diving into my younger psyche in that film. And so this was a really interesting way to continue that work together and to be acting on screen. For both of us, those conversations with a metaphysical younger self were pretty resonant and therapeutic, personally. 

A lot of people hoped to be creative during this time at home, but it’s easy to get in a rut and feel uninspired. For you, it seems this was a period of amazing creativity.

Fortunately, I didn’t ever feel stuck creatively. I felt pretty stuck emotionally, like I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety, and for me the only way I know how to find moments of reprieve from that is through creativity. That serves as a channel. So I never felt stuck in that way, but I did feel released in other ways. I definitely had so many fears around making this movie in quarantine. Writing things and finishing “The Craft” were different because they were in the safety of the confines of my own home, but getting out there and producing a film and co-directing and acting and all of these things that I wondered were outside the realm of my capabilities emotionally was really challenging at times. I think because the work was mirroring the emotional roller coaster that we were already on, by the end of every day I would feel such a weight lifted and it was such a nourishing experience to be creative.

Did doing these little scenes with your friends and colleagues reinvigorate you too? Each scene is so different and the banter back and forth comes off as very genuine.

Yeah, it was so much fun to be having real-life conversations. That was such a gift. For Daryl and I, part of our intention was also to incorporate a sense of play amongst our community at a time where that felt really far away. Each vignette and scene always exceeded my expectations because everyone in our cast is just so brilliant. Like with Olivia Wilde, I think that was the first time she had ever been in the physical presence of another person since lockdown and she was like, “This is a mirage!”

We all crave that human connection, still. All we have right now is new, and old, content to hold us over.

I think the thing that I’ve been craving, and I think Daryl’s been craving too, is something that has levity without like denying the complexity of humanity. [Laughs] We watched a lot of Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson and sort of things that could fill that emotional space. And I think that is why we made “How It Ends” because it felt like there was a lot of heavy fare and a lot of super light fare and we wanted something that landed somewhere in between both. 

As a viewer, part of me was hoping that your film didn’t end with “the end” ― that is, the meteor hitting Earth. I’ve come to root for or expect a happy ending, I suppose. 

Yeah, well, so much of what many of us have been doing is sort of having to face our mortality in a way that we’ve never had to do before and to come to terms with it. There’s a weird sense of Zen and banality to the last 10 and a half months ― as we’ve been in a state of chaos, we’ve also been, like, Netflix and chilling at the same time. We wanted to create an atmosphere that was apocalyptic but also, like, super calm, because it was so surreal the dichotomy of those two vibes. I hope we can release “How It Ends” sooner rather than later for the public to see because I do hope it will speak to this time in a way that resonates. 

“How It Ends” premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. It has yet to be acquired.