Why Zoe Lister-Jones explores the end of the world through existential comedy in How It Ends
If you've only got 24 hours until the world ends, why not spend it laughing and self-reflecting?
Zoe Lister-Jones' new indie film How It Ends is an apocalyptic comedy that flips the script on what you'd usually expect from end-of-the-world movies. Because instead of trying to stop the impending end of days, Liza (Lister-Jones) spends her last day alive wandering around Los Angeles, visiting and reconnecting with friends, family, and exes for one last cathartic breakthrough. Helping her along the way on her wild, unpredictable, and surprisingly laidback journey is the manifestation of her younger self (played by Cailee Spaeny).
During the early days of the pandemic, Lister-Jones was inspired by "the new normal" of life in quarantine, so she and her husband, Daryl Wein, wrote and directed this new indie based on how they were feeling at the time.
"It always feels like an exciting opportunity to take a stab at something that hasn't necessarily been done before," Lister-Jones tells EW. "In terms of the apocalypse genre of films, they generally tend to be violent and chaotic. What was so surreal about the semi-apocalyptic landscape that we were actually living in, in reality, is that it was quite banal. I mean, obviously not for frontline workers, but the idea of this quarantine where we were facing these end-of-the-world fears, but we were in sweatpants watching Netflix, it was this really strange dichotomy to be facing."
Lister-Jones was fascinated by that "unexpected energy" of what life had become.
"The monotony and level of acceptance around this new normal was something that we wanted to explore in a way that could be playful," she says. "Because it has been an incredibly heavy year, so we didn't want to ignore the depths of what we've all endured, but in terms of the content that we are looking to consume personally, we're not looking for anything heavy. I'm looking for something that can be semi-escapist while still having meaning and poignance. We wanted to find that balance tonally with this film where we could be exploring the reality of what we've been through while still finding some levity within it."
Below, Lister-Jones opens up about writing and filming How It Ends, what's on her personal end-of-the-world checklist, the film's surprising connection to her 2020 horror reboot The Craft: Legacy, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to tell Liza's story?
ZOE LISTER-JONES: It was fairly early in quarantine and Daryl and I were facing obviously all of the emotional overwhelm that collectively the world was facing at this very singular moment in history. And we, like everyone, felt so ill-equipped to handle it. For both of us as artists, we tend to try to process existential crises that we're facing, through our work, and this film was no exception. It was a lifeline for each of us to try and navigate our most vulnerable selves, at this moment in our lives. We were each doing a lot of inner child work in our respective virtual therapy sessions. And there was such a feeling of uncertainty around the future of filmmaking and when we would be able to make films again, so we set out to create a narrative that could be done safely within the parameters of this new normal that was also a way for us to navigate the emotional landscape of this semi-apocalypse that we were living, while not speaking directly to it.
How did you go about filming How It Ends, especially since it was during the early part of the pandemic?
It all happened fairly quickly... very organically. We wrote for a few months and then basically just picked up and started shooting. Once we devised the conceit, and the characters and the outline, we started calling our friends — and luckily we have very talented friends — to see if they would be interested in participating in this film experiment, so to speak. It wasn't even so much about their comfort level with COVID safety protocols because that was something that we felt confident about achieving, it was more like did they feel capable of showing up and being funny at this time where for most of our actors that was their first time on camera? For some of them, it was their first time leaving the house! [Laughs] It was something that we all had to ask ourselves: Can we perform and find the sense of play within this bleak time? What was so nourishing for so many of us was that it actually was so vital to find that sense of play and to have these human interactions and connections and art. Because we were all struggling, as the rest of the world was, with this sense of utter despair.
What surprised you about where the story took you on Liza's journey?
There's a lot of similarities between me and Liza, so Liza's journey was one in which I was also finding a lot of meaning for myself personally. The conversations that I felt that I needed to be having with my inner child in real life were the ones that I was writing on the page. And actually acting those out with Cailee was incredibly cathartic and healing, and that was probably the most surprising element for me.
If you and Liza are similar, if you knew you only had 24 hours left until the world ends, how would you spend it compared to how she spends it?
I think that I would be doing something similar to Liza. [Laughs] One of the biggest lessons of quarantine was the importance of human connection, and a lot of the relationships that we might have taken for granted before we were robbed of them came into such sharp focus. That's a lot of what Liza's journey is, it's about reconnecting and saying the things that you might not have said otherwise, which I think many of us did to varying degrees in quarantine. Like I was on so many FaceTimes and Zooms with people that I otherwise wouldn't have reconnected with. And those reconnections were really important. So I would probably go on a similar journey where I would be seeing all the people I love, seeing people that I might have not seen that I wished I had made amends with. And there would definitely be drugs involved. [Laughs] And probably sex and pancakes. There's a checklist for sure!
That's a solid checklist. You also had such an incredible roster of guest stars in the film from Olivia Wilde to Nick Kroll to Fred Armisen to Bradley Whitford and so many others — which scene partner surprised you the most during the filming?
Cailee and I had an incredible journey on this film that we took together. But my scene with Olivia was just so much fun. [Laughs] It was the first time that Olivia had driven her car [since the pandemic began] and so she showed up to our set and it was almost psychedelic like, "Is this real life that we're actually seeing another person face-to-face?!" Olivia and I as friends hadn't seen each other in so long and the excitement that you sense in the film between Olivia and my character was just very real. We were just like, "Oh my god we have so much to say to each other!" It was the magic of that moment that was lightning in a bottle.
What did you get to do with this film that you've never gotten to do before?
I had actually never acted opposite Cailee before. We had just worked on The Craft: Legacy together — I as her director and she as my star. Coming off of that, this was a really exciting opportunity for both of us. We had already created this incredible creative partnership and real-life friendship, [which] was really exciting to then explore in this context onscreen together. Because we had done a lot of work on The Craft: Legacy around my adolescence already — she was playing a version of me in that film as a teenager — we had both really dug deep about each of our adolescences and the ways in which they had informed who we were now as people. I think all of my films are semi-therapeutic in nature for me, but this took it to a new level in a way that was exciting and a little more experimental than I had done in the past.
Wow, I did not expect The Craft: Legacy to have such a deep connection to How It Ends.
I know! [Laughs] It was a way for both Cailee and I to prepare expertly and then just be able to jump into this new project. She was also a part of my [quarantine] pod, so to speak, and we had been going on all of these walks together and just talking about the depths of what we were facing as people and our inner children. To have these deep conversations with a dear friend and then to put them into the work so swiftly was a really cool experience for both of us.
How It Ends is playing in theaters and available on demand now.