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“Wow, wow, wow, guys — we did it. We’re here!” Daryl Wein said as he grabbed the microphone and walked to center stage on NeueHouse’s rooftop patio Thursday just before 9 p.m.
Joined by Zoe Lister-Jones, his creative collaborator on six films, the pair (married since 2013) were about to take turns introducing their latest effort, How it Ends, and its cast while adding context to the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the production. “We made this film early on in the pandemic and it was really weird and scary,” Wein explained. “We were, at the time, trying to figure out if we could even make art or work. We were just as depressed as probably all of you, and trying to figure out what to do with all those emotions. What you’re about to see is how we channeled our feelings at that time.”
What the audience saw was a film written, directed and produced by Lister-Jones and Wein with her in a starring role as Liza, a woman joined by an inner child (Cailee Spaeny) as they traverse blocks, backyards and regrets in a quest to make the most out of the last 24 hours on Earth ahead of a world-ending meteor blast. And maybe get high and eat a giant stack of pancakes.
“Thank you so much to all of our cast for taking a risk on us at a very scary time in the world. We literally called each one of these people up and asked, ‘Would you like to do something experimental and try to find a sense of play against a very bleak landscape?'” Lister-Jones said, taking her turn to welcome Spaeny, Whitney Cummings, Bradley Whitford, Rob Huebel, Bobby Lee and Tawny Newsom to the stage as guests like Seth Rogen, Ben Schwartz, Rhea Seehorn and Amy Landecker looked on. Not in attendance but appearing in the film are Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll, Glenn Howerton, Lamorne Morris, Paul Downs, Logan Marshall-Green and Finn Wolfhard. “I’m just so grateful that you all said yes and grateful again to MGM for believing in the film and giving us a platform to share it with the world.”
Sharing it with a Los Angeles audience was particularly special for Lister-Jones since they filmed it in nearby neighborhoods and on recognizable (yet empty) streets that look far different on screen than they do this week. The city has roared back to life and while the cast and filmmakers were doing red carpet interviews, a waft of marijuana smoke drifted over from the Sunset Boulevard sidewalk while helicopters buzzed overhead. That may seem like a typical day in L.A. but Thursday delivered news that another mask mandate would go into effect this weekend due to rising infections of the Delta variant, leading some in attendance to question if the party would be one of the last maskless parties for some time or just how this phase of the pandemic will end.
But about those phone calls.
The pitch, according to Whitford who plays Liza’s father, was an easy yes. “The pitch was, ‘We’re making a movie and would you be interested? Would you like to read it?’ My first instinct was that I don’t even have to read it. I had never worked with Zoe before, a lot of my dear friends had, and I knew she was a lovely human being. She’s also one of those rare people in Hollywood who has a lot of really good ideas and she executes them well in an ongoing way. Very few people actually do that.”
The calls went out early on in the COVID-19 pandemic when widespread shutdowns had halted productions across the globe and forced artists to hunker down at home, which was, by and large, not a great experience for actors and artists fueled by expression, performance and community. “I don’t think I’m somebody who ever takes for granted how lucky I am to make a living at a joyous high school extracurricular activity but it had been taken away from us. It was an intense time,” Whitford explained on the red carpet. “I remember that it felt good to just get ready and have to memorize something again. Then it was a really delightful, easy shoot in the backyard.”
That’s not to say that it wasn’t challenging for the filmmakers. Shot entirely in Los Angeles, they may have had the gift of quiet streets and little to no traffic but they did have to navigate strict safety protocols and social distancing. “Making the film was daunting to say the least,” explained Lister-Jones, dressed in Chanel and accessorized by a bright smile all night. “Not even from a COVID safety standpoint — we felt very secure we could achieve that and we did — but from an emotional standpoint. The onslaught of emotions were so overwhelming and unprecedented. Then to ask all of our friends to show up and be their most authentic selves at this very uncertain time, it was like a lifeline. I didn’t realize how necessary it would be to my sanity. It was a real lesson in how deeply important it is to continue to seek out creative endeavors even when it feels impossible.”
Doing it with close friends and neighbors makes it that much easier. Spaeny, who had worked with Lister-Jones on the recent The Craft: Legacy, said that she lives very close to the couple. “We were sort of already in a quarantine pod and had been going on six-feet-apart walks, so it all rolled in naturally,” explained the actress, outfitted in Saint Laurent. Asked how she would spend her last day on Earth, Spaeny said her final moments would likely mirror what played out on screen.
“I would have a party with my friends and eat as much as I could,” she said. “Even right now, my team just went to Denny’s without me and I’m like, ‘What the hell? I want bacon and eggs, too.”
The party would not have happened if it weren’t for Cummings’ character and the actress, producer, writer and podcast host told THR that she was not surprised to see Lister-Jones get the job done. “She comes from guerilla independent filmmaking in New York and L.A., working on small budgets,” said Cummings, who met Lister-Jones with she appeared on her self-titled NBC sitcom. “No one was figuring it out at the time and we just figured it out which was great. At first, she asked me to record myself on FaceTime and then asked to come to my backyard and have me to crazy stuff while I was alone. The last scene, restrictions were loosened a little bit so we could shoot outside, six-feet apart so I’m excited to see what it looks like.”
And, of course, how it ended. MGM’s How it Ends opens July 20.
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