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For Zoe Lister-Jones, filmmaking is therapeutic, and when the entertainment industry shut down in 2020, she quickly realized that creativity was the only way to get through such uncharted territory. Fresh off of wrapping The Craft: Legacy, Lister-Jones remained close with her lead actor, Cailee Spaeny, and since they were both part of the same quarantine bubble, socially-distanced walks became a necessary form of release. From there, the idea for How It Ends emerged, and together with her partner and co-filmmaker Daryl Wein, Lister-Jones started crafting the story and putting the pieces in place.
With recent festival screenings at Sundance and South by Southwest, How It Ends follows Lister-Jones’ character Liza as she walks through Los Angeles on the last day of existence. Along the way, she encounters numerous people from her past and attempts to reconcile with them in a comedic and/or dramatic fashion. Such roles were played by Lister-Jones and Wein’s own friends and community of artists including Spaeny, Olivia Wilde, Helen Hunt, Whitney Cummings and Bradley Whitford.
“Daryl and I were struggling with feelings of despair and certainly depression and anxiety,” Lister-Jones tells The Hollywood Reporter. “As filmmakers, we both channel that into our work, and we were suddenly in a position where we didn’t know if we could do that. So we both threw the gauntlet down to say, ‘Well, could we?’ And it truly turned out to be a lifeline to get us through the pandemic, at least to this point in the pandemic. For so many of our friends who are in the film… it was their first time in front of the camera during quarantine.”
Lister-Jones is also looking back at the cliffhanger ending of The Craft: Legacy — the “legacy sequel” to 1996’s cult classic The Craft — which introduces Spaeny’s Lily to her biological mother, Fairuza Balk’s Nancy Downs. Like most legacy sequels that tell a new story involving unknown and known characters, Lister-Jones admits that it was a bit of juggling act as to when to include Balk’s character. (Star Wars: The Force Awakens creatives also dealt with a very similar situation regarding Luke Skywalker.)
“It was definitely a challenge to figure out how to incorporate [Fairuza Balk’s Nancy Downs],” Lister-Jones shares. “Of course, as a character, she’s so iconic and important to that cinematic history of women villains. And she is very much the original Craft. So I definitely knew that I wanted her to be a part of this reimagining of the story… But, yeah, it was definitely a tough needle to thread and there were many different incarnations to get us there. I wish there was more of her in the film.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Lister-Jones also discusses what we can learn from our younger selves, her chemistry with Wilde and her outlined sequel to The Craft: Legacy.
When I covered The Craft: Legacy, I remember thinking that there’s a resemblance between you and Cailee Spaeny. Clearly, the existence of How It Ends proves that I wasn’t alone in this thinking. Chicken or the egg: Did the idea for this movie come first, or was it born out of the resemblance between the two of you?
It was sort of an organic process. In writing The Craft, I was definitely drawing upon my own adolescence in terms of the personal throughline, not necessarily the witchcraft. (Laughs.) And in casting Cailee, I think that I definitely saw myself in her, but it wasn’t even necessarily about physical characteristics. From the jump, we had a sort of soul connection, one of those soul connections that’s inexplicable. She is a very old soul and I felt that about myself when I was young. And in working on The Craft with her, we talked a lot about my younger self because that was her entry point into the character. When we finished filming The Craft right before the New Year of 2020, quarantine hit pretty swiftly thereafter, and we were still in this very transformative headspace. It was a really deep and deepening experience for us. She was in L.A. during quarantine, so she was part of my quarantine pod. We went on a lot of socially-distanced walks, and we talked about all of the existential crises we were facing in this new time. We also talked a lot about inner child work. So it was very organic, and the idea came then. Daryl [Wein], my partner, co-director and co-writer on the film, and I did a lot of that work as well. So Cailee just felt like the perfect person to embody my younger self and to go on this journey with us creatively.
Somehow, you made L.A. feel like a ghost town. I know you shot during lockdown, but people still wandered around during those times. There’s even a stand-up comedy scene that takes place near a busy intersection, and I still didn’t notice any cars or pedestrians. Was this a result of working quickly and editing carefully?
It was a result of both of those things. Daryl and I were so taken with the apocalyptic landscape that was L.A. at that moment because we shot fairly early in quarantine. To see such empty streets in L.A. was really haunting, and part of the intent behind making this film was to serve as a time capsule of this moment. So the streets were empty, but there were definitely cars. As you said, that stand-up comedy scene is right on Cahuenga, right by the 101 ramp. (Laughs.) So we would wait for cars to pass and work quickly. Because we were a small team, we were very nimble in that way. And then in editing, there was also that. So in post, we ended up painting a couple of cars out because we really wanted it to feel entirely empty.
Did your iPhone and Instagram serve as your casting director?
(Laughs.) Yes! Luckily, most of the cast are friends of ours, so they were mostly phone calls. The casting process was mostly phone calls, which was not dissimilar to Band Aid. And luckily, everyone was available. (Laughs.) Our cast is so tremendous, and they definitely would have been unavailable had it not been quarantine. So we were really, really lucky.
People are often asked what they would tell their past selves if they could travel back in time, but this movie plays with the inverse: what would our past selves need to tell us? We may be older and wiser, but we can still learn from who we once were. Am I in the same ballpark as you?
Absolutely. That was a big revelation for me in the last few years. And it just became crystallized in such a profound way once quarantine hit because we were really forced to face our most vulnerable selves, which are very much the young versions of us that are still present. Trauma ranges across the spectrum of trauma obviously, but there is so much trauma that happens to us in our adolescence. And it’s hard to even understand that its impact is still so resonant as for adult people. Until just a little before this film and then in the process of writing this film, I never knew how important a dialogue with one’s younger self is in order to try to heal some of those wounds and be able to really evolve. And a lot of the conversation that’s happening between Cailee’s character and my character in the film is how to get unstuck in places that the sticking point started in one’s adolescence.
How It Ends addresses so many thoughts and ideas that I’ve had as an adult. For instance, even though I know I’m more mature and whatnot, I don’t feel that far removed from who I was at 17 or 18. At that age, I thought there’d be a more noticeable difference between adolescence and adulthood. Can you relate to that notion as well?
Yeah, I feel you 100 percent. I was on this show called Life in Pieces, with a number of young people, and I was always like, “But we’re the same age!” There’s a part of you that just doesn’t see any difference between a 20-year-old and yourself. (Laughs.) And I don’t know that anyone ever feels grown. I talk to my mom about this, too. She’s very youthful in spirit and is still just as curious, adventurous and cultured as she was in her 20s, if not more so. So, yeah, it’s hard to feel grown up, I think, at any age. But in some ways, I do think that it’s about the inverse. How do you preserve and cultivate your sense of play from youth as you grow?
So you referenced Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill record for the second movie in a row, something my grade-school carpool and I can appreciate. Is there a profound reason for why it keeps popping up in your work?
(Laughs.) Oh my God. I came of age in the ’90s, so that record was obviously iconic. Alanis was such a feminist icon. She was very ahead of her time, and she also created epic bops. (Laughs.) But there’s not a deeper or more exciting answer than that, except for being a fan.
So let’s praise Cailee Spaeny for a minute, especially since she’s so skeptical of praise.
For someone who’s petite in stature, she’s got such power and intensity. You probably saw it as a director on The Craft: Legacy, and now you’ve seen it as a scene partner, along with Helen Hunt. What were your first impressions of her as an actor?
Yeah, she’s one of those actors where you sort of lean in when she’s on screen. The first time I saw her was in an audition tape, and that’s exactly what happened. Just in my physical body, I felt myself move forward because she’s so nuanced and so grounded. She’s so captivating in just the smallest shift of expression, and I was just immediately so drawn to her. And as a person, she’s equally as captivating and so humble. She’s just a really cool hang, and I consider her one of my best friends now. I’m just so grateful to know her in all aspects of her wondrousness. How It Ends was the first comedy she had really played in, and it was so much fun to see her versatility in that way because The Craft was heavier fare. She’s so brilliant in that film because of her depth and her characterization of these really old-soul characters. But to see her play this very young soul, quite literally, and to play opposite such comedic heavyweights as the people that we had in the film, she soared and it was so exciting to see.
Some people may not be aware, but she originally moved to L.A. to be a popstar. And there’s a scene in How It Ends where you really show off her voice. Did that scene take some convincing since it wasn’t carpool karaoke with Michelle Monaghan?
(Laughs.) It didn’t take convincing. I never asked the question. (Laughs.) I didn’t ask her permission. I wanted Sharon Van Etten to be in the film. She’s one of my favorite recording artists of all time, and she’s a friend of mine. So I wanted to incorporate her on this journey across Los Angeles. I never had popstar ambitions, but I do like to sing. I’m not as technically proficient as Cailee is, but we’ve sang together and it’s something that we have a lot of fun doing. So once Sharon was in, I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to sing with her.” Cailee was definitely scared that we were both going to sing with someone we so admired, but it was amazing. It was amazing to watch her sing because it’s rare that people get to see it, even though she’s so talented.
In your scene with Olivia Wilde, the two of you are expertly out of time with each other. Did you guys rehearse to sound that perfectly out of sync, or this a common acting exercise?
(Laughs.) I don’t know if it’s a common acting exercise. We didn’t rehearse. Olivia showed up, we started shooting, and it just came very naturally. Olivia is a person that I adore and whose work I adore. I also consider her a friend and feel very lucky to consider her a friend. So I think that chemistry and dynamic was just the luck of the draw. (Laughs.)
If you were in Liza’s shoes and the end of the world was approaching, would you go big or stay home?
Oh, I’d go big. Yeah, quarantine Zoe is ready to go big. Big all the time. (Laughs.)
We just had the worst year of our collective lives, but you were able to make a piece of art by relying on this community you’ve built for yourself the last however many years. Did this collaboration give you the lift that you needed to get through this pandemic?
Definitely. It was a creative endeavor that intimidated me, and those are the creative endeavors that I’m drawn to. Daryl and I were struggling with feelings of despair and certainly depression and anxiety. As filmmakers, we both channel that into our work, and we were suddenly in a position where we didn’t know if we could do that. So we both threw the gauntlet down to say, “Well, could we?” And how could we do that? And how could we do it safely? And it truly turned out to be a lifeline to get us through the pandemic, at least to this point in the pandemic. For so many of our friends who are in the film — even those who were just on the film for a day, which is most people outside of Cailee — it was their first time in front of the camera during quarantine. So we had a lot of conversations about our fears as performers and if we could show up and be funny. And the uncertainty of knowing where we were at emotionally every morning was such a roller coaster. And I think it gave us some hope and a sense of grounding that we could. So that was really important amidst the darkness.
Do you mind taking some Craft questions now that we can talk about it?
Cailee told me about all these paranormal occurrences on set, such as an orb that appeared in her camera roll. Was this all an elaborate ruse to get your lead actor into the right headspace and to create some stories for the press tour?
(Laughs.) Oh man, I wish I was that innovative in terms of drawing performances out of actors. (Laughs.) I’m definitely not. No, that house was legit haunted and that orb was legit on her phone. She was a real gangster in the way she handled it. She just kept on going. There was a lot of art imitating life and life imitating art, and we were all immersing ourselves in the world of witchcraft. We had real witches on set with us, and we were working with ritual and ceremony off-camera. So we were all welcoming, to a certain extent, some of that energy. But that house had distinct energy that was a little overwhelming. We ended up having one of our witches come to the house, do some clearing and have some conversations with the energies that were present because they were starting to be a little disruptive to our shoot. (Laughs.)
The Craft: Legacy got me thinking about Star Wars: The Force Awakens because both stories involve a young woman discovering her power and going on a journey to find someone similar from the previous generation. Both films also ended with cliffhanger encounters between both generations. The original screenwriter of The Force Awakens, Michael Arndt, later said that whenever he attempted to re-introduce Luke Skywalker at an earlier point, the movie kept wanting to focus entirely on Luke. This obviously created a problem for a new story with new main characters. Since Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk) is such a compelling figure in her own right, did you have similar challenges whenever you tried to insert her into the movie at an earlier point?
Yeah, it was definitely a challenge to figure out how to incorporate her. Of course, as a character, she’s so iconic and important to that cinematic history of women villains. And she is very much the original Craft. That movie is so much about the strength of her performance. So I definitely knew that I wanted her to be a part of this reimagining of the story. That level of intergenerational feminism is really important, and to see her humanity outside of just her villainy. But, yeah, it was definitely a tough needle to thread and there were many different incarnations to get us there. I wish there was more of her in the film. (Laughs.)
The movie begins with Lily (Spaeny) and Helen (Monaghan) moving to a new town since Helen became engaged to Adam (David Duchovny). While it’s not explicitly spelled out, did Adam seek them out and woo Helen once he discovered Lily’s lineage?
Yeah, that’s the backstory. This was all very much calculated in order to get to Lily.
Did you outline where you’d take the story from the end of Legacy?
Yeah, I wrote The Craft: Legacy with a sequel in mind. So I have the bare bones of what that world would look like, the themes that I would want to explore and the characters who would be involved. But time will tell. We’ll see if that happens. (Laughs.)
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