Movies about the end of the world share a similar DNA: chaos, fire, looting, revelations. But in “How It Ends,” from filmmakers Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, the apocalypse is as serene and lush as a Southern California spa day.
Though spilling over with catharsis and a full manifestation of the lead character’s inner child, the co-directors, writers and producers have a different take on cinema’s ongoing obsession with the last day on earth — and it looks and feels a lot like coronavirus quarantine, during which it was made.
“Daryl and I, like so many people, had so many questions. Specifically about the future of filmmaking. As artists and as a team, filmmaking is really how we process a lot of deep existential questions. We were faced with both of those things, because of the singular circumstance that we were all forced into, and we didn’t have a way to process them,” said Lister-Jones said, who is a native to Sundance where the film premiered last week.
In the film, Lister-Jones plays Liza, an Angeleno who wakes with knowledge of a comet hurtling toward the planet that will end all human life. Her on-screen companion is a metaphysical representation of her younger self, played by Cailee Spaeny (who led the cast of Lister-Zones’ 2020 sequel to “The Craft”).
Together, older and younger selves trek far and wide across L.A., resolving unfinished with an estranged mom (Helen Hunt), preoccupied dad (Bradley Whitford), selfish old lovers (Lamorne Morris), and estranged best friends (Olivia Wilde). These encounters are treated with the urgency of a therapist’s deadline, not an extinction-level event.
“We were doing a lot of inner child work during quarantine. Whether or not we consciously categorize as that, we’re all being forced to face our most vulnerable self. We were looking at what our inner children needed to hear. And how we could work on speaking to them to help them heal, so that we could merge,” said Lister-Jones. “I think there’s so many distractions when we’re not stuck in quarantine, that allow us to ignore our inner children. We reckoned with them in a way that was terrifying, but if you were able to face that vulnerability it could be really transformative.”
As heavy and introspective as the narrative might sound, star cameos and millennial disenchantment bring levity, and the ethos of well-appointed homes tucked in the hills across L.A. The film was shot renegade-style, from Silver Lake to Hollywood, the deep Valley to the Pacific Coast Highway.
“We had the gear and resources to make something small, and we had a lot of amazing actor friends that were sitting around and going through similar struggles. We wanted to find a way to include them and combine it with the journey we were going on — and also have it be this beautiful time capsule of what L.A. looked and felt like during that moment. The film is not directly about the pandemic, but there’s some crossover inherently in the feeling or idea of the world ending,” said Wein.
Those friends include Nick Kroll, Whitney Cummings, Tawny Newsome, Fred Armisen, Logan Marshall-Green, Paul Scheer, Rob Hubel, Paul W. Downs, and Colin Hanks. Some were trepidatious about heading back to work in the pandemic, and others unsure if they could sell comedy in such an anxious time.
“There were a lot of conversations around, ‘What if I’m not in the headspace to do this?’ I’m not ready to come and tell a joke.’ What Daryl and I were very clear about and interested in navigating was — you show up where you are that day, emotionally. If today we are feeling completely hopeless, even though we’re making a comedy, we’re going to show up that way in this scene and see where it takes us,” said Lister-Jones.
The film, which Endeavor Content is selling out of the festival, was a mix of scripted dialogue and improv. The lone special effect, the approaching comet, was sourced by the same effects house that worked on last year’s alien invasion comedy “Save Yourselves!” Despite high emotions, the laundry list of cameos turned our memorable performances, the filmmakers said.
In a swift but loaded conversation about a tortured and toxic friendship, Wilde and Lister-Jones burn through grievances and forgiveness in mere minutes, as Wilde eats a birthday cake with her bare hands and chugs wine from the bottle. “How It Ends” is peppered with similar moments of joyful abandon that feels appropriate for the end fo the world — like Lister-Jones’ last meal, an absurd stack of pancakes with a side of maple syrup, sipped straight from a scotch glass.
“It was a mirror of this banality in the apocalypse we were all facing. We’re stuck in our houses and watching Netflix, and yet the world might be ending. It’s a strange dichotomy,” Lister-Jones said. “And Olivia took the wine. There was half a bottle left, and she took it home.”