In How It Ends, Zoe Lister-Jones Lets Her Inner Child Do the Talking

Welcome to Freeze Frame, a column in which Hollywood’s established and emerging filmmakers discuss a shot or scene from a movie that has stuck with them throughout their lives, and impacted the way they view cinema.

A portrait of Zoe Lister-Jones posing in a white blazer and a white hand-shaped top
Photo by Gillian Zinser

How It Ends, the pandemic-era movie by actress and director Zoe Lister-Jones coming to theaters on July 20, is rife with regret. In the film, Lister-Jones, playing the character Liza, and the embodiment of her teenage self, played by Cailee Spaeny, go on an Odyssey-like journey walking through Los Angeles on the day before the world ends. Along the way, the two encounter a host of characters—played by Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll, Ayo Edebiri and many more—discussing their plans for the evening ahead of their demise. But they also pay visits to Liza’s exes, former friends, and father and mother, where Liza expresses regret for the failures she’s committed in those relationships, and attempts to patch things up ahead of Earth imploding. It was a real expression of what Lister-Jones herself experienced during the pandemic, she explains over the phone from Los Angeles. “Quarantine brought to the surface a lot of time for reflection around regret,” Lister-Jones says. “What you would do if you had just one day or one week? That was ringing very true and clear for us emotionally, things that you wish you would have said or done or done differently. That’s not always easy to express, so the film gave us a means to do that.”

When Lister-Jones says “us,” she’s referring to her husband and creative collaborator, Daryl Wein, with whom she made How It Ends. Together, the two have been making movies on and off for the past decade, starting with their first work, a film called Breaking Upwards with, as Lister-Jones puts it, “a teeny-tiny budget, where we wore every hat.” Interestingly, there are distinct parallels between the two pieces: like Breaking Upwards, How It Ends was filmed guerilla-style, with wide shots of the empty streets of Los Angeles. “It was an intimate filmmaking experience,” Lister-Jones says. “And it was equally personal in many ways.”

If there’s one word to describe Lister-Jones’s body of work, it’s just that: personal. The result of that approach? A constant, unflinching, and honest—sometimes uncomfortably so—portrait of the human experience. In her Freeze Frame interview, the actress and director describes how she personally wrestles with her “inner child,” and how Lynn Ramsey’s Morvern Callar has inspired her throughout her career.

When did you come up with the idea for How It Ends?

The film was entirely conceived in quarantine. The scenes of the film are obviously ones that both Daryl and I have been wrestling with and exploring on a personal level. But they became so amplified within the confines of quarantine and in this very singular moment in all of our lives, when we’ve been forced to face our most vulnerable selves, and our inner children. Its inception was the combination of a number of factors in quarantine: what do we do with all these feelings, which are so loud? Will we be able to make a film again? There was this moment of despair at the beginning of quarantine, when we wondered, when will we be able to make work again? As artists who channel a lot of our emotions through our work, there was this deep-set panic that began to emerge. It was, in many ways, us challenging ourselves to find some hope amid the very bleak landscape that we were forced to live in.

Photo by Gillian Zinser

The characters in your movie are constantly talking about the same topics: getting rid of their stuff, listing their plans for the last day on earth, over and over again. What was the intended effect of this repetition?

That felt very resonant, on an emotional level. We didn’t want to make a film that was about quarantine, but we wanted to make a film in which we could find some catharsis. We were dealing with a similar emotional journey, reprioritizing what holds meaning. In a lot of ways that is about shedding, whether shedding material possessions or shedding people who no longer serve you. It’s been transformative, but also quite painful. So many of the people in my life are talking about friendships that have ended, or that they want to move and get rid of a lot of stuff and give equal measure of one’s attention to life as much as work. We wanted that to be reflected in the characters we were portraying.

Why did you decide to have Liza’s younger self be an actual person and character in the film’s present, rather than using flashbacks?

We were looking for a sense of playfulness within this bleak landscape, and having the inner child be embodied lends itself to a comedic approach—one that could break from formula as opposed to something like flashbacks or an inner monologue. Also, I had just directed Cailee Spaeny in The Craft: Legacy, and while there were many elements of that film that were not based on my adolescence, Cailee was, in many ways, playing a version of a teenage me. Once quarantine hit, Cailee and I were spending a lot of time together; we became very close over the making of that film, and talked a lot about our inner children. She’s a muse of mine, and her role in How It Ends was a life-imitating-art explosion.

What were the inner child conversations you had with Cailee? How were they similar or different to what you were talking about with your husband?

We were talking a lot about how desperately our inner children were trying to be heard, and how difficult it was to know how to talk to them, how to quiet their fears. I remember talking to Cailee specifically about these anxiety attacks that each of us had—we’d entered a state of such raw vulnerability. I was having similar conversations with Daryl, that so many of the motivating factors in our lives in terms of our hang-ups are rooted in arrested development. How do you mobilize that development forward? We were all trying to figure that out and had more time than ever to do so, for better or for worse.

How much of the scenes with comedians like Kroll, Armisen, and Bradley Whitford were improvised versus scripted?

It was a mixed bag. Bradley Whitford’s scene was entirely scripted, Helen Hunt’s scene was entirely scripted, and all of Cailee and my scenes were entirely scripted. Nick’s scene was outlined, Fred’s scene was outlined, and Olivia Wilde’s scene was outlined. When you have actors who are really comfortable and brilliant at improv, it always feels like a missed opportunity not to let them soar.

You chose the film Morvern Callar, a drama from 2002, for your Freeze Frame interview. Why did you select this one particular moment from that film, where Morvern is in her underwear and the viewer is looking in at her from another room?

Courtesy of Zoe Lister-Jones

I’ve always loved that shot; it’s stayed with me. I’m always drawn to voyeuristic moments in film. There’s a Brechtian element to it that makes the viewer aware of themselves in the act of watching, and their relationship to the imagery and to the characters which I find really compelling. And it’s just a beautiful shot—Lynne Ramsay was a photographer and you can tell. The composition of her frames are so specific and delicious.

How has Morvern Callar influenced your work?

Ramsay’s approach to filmmaking is something that I’ve always been so inspired by. That film in particular toes the line between hyper-realism and a totally artfully stylized aesthetic, and is such a raw, emotional portrait of a young woman dealing with grief. It’s also this beautiful portrait of female friendship. It also tonally is sort of boundless which I always aspire to be as a filmmaker. That it can easily navigate both really dark moments and then moments of levity and fun and reverence. Her use of music in that film is chef’s kiss. It's served as a model in a lot of different ways.

Do you see any similarities between the tone of How It Ends and that of Morvern Callar?

Morvern Callar is definitely darker in tone, and it’s a quieter film in a way that I find inspirational, because I tend to be a pretty dialogue-heavy filmmaker. But I think there is definitely connective tissue between the two in terms of the journey the characters [go on] and a sense of running away from one’s grief.

Do you remember where you were when you first saw Morvern Callar?

I remember where I was when I first saw Rat Catcher, which is Lynne Ramsay’s first film. I saw it when I was studying acting in London, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but I was also taking a film class. We were assigned to watch the movie, and it blew me away. Her approach to filmmaking was one that really rattled me in the best way. But I rewatched Morvern Callar in quarantine, so it’s been much more present for me recently. Especially in a time in which we are all processing a lot of grief, it’s a really poignant film that is also just cool as fuck.