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Zoe Lister-Jones' Cinematic Universe

Thuc Nguyen speaks with multi-hyphenate filmmaker Zoe Lister-Jones about her new film 'How It Ends' and writing with your 'Younger Self' in mind.

I’m onto Zoe Lister-Jones and her “easter eggs”. In film speak, this means hidden images, messages or meanings in the body of the film. Zoe has Alanis Morrissette in The Craft Legacy and then she has Alanis lyrics in How It Ends, a movie about a woman on “the last day of Earth” and what she chooses to do with it. Which lyrics am I talking about? You’ll have to watch and see. There’s also the carry-over of Cailee Spaeny who plays Zoe’s character Liza’s “Younger Self” in this latest feature film, co-written and co-directed by husband Daryl Wein. The pair are also responsible for other feature collaborations like Lola Versus (2012) and Breaking Upwards (2009) and more. Cailee is also the lead in The Craft Legacy. Zoe calls her “such a muse”, who was discovered through an audition tape. Zoe gushes over Cailee and hopes that they “will work together for the rest of [their] lives”. How awesome for Cailee to have a mentor in Zoe. Welcome to Zoe Lister-Jones’ cinematic universe. Her career has spanned being a writer, director and actress.

How It Ends, Courtesy of Mister Lister Films

How It Ends, Courtesy of Mister Lister Films

How often do you talk to yourself? What messages do you send and cement in yourself? For most of us, we might have conversations with ourselves daily, for Zoe Lister-Jones’ “Liza”, she gets to see and openly converse with her “Younger Self”. Liza and Liza walk through Los Angeles together after their car is stolen. They learn more about their neighbors and friends and family this way. Zoe is a Brooklyn gal who transplanted herself to Los Angeles a decade ago, from a pedestrian city to one of cars zooming by. How It Ends shows us how to slow down and take in life again. For the Lizas, they finally do this as the world is about to end in a matter of hours. Other funny people in the cast include Bobby Lee, Whitney Cummings, Fred Armisen (who plays the Younger Self to a ninety-two-year-old man), Olivia Wilde as “Ala” the estranged former best friend of the Lizas, Helen Hunt who plays Liza’s mother, and other recognizable folks from the television and film worlds.

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How It Ends made it into the Sundance Film Festival this year, a year when much of the festival was digital and not centered in Park City, Utah. Zoe gives a bit of background about the filming process. She says that most of the people in How It Ends were already friends with her and Daryl, however, it was a mixed bag with getting them all to be part of the shoot. “It wasn’t just about Covid safety, but it also about emotional safety. We had to ask- can we show up and be funny in such a dark time in this unprecedented reality? For many, it was our first time on camera since being quarantined.” For this reason and others, How It Ends will withstand the test of time as a historical marker of humanity in 2020-2021.

How It Ends was born partially out of the Covid-19 quarantine, a time when Zoe says she and Daryl had “to face ourselves and our deepest fears and anxieties. We process these through our work for better or worse.” The idea for the script for this project actually began when Zoe was writing the screenplay for The Craft Legacy and revisiting trauma in her own adolescence that she hadn’t unpacked. This prompted her to have real conversations with her Younger Self.

I ask Zoe “what are some things everyone should ask their Young Self?”. She suggests starting with a simple, “How are you doing?” and adds, “I don’t think we know how to check in with our Younger Self. It’s not a distinction we consciously make.” She continues, “There’s a very young person inside me who’s struggling with old wounds and the film is about getting in touch with that truth, then being gentle and then telling them what they need to hear.” This is very reminiscent of Megan Markles’ “Are You OK?” essay for The New York Times. Women and humans need to be asked these simple powerful questions.

Another topic that we visually see in the film is women and their relationship to food and how this characterizes them. In an opening scene, Young Liza makes a massive stack of pancakes. I ask Zoe if there’s any hidden meaning in this. She tells me that buckwheat pancakes are her favorite and they’re something her mother used to make for her growing up “in [their] crunchy household”. Zoe says it’s about “indulgence, what we’d do for ourselves on our final day”. In the film, we get to see Olivia Wilde’s “Ala” swilling a bottle of wine and eating a giant cake with a fork while waiting for the world to end. Good for them. It’s refreshing to see LA women eating, being sloppy with it and enjoying it.

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We also get a nod to women in music, getting treated to a beautiful ballad from songstress Sharon Van Etten, who hails from New Jersey- another Eastern Seaboard woman in Los Angeles. Sharon’s hit “Seventeen” became mainstream and also captures themes of relating to one’s Younger Self.

What’s great is that these women in the film are all over the age of thirty-five, women who are more mature, who mostly know how to resolve things, can go beyond the superficial and know how to check-in with themselves and their feelings.

Next up Zoe is developing something for television that is still under wraps. I asked if there will be more Younger Selves. “Not this time”, she says. Whatever it is, it’ll have that great Lister-Jones stamp on it and very likely more easter eggs...

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