Zoe Lister-Jones wasn’t expecting to make a best friend while casting her reboot of “The Craft.” Then Cailee Spaeny walked in.
On paper, the two are worlds apart. Lister-Jones, 38, grew up in Brooklyn and has starred in network sitcoms and films and written and directed for both. Spaeny, meanwhile, is a 23-year-old up-and-coming actor from Springfield, Missouri, who is just starting to make a name for herself in television and movies (she recently played the ill-fated Erin McMenamin in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.”)
But it didn’t take long for them to realize that they were kindred spirits. And in less than a year, they would find themselves collaborating twice. First as director and actor on “The Craft: Legacy,” in which Spaeny is playing a loose version of teenage Lister-Jones, and then as co-stars in “How It Ends,” in which Spaeny is literally playing Lister-Jones’ younger self.
“It’s always so exciting when you see someone with such incredible talent and screen presence who then is also such a deep thinker and feeler as a person,” Lister-Jones said. “We had such an immediate connection... It feels like a very deep and old friendship.”
The quick re-teaming was mostly pandemic related. They wrapped “The Craft: Legacy” in January of 2020. When lockdown started in March, the two women started taking a lot of walks and engaging in deep conversations about unpacking trauma and their inner child. It would provide the basis for “How It Ends,” in which Liza (Lister-Jones) goes on a cathartic walking tour of Los Angeles with her younger self (Spaeny) on the last day on Earth before a meteor destroys everything.
Lister-Jones and her husband, Daryl Wein, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, had been doing a lot of virtual therapy sessions in early quarantine and were worried about the future of filmmaking and when they’d be able to make art again. So they challenged themselves to do something that would be safe, creative and, hopefully, healing for both themselves and the audience.
They called on their local friends to round out the cast and ended up with an army of notable cameos, like Colin Hanks, Fred Armisen, Lamorne Morris, Whitney Cummings, Nick Kroll, singer Sharon Van Etten, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Day and many, many more.
“It’s such an embarrassment of riches,” Lister-Jones said.
It ended up being an emotional experience for some. It was the first time many had left their homes in quarantine and the first time Wilde had even driven her car since the beginning of lockdown. And they tried to make it as low-pressure as possible. Some filmed in their own backyards and most provided their own wardrobe and did their own hair and makeup. The crew was only four people.
“That’s part of the magic of what this film is, sort of the freedom and the playground that you gave everyone,” Spaeny said. “For every single actor, it was pure play and I think you feel that when you watch it.”
Though Lister-Jones said she tries to create that sort of atmosphere on all her films that this was also something distinct.
“It felt more experimental in nature and really just like an extension of the primal need that we all had to just like connect and have some sort of outlet for everything that we were facing as humans,” Lister-Jones said.
The film debuted in January as part of the virtual Sundance Film Festival, where it was mostly well-received, but some criticized it for being lighter in tone and not reconciling with the horror of the moment in a satisfying way. But months later and in a more hopeful moment as many people are getting a chance to finally reconnect with loved ones, “How It Ends” plays differently and, perhaps, more rewardingly.
“We wanted to create something that could bring some levity to this time in our world but without denying the impact of what we’ve all been through and are continuing to go through,” Lister-Jones said. “Those are the films that I gravitate to, that are semi-escapist while still grounding themselves in the deeper, existential queries of our time.”
And this second experience has brought Spaeny and Lister-Jones even closer. Lister-Jones couldn’t even bring herself to watch “Mare of Easttown” for quite some time knowing that it would mean seeing Spaeny in peril.
Spaeny said Lister-Jones is both mentor and family to her. And Lister-Jones said that despite the age difference, she often finds herself calling Spaeny for advice. That they also then can feed off each other creatively is what makes the bond truly unique.
“It’s one of a kind,” Spaeny said. “Hopefully it keeps going and we get to make many more.”
“Forever muse,” Lister-Jones added.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr
Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press