From ‘Zombieland’ to Sundance: Jesse Eisenberg on Teaming With Emma Stone for ‘When You Finish Saving the World’

·9 min read

For Jesse Eisenberg’s feature directorial debut, “When You Finish Saving the World,” he crafted a quirky family dramedy about a woman Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her “oblivious” son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) as they struggle to connect.

The movie debuted Thursday as an opening day selection for Sundance 2022 nearly one year to the day after Eisenberg sat down with Variety to discuss the Audible originals drama on which this script was based. Joining the Variety Virtual Sundance Studio presented by Audible, the emerging filmmaker looked back on the project’s journey from audio production to A24 release.

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“I feel so fortunate to have been able to work on something during this time, because I know so many people who would normally be working who just were not able to,” Eisenberg said, taking in the full circle moment. “I feel very fortunate that we were able to finish it and that the movie is coming out, and it’s seemingly on time, according to the normal process of making an independent film.”

For that first interview, Eisenberg and Wolfhard were already in Albuquerque, New Mexico (which stood in for the nameless town in Indiana where the film is set) and about a week away from starting production. The Oscar-nominated actor turned accomplished playwright, author and stage director certainly didn’t seem nervous about taking on the task, telling Variety how he managed the stress of directing his first movie.

“My background is in theater — it’s a very controlled environment, because when you’re doing a play, you rehearse for six weeks, no one’s changing any of the words, you know what you’re gonna do and you set it,” Eisenberg explains. “[With] movies, you just have to be open to the challenges. [If] you’re shooting in a house and somebody is upstairs making noise, so now the scene takes place in a house where people live upstairs.”

He continues: “So going into it as a director, I was just prepared to keep an open mind, a collaborative mind, understand that the cinematographer, Benjamin Loeb, knows far more than I do about aesthetics, and has a better eye than I do, and be able to rely on and take advantage of other people’s skill sets.”

In fact, Eisenberg did perhaps the smartest thing a first-time filmmaker could do — he surrounded himself with a team of behind-the-scenes collaborators that included Moore and his “Zombieland” co-star Emma Stone.

“It was one of the great joys I’ve ever had on a set, watching Julianne Moore do the first take,” Eisenberg says, recounting the dialogue-heavy scene where the camera pushes in slowly on Moore’s Evelyn.

“The gaffer, Andrew Hubbard, came up to me and the cinematographer [Benajmin Loeb] after the first take and said, ‘We don’t need to do any coverage, do we? Because she was so amazing, you just want to stay with her performance,” Eisenberg recalls.

Beyond a memorable moment for the first-time filmmaker, Moore’s performance affected the full production as it moved forward.

“What was interesting to us, as a crew, was seeing how this amazing talent holds the screen so wonderfully that the shoot becomes this incredibly efficient process of tailoring our technique and our aesthetic to what she does so magically,” Eisenberg explained. “As an actor, I’m aware of what an actor can do, but I just hadn’t seen it from the other side, seeing somebody at that caliber perform.”

Behind the scenes, Eisenberg found an equally powerful collaborator in Stone, who produced the project alongside her husband Dave McCary and their producing partner Ali Herting, under their newly formed Fruit Tree banner. Stone and Eisenberg previously partnered on 2009’s “Zombieland” and its 2019 sequel.

Of collaborating with Stone as they expand into new avenues in their careers, Eisenberg says, “It was ideal — less so because we’re friends and because I love her personally, but more because she’s amazing at producing. She’s an incredibly savvy artist, and savvy not just at her own art, but savvy about understanding what audiences like what works to shape a story.”

Eisenberg cited the shorthand and comfortability between the group as a major bonus for the production, but he was most enthused to work with people are “truly brilliant,” citing Stone’s experience as an “international movie star” as especially unparalleled.

“She has a sense of the film industry in a way that very few people have,” Eisenberg explains. “She has a sense of being involved in stories with different auteurs in a way that very few people have. So, it was complete luck for me.”

A third woman in Eisenberg’s circle also influenced “When You Finish Saving the World.” While the audio-only version of the text was inspired by an idea Eisenberg had to explore a father who was having a hard time connecting with his child, the film’s storyline shifts focus to a mother and son grappling with their value systems. There the filmmaker draws parallels between the story and his own dealings with Hollywood stardom, while his wife Anna Strout does what he suggests is more “noble” work.

“My wife works in social justice advocacy through education, so I am thinking about this kind of thing every night, because I will be in an action movie and be given attention, and then, my wife very privately and modestly works to impact people in a way that I find to be a little more valuable, or noble or something. So I was trying to, in some ways, reconcile this idea in these two characters.”

Eisenberg certainly isn’t the first artist to question what making a difference looks like; here, he cites a bit from Chris Rock: “The joke was something like, ‘I grew up hating rich kids, and now I live with them.’ And it’s the idea that, because of what you’ve done in your life — which probably was derived from some pain as a child — you’ve now created a child that is the antithesis to what drove you.”

That concern is at the core of Evelyn and Ziggy’s disconnection, Eisenberg explains.

“[Evelyn] is somebody who is so driven, so bright, and has such a strong sense of ethical responsibility that she’s created,” he says. “Because she runs this domestic violence shelter, she’s been able to create a life for her son that allows him to thrive in this privileged bubble, where he can just sing about shallow things like liking a girl at school, or whatever. So, in a way, he is a product of her success, and she has resentment towards his life, style, and life choices.”

“By contrast, [Ziggy] is a kid with genuine talent, who his mom doesn’t appreciate him,” he notes. “So I figured, “Okay, these are two characters who are very similar. They’re driven, ambitious, very bright people who are good in their field, but it just so happens that at our current moment, in our culture, those fields seem so far apart, because we think of social justice in one way and we think of shallow entertainment another way. So we, as an audience, get to see them in private moments and realize that these people are quite similar, yet, when they’re together, they couldn’t annoy each other more. That’s what I was trying to show.”

In adapting the story to the big screen, there are changes from the Audible audio production, which focuses one of its storylines on a younger version of Evelyn, voiced by Kaitlyn Dever. The film also adds a young man named Kyle (Billy Bryk), who is a resident at the shelter with his mother, but Evelyn takes under her wing, seemingly replacing Ziggy with him.

Meanwhile, Ziggy aims to get a brilliant young classmate to like him; she’s political, while he sings love songs to his 20,000 fans on a social media app called Hi Hat, where his fans can pay for his performances.

Despite earning an Oscar nod for playing Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Eisenberg isn’t on social media himself, but found people’s ever-changing interaction with the technology fascinating.

“When I started conceiving this story, I thought, ‘God, that’d be such an interesting character — somebody who feels so popular and loved by people he’s never interacted with,’” he recalls. “So you have [Ziggy] who has 20,000 fans around the world, and it goes to school and people could care less and they think he’s an a loser, because he’s not interested in geopolitics.”

It’s a “strange dichotomy” that Eisenberg notes can only exist in our current social state.

“Because if you were a singer-songwriter 20 years ago, you looked like Finn, and you had a guitar over your shoulder, you would be the coolest kid in any school in any zip code,” he explains. “Right now, it’s possible to live these two completely separate lives and to be loved in one area and completely ignored in the other. I just can’t think of any other time in civilization where that could have existed except now.”

Looking ahead to Eisenberg’s future, he will return to the other side of the camera in the FX on Hulu series “Fleishman Is in Trouble” and “Manodrome,” before directing himself in another feature this fall.

“I think I have a better handle on certain things,” he says, admitting that the process will be a little more challenging “because I have to run back to the monitor and look at my own stupid hair. But that’s something I’m willing to contend with.”

Eisenberg typically avoids watching playback or dailies on the movies he acts in, confessing that he’s too self-conscious to do so, but since this is what the job requires, he’s working on strategies to get past it. “Maybe that means starting to make videos on my iPhone, so I can get used to looking at my face from the side,” he quips. “But that’s the only uncomfortable part.”

“When You Finish Saving the World” will be released later this year by A24.

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