Life After ‘Zombieland’: Why Emma Stone Launched Producing Career with Jesse Eisenberg’s First Feature

Sundance: Eisenberg's debut "When You Finish Saving the World" provided the ideal opportunity for Stone's new producing plans.
"When You Finish Saving the World"
Beth Garrabrant

In spring 2020, Emma Stone called Jesse Eisenberg to tell him that she was starting a production company with her partner, filmmaker and “Saturday Night Live” director Dave McCary. In a recent interview over Zoom, Eisenberg recalled his immediate reaction: “What the hell is wrong with you guys?” 

At the time, Eisenberg was gearing up to direct his first feature, “When You Finish Saving the World,” and he was already in the throes of practical challenges that differed greatly from the ones he faced as an actor. “Producing is overwhelming work, and they were starting to do it during a pandemic,” he said. “I was impressed that these two brilliant people wanted to talk logistics and budgets and stuff.”

And they wanted to talk about it with him. The script for “When You Finish Saving the World” had found its way to his “Zombieland” co-star through the agent she shared with Julianne Moore, who was attached to star. Stone thought the project, which tells the story of Evelyn (Moore), a woman who runs a shelter for domestic abuse survivors, and her strained relationship with her disillusioned teen son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), made sense as the first undertaking for their new company, now titled Fruit Tree. 

“It was an incredibly personal story to him that felt like something none of us had seen before,” Stone said, joining Eisenberg over Zoom. “That’s pretty much ticking every box of anything we could hope to be involved with.” 

An opening night selection at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, “When You Finish Saving the World” will be released later this year by A24, which now has a two-year first-look TV deal with Fruit Tree. Notably, the movie finds Stone attending her first Sundance (albeit virtually) with a project that doesn’t feature her in a single frame beyond the credits. Stone said she and her producing partners — in addition to McCary, the company is rounded out by Ali Herting and creative executive Kevin Kelly — are aiming to develop more small-scale projects from distinctive filmmakers at early stages of their careers. 

“There’s definitely a big draw to auteurs and stories that hopefully feel singular,” Stone said, noting that she first got a taste of the producing process thanks to a credit on Cary Fukunaga’s Netflix miniseries “Maniac,” followed by an executive producer credit on last year’s “Cruella,” and began to appreciate the greater sense of oversight. “As an actor, you usually just go with what comes to you and you’re at the mercy of the process,” she said. “We don’t want to say we just want to make things — that sounds trite. Because we have these longstanding relationships, we thought it would be amazing to support these people in a more meaningful way than just being a cog.”

The Fruit Tree slate already includes two upcoming projects from emerging queer filmmakers: the sophomore effort from Jane Schoenbrun, “I Saw the TV Glow” (which follows Schoenbrun’s 2021 Sundance premiere “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”) and an untitled Tilda Swinton–starring project that marks the feature debut of “Los Espookys” co-creator Julio Torres. But the decision to launch with Eisenberg’s first feature felt like a natural fit given the two actors’ longstanding history. Their playful chemistry in 2009’s “Zombieland” helped propel a quirky $23.6 million studio comedy into a surprise hit that grossed over $100 million worldwide and led to a 2019 sequel. In the process of working together and promoting those projects, the pair became friendly enough for Stone to grasp Eisenberg’s potential behind the camera. 

“He’s the most curious person I’ve ever met,” Stone said. “He studies everyone and asks so many questions. He has a deep empathy to him. I knew that from acting with him, so it just felt like a no-brainer that we’d attempt to work on something with him.” 

Though Eisenberg has directed several plays, he recognized a new kind of challenge with this latest project. “It took place in more than one room,” he said. “Every time I’d thought of characters for a story it had been for a theater, where you can only afford to have one room and six spoons. Because I have worked as an actor on so many movies, I had an instinct for the format but I just never thought of stories for it.” Stone grew familiar with Eisenberg’s theater work and short fiction over the years. “Like all of Jesse’s plays and stories, the characters are well drawn but it was relatively simple,” she said. “It didn’t have these big elaborate set pieces; it just conveyed a touching and deeply original story.” 

In a handout photo provided by Sony Pictures, actors Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, right to left, attend an advanced screening of the film 'Zombieland' at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas on Friday, Sept. 25, 2009. (AP Photo/Sony Pictures/Jack Plunkett)
Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone with Woody Harrelson at the premiere of “Zombieland”ASSOCIATED PRESS

The pair have a natural rapport together, forged from years of promoting their onscreen “Zombieland” chemistry. Over Zoom, when Eisenberg said, “I don’t know a smarter actor in the world than Emma,” she cut him off. “If I am the smartest actor you ever met, then I am the only actor you’ve ever met,” she said with a grin. “That’s an insane thing to say! I didn’t even graduate high school, Jesse!” He shot back: “You didn’t have to.” 

All preciousness aside, Stone’s assessment of Eisenberg’s directing potential is reflected in his energetic engagement with anyone in his field of view. In conversation, he tends to fire off a stream of half-formed questions at the people in his vicinity, doubling back to offer contrition for asking them, while hinting at intriguing observations that force everyone to keep up. “This movie is not a satire on class, or whiteness, or wealth,” he said, acknowledging that it does feature upper-middle-class white characters who struggle with the boundaries of their insular world. “If there’s any satirical element, it’s that it’s trying to depict the struggle of trying to live a meaningful life in the context of some privilege, while contending with people in real-world challenges. You’re living an upper-middle-class life and you’re incredibly erudite. How do you reconcile working with people who are in more challenging situations?” 

Over the course of the movie, Evelyn develops a strange fascination with Kyle (Billy Bryk), an abused teen at her shelter. Her fixation on Kyle’s needs gradually borders on obsession as she attempts to take on a maternal role in his life. Though Ziggy has evident creative talent, Evelyn only sees apathy, and turns to Kyle as a misguided second chance. “The storyline is really about having a child growing up in the class you’ve created for him when what you idealize is what you’ve allowed him to avoid,” Eisenberg said. “She idealizes a life of struggle against power structures and yet she’s raised a kid who has essentially no obstacles.” Stone added: “This was a story I’d never seen, this woman having a son crush. I’d never even considered that before.”

The actress also said that she was able to grasp the personal dimensions of “When You Finish Saving the World” because she recognized Eisenberg’s own struggles within it. The movie, adapted from an Audible Original audio drama of the same name, finds Moore’s character constantly at odds with her angst-riddled son, who enjoys a successful online fan base for his superficial music and derides his mother’s passionate career. That’s what Eisenberg’s mother-in-law does, while his wife, Ana Strout, teaches in Title 1 schools and runs a disability justice program. 

In their interview together, Stone pushed Eisenberg to talk through those parallels. “In a more extreme way, the movie deals with the sort of the relationship you go through internally with your wife and your mother-in-law,” Stone said. “They’re truly working with people day in and day out and you have this battle with that. Is performing and writing things impactful in that way, even though so many people are seeing what you’re doing?”

Eisenberg nodded. “My wife is doing this work that I consider to be noble, and yet when we walk down the street, they stop me for being in a movie about magicians,” he said, referring to “Now You See Me” and its sequel. “They say nothing to her. It feels strange to me. I’m trying to constantly reconcile the value of what I do in contrast to the person I live with.”

Ziggy’s online musical stardom wasn’t an area that Eisenberg knew too much about — despite, or perhaps because of, his fame as the star of “The Social Network,” he has no virtual presence and pays little attention to that space. But he was struck by the success of his sister-in-law’s boyfriend, “The Voice” contestant Owen Danoff, who had developed a fanbase exclusively through the internet. “I felt incredibly old,” Eisenberg said. “But there was something about it that made me sad. I remembered going to singer-songwriter concerts at the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village and loving more than just the singing. It was all about the environment. So I thought it would be funny to have a character who was so popular online and has zero traction in real life.” At school, the maladroit Ziggy struggles to impress an older student, Lila (Alisha Boe), who’s well-spoken on progressive issues that he fails to comprehend. “The popular kids in his school are these politically active kids and he’s singing these shallow love songs,” Eisnenberg said. “He would’ve been really popular in any decade up until 10 years ago. But kids have moved on, they’re interested in other things.”

Stone’s relationship to her own stardom has led her to a deeper perspective on the prospects of online creativity. “I see value in those things,” she said, noting that McCary’s sketch comedy group Good Neighbor found early success on YouTube, which led to his “SNL” career. However, she recognized the challenges that online interactivity posed for younger generations. “In some ways it both increases and temporarily satiates loneliness, because if you in your life don’t feel like you get along with other kids, there’s a whole world online where you can find ways for people to like you,” she said. “There’s a huge discrepancy and awards system that exists in this world we’ve created online.”

Both actors were keen on developing more projects on the scale of “When You Finish Saving the World,” though they were careful not to knock the blockbuster arena that has sustained them over the years. Stone, in particular, was bracing for a sea of “Spider-Man” questions in her upcoming Sundance blitz, given former co-star Andrew Garfield’s reappearance in the franchise. 

“Not to insult a global franchise — thank you for the opportunity,” she said. “But I do think there’s a benefit to having a smaller crew. There’s no huge video village or a lot of cooks in the kitchen or a studio with a ton of notes. Everyone can get on the same page more quickly than when you have a megaphone and you’re screaming into a green screen.” Eisenberg’s own experiences with blockbusters — from the “Zombieland” movies to “Man of Steel” — left him in a conflicted state. “When a movie is presented to the public, it’s perceived so differently than what I expected going into it,” he said, then doubled back. “No, maybe that’s insincere,” he said. “I was going to say that I don’t think of it as a small or big thing, that they don’t seem that different to me. But the vans get bigger. The truth is that the experience has never been a drag, so I don’t really see it as a compromise.”

Stone smiled. “The process can feel very much the same,” she said. “I think that if Jesse directed one of those movies, which he very well could do one day—“

Eisenberg shook his head. Stone rolled her eyes. “Jesse, you would be great,” she said. “Seriously! They need you.”

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