Time Travel? ’Safety Not Guaranteed’ in New Indie Hit
How many films can say that its premise is based on an ad?
In 2007, a writer stumbled across Internet spoofs of one printed in a survivalist magazine, "Backwoods Home," in the 90s. The person who posted the ad is looking for someone to travel back in time with. He claimed to have done it before, but added that any takers needed to bring their own weapons. In other words, safety was not guaranteed.
Writer Derek Connolly conjured up characters and a storyline, then developed the script further with former classmate at the N.Y.U., Colin Trevorrow. From this collaboration, one of the year’s most curious indie features - Safety Not Guaranteed - was born.
They team cast Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation") to play an intern named Darius, who is picked by Jeff, a reporter played by Jake Johnson (from "New Girl") to venture to the seaside town of Ocean View, Washington. There they track down the person who posted the ad, Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass.
What seems like an amateur investigation turns into a quirky love story as Darius becomes intrigued with her subject. Helmed by first time director Colin Trevorrow, "Safety Not Guaranteed" went on to pick up the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The film, which could have moved in all kinds of directions - sci-fi adventure, quirky character comedy - focuses on its love story, which gives the film a most necessary ingredient: heart. In the end it is clever mix of smart dialogue and low-key, likable characters makes the film a real crowd-pleaser.
Trevorrow and Connolly made it appear easy. When the movie opened in New York recently, Stephen Holden in the New York Times wrote: "An indie comedy as endearing as ’Safety Not Guaranteed’ can seem as deceptively easy to toss off as a foolproof recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Measure, stir, bake and presto, you have instant melt-in-your-mouth goodies."
Director Colin Trevorrow talked to EDGE about the process of turning an ad into a full-length feature and working with some of the most exciting comedians and indie talents today.
A sci-fi comedy?
EDGE: Someone who looks at the trailer for this movie may easily think that this is a sci-fi comedy, but it is not! So what kind of movie would you say this is?
Colin Trevorrow: It is hard to explain what kind of movie this is. It is a movie about time travel. But it is about why we need time travel - why we all wish we could correct certain personal mistakes we have made. But it is a fun movie. It has got adventure and is definitely very funny. It is hard to put into a box, but I think that it is one of the reasons why it is a privilege to make an independent film. You don’t necessarily have to be able to explain it in a single sentence. Hopefully, the fantastic things that happen feels like they are happening to real people.
EDGE: There is this interesting back story about how this movie is based on an ad in a publication.
Colin Trevorrow: Derek Connolly, the writer, came across the ad on the Internet and he wrote a script about it. After we have developed it for a while, we decided to track down the original writer of the ad because I did not want to use a fake version of it. I did not want to change it. I want to use those exact sentences. So I found him.
His name is John Silveira. He lives in north Oregon and he writes for ’Backwoods Home’ magazine, which is where the ad was originally published in. Over a period of time, I feel like I gained his trust. We got his permission to use his ad. We bought it from him, optioned it. I felt it was important, both to acknowledge him for the inception of this, and to make him part of our filmmaking family.
EDGE: What is your impression of John Silveria, the man who wrote the original ad?
Colin Trevorrow: John is not a crazy man in any way. He wrote this in the context of needing to fill more space in the magazine. It was just something that came to him, but what makes it special is that the wording of this ad is very distinctive, very specific. It comes from John’s personality. The idea that you would need to bring your own weapon when traveling through time is very much John. I do love that it is a piece of fiction and also you could feel his personality.
EDGE: So he has never gone back in time once, like the ad says?
Colin Trevorrow: He may have? I can tell you that John is prepared for anything. So if he has actually travelled through time, hopefully, whatever he has done to change things will work in the benefit of humanity.
EDGE: Do you know for sure if he did? Have you asked him about it?
Colin Trevorrow: If I knew for sure that he has actually traveled through time, I might not tell you. We might want to keep that a secret. I do not think he has traveled through time, but I know he would like to.
Sentimentalizing the past?
EDGE: There is this underlying theme about a fascination with and a romanticism of the past. Was this on your mind while making this film?
Colin Trevorrow: Definitely. I think it might be a bit of a generational thing. At least for myself and a lot of guys in their mid-thirties that I know, we look back on the 1980s as this very romantic time. We still love our ’Star Wars’ figures. We love the films from that time. I think this whole fanboy thing comes from a generation that was not quite able to put down our childhood toys in a way that previous generations were.
That is something that I embrace. I think that is distinctive about my generation and I am not sure if it is something that is every going to go away. I feel like we are all kids in adult bodies. I guess you always feel that way, as you get older, you never quite feel old. It is a bit about that.
This main character is someone who still talks about the ’up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right contra code’ and keeps all his ’Star Wars’ figures in a box. There is a bit of wanting to have a movie with that character that finally lets go of that time and lives in the present -- at least to become a self-aware adult to a certain extent, which I think, is something we are all struggling to do.
A love story?
EDGE: It is also a love story about these two persons who found each other, and are in love, accepting the other person’s whole personality, flaws and all.
Colin Trevorrow: Yes, it is a love story, shamelessly so. I think it is very romantic in a way that I like, because it is about two very damaged people finding partnership. Like the note that we end on: why do we need a partner? What is behind the ad for me is Kenneth is not looking to go back in time alone, he is looking for someone to go back with him. There is a need for companionship inherent in it. If you walk away with anything from the film, it is look, we are all a little crazy, so find the person who is crazy like you and march through time with him.
EDGE: How did you decide on casting Aubrey Plaza (’Parks and Recreation’) and Mark Duplass (’Humpday’) as the time-traveling companions?
Colin Trevorrow: The role of Darius was written for Aubrey Plaza so it was really built for her from the ground up. Mark Duplass came about in the more organic way in that Mark and his brother Jay came on as executive producers first. They were going to help us to get the movie made. They did that quickly. Then we were looking for an actor to play Kenneth, I spoke to Mark about not only what we wanted Kenneth to be, but specifically what we do not want him to be. We did not want him to be a broad comic character. We wanted him to be very grounded and very real. As we talked about it, I realized this actually might be a cool way to do it.
One of the benefits of making an independent film, and one that is as modest in its resources as this one, is you do get to choose the best actor for the role. You do not have to think about who is going to sell tickets in China. In any movie larger than this, you do have to think about that. It is very star-driven industry, even at the very lowest level of studio filmmaking. So I really embrace the fact that this might really be the one movie where I did not have to think about that. I can just pick the best actors and so I picked who I thought was great.
And luckily, Jake Johnson (who plays the magazine reporter with an ulterior motive) has gone on to have a lot of success since. This was before he was cast as Nick in the TV comedy series ’New Girl.’ So luckily my taste seems to align with others, which is good.
The Duplass connection
EDGE: When directing Mark Duplass to play the time-traveling man, how do you walk this fine line of showing him as a quirky character and someone whom the audience can identify with and like? How do you integrate Mark’s personality into the role?
Colin Trevorrow: The qualities that Mark bring to the table are really the tonal foundation of the movie. Kenneth does feel weird. He does feel odd, but in ways that don’t departs from the realm of reality. He’s like somebody that we have met before. I love the choices Mark made and how he played that role because everyone really built their performances around where he is coming from. I am sure you could imagine a bigger comedy version of this movie that plays for huge laughs but nobody feels real. That is not what we wanted to do. Throughout the shoot, we always look for the emotional truth in every scene, even in a comedy.
Mark is so good at that. And that really helped everybody else zero in on what the goal was, even in scenes where he was not present. Well, we shot the first half of the movie with Mark, and then he had to go shoot another movie, so the second half became everything he is not in. Yet, there was a pace and tone that has been set, so everyone else sort of rose to the occasion.
There were a lot of nice moments in the movie that were found on set because Jake and Karan Soni (who plays the other intern, Arnau) have been hanging out for a long time and realized they do not want their characters to be comic relief. (We decided to) find something real that they can be going through. We made sure that everybody has a moment that makes them a real person and not just a caricature -- you know, the nerdy Indian guy and the douche-bag guy. Mark was instrumental in that.
Short shoot time
EDGE: I definitely think that creating individual moments for these supporting characters make the audience feel for them as well. For instance, you feel the vulnerability of the douche-bag guy, the reporter. Was this the more challenging part of making the film?
Colin Trevorrow: The most difficult aspect is time, and not having enough of it. We shot in 24 days and you have to make certain choices and be very selective in what you are going to spend time on and what you are not. So I had to move very quickly thorough scenes that were a little bit more expositional in getting us from A to B; and spend more time on the scenes where we were going for more emotional richness.
Because we had so little time, it was very difficult to navigate. How we were going to get all this on camera in 24 days? We moved everyday. It was 30 locations in 24 days. I really want the movie to have a scope and to feel bigger than any movie that just happens in one house. Yet in a lot of scenarios, we were in that situation. For instance, the entire arc of the relationship between Jeff and Liz (Jeff’s high school crush whom he re-unites with) was shot in one day... costume changes and everything. For an actor to have to go through this big arc - he was at first repulsed by her only to fall in love - is a lot for any actor to do in one day. I was really impressed with Jake and Jenica Bergere (who plays Liz). They were able to pull it off. And that is not a solitary example.
EDGE: For those who have watched the movie, the question lingers. Why did Kenneth now says he wants to go back in time for Darius?
Colin Trevorrow: Why does he say why he wants to go back? To me, that is his way of saying ’I love you.’ That is Kenneth’s crazy way. In all his illusions, he built a working time machine to do this thing that he convinced himself he has to do, even though he is a little nuts. That is Kenneth’s nutty way of saying "I love you."
Safety Not Guaranteed is playing in limited engagements in cities throughout the country. i
Watch the trailer to Safety Not Guaranteed: