Writer/director Lorene Scafaria :: the Apocalypse (with laughs)
It’s been a long road for Lorene Scafaria to make her directorial debut. She wrote nine scripts before one got into production, and even that was an adaptation - "Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist," (based on the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan).
Yet the inclusive, good-hearted nature and youthful humor of that film surely opened many doors for her; that and the fact that "Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist" was budgeted modestly and grossed three times its cost may have factored into the greenlighting of Scafaria’s first film as writer and director: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, currently in theaters.
That title is certainly a mouthful, and there’s a lot going on in this romantic-comedy-slash-end-of-the-world movie, which features Steve Carell and Keira Knightley moping their way through an episodic selection of riots, orgies, and asteroids.
Scafaria’s film is an interesting puzzle - too dark for date night, too conventional for art houses - yet I’m convinced it’s going to find an audience (probably closer to the "Nick and Norah" audience than many would expect.) There’s a sense of fatalistic romance here that is going to speak to many disaffected youths, and an affable charm in the leads (Carell, playing the same sad-sack he’s played in the last few movies, is almost becoming a genre unto himself) that will appeal to the multiplex crowd.
And that same charm is present in the woman herself; she speaks with a rapport and charisma that would have you thinking she’s a performer, not a filmmaker. But then, I’m sure she needed that charisma to convince people to give this conceptually insane film - pretty much "Crazy Stupid Love" hidden inside "Melancholia" - a chance to get off the ground. We’ve seen the world end quite a few times over the past year or two in the cinema -- at least she finds a fresh angle.
An Apocalyptic rom-com?
EDGE: So had did your end-of-the-world rom-com come together in the first place?
Lorene Scafaria: I wrote a few drafts of it. I sold it as a pitch with myself attached to direct in 2008, right before ’Nick and Norah’ came out. I worked on it for a couple months, then my Dad got sick, and later passed. So I took about six months off just to hang out with him, and then came back and wrote three more drafts with a whole new perspective. About time, really, more than anything just time.
Once I felt it was ready to go, we had a table read. William Peterson and Adam Brody were a part of that, which was amazing. I couldn’t believe Billy Peterson came out for a table read. I was like, ’MANHUNTER’s here?! This is amazing!’ But yeah, that was a real motivating thing for the studio, hearing it out loud.
But it took a couple months; I needed someone like Steve Carell to get it made. Because obviously I’m like a question mark [to the studio] up to that point! [laughs] So yeah, Steve read the script, and he responded to it, and then he had to meet me and approve whatever this is. [as she points to herself] And then Keira read it as well - once Steve was on board, that was the vote of confidence everyone needed to go on.
EDGE: And how did you manage to get just about every stand-up comedian in LA to cameo?
Lorene Scafaria: I don’t know how we got everybody! Everybody came from different places. I knew Rob Corddry because I had written for "Children’s Hospital," we had been friends for a while. I sort of wrote that part for him, I never knew if it would happen because I didn’t know who Dodge would be, and if he would be age appropriate.
Everyone else was our first choices; I can’t believe we got them all to come out for that. Since it was shot in LA it was so much easier to get people to come down for a day, or a half-a-day. You know, if we were shooting in Atlanta, then it would’ve been a lot harder to get Patton Oswalt to come down for that kind of cameo.
EDGE: Is it a major challenge trying to end the world without a budget?
Lorene Scafaria: For sure! When writing it I wanted the scope to stay pretty small, and I never wanted to see the asteroid or the sky or anything like that. So I wasn’t sure what would be - you’d be surprised what’s the most expensive thing to do. Locations, really. At the time I was also thinking: you can make a movie for what they give you. I just had to sort it out. But yeah, a movie on this scale with this kind of people involved.... It was stretching the dollars everywhere.
EDGE: It seems like you were consciously trying to drop conventional rom-com beats, like the meet cute, with the crazy apocalyptic angle in the background.
Lorene Scafaria: I knew it was a bit of a mash-up between these two genres, but I figured it out as I went. I realized, you know, of course people would be rioting, so we’ll have a riot. But in the romantic comedy world, this is a break-up scene. So it was things like that, every bit of the way, realizing I had to take these two genres and make them collide. And there is a traditional romantic-comedy structure, but the backdrop made it so much more fun, to write these scenes-within-scenes.
EDGE: There’s been a LOT of apocalypse films lately, from "Melancholia" and "Take Shelter" to "4:44" and "Contagion."
Lorene Scafaria: Yeah, there have been a lot of end-of-the-world films. But I saw it more as a backdrop for a romantic comedy... or at least as a relationship movie. I remember so many from the late 1990s, when like "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" came out at the exact same time. The one thing in "Deep Impact" that got me was Tea Leoni and her father standing on the beach when the big wave is coming, and I cared about them. I cared about this relationship that was happening.
And those movies continued to come out, but during "The Day After Tomorrow" I cared more about Jake Gyllenhaal having a crush on a girl more than his father in the tundra. So I really wanted to explore more what people’s behavior would be like, and how that would be changed.
I moved from New York to LA a week before 9/11. So I was stranded there knowing nobody and desperate for human contact. I found myself calling up old friends I hadn’t talked to in a long time. It was that feeling of this cataclysmic event, and it changes your own individual behavior and your relationships with people. New York was actually a really friendly place for a while afterwards. It didn’t last! But for a little while it felt like a community again. People were looking each other in the eyes. Everybody was equalized by this horrible thing, and we were all in the same boat. Or the same sinking ship? Still, there’s something beautiful about humanity coming together like that.
Working with Steve Carell
EDGE: Steve Carell seems to have the monopoly on downtrodden sad-sack roles nowadays, doesn’t he?
Lorene Scafaria: There aren’t many comedic actors who can garner that much sympathy. There’s something about Steve that is tragic.
On ’The Office’ Michael Scott is this amazing anti-hero who goes from zero to sixty, and yet you can see this pain behind his smile. I just don’t think there are many people like him, who can be an everyman but also just a man. When I write I never really picture any actor until after the fact, but this character I had always been trying to get out there felt so much like Steve. I had been wanting to work with him for a really long time, I just never imagined we’d get him.
EDGE: You’re right, most other actors are busy playing stunted man-children.
Lorene Scafaria: They really are! There are many great comedians, but only so many guys who can fill out a suit. We’ll have to get him out of that suit soon; get him into a Hawaiian shirt for the next one. He really is a particular person, and I do think of him as like Jack Lemmon or Peter Sellers - those old comedians who did so much with a look or a word. I suppose he’s been playing a sad sack for a while, but this character felt more guarded and more internal, so I was happy to see him push that even further.
With Steve, I root for his happiness. And who do you want to see face the end of the world? You want somebody that you want to be happy.
EDGE: You want him to be happy, but you still killed him?
Lorene Scafaria: Yeah, I still killed him. The end had to be.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is currently in theaters. For more on the film, visit the film’s website.
Watch the trailer to Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: