Interview: Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow on his geeky indie underdog film

Everyone loves an underdog story, from David and Goliath and the classic Tortoise and the Hare to Luke Skywalker going up against the Death Star. The new independent film, Safety Not Guaranteed, by director Colin Trevorrow, is facing off with some of the biggest summer heavy-weights in history, like The Avengers and Prometheus; and although this little film may be dwarfed by those big budget blockbusters, it easily holds its own in entertainment value against those genre giants.

Safety Not GuaranteedSafety Not Guaranteed tells the underdog story of a lonely, eccentric store clerk named Kenneth, who has placed a classified advertisement looking for a companion to join him on a time-traveling adventure. A reporter and his interns try to track Kenneth down and find that the ad (and the film’s title) is an allegory for life and love, in addition to its time-travel proposition.

The film is based on a real ad that was placed in Backwoods Home magazine in 1997 and read, “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” The advertisement became an internet meme and ultimately inspired the creators of this new film. You can read the very interesting story of the actual ad HERE.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a fantastic and fun little film that is a refreshing alternative to the explosions and chaos of the other summer fare available in theatres this season. I had the opportunity to pose some questions to the movie’s director, Colin Trevorrow, about his artistic influences and the making of this film.

Q: Your bio says that you and Safety Not Guaranteed screenwriter Derek Connolly met when you were both interns at Saturday Night Live. Did any of your SNL experience carry over into the intern characters of Darius and Arnau in this film?

For me, the experience at SNL was indelible and formative. I’ll always love that show and that experience, even though I was on the outside looking in. But I think the internship represents something now that it didn’t when we were in college. Everyone is cutting costs, and as a result, you get a lot of companies hiring interns for “experience”, when they’re really there to do free work. I acknowledge it’s the best way to learn, but it feels like the pendulum has swung a bit too far. We tried to be very respectful of our interns on set – you want to make sure they’re given the kind of access and experience they signed up for. I’m sure I’ll be begging one of them for a job in 15 years, so you want to make sure the memories are in your favor.

Q: How did you first learn about the classified ad that the film is based on and how did it inspire you & Mr. Connolly to imagine it as a film?

The idea to make a film from the classified ad was entirely Derek’s. He wrote the first draft before I even knew what he was working on. It was very funny, kind of a comedy mystery road trip movie. As we developed it together, we tried to look beyond the ad itself and delve into the reasons these people all need time travel in their lives. Once the plot became more streamlined and we were able to focus on the characters, we tried to create a dynamic where you really cared about these flawed people and wanted them to win. Derek and I have worked together for a long time, but that was the most intense stretch of creativity I can remember.

Q: Are you a science-fiction fan and what is your favorite “time-travel” film? How did that film influence your work on Safety Not Guaranteed?

Well, Back to the Future is probably my favorite film outright, so that would have to qualify. But the time-travel film that influenced this one the most was probably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That’s an emotional time-travel film – it’s about regret, being haunted by the way a relationship went wrong. But in the end, both of those films are about using a form of time-travel to fix something personal to you. The stakes don’t get higher than making sure your parents fall in love. As far as you’re concerned, that’s the end of the world as you know it.

Q: Mark Duplass, who plays Kenneth in the film, is also one of the film’s producers; and the nerdcentric tone of your movie was very similar to Jeff, Who Lives at Home, a recent film by the Duplass brothers. How much did they influence your work on Safety Not Guaranteed?

Mark and Jay [Duplass] were instrumental in getting the film made, but they were always very supportive of what Derek and I were trying to do. The script didn’t change after they came on board. What did change was the tone of Kenneth as a character. Mark made a lot of choices as an actor that not only made Kenneth a believable human being, but made the broader elements of the story less of a stretch. In my opinion, one of the key reasons we’re able to go where we ultimately go in this movie is the nature of Mark’s performance. He was the tonal pace setter, and everyone adjusted accordingly.

As for Jeff, Who Lives At Home, I didn’t see that until it came out this past March, so any similarity in ‘nerdcentric-ness’ is probably due to Mark and I both being nerds. We may be different types – he may prefer a broadsword when I’d choose a battle axe, but we’re still nerds.

AUBREY PLAZA and MARK DUPLASS in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEEDQ: Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) is perfectly cast as the geeky & sexy intern, Darius. How difficult was it to fill this role and did her ‘nerdiness’ in the film come naturally?

Man, we really are just a bunch of nerds, aren’t we? There are three Star Wars references in this movie and we didn’t even notice it at first. It’s just a natural point of reference. Yes, her ‘nerdiness’ came naturally. She can’t help it, none of us can. And don’t get me started on Derek Connolly. That man has read entire 12,000 page fantasy series start to finish. He knows the difference between sixteen kinds of dwarves.

Q: If you could travel back in time and do something different in regards to this film, what would it be?

I’m not sure if there’s much I could do. Of course I wished we’d had more time and greater resources, but it’s a miracle our financiers even trusted me with the money we had. There [are] always shots I feel like I missed, but that regret will be mine to live with.

Q: The reporter Jeff in this film is such an arrogant and unapologetic jerk. Why was his character made to be so unlikeable in contrast to this otherwise heart-warming story?

Jeff was unlikeable for that very reason. It is a heart-warming story, but I didn’t want to make a cuddly soft teddy bear of a movie. Life can be transcendent and beautiful, but it can also be coarse and a little nasty. Jeff was there to create a balance with the romantic side of the film, to represent a certain kind of abrasiveness that our main characters are running away from.

Q: As you have experience with documentary film making (Reality Show), did you ever consider making Safety Not Guaranteed as a documentary?

I didn’t. With this story, the fiction is more compelling than the truth. That was not the case with Reality Show.

Q: Safety Not Guaranteed is a great film (I loved it), but it is up against some huge summer box-office competition like Prometheus and The Avengers. What are your thoughts on your film going up against these heavy-hitters and what drove that decision?

Well, I can’t really speak to what drove the decision, as it wasn’t mine. But I definitely supported it. The idea was not to provide counter-programming to those films, but rather offer an alternative that wants to evoke the same joy and wonder that summer movies do, even though we’re working on an indie shoestring. We may look like a kid in his father’s suit, but we figured we’d give it a shot. Personally, I’d love to watch a movie like this in the summer. Right after I see Prometheus.

Q: What are your film plans for the future? What is your next project?

We’re going to be able to talk about that soon. All I can promise you is that Derek and I are going to continue to work together. Whatever I direct next, it will be from both the writer and director of Safety Not Guaranteed.

Safety Not Guaranteed is Rated R and opens in limited release at the Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale on June 15, 2012.

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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.

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