Shortly before director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly were about to embark on the production of their first feature “Safety Not Guaranteed,” the two received an unexpected gift from the ultimate guide to places where there are no roads.
“Derek and I each got [a “Back to the Future” poster] that said, ‘Best of luck on your time travel movie’ – Robert Zemeckis,” said Trevorrow. “I had to take a little time in a room alone to handle that one emotionally.”
Of course, this was unchartered territory for Trevorrow, which is perhaps why he was the perfect person to pick up the torch left by Zemeckis to wrestle with the fabric of time on the big screen. Filled with a great sense of adventure as well as melancholy, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is an unusually touching comedy about a trio of magazine reporters (Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni) in pursuit of a man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who asks for a companion to travel through time with in a classified ad. As it happens, Plaza’s intern Darius may just be that person as her uncertainty about the future fuels her curiosity about Kenneth’s mysterious past and chronologically upsetting exploits.
While it becomes clear that history hasn’t been kind to most of the characters in the film before we’ve met them, it has yielded a happy result for John Silveira, the real-life author of the ad, who saw it become a meme in mid-2000s after originally penning it as a gag for the survivalist magazine Backwoods Home in 1997, and subsequently for Connolly, who took the slender premise that might’ve seemed more appropriate for a sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” where he and Trevorrow first met as interns, and fleshed it out into a deeply romantic film suggesting the reality of love is hardly perfect even if getting there can often look like it.
After years of developing screenplays for studios in the wake of a successful online short “Home Base” in 2002, Trevorrow took the long road to making his feature debut and recently discussed the love that went into “Safety Not Guaranteed,” how he wanted to embrace the look of indie films from the ‘90s and the continuing education of Backwoods Home.
What was your connection to this strange ad that made you think it could be a feature?
That actually came from my writing partner Derek Connolly, who first saw the ad and wrote the first draft of the script. I hadn’t seen the ad before, but it didn’t occur to me that you could build a whole narrative and that’s why Derek is as brilliant as he is. When I read the first draft, I really saw a really iconic love story with a very cool question that was founded in a sci-fi mystery, so we worked on it for a while together and really built up our love story and tried to create a very traditional mainstream movie momentum inside a small, independent film.
I’ve heard between you and Derek, you’re actually more the sci-fi guy. Was it was tricky to keep the geekiness to a minimum since one of the traps of thins could be getting bogged down with the logistics of time travel?
When it comes to actual science and sci-fi, Derek is actually the pro. He’s much more into fantasy and sci-fi from a literary standpoint. I am much more the classic ‘80s, Amblin, let’s give people some magic kind of guy. So that’s the push and pull you feel throughout the movie.
Also, if you look at Mark Duplass and the kind of films that he’s made, one of the reasons why I wanted to bring him into this is he has both a real grounding presence as an actor and brings an emotional realism to the table. I knew that was going to hopefully marry well with my instincts of wanting to put on a show for an audience and take people to a place they haven’t been before. What you get as a result is something that hopefully will satisfy people on either side of that divide and really does both.
Did the process of finding John Silveira, the man who wrote the original ad, actually mirror at all what the characters go through in the film?
No. My search and relationship with him is actually very similar to a movie called “Winnebago Man” –basically, that’s me and John in a nutshell. I sought him out and we had lunch together and I really hounded him for a long time to give me the opportunity to do this. It could be argued whether legally I even had to do that, but we would’ve had to probably change the words in the classified ad and it was so important to me that we use that classified ad absolutely verbatim because it’s perfect. It’s sort of geek poetry, like a haiku. I didn’t want to do it if we couldn’t use the real thing, so it took a while to get John to trust me, but we ended up optioning that classified ad as if it were a novel. It’s probably the shortest literary sale in history. Six sentences.
Judging by your Twitter account, you’ve become a regular reader of Backwoods Home.
Backwoods Home’s a great magazine, man. You’ve got to check it out. You will learn how to can your own food in the event of an apocalypse. Especially for like a married guy who just wants to show his wife in the event of absolute disaster that his family will be okay, it’s got some good stuff.
How did Seattle come about as a setting? It’s so endemic to the film and yet it doesn’t seem like anyone from the production had a connection before filming.
Derek originally set it in North Carolina because he’s from Florida and he’s got much more of a southern connection. I’m from the Bay Area and my dad grew up in Seattle, so I’ve always had a love for Washington state, It’s absolutely beautiful and one thing I love most about it is it didn’t really spiff itself up in the ‘90s the same way that most of the country did. It kind of left itself old and decrepit. There’s just great old rusty shit in that state. And I wanted the movie to not feel slick and the look to hearken back to a time when independent movies looked shittier than mainstream movies. Now because they’re all shot on video, they almost look crisper and cleaner. and I wanted it to have that scrappiness that indie movies in the ‘80s had, so we used really old lenses. Even though we shot it digital, it feels like we shot in Super 16.
Luckily, there were production reasons [also] — being able to get an incredible crew that had worked together a bunch of times with Ben [Kasulke, the frequent cinematographer for “Humpday” director Lynn Shelton and other Seattle filmmakers] and also the tax incentives in that state. There’s a lot of warm feelings in the state of Washington for our film right now, which makes me very happy. I try to say this as much as possible when I introduce the film, but it was clearly made by people who love it. The performances in it, the actors make themselves very vulnerable because they care and you can say anything you want about the movie, but nobody can say that we didn’t really try to make something honest.
How did you actually get interested in filmmaking?
If you saw “Super 8,” I was that kid — the director, the overweight kid yelling orders to his buddies to blow shit up. In the late ‘80s, we were lighting things on fire and shooting flaming arrows into pools of gasoline and it came from there. I went to NYU and went along that somewhat traditional path and I sold a screenplay to Walter Parkes, who really became a master class in storytelling for me in working with him. He’s just a brilliant thinker when it comes to narrative. So I just tried to learn from as many people as possible and take their superpowers and plant them into my brain.
If you’ve been working on screenplays for a long time, what was it like to stand on the set of your first feature?
I felt very much at ease. I feel very uncomfortable writing. I don’t look at a blank page and get thrilled at that. Yet when I get on a set, I felt more comfortable in my own skin than I ever had before, so it was something that came very easily and I hope they’ll let me do it again.