After a quick read-through of the synopsis for first-time director Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, you would assume its story stemmed from pure fantasy and too many nights spent watching Back to the Future. After all, the film follows a trio of investigative journalists (Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza, and Karan Soni) on an assignment to track down the aspiring time traveler who placed an ad in the classifieds searching for a companion for his trip through history.
In reality, however, the core of the story was inspired by an actual classified ad found in a 1997 issue of Backwoods Home magazine by the film's screenwriter and Trevorrow's writing partner, Derrick Connolly. After tracking down and getting to know the ad's odd original writer, Trevorrow and Connolly finalized their vision for the film that would become a crowd-pleaser at both the SXSW Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival.
Complex got the chance to sit down with the director to talk about turning the bizarre ad into a movie, the idea of time travel, and obsessing over '80s movies.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Were you nervous about tackling your first feature film directorial debut?
No. You know, I’m nervous writing. That’s what I’ve done professionally for the past five or so years and it is very hard for me and I don’t feel comfortable doing it. Directing is something I feel very comfortable doing, so the minute we got on set I finally felt at home and in my skin for the first time, I think, maybe in my entire life. I realized this is why I gambled my whole life on trying to do this.
You've been friends with the writer of the film, Derrick Connolly, since you guys met at NYU. Was this the first film you guys decided to pursue?
Well, we're writing partners. We had written a lot of scripts together and this was the first time that there was a script that was possible for me to direct. [Laughs.] We were able to do it at a certain budget level and attract a certain kind of cast and it all just made sense. I didn’t have any master plan as to how I would actually attack directing and this just presented itself as an optimal opportunity for both of us—Derrick to have his first screenplay produced and for me to do what I wanted to do.
The movie itself is just a really great example of what Derrick and I do together. We have very different skill sets. I’m very architectural and a little more old school. I love big movies and I love big moments. Derrick is a brilliant writer and he's funny, but he was very focused on making these characters real, grounded, and honest, and also on giving the film a dark edge. And when you combine all those things together, you have the weird cocktail that this movie is.
The time machine is sort of a metaphor for these main characters who are struggling to move forward with their lives.
Yeah, I felt that it was an opportunity to tell a metaphorical time-travel story and a literal one at the same time. I love the challenge of having one character who is traveling back in time to find someone. Nowadays, the only way we think to find someone is on Facebook. [Laughs.]
I feel like, ultimately in the end, the characters learn different things. I think Jake’s character is made self-aware for the first time by opening himself up to heartbreak and rejection and making himself vulnerable. When you sleep with a different girl every week, you aren’t really taking any risks and you don’t open up yourself too much to let true heartbreak happen. So when he does and he gets crushed, I think it's that much more devastating because he realizes he’s lived a very shallow existence. I think sometimes it takes going back to someone that knew you earlier in your life to point out things about you that may have steered you in an unwanted direction.
With Darius [Aubrey Plaza] and Kenneth [Mark Duplass], I feel like both of them have very universal sources of their pain in that they wish they had done something differently. In Darius' case, I think what's interesting about her story is not necessarily that she felt it was her fault that her mom died, it's that she treated her mom so poorly before it happened. The last thing she said to her was something shitty and I think that’s something that, when someone goes away and we don’t see them again, we wish we could time travel back for. I think time travel could be useful for something like this.