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.
That’s interesting, too, because throughout the movie, the relationships between the characters are the central focus, rather than the actual time machine itself. I noticed that the machine was so hidden you only get glimpses of it. Was that a conscious choice to have the device in the background for most of the movie?
Yeah. It really isn’t a movie about the time machine. And yes, you do see a part of it very briefly in the middle, but it could be anything. We all wanted to maintain the tension in the movie by really bouncing you back and forth as to whether you believe that there’s really a time machine or not at all. Whether it works or not is another question, but I fell like if there’s a ping-pong thing going on, if you believe it or you don’t, the paddles get closer and closer and by the end you’re like, “Is it?” Then you get the answer to that thing.
To me, the movie ends when Darius chooses to walk across the plank. I think what happens after that is obviously a lot of fun. And emotionally and narratively, the movie is over to a certain extent after that scene, except for the fact that we don't get the answer to, "Is this person crazy or not?" or "Is she getting off the boat with the right person?" [Laughs.] That’s one of the reasons I think the film could be a little too ambiguous to be satisfying.
The way it ends could arguably be unexpected. The whole time you're asking yourself, "Is this real?" or "Is this just going to end up as some lesson?"
Rock and roll. [Laughs.] I did one shot that would allow us to change that outcome because the time machine was always in it and that was always there, so it was just a matter of what happens after he hits that button. It’s a series of making five shots there that are different. In allowing that from technical stand points, from having it being shot with a big, wide camera, we still could play with it and do whatever we needed to do. It left that possibility there.
First of all, when I first brought the possibility up while we were shooting, people were joking and the alternative ending was preposterous at the time. But then you don’t really know what it's gonna be like until you see the movie through. So when we were actually able to see the way the film played out, I felt like that ending was gonna work.
I love a certain kind of film, and because of that I almost felt a responsibility for it to end the way it did. It became very clear at a certain point where I just couldn’t do it any other way. It had to be this way. If not, why did we sit through this hour and a half?
What were the kinds of movies that influenced you or influenced your take on the film?
I was not a kid who watched every movie. I watched a very small number of movies over and over again. My parents were very smart in the way that they let me watch “R” rated movies. They let me watch Stand By Me, but first they made sure it wasn’t a bad movie. They cared more about quality and what was being put out in front of my eyes. I didn’t watch horror movies when I was a kid. I didn’t watch any bad movies. [Laughs.] There are a lot of movies everyone has seen that I haven’t seen and they’re like “Seriously? You’ve never seen Monster Squad?" No, I haven't.
The movies I was watching were like, Back to the Future, Star Wars, and The Goonies. And some of the movies that I'd watched like 30 times, like Flight of the Navigator, aren't perfect movies. There was a point when I was talking to the writer of Batteries Not Included and he was asking me why I liked that movie. [Laughs.] I said I was fascinated with it because that was a movie about poor people who are dealing with something alien and fantastic and that to me that was amazing. There was something so scrappy and real and awesome about those movies. Now, everyone in movies is always rich and they’re always beautiful and graceful-looking.
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.
Recapturing that scrappy, junky, real feeling was part of what my intention was. We used these old lenses and, even though it's shot digitally, it gives the film a different feel and it almost makes you visually time travel a little. You see these shots of Mark [Duplass] and it takes you back some time. I think my inspirations are pretty clear.
Speaking of the film being "real," you allowed the cast to do a lot of improvisation. What was the point in letting the actors have that freedom?
One was that we had incredible actors who have great skill—all of them as writers. Actors write as they perform in their head and I think to not allow that is to take an element out of the film. The film was very carefully structured and so there was never anything that happened in the improvisation that changed the story. What happened in the scenes was always very clear and yet in the context of that we would find new moments that would make it richer and deeper.
A lot of the improv was not very comedic. Most of it was not necessarily dramatic, but emotional. The only real direction I actually ever gave everybody was always improvise on story. There’s rarely any moments where everybody looks out. It gives the movie an emotional honesty that contrasts with where it goes and it makes a new kind of concoction.
I know that you guys wrote Jake Johnson's and Aubrey Plaza's character specifically for them. Did you expect them to have this much chemistry? Were you worried about them not meshing well or coming off the paper as well as you thought?
I wasn’t. I think Jake can do anything and I think Aubrey is far more versatile than she is and I had a feeling that that was going to work. I also knew Mark, as an actor, had a lot to prove and that he could be in character, which he did. There’s a lot of things that could’ve gone wrong and yet we powered forward and trusted and believed and had the results that we did.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)