The term “disaster movie” immediately brings to mind several loud, grandiose images: buildings crumbling to the ground, massive waves of fire engulfing city streets and the civilians fleeing for dear life, CGI asteroids hurtling toward our planet. Films like 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and Armageddon have popularized the disaster movie genre, yet Lorene Scafaria, the first-time director behind this weekend’s emotionally charged new dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, watches those flicks and looks beyond the expensive visual effects and wholesale anarchy.

Starring a particularly strong Steve Carell and an equally impressive Keira Knightley, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World focuses on the everyday people who are on the brink of destruction. At the film’s offset, news reports announce that an asteroid, dubbed Matilda, is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s only 21 days left before mankind gets obliterated. So, naturally, reckless people (played by the likes of Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, and Connie Britton) start partying, feeding alcohol to minors, and indulging in as many vices as possible.

But not Dodge Peterson (Carell); drifting through life, and having just seen his wife run away, literally, Dodge is sleepwalking toward his death when the chance to reconnect with his high school sweetheart, “the first one who got away,” reinvigorates him. Along with his free-spirited neighbor, Penny (Knightley), who hopes to return to her family in England, Dodge heads off a road trip against the clock. And then the romantic, unexpected sparks begin to fly.

More of a romantic comedy than a quote-unquote “disaster movie,” the deeply affecting Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a natural next-step for Scafaria, a New Jersey native whose sole previous credit, and first-ever sold screenplay, is the 2008 winner Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which starred Michael Cera and recent Complex cover girl Kat Dennings. Complex recently chatted with Scafaria about her interests in the poignant calms during cinematic storms, how she devised the film’s characters’ various R-rated indulgences, and what attracts her to disenchanted everyman types.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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You first came up with idea for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World back in the late ‘90s, correct? How has the story evolved since then?
Well, I didn’t really have a story—I was just putting ideas together in the late ‘90s. I certainly didn’t know that I would want to tell the story of these particular characters. In the late ‘90s, there were movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon, and I was a Deep Impact girl. [Laughs.] That scene with Tea Leoni and her father standing on the beach as that huge wave was about to sweep them away was something that, emotionally, resonated with me.

I just thought a lot more about being on the ground with people, and not being with the people who were trying to stop the asteroid. Then, 9/11 happened; I was living in New York for two years before then, and I moved a week before 9/11 from New York to L.A., and I didn’t have any friends in L.A. [Laughs.] So I found myself reaching out and trying to contact an old boyfriend, and calling old friends I hadn’t talked to in a long time.

It’s so strange to think of a global event that’s so horrific and how it can have this strange impact on personal relationships. It’s not like people are getting married, moving in together, and having babies. This horrible time can bring out people’s closeness and their humanity. And for a little while, New York City changed after 9/11; it felt like people were looking each other in the eyes after that. On the subways people didn’t feel like strangers anymore, because we all sort of felt like we were in something together.

Then, I just started writing things down from that point onward, and I didn’t really focus on it until Nick and Norah’s was about to come out, and that’s kind of a love story, but it is truly infinite, in a way. [Laughs.] They have their whole lives ahead of them, there’s not really much of a ticking clock, besides the sun coming out.

I just thought it’d be interesting to do the opposite to people and see what happens when you give them an end date. That became an interesting concept to me, and I started to explore who would be the most interesting to see go through this, and who would benefit the most from the end of the world? Who would have a profound change?

Throughout the film’s first act, you show some really funny ways in which people would lose all abandon and morals if they knew the world was about to end—things like giving their little kids alcohol, or offering CFO positions in the workplace to anyone who’s willing to take them. When you were coming up with this scenarios, did you ask friends and family for their own ideas about how they’d act?
Oh, yeah! I did a lot of research with friends of mine. It’s interesting, it changes when you say to someone that they’d only have three weeks to live, there’s an answer, and then when you say that there’s only three weeks left for everyone on Earth, there’s a different answer.

It’s so strange to think of a global event that’s so horrific and how it can have this strange impact on personal relationships. It’s not like people are getting married, moving in together, and having babies. This horrible time can bring out people’s closeness and their humanity.

For some reason, that second scenario seems even stranger for people to tackle, when it’s not just their own death but the death of humanity. What would that do to people? And, obviously, that seemed to have a, I don’t know, more surreal effect on everybody.

But the answers were varied. Most people, I feel, were leading fairly honest lives and would say that they’d just be with their friends and family, but, you know, with others it’d be sex and drugs. [Laughs.] I remember asking a relative of mine what he would do, and he said that he’d go in search of his high school sweetheart, and he’s 40-years-old. That seemed so interesting to me; most people, if they’re not living in the present, would certainly go and chase the past once you take “forever” off the table. [Laughs.] Once the future is gone, you know? Especially someone like Dodge [Steve Carell’s character].

For the most part, unless you’ve got the life that you want, you’d probably go back in time and look for the life that you thought you had.

That’s an interesting point, how people would answer differently when it just their own life that was ending, not the entire human race. It’s a matter of, if you’re the only one who’s scheduled to die, any heinous acts you’d want to do could ultimately affect someone’s life who will still have to deal with the repercussions once you’re dead, as opposed to there being no repercussions or consequences whatsoever.
Yeah, definitely. I think you definitely go more insane when there truly are no consequences—you don’t even have a legacy to live on. So, truly, there’s nothing to worry about.

My favorite musical is called Sunday in the Park with George, and it has this song called “Children and Art” in it, and, basically, the point of the song is that’s all you leave behind: children and art. And that has always stayed with me. I love the idea that we get to do that, in our time, if we can. It’s probably the reason why I try to work really hard. [Laughs.] To try to leave some art somewhere.

That always stayed with me, though: What if it all went? What was the point of all of this? And, yet, it still seemed that if you’re in the moment, you can’t be thinking about that so much. That’s certainly a challenge I have—I think about this kind of stuff way too much, obviously. [Laughs.]

In recent interviews, you’ve talked about how a character like Dodge, who’s essentially sleepwalking through life before this world-ending threat surfaces, is the kind of male protagonist you prefer to write about. What draws you to those kinds of guys, in terms of story?
I’d say it’s a personal one. It’s sort of someone I grew up with, and I think all of are an everyman, to a degree. All of us are capable of sleepwalking through life. The worst jobs are the hardest ones to leave, and an unhappy relationship is more difficult to get out of, in a way. I think it’s just so possible for all of us to be stuck in something; I’ve certainly been that person, as much as I try to live a Penny [Keira Knightley’s character] type of life. [Laughs.]

I can be a Dodge sometimes. You watch years go by, and I’ve always wanted to shake that person awake. The writing of it is probably as equally cathartic for me as it speaks to everything that I want to see as a writer.

It’s interesting to see a romantic comedy set-up where the guy is both the focus and not your typical movie version of the obnoxious slacker/knucklehead who gets messed up and chases skirts all the time, like Patton Oswalt’s character in Seeking a Friend, for example.
Yeah! And that’s why this film for me is less a reaction to the end of the world and more a response to where I feel romantic comedies have gone. I always feel like the guys are womanizers or a man-child and the woman is such a type-A, uptight personality, and that’s just not me. [Laughs.] I certainly resonate more with the films that express more of what these characters are all about.