Director Colin Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly turned those six sentences into the basis for their quirky sci-fi comedy, which would go on to become a hit at Sundance. In it, Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius, a magazine intern who sets out with her boss (New Girl's Jake Johnson) and another intern to track down the ad's author, and, more importantly, to find out if he's for real. What they find in Kenneth (played by writer/director/actor Mark Duplass) is an eccentric loner who's everything the ad promised, and then some.
With Safety Not Guaranteed opening in Toronto on June 15th, Moviefone spoke to Trevorrow about the genesis of the time travel comedy, the power of a feel-good ending, and the rare occurrence that is seeing Aubrey Plaza smile.
There's an interesting story behind the movie -- the idea's based on a real classified idea, right? Yeah, it is. It's based on an Internet meme [that] was based on a classified ad that was published in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997, sort of a survivalist publication. Eventually, it caught on on the Internet and turned into a meme. [The most popular] was of a man with a long blonde mullet, set to the "Push It To the Limit" song from Scarface, it had quite a following. And Derek Connolly, the writer, saw that ad and thought up a storyline, and we went and we optioned the classified ad like it was a piece of literature, or a TV series, or anything else.
I saw in the credits that you had a "time travel consultant"... That's actually the credit that we gave to the man who wrote the original classified ad. He's actually in the film. When they're staking out the post office to find Kenneth, he's the first guy that comes into the post office, with the grey beard.
What was it about the ad that appealed to you and Derek? Well, I feel like there's a sense of longing behind the words, a sense of someone who is looking for a partner. The time travel part is what jumps out at you, but we really thought that, what he did, for whatever reason, when he made that pitch, I felt like that's something that's an interesting setting for a love story. And so we took it from there, and really tried to play up the idea of characters who didn't really want to be in this time, and really desired to be in another, better place.
I like how you have the literal take on going back in time with Kenneth, and then the more metaphorical take with Jake Johnson's character. How early on did you hit on that parallel? That was really in the first draft that Derek and I did. Derek wrote the script and then I read it, and when we worked on it, we really pulled out the love story, on both sides. We made Kenneth and Darius into more of a love story and the whole storyline which Jeff [Jake Johnson's character] shares with Liz really came out of that session. We knew we were going to have the time travel question existing throughout, but we just felt there were some themes that even he and I were grappling with, you know, of being 35 and looking back and saying, 'Oh, well these were our choices,' and wondering what we could have done differently to grow up to be a better person than who we are. We thought it was a good opportunity to still have a movie that's fun and all of those things, but also to touch on something that was universal.
How did Mark Duplass get involved? Did he come on as a producer first, or as an actor? He came on as a producer, an executive producer actually, with his brother [Jay] and their role was basically to secure the funding and really, they got the movie going. So they secured that financing and at the same time, Mark and I were talking a lot about what I wanted Kenneth to be and what I didn't want him to be. And we really agreed. It happened very naturally. I don't even remember the moment that it did, but we both realized that this could be a cool option.
When [Mark and Jay] came on board, they gave Derek and I a lot of freedom and they really let us make our film. But I knew Mark as an actor would actually have a lot of creative influence. He's done so much improvisational work in films that he would find a lot of great new intimate moments between these people, just by having him there. And it really did work out that way. He was such a key asset for us, as an actor and creatively.
Was Aubrey Plaza always your first choice for Darius? She was, it was actually written for her. So there was never any other Darius. We had a hard time imagining who [else] it would be, because it's a very specific character. We really wanted somebody who could blossom onscreen, both as a character and also as an actor. The audience has a preconceived notion in their head of Aubrey as an actor, and so if we can break that down a bit, I think that in some ways that her character is a bit more surprising. Because it's not anything that they had ever seen before -- like, you know, seeing Aubrey Plaza smile.
She's an actress whose real strength seems to be that she's adept at conveying a lot with just a look. Does that jibe with your sensibilities as a director? Absolutely. I think that ideally every actor would want to be able to do that in as few words as possible. And she's especially good at it. And I feel like because she's so good, we took more opportunities for her to not speak and [just] communicate with those eyes, which she does very well. Derek wrote a lot of wonderful dialogue, but in editing the film, we really tried to make it very sparse, and edit it down to the absolute most necessary moments.
How important was it for you to not make fun of Kenneth -- to make sure that he's a real sympathetic character as opposed to just a sideshow? It was crucial, and I would actually apply that to comedy in general. Derek and I, we don't make comedy where we're making fun of the character. We make comedy where the characters take themselves seriously. And the storytellers take the characters seriously.
I think that moment when we realize that he's not just paranoid, that there actually are people following him, it really changes the way we see him too. Right. The potential that this might be real. It was a challenge, because we wanted it to feel real but we still wanted to keep it fun and keep it, not silly, but there is something preposterous about guys in suits following him. And part of that was also the tone, the way they were dressed, and the way we dealt with it, was almost to suggest that, yeah, this probably is all a big joke. We didn't want to reveal until the absolute last second whether or not it is a big joke. And I think that what you were saying before, the idea that we take our character very seriously, you don't really know how much truth in [his time travel claims] there is until the end of the movie.
Without spoiling anything, were you always planning on ending the film the way you did, or were there other options you considered? There were; that wasn't the original idea. There was one other idea, the original one that Derek and I scripted. We shot that, and it worked. But this truly happened very late in the game. It was after we already had been accepted to Sundance, before we went, but we were already in. And I changed the ending to be what it is. It was a massive decision, and I was very aware of how much it changes the content of everything that came before it in the movie, and we thought about it a lot. And everyone was very supportive of me. I'm obviously very grateful to everyone for supporting it, because it was a bit of a risky move. And I think it's the kind of thing that people could laugh off, or it's the kind of thing people could say doesn't feel motivated. But as for me, it's something that makes me feel good. And I think, if you can, it's OK to put something in a movie because it makes you feel good.
Definitely, it's a real crowd-pleasing ending. What made you change your mind? You know, the way that it [originally] ended was very real. It was entirely reality-based. There was a very structural element at work, where at the moment we discover Kristen Bell's character, that represents a bit of a low point for the audience. [And then] we sort of punch the audience in the stomach again, and make them feel bad a second time. And there was something very ingrained in me, as a filmmaker who grew up in the '80s and loved Spielberg and Zemeckis and all of these guys -- that was my canon, that's my mythology. And it was important for me to reach the end of a movie and have the opportunity to make an audience really feel good when they left the theater and not be down or anything.
Why do you think time travel still fascinates audiences the way that it does? I feel like we all have things that we could have done differently in our lives, and I think that usually, when we're seeing time travel in films, more often than not, they're global [problems], or the space-time continuum is going to collapse and we're all going to disappear. But the films that I really love, in that genre, Back to the Future or films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are much more personal to me. I think that no relationship goes completely according to plan or the way you wished it had. And I just think that all of us, if we had a time machine, if we really sat down and thought about it, we wouldn't go back and kill Hitler. We would go back and maybe not say that thing to our dad that we said, or maybe be a little nicer to someone who we cared about and had a relationship with when we were young. You know, they're subtle things, but we carry those with us forever. And I think that regret and time travel are intrinsically linked to me.