“Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
So read a classified ad placed in survivalist periodical Backwoods Home Magazine back in 1997. The notice launched a mocking Internet meme – pictures of the mulleted author were photoshopped into different eras, and parody ads and fake movie trailers surfaced, to the delight of message board enthusiasts.
Filmmaker Colin Trevorrow and his writing partner, Derek Connolly, however, saw something different: a heartfelt story of regret, dreams and romance, with some intrigue and time travel thrown in for good measure.
“Safety Not Guaranteed,” which stars Mark Duplass as the ad’s author and Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni as three Seattle journalists who set out to untangle his story, opens June 8 in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. The film marks Trevorrow’s directorial debut.
I sat down with Trevorrow in New York recently to talk about how to transform a person, his recommended reading for the end of the world and, most of all, the (big!) little movie that could.
A movie based on a classified ad — about time travel, at that — doesn’t sound like the likeliest project for a first-time director. What drew you to make the movie?
I felt like there was an opportunity to make an iconic love story that hadn’t been told in that exact way before. Each character started off as archetypes and caricatures in a certain way and they slowly turned into real people over the course of the movie. I think there’s so much room for a movie like this that has the spirit of a big blockbuster in many ways but isn’t like that in every way.
In all sincerity, I felt it was possible to make a movie that was both intensely romantic and darkly funny and badass all at the same time and it didn’t have to be just one of those things.
But still, were you worried that it would be a tough sell to audiences?
I felt like people would respond to it because it’s romantic, but in a very modern cool way — I’m sure a lot of people would say a hipster way, but that annoys me and I’m getting assaulted with people saying this is hipster trash. I don’t even know what that means.
You described the movie as a kick-ass action film and funny and romantic. And, of course, the time travel adds a major sci-fi element. Did you set out to pinch from so many different genres?
It’s kind of just what it was. It definitely wasn’t as much of a romance and it wasn’t as much of a deeply emotional character study initially. That kind of stuff came out as [screenwriter] Derek [Connolly] and I developed it. We didn’t abandon anything that it already was, so what you end with is this sci-fi dramatic comedy, all of the things that it is. It was a very tough tone to balance, but any time we felt — both in editing and in the scenes — if we felt it was veering too far into any of the genres, we would correct and move back the other way.
It made for something that in every scene it feels a little different but doesn’t feel schizophrenic. It could have, and I don’t know why it doesn’t. I’m not saying that, shooting lightning bolts out of my hands, I made it happen — it just kinda surprises me at times when I watch it, how much it doesn’t feel crazy.
The main character of the movie, Kenneth, honestly believes that he’s going to be able to go back in time, and the story the team sets out to write about him is pitched as a tongue-in-cheek “investigation.” The whole movie could have just been mocking this guy, but it doesn’t. Instead, you take him seriously, while sort of highlighting that he’s talking about all these impossible, outlandish things. How did you walk that line?
A lot of that was actually in the editing. There’s not a lot on the editing room floor in this movie, but what’s there are moments where he went too far toward being pathetic, and too far toward being broad and crazy and silly. It’s amazing how the chemistry of the movie, changing a little bit of the equation you can redirect the perception of the audience.
Can you give me an example of that?
There was a scene where he was being picked on by some guys after that football game, and especially since Mark Duplass was playing the role, he’s already very vulnerable, and we get that. Maybe if he had been played by someone a little tougher and more hard core, then that scene probably would have worked, but with Mark, we have that inherent in the role already. By taking that out, we let Kenneth keep a little dignity. On the flip side, we have a moment where he cocks a shotgun and he has a lot of that kooky time travel talk, but we made sure that we kept pieces of it and kept the balance all the way through. It could have been played in a very different way.
Speaking of individual actors’ talents, Mark Duplass is known for encouraging a sort of “dramatic improv,” and Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson both have experience in comedic improv. How much of what we see in the film was made up on the spot?
Most of the comedy was on the page. Where we did find a lot of great moments was really a lot in the more emotional moments. We didn’t have time to sit there and add jokes in. We shot very quickly, in 24 days, so we had to pick and choose which scenes I was going to give the actors time to breathe. In some scenes where it’s moving the narrative, like when they’re sitting in the bar deciding what to do next, the patter is totally scripted and we just jam it through.
But for the scenes where the characters are really learning each other and the richer scenes, we were able to use what Mark brings to the table and that emotional honesty, and really let them discover each other in the context of those scenes. Like when he asks her what her favorite song is, and it’s “Over The Rainbow,” that happened right there, that’s real, that’s her real answer. It’s a very honest moment. I love that moment.
We see Aubrey Plaza in a way we haven’t in her previous work, both emotionally and physically. When the film starts, she’s essentially her Parks and Recreation character, April: she looks like her, she’s terse like her, she isn’t smiling. By the end, she’s almost unrecognizable.
We did that on purpose. We put her in a hat in the first third of it, and very closed down and buttoned in, and by the time you get to the end, her hair is blowing in the wind and she has a dress on. When she smiles for the first time in this movie — I think for the first time that’s ever been captured on film — she lights it up.
All that was intentional and intentional in concert with the camerawork that starts out very handheld and indie and shaky and by the end, you’re on a crane and the makeup and the hair and everything that we did was very much designed to take you from the feeling of a tense, indie rough kind of a world to a very big, eloquent, grand cinema world.
The music also builds over the film, and adds to that feeling of transformation and growth. In the beginning, the score is very simple and almost lonely, but by the end we’re hearing a whole string section.
Absolutely, that was very intentional. Using [Guster frontman and SNG composer] Ryan Miller was great. He started in his home zone: Guster’s a great band and they’ve got great music, but they don’t do a lot of big John Williams orchestral stuff. Not only did he evolve the music to that point carefully and slowly, but he planted themes. That big theme that you hear in the end, Kenneth’s superhero theme, you hear that on electric guitar in the beginning when he’s checking the postal box.
You knew most of your cast and collaborators before production: you and Derek Connolly are writing partners, you and Ryan Miller are pals, you knew Jake Johnson from NYU. As a first-time director, did it help that you were working with friends, or did you ever freak out and wish you had a veteran to help pull you through?
It made it easy. Luckily, I trust Jake implicitly and I know what Jake is capable of and we have a very easy language together. Aubrey, I not so much know what she’s capable of, but that I believed in her and I just knew that she was going to bring something to the table that would be indelible. The one thing that all of these people had in common, whether I knew them before or not, including myself, we all had something to prove and we all wanted to show that we were capable of things that people may or may not think we were capable of. When you get a group of people together who are all playing to win on a life level and trying to show what they can do, it can be very special. No one’s doing it for a paycheck.
The classified ad that appears in the film is a real, earnest classified listing that was published in Backwoods Home Magazine. You had to convince John Silveira, the man who wrote the ad, to sell you the rights to use it in the movie. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with him?
We weren’t friends necessarily before this. I tracked him down and over time got him to trust us. We bought the rights from him to use this and essentially his life and that ad like it were a book or anything else. He’s in the movie, in the first scene where they’re staking out the post office – he’s the guy with the beard.
It doesn’t sound like he’s necessarily as vulnerable as Kenneth is in the movie. Are there any aspects of real-life John in Kenneth?
Well, one thing that’s true is that he brings his own weapons. That’s very John. He brings his own weapons wherever he goes. He was strapped at our first lunch, he had a piece on him. He’s very into gun rights.
Was it tough to convince him to give you the rights, then?
John and I are very different people, but it was one of those scenarios where a part of the job of a director is to find common ground with everyone, and I found common ground with him.. I feel like we had a great relationship and I’m very grateful to him for making all of this possible and I will always be grateful.
Has he seen the finished film?
He saw it at Sundance at the big theater and I had him stand up and everyone applauded. He loved it. He’s a romantic. He won’t let anyone know, but he loved that it was a love story and he loved the ending and he was on board.
This whole project is pretty unique, from the source material to a cast of newcomers to the rushed shoot and tight budget. What’s the most valuable thing you learned from the experience?
I found Backwoods Home Magazine. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but it’s pretty great. It’s a survival magazine, and it’s the real deal. It’s got some valuable advice in the event of an armageddon. Cancel everything else, that’s the one subscription that you want. You need to learn how to grow your own food and skin a deer!