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Lorene Scafaria on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Manic Pixie Dream Girls

Lorene Scafaria. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Lorene Scafaria was trying to make it in the film business when she lost her job answering phones at the now-defunct indie Shooting Gallery, which prompted her to use their stationery to send out query letters to agents, pack her bags, and move from New York to Los Angeles (or at least, stay with an eccentric aunt in Orange County — close enough). This was one week before 9/11. The budding screenwriter (who went on to write Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) found herself strangely inspired by the death, doom, and destruction of that day, but on the personal level, watching how relationships began or fell apart in the wake of tragedy. That was the initial seed for Scafaria’s directorial debut, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, in which Steve Carell and Keira Knightley partner up as an asteroid is on its way to destroy the Earth — and yes, it’s a comedy. Scarfaria chatted with Vulture about orgies, fantasies starring Ethan Hawke, and the manic pixie dream girl.

Moving is tough enough, but you must have felt especially isolated moving when you did.
I didn’t know anybody there. My aunt was no comfort. I mean, she was a guidance counselor at a high school, and she took off work because she was too sad. Kids went and knocked on her door and there was like a Post-It note with a frown face or something. That’s insane. Plus, she has chemical sensitivity. Did you ever see the movie Safe, with Julianne Moore? It was like that, exactly. I was in a bubble where I couldn’t wear deodorant for two months and I was so depressed! [Laughs.] I was marooned. And there was no getting on a plane to go back or anything, so I was desperate for human contact. I called up a friend who I wasn’t talking to at the time to go, “Are you okay? Who cares that we haven’t been speaking.” It really was that feeling of this giant event affecting your tiny human behavior. People were having babies or breaking up. People were either coming together or realizing, “Oh my God, what have I been doing all this time?”

Which is why the wife of Steve’s character ditches him when they get the news that the world is ending. But what makes that scene especially ironic is that it’s Steve’s actual wife playing her.
I called up his agent, and I remember saying, “Is it an insult to ask if Nancy would come do this?” Because I just thought that would be so great. And then she turned to him with such poison [in that scene]! That was the last thing we filmed, and it was their sixteenth wedding anniversary that day. Happy anniversary! When she ran away from him, we yelled, “Cut!” and he was like, “I’ve never seen her run that fast before.” That was pretty wild, to have her run away from him over and over again on their anniversary. We got them a cake, with an asteroid smashed in the middle of it. We made it up to them.

This isn’t a typical doomsday movie. But you collide that genre with a romantic comedy.
That was a learning process as I was writing the script. It was just such an “Aha!” moment to go, Okay, I am taking these two genres and I am doing a mash-up here. So I was like, There should be a riot scene, but what is that in terms of a romantic comedy? So the riot scene became a breakup scene. And a Friday’s-esque date at a restaurant is also an orgy

Were you borrowing from previous screenplays you had written that hadn’t been made? Because you have a drawer full of them.
It was frustrating, because I felt like I was writing these two archetypes for so long. A lot of the movies I had seen, the guy was either a womanizer or a man-child, and the woman was a type-A control freak who helps him grow up. But I’m not that type of person, so I didn’t have those kinds of relationships. And as a more free-spirited person, I was drawn to the withdrawn, and I felt like I was trying to write this guy for a really long time, just someone who was sleepwalking through life. So who would be the most interesting character to see face of all this? Someone who was half-dead already, who was watching his life unfold over the last three weeks of his life. What was great about Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is that it can go on forever — there are infinite possibilities there — but what if you took forever off the table? What if you made it truly finite? And what if the ticking clock in the movie, other than the sun coming up, was the loudest ticking clock ever?

Plus you have daylight savings in the middle of this.
Because that sucks, every time you lose an hour, and you’re like, “Today?! Of all days?!” If anyone’s expecting anything, they’re expecting time to be extended. But this is the way life works.

Were you worried about the trap of Keira’s character Penny becoming a manic pixie dream girl?
You know what’s funny? I don’t even know what that is! 

Natalie Portman in Garden State. Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Okay, I kind of know what that is. It wasn’t even so much an effort to stay away from it, but not to go too far in any kind of one direction. I didn’t want her to be so quirky that she became unrelatable, but quirky isn’t a word I shy away from. To me, in the same way he’s an Everyman, she’s an Everygirl. She’s been living her life to the fullest, but she also has regrets, like about seeing her family and that kind of stuff. The idea was that she could be a real young woman, and not too manic pixie. I’m glad she didn’t fall into that trap. She’s such a luminous sort of person.

But the sort of person who doesn’t forward the mail. Who doesn’t do that?
You know what’s so sad? Me! I’m the person who doesn’t do that. I was renting this house, and so much mail came through, and all I kept doing was putting it in this drawer, because it was for like the last eight tenants and I had no idea what to do with it. By the time I moved out, I looked in this drawer, and it was like, “Oh my God, these poor people! Who knows what they’re missing out on? And it’s my fault!” So that trait in Penny is me. If you had my address, chances are, you won’t get your mail.

But I love the idea that it’s a letter. For me, modern technology has ruined romance and movies — nobody can run to the airplane gate anymore. So I was excited that this allowed for the opportunity to strip that away — people can’t be on cell phones. No texting. What happens then? Good old-fashioned letters. I’ve saved all my grandmother’s letters, and I regret not sending more letters back.

You were going to do Bye Bye Birdie with Adam Shankman, until he went off and did Rock of Ages. You were desperate to get this film made, but you almost gave up. What did you do?
This is a very embarrassing story: It was the summer before we got the film going, and I was so distraught. I had lost my dad, so I was going to lose my mind anyway, but I went into my agent’s office and I was crying and I said, “I regret my career. I’ve been writing for a decade and it’s just being recycled. I can’t do this anymore. I quit writing. Send me out on acting auditions.” As if this would be an easier route! So I don’t know if he did this on purpose or not, but he sent me out for the Wonder Woman pilot — and I’m five-foot-two! I remember going to this audition, I was walking in six-inch heels, trying to look taller, and at the gate, they said, “Follow her.” And she was a true Amazon, like a supermodel. I went in, I read for two minutes, and then I was like, “I’m definitely not going to do this with my life.”  

Do you still have hopes for Ripple, the film you wrote as a fantasy star vehicle for yourself and Ethan Hawke?
That’s hysterical! I can only hope that Ripple gets made. It was about dying dolphins. It was an environmental romantic dramedy — you see these Nicholas Sparks movies with the turtles, and it was a little like that. It was my Nicholas Sparks, starring Ethan Hawke and me. Don’t forget, I get to be the other lead in that one. [Laughs.]

Lorene Scafaria on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl