Interview with Colin Trevorrow, Safety Not Guaranteed: time travel and directing “an enchantress.”
(Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed. Tickets and showtimes here
by Richard von Busack
The endearingly odd Safety Not Guaranteed (a perfect title for a romance) concerns a put-upon intern named Darius (Aubrey Plaza) at Seattle magazine. She’s one of a team of reporters tracking down a secretive rural eccentric who is seeking a partner for a time-machine ride.
Screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow spun the story out from a real-life classified advertisement. The film’s standout is Plaza (of TV’s Parks and Recreation). It’s a star-making performance for this heavy-lidded actress. She’s ably supported by her love interest Mark Duplass (as the downcast would-be chrononaut) and Jake M. Johnson as Jeff, the reporter in charge of the journalistic expedition: a douche among douches.
Colin Trevorrow, the director, was raised in Oakland, and once had an acting turn in Peter Pan at the since-demised Civic Light Opera in San Jose.
Q: I saw this with a friend who appreciates film realism, and his biggest complaint about the movie was that Aubrey Plaza was too beautiful to be such a dejected girl. I think I’m a little more aware of how films are cast, though—Plaza would get the part of the girl who was thought of as too smart, or too intense, or not blond enough, and thus get relegated to playing the sassy best friend.
Colin Trevorrow: She didn’t always get to display that crazy intense beauty. I don’t know if anyone would have considered her too beautiful for this part before she actually played this part. They never let her look as good as she can look. I promised her: I’m going to shoot you so you like a movie star, and show people you have a face that melts glass. We shot it last summer, and if you noticed, she really changed on her TV show between the end of third season and the beginning of the fourth. Now she looks more the way we know her to look.
Q: I guess Plaza usually gets directed to tone it down, to make the lead actress look good.
Trevorrow: “Stop staring at that actor. He’s only human!”
Q: Had you ever thought of making this as a crypto documentary, a found-footage movie?
Trevorrow: I never thought of that, actually, because I read the script and it was a feature film from the beginning. The first draft Derek wrote was much more of an investigate mystery than a rom-com. We took it more into the zone of an emotional time travel film, a hybrid of science fiction and…I really don’t want to say it…but a madcap screwball comedy.
Q: I read that you met John Silveira, who placed the original advertisement. He must have been as suspicious as hell about your intentions…
Trevorrow: We tracked him down, and we built up a relationship over the course of a year. We convinced him we weren’t going to ruin his awesome 6-sentence advertisement. We optioned it like a piece of literature, because we wanted to use that exact phrasing. Once we convinced him, he did come aboard—he was credited as “Time Travel Consultant”…
Q: Does he actually believe he’s journeyed to the past?
Trevorrow: John? No, He’s not crazy. He just wrote something that was inspired in 1997 in the magazine he works for, Backwoods Home.
Q: So he was just being a poet?
Trevorrow: Exactly right
(Trevorrow on location, with Plaza and actor Karan Soni.)
Q: I’ve seen similar ads on San Francisco lampposts, usually people asking for specific piece of time-space travel equipment. Let’s talk about Mark Duplass, who is credited as an executive producer as well as an actor…since he had both roles, was it tricky to give him direction?
Trevorrow: We would just have conversations. We’d move so quickly that we didn’t have all day for the actors to work through something. The actors had to come prepared. Mark was the tonal pacesetter. He routed the film, and everyone adjusted to match where he was at. While Mark was definitely open to suggestion, he let us make our film. He was not overbearing, and I didn’t feel like there was another director looking over our shoulders. And yet he made a lot of choices as an actor. I’d qualify that as Mark directing himself, actually. This allowed us to move as fast as we needed to move.
Q: I was interested in the way you directed Aubrey Plaza during the scene where she confesses the worst trauma in her past. The way she tells the story, it’s as if it’s a narrative of terrible personal embarrassment instead of inconceivable loss.
Trevorrow: It is the turning point for her as a character. It’s the part where she sheds this persona of trying to be a ‘40s reporter…
Q: …A Rosalind Russell character…
Trevorrow: It’s where you see her coming out as an actress, and she’s not just the snarky intern at the corner. In the scene, she’s sitting on a log, spending a long time on it. She was on The Tonight Show the other night, telling the story of how she got that log shipped to her house. She asked the producers for it, I guess half messing with everybody to see if they’d do it. We did. We branded it with her name and sent it to her. I’m thinking, “This is what we’re spending money on?”
She gets what she wants. She’s an enchantress.
Q: How long was the location shoot?
Trevorrow: 24 days, or 4 weeks. I was up there in Seattle for about three months. We were only on the coast two days for the beach scenes and the carnival-ride scenes, everything else was in an around Seattle.
Q: I think Safety Not Guaranteed has a cinematic first: product placement for Grocery Outlet. That chain is the hack’s best friend. What’s left of the journalistic community would have starved to death long ago if it weren’t for its low prices.
Trevorrow: They were the only place that would let us shoot. The original idea was more of a Wal-Mart place…I liked the idea of it not just being a grocery store but the last grocery store…I’m not putting it down, they were great to us…
Q: We call it “The Island of Misfit Groceries”.
Trevorrow: The whole film is the island of misfit whatever-they-are…like the theme park carnival in the movie is the last theme park anyone would go visit.
Q: Had you lived in Seattle?
Trevorrow: My father was from Seattle. The area between San Francisco and Seattle is my favorite place on earth.
Q: Do you have a favorite time travel movie?
Trevorrow: I think Back to the Future is the best time travel movie ever. The one that influenced this the most is the emotional time travel film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think Safety Not Guaranteed is essentially Back to the Future crossed with Eternal Sunshine…
(from Primer, 2004.)
Q: Primer was also a bare-bones time travel film…did you like it?
Trevorrow: I find it too cold. I just want to turn up the oranges and the reds…
Q: Without discussing the ending, Safety Not Guaranteed faces the problem of any film in which something fantastic (a ghost, an alien, etc) may or may not be possible. Show the magic and you disappoint the realists. Go realistic and disappoint the children and the other fantasists….
Trevorrow: We changed the ending at the last minute—the decision came after we’d been accepted into Sundance…our goal was to get into Sundance and we did, and I still wasn’t satisfied, people weren’t leaving the movie the way they wanted to feel. Sundance was supportive about changing the ending…
Q: It must have been a difficult decision.
Trevorrow: It was. I walked the streets of NY alone for a whole weekend trying to figure out if I was going to get mocked out of the room if I changed it.
Q: Can you describe your other films?
Trevorrow: Safety Not Guaranteed is my first feature film. My first short “Home Base” was shot in Oakland when I was right out of NYU. It was a very early Internet success, and it got 20 million hits on YouTube. It’s funny how similar it is to Safety not Guaranteed: a preposterous idea taken for comedy suddenly becomes serious.
My second film Reality Show (2004) is kind of documentary and kind of not a documentary.
I was hired to direct a self-produced reality show. The crew and all these women off of Craig’s List were transported to Mexico to a beach hotel: Rosarita Beach, and we got there via passenger van so we could go through Tijuana. The shoot at the hotel was the seediest, worst experience of our lives…we made the worst reality show in history. So I have interviews with the crew, where they discuss this preposterous bullshit that went on. It’s a strange doc about how people use this reality show medium to take advantage of people.
Q: What happened to the producer eventually?
Trevorrow: He lives in Vegas, where he has a late night TV show. He rolls around in an RV with a picture of his face on the side. I have to say my experience with him helped me to be able to communicate and relate with people way different from myself. That helps with filmmaking in general; I don’t think there’s such a thing as people I can’t deal with, thanks to this guy.
Q: Where were you raised in Oakland?
Trevorrow: Near the Grand Lake Theater. The municipal rose garden was my backyard, and the Grand Lake was my church. I’d ride my bike to the Piedmont theater, and between those two theaters, I picked up a lot of movie memories.