Interview: Writer and director of Safety Not Guaranteed


[From Mar. 9th to 17th, Flixist will bring you live coverage from deep in the heart of Texas at South by Southwest Film 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

On March 11th, myself and a few other film journalists and reporters were invited to a few roundtable discussions with some of the main cast and crew from Safety Not Guaranteed. This particular roundtable was with both the writer and director of the film, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, respectively. Read on to see some of the insight and background information of SXSW’s funniest comedy film.

Talk a little bit about how you created the characters.

Derek Connolly: I wrote Aubrey’s character specifically for her. I didn’t know her before, but I kind of drew what I thought she was sort of like from what I’ve seen from her previous stuff. The Jeff character is probably… actually, all four main characters are probably different aspects of my personality. If you add them all together, you get me, but I’m a little bit of all of them. 

Colin Trevorrow: I offered him a detailed analysis of that on a chalkboard. Like this is really separated into four quadrants.

You said last night [Safety Not Guaranteed’s premiere on 3/10/2012] that you guys have been working together for quite awhile. Does that mean this idea has been floating around for awhile as well? This specific film?

CT: No, this came from… I think it was two summers ago.

DC: 2009?

CT: This came from him and he was on vacation and I was actually hanging out with Aubrey [Plaza] in Montreal, we share a manager, and so I told him I was hanging out with Aubrey Plaza and he had just seen Funny People and he had seen this ad, and all of those sort of came together. He took a spin on this. What amazes me about Derek’s script is when you read that classified ad, you could see that as, tonally, a very different movie: a guy with a shotgun traveling through time fighting dinosaurs. Maybe it’d be funny, but it’s not our movie. And he just instinctively saw a very, very different, very melancholy and sweet take on that language, on that ad. And that’s what the movie is, and this script is shot… It’s not verbatim, we found a lot of moments as we shot it, but all those lines, everything that Kenneth says is word-for-word on the page.

But it did literally start with that ad, though? It was an actual ad that you actually saw. In what paper and when did you see that, and how did that sort of evolve?

DC: Jay Leno claims I saw it on his headlines. I did not know. I saw it on the Internet because it came this joke where people were making parody videos and they put it to that song, “Push It to the Limit,” and just added the mullet man guy. I don’t know if you’ve seen that, it’s a guy with a mullet and he looks dead serious, and they put it next to the ad. So there’s all this stuff happening, and I saw it, and I thought it was hilarious and funny, but also kind of sad and I just wondered, “What if this guy’s for real?” And all these people are making fun of him, so the whole thing started from that.

Did anybody ever find the originator of the ad?

CT: Yeah, I did.

DC: He’s in the movie.

Oh really? 

CT: Well, that was a big part of this. When we took this package to Big Beach as producers, we got all the actors and we brought Mark and Jay [Duplass] on board and part of the source material was that we had to track down the writer of the ad. We optioned it like a novel or anything else, like just a piece of literary work. And John writes for a survivalist libertarian magazine called, “Backwards Home,” out of Oregon. He does bring his own weapons wherever he goes. He brought a gun to our first lunch; he was strapped. He came to Sundance. I got to call him out in front of 1200 people. He got a big applause. It was really good.

What was his initial reaction when you went to him and said you wanted to make a movie off his ad?

CT: He just told me to fuck off. Basically, he really did NOT trust me at all.

So how did you win him over?

CT: I kept calling and kept calling and was just really persistent. And I think it was almost a year from when I first contacted him. I live in Vermont, and so he was in New Hampshire, and I met him for lunch. It was just a very slow process of getting him to see I wasn’t some Hollywood douchebag that was going to ruin it  and that we really respected it on a level where we’re not going to make fun of the character he created. And also, just convincing him that this is his legacy, this thing, and it’s something that’s important that he created. Now that he’s seen the movie, he gets it, but at the time, he thought we were just guys who were going to make fun of him. He’s kind of like Kenneth, in a lot of ways; he thought we were going to mock him in the same way that people who’ve used it before. They put it in video games, like there’s World of Warcraft “safety not guaranteed” stuff, like it’s sort of permeated the internet in this way that makes him feel like people sort of stole his idea. My pitch to him was, “We’re not going to steal it. We’re going to write for an option, we’re going to pay you money, and we’re going to respect it in the way that it should be respected.

But you didn’t need his approval though, right? Because this is not his story, outside of this [premise].

DC: It’s kind of a shady legal territory.

So there’s copyright issues or something?

CT: Well, it was copyrighted, but our thing was more that, as writers, we respect writing. And there was a little story in that. Whether or not we legally had to do it or not, we just felt that it was the right thing to do.

Were any of his characteristics used to create Kenneth’s character? You said he was kind of standoff-ish a bit.

CT: I think that’s embedded into the ad ‘cause that’s his personality, like the way it was written is the way that he thinks. I don’t know if you went to any of us and said, “Alright, write a classified ad about how you want someone to travel back in time with you.” I don’t know if any of us would think, “Okay, you got to bring your own weapons.” Like… that’s your first instinct. He’s also a guy who just really wants a girlfriend, like when you meet him. That’s kind of what he’s always… his comment to me when we showed it at Sundance at the Eccles [Theatre] is, “If I had known you were going to call me out in front of everyone, I would have brought a woman.” I think he just wants to be loved, and there’s a lot of that in Kenneth, too. And yeah, there are pieces.

Later on in the film, time travel becomes secondary very much. I would imagine that’s intentional as well, the time travel gets pushed into the background in favor of the relationships and human story. That’s kind of the idea.

DC: It was always about the character and the relationships. Time travel is just sort of this concept that thematically tied things together, but wasn’t really about time travel.

It seems it’s more about the type of person who would want to and thinks they could time travel.

CT: I think it’s about how all of us wish we had a time machine sometimes. We all have regrets, we all have things we wished we had done differently. I think it’s a very universal want to go back and treat someone better or make a different choice. I think that, in the end, all these characters need a time machine for a different reason. I’ve seen it happen, like people latch on to different characters and care more about Kenneth’s story or care more about Jeff’s story, and hopefully we created four people who have different enough reasons to need that emotionally that everyone will find a piece of themselves in the movie.

Moving aside from the film, which time period would you guys go back to and why?

DC: I would go back 15 billion years and just see how it all started. I’m a science nerd, I want to watch it all happen and see evolution. That’s what I’d go watch. Just kind of see everything first-hand. 

So no place in your life? You’d just go back beyond it?

DC: Yeah, my life’s boring. Like there’s so much stuff that happened before I was born. Nothing awesome has happened to me, so…

CT: I’d go to the future. I’m one of those people who will want to live as long as possible just to see what happens. I would go 50 years ahead and see what’s going on. Hopefully, we’re all still here.


CT: Yeah, I’d be on board a hovercraft.

[This interview has been edited and truncated to eliminate any possible spoilers.]