Interview with 'Safety Not Guaranteed' Director Colin Trevorrow

Photo Credit: © Emily Hart Roth
June 5th, 2012

I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with Colin Trevorrow, whose directorial debut Safely Not Guaranteed opens in select cities June 8th.  Read on for selections from the discussion.
As a word of warning, the ending of the film is discussed.  No particulars are explicitly stated, but if you can read between the lines at all, you would do well to avoid that part of the discussion until after watching the film.

Safety Not Guaranteed is not an easy film to categorize.  The plot is wrapped around time travel, there's a strong indie-comedy vibe, and there's a lot of romance in there air.  Trevorrow himself isn't sure where it lands:

I have a really hard time with it.  We dance around a bunch of tones in this movie.  I worry that the word “romantic comedy” conjures up a certain image that I don't think this movie... Yeah, [the main characters of Darius and Kenneth] meet, cute, but the question of the movie is not “Are these two going to end up together?”.  The question is, “Is this guy crazy, and does he have a time machine?” So the foundation of the story is actually a sci-fi question, or a sanity question.  To me, it's a sci-fi romance to a certain extent, but it is funny.  So I don't know.

On how he came to the script:

Derrick Connolly is my writing partner.  We've been working together for a long time.  Derrick wrote this on his own and brought it to me.  I just thought it was an iconic love story, and it was a great way into a sci-fi movie as well.  So I basically just begged him to let me direct the movie.  We talked about it for a long time, and ultimately, he gave me his blessing.  I think he's happy.  I hope he's happy.

I think what's great about Derrick and I working together as apposed to apart is that we're so different and we have such different instincts that you really do get something that is much richer than you'd ever get from either of us as individuals.  Then when you add Mark Duplass to that, different set of instincts, and Aubrey, and Jake, you really do get a hybrid of a lot of different tones and instincts that are being brought to the table.  I think that's part of why the movie ends up being a hybrid of a lot of different tones, is you're kind of getting things from all sides.

On shooting in Seattle, and whether tax incentives dictated the shooting location:

The original script was set in North Carolina, but I wanted to shoot it in Washington.  I just felt visually, tonally, Washington was going to work better for the movie.  They didn't update Washington the way they did most other states in the 90s.  It's not as spankin' new.  It still feels like the 80s in a lot of ways.  I wanted it to be dirty and a little junky.  The fact that the tax incentive was there and the crew was there... was a total coincidence, because I already wanted to go there.  It worked out really well.

There were no sets used in the filming of Safety Not Guaranteed.  Every scene was shot on location.  Trevorrow shared a few thoughts about why this was, as well as the nature of low budget filmmaking:

That was absolutely a result of having $750,000 to make the movie.  We had absolutely no choice.  Yet, I think it helps the movie in a lot of ways.  There's a lot of things in this movie... To make a Jaws reference, it's our shark not working.  I think that both the budget and the fact that we were always on location, the fact that the actors were constantly working and never in their trailers, because they didn't have trailers, there's an immediacy to the performances that you feel.  There's an energy to this movie that I think comes from the fact that we were always up against the wall and just had to grab what we could get.  That's where I live.  I was the kid at 14 years old running down the street with my video camera trying to get whatever we could get.

We had a day like that on this movie, where that Datsun that he drives didn't start.  We bought it off of Craigslist for $800 bucks and you started it with a screwdriver.  The day we shot that car chase, we had guys pushing that car.  We'd get that 0.5 seconds that I knew I needed to make it look like it was going, while they were running and hiding behind the bushes.  That took me back to my 1989, and I cherished it and I relished it, because I know I'm not going to be able to do that ever again.  On any other movie, they're going to say, “Yeah, we'll come back tomorrow and we'll fix the car.”

On defining and achieving the look of the film:

We shot digital, but we used much older Panavision lenses from the late 70s, early 80s.  So we took the digital edge off.  It is grainier.  There's noise.  It's scrappy.  We wanted it to feel scrappy.  At times it's under lit, so it has a little bit of that mumblecore feel to it.  I chose a great mumblecore cinematographer to do it, because I knew what kind of movie I was going to shoot.  I knew it was going to be big in scope and feel cinematic.  So I thought, “Every time I know where my instincts lie, I'm going to bring somebody else in to counterbalance that.”  So by bringing in both Mark and Ben [Kasulke, Cinematographer], I feel like we got that sense of emotional intimacy, but then we also have some big cinematic feeling moments.  It creates sort of a new hybrid in itself, which I'm proud of.  I really like the way this movie looks.

Trevorrow and writer Derick Connolly met when they were both interns at Saturday Night Live.  Safety Not Guaranteed introduces it's main character, played by Aubrey Plaza, through the prism of her thankless job as an intern.  Trevorrow had this to say about the role interns play in today's world:

Interns have been in the news lately, interns feeling they've been asked to do work that they should be getting paid for.  Independent filmmaking as well.  Just because you can make a movie for absolutely nothing doesn't mean you should.  In a lot of scenarios like that, people get taken advantage of.  That was one thing that was difficult for me.  I don't feel like we took advantage of anyone, because we really made sure to respect everyone who was working for us and really give them experience, as apposed to having them get coffee, but in this economy, I think the role of the intern has turned into a source of free labor to a certain extent.  I think we need to be careful that that balance between giving experience and having some sort of indentured servitude is kept.  Getting a college degree costs a lot of money.  People are out there, they want to work, and we try to make sure to be respectful of all, regardless of their station.

The film has a number of references to Star Wars.  They may seem like non sequiturs to some, but Trevorrow makes the case that they are more than appropriate:

Derick and I grew up on Star Wars, so it's just sort of natural in our conversations. You'll make baseball references as easily as you'll make Star Wars references when it comes to life.  It ended up that there were a couple references, and all three of them ended up making it into the movie.  I think we assumed, “We're going to cut one of these out,” but they made it through.  I think you'd be surprise how many guys in our generation, and also guys of Kenneth's ilk, will make Star Wars references regularly when talking about life in general.  So that's where it came from, and also, at it's core, it's a guy who is sort of stunted in his childhood.  His childhood was the 80's, and the 80's was Star Wars to a lot of us.  So it's not completely random.


On why he and his team went with the ending they did:

We went with that ending because we had a reached a point in the movie where we felt that as a viewer, you wanted these characters to succeed.  You wanted them to win so badly.  The probably naratively correct thing to do and the tonally correct thing to do in an independent movie would be the opposite of what we did.  It's a little bit rock-and-roll to be honest, a little bit of “Buck the rules.  We know what we should do, and we're going to do this other thing, because as children of the 80s, we have a responsibility to do this.”

That's my best answer for it, is that I couldn't allow myself to have a downer ending on this movie.  I felt like if we did, people might walk out feeling, “Why the hell did I just watch that whole thing?  What was this all about?”  Like I was saying before, the movie is not a romantic question.  The movie is a sci-fi question, and in answering that question the way we did, I just felt like it gives the movie just more weight than it otherwise would've had.  Yet, I acknowledge it's crazy, and I acknowledge that it's not supported.  Deal with it America.  Time travel.

On whether as a filmmaker, he worried much about the particulars of time travel in crafting his story:

I think in the end, it's really just them going off into the great unknown, and them going off into another place that isn't here, which is where both of them clearly want to be.  To me, the movie ends not there, the movie ends when she chooses to cross over the bridge and join him.  I think that that character finally allowing herself to have a shred of belief and hope is the end of the story.  What happens after that I think is a lot of fun, but it certainly doesn't... It answers the sci-fi question, but not definitively.  They could be dead.

In closing, Trevorrow had this to say about what his personal take-away from the project has been:

I think that what it has done is cement the lesson that I've learned over the past 10 years, which is that filmmaking is a collaborative process, and that I shouldn't be afraid both to allow everyone to contribute, because these are all really talented, intelligent people, but also that I shouldn't be afraid to poor a little bit of myself out onto the table and allow myself to vulnerable.  I think the choice of the end can receive a lot of criticism, because it does make you vulnerable as a filmmaker for doing something like that.  I am not afraid of it, and I'm proud of it.  Hopefully I won't have to explain it to too many people.  It came from a very emotional place, not necessarily a logical place.  There's a lot of things in this movie that come from more of an emotional place than a logical place.

Safety Not Guaranteed opens in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland June 8th, with additional openings in other cities starting June 15th.