'Safety Not Guaranteed' Roundtable with Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass

Photo Credit: Safety Not Guaranteed
June 5th, 2012

I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass, co-stars in the new indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, premiering in select cities June 8th.

In the film, Duplass plays Kenneth, an everyday guy who claims to be building a time machine, while Plaza stars as Darius, a Seattle Magazine intern who gains Kenneth's confidence in order to gather material for a story.
Read on for selections from the discussion.

Time travel stories are often convoluted, get bogged down with technical details, or trip over contradictions.  Aubrey and Mark both feel that being overly worried about the mechanics of time travel in regards to Safety Not Guaranteed is missing the point:

Aubrey Plaza:  I think that's why it's fun, because of those conversations.  Then people can decide for themselves what they think happened.  But I think it would be a shame if people got caught up in the details.  It's not really about that.

Mark Duplass:  I think this movie is half time travel film, but also it's half indie romantic comedy too.  I think this movie, as it pertains to time travel, is a little bit less about the 1.21 gigawatts and the flux capacitor and a little bit more about why people would want to time travel, which is just sort of a need to eject from your current station in life and find a better place.  All the characters in the film are looking for something, and time travel serves as a good metaphor for people who are saying, “I got to get out, find something better.

The tightly scheduled production shot out of order, so Plaza had a tough time making sure that her character's arc felt natural and believable:

Plaza:  That was probably the biggest challenge I had.  I've never been the lead of a movie before.  So I prepared and worked on it a lot.  I wanted to always be really aware of what I was feeling in every moment in that movie, and that everything was tracking, making sense.  So I'd really pay attention a lot.  I really did want her to have a full transformation in the movie.  We shot the first two weeks with Mark.  So all of the Kenneth stuff was the first two weeks.  So we kind of went backwards in a way.

Duplass:  …Backwards in time.

Plaza:  That's right.  It was a fun challenge.  I definitely wanted to have that feeling in the beginning of the movie of having this wall up and then slowly tipping it over.

Duplass:  I think that's one of the most exciting parts of the movie for me.  When I got the script, to speak candidly, I didn't know Aubrey personally, but I knew her work in Parks and Rec, early on. [They were] in maybe the first season when I got the script.  So I was like, “This role is amazing,” the role of Darius, and, “I know that Aubrey can pull off the first half of the movie, where it's a little bit more that deadpan cynical girl, but I'm so curious:  What's going to happen when she really has to blossom emotionally?”  Without knowing her, I was like, “I don't know if she's going to pull this off.”  Then we had this really great table reading, and we started to see her ability to peal away those layers and show this whole new side of her as an actor.  I think that's part of the key of this move.  As Darius transforms in the film, you get to watch Plaza do something totally different, which is cool.

Late in the movie, Kenneth serenades Darius while playing a zither, of all things.  Plaza had this to say about the experience, as well as being sung to in real life:

Plaza:  That was the first time I had heard him do it.  So it was a real reaction.  He wouldn't play it for me, or sign for me, or anything.  He wanted me to experience it on camera.

Duplass:  I'm gonna BLOW YOU AWAY in the moment.

Plaza:  But yeah, someone has sung for me. When I was 13, the first guy that I had ever be my boyfriend asked me out through song.  He sang on stage in front of people.  Cut to years later, it's Johnny Gallagher, Jr., who won a Tony for Spring Awakening.

Duplass:  Shut the F!

Plaza:  I have an audio cassette of the song that he wrote for me, and it's called “When We Get Married.”

Duplass:  J.G. Jr.?

Plaza:  We were 13. Yeah.

Duplass:  That's incredible.

Plaza:  Delaware. Yeah.  No one knows that.

Aubrey has portrayed April Ludgate on NBC's Parks and Recreation since 2009.  She had a few thoughts on playing characters in film vs. TV:

Plaza:  It think it's totally different, being on a television show.  Playing someone for five seasons is totally different, but it's really fun in a different way.  I feel like I know April so well that anything they give to me is just fun to figure out how she's going to play it, or how she's going to deal with a new character.  That's why I love working on that show.  Whenever they have new characters, like Parker Posey's character, or guest stars or whatever, it's really fun to think about her and decide, “Well, she's going to hate that person, or she's going to love that person.”  Whereas in a movie, it's all there and you just have to bring life to it and have in come full circle or something.  With a TV show, it's more about figuring out different dynamics and how to make it funny but also true.

The pair had this to say about working with director Colin Trevorrow:

Plaza:  I love Colin so much.  I think he's an actor's director.  If that's a label people use about directors, he's one of those.  He's really into actors and really interested in talking about everything with us and collaborating.  He listens, and he really impressed me, especially as a first time director, because a lot of people gain that quality over time through experience, but he just walked on set and had it immediately.  I think that's one of the reasons why the movie is so good, because he cared so much about the characters.  He's in love with all of the characters.  It was really an intense shoot.  We shot 24 locations in 25 days or something, so there were a lot of things for him to be distracted by, but he really focused on the real issues, which were the performances.  I think he did a really great job.

Duplass:  Colin is much more mindful of visuals than I am and my brother are, and he's very good at keeping an eye on the cinema of a film.  He's a big film fan.  He loves like E.T. And Star Wars.  So he had that grand scope. Whereas me, I'm just like, “I don't care what it looks like.  Just give me the face and show me what's going on there.”  So I think that we were a really good match, in terms of me just being constantly obsessed with performance, and Colin's very good with the visuals and made sure, again, we had enough time to get performances the way we wanted to.  If they weren't working, we could improvise a little bit and make them fit.  He just, for a first time director, just banged it up.

When he isn't acting, Duplass also directs and produces.  He had this to say about balancing those roles, and whether they can conflict:

Duplass:  When I'm an actor on a project, that's mostly what I'm doing.  I was also a producer on this project, so I had some conversations with Colin about the way we would want to run the set, and some things that I asked of him early on, which were kind of what Aubrey’s talking about:  Make sure we have enough time to focus on performance.  The biggest mistake for a first time director is to get so obsessed with the way your shots look that you only have time for one take.  Then you have this beautifully cinematic, well polished turd of a film, because your performances suck.  So that was really my only part that I played in this, was just asking certain things of Colin upfront.  Then after that, it's just follow the leader.

Duplass and Plaza shared a few thoughts on the frenetic, location based production:

Duplass:  The training sequence was very fun, except that those are real guns, and blanks, and Plaza was a little freaked out.

Plaza:  Yes, I am not a fan of guns.

Duplass:  I, on the other hand, love them.

Plaza:  Yes, he did love them.

Duplass:  I kept making her shoot her gun at me.  It was really kind of awesome.

Plaza:  Yeah.  ...It was freeing.  It was fun.  It was fun to run around in the woods.  It was beautiful too.  Seattle, those woods up there, they're amazing.

Duplass:  It's a cool movie in that.  Aubrey and I have done a lot of personal comedies.  They're about people, and they're about what's going on between two people sitting on a couch normally.  So to get out and do something that still honors the world we came from, this is still very much a movie about people, but had those extra elements of the action sequences and the time travel stuff, was fun.

Mark had a few thoughts to share about Kenneth's car, an aging Datsun roadster with more bondo than chrome:

Duplass:  The Datsun was written into the script.  I thought it was a perfect choice for the Kenneth car.  The car is Kenneth.  It is battered and barely holding it together, but there was once a moment where greatness was possible, and there is a promise of future greatness, if they could just clean it up.  I think that is Kenneth.  On the shoot itself, that car broke down on us about 17 times.  We actually shot one of the chase sequences with a bunch of members of the crew pushing the car doing a 180 stunt turn.  Thus is the essence of independent film.

The pair had this exchange concerning Darius keeping her identity as a reporter secret from Kenneth for so long:

Plaza:  I thought it rang true to me when I read it.  Her keeping it from him for that long made sense to me, because she gets wrapped up in him and what he's doing.  Up until that point, it didn't seem like there was an organic time for her to reveal herself.  So it seemed like the right time when I read it.  If it was me, I would've done the same thing I guess.

Duplass: You would've lied to me?

Plaza:  Yeah,  I would've lied to you.

Duplass:  Jesus.

Plaza:  I would've never told you.

Safety Not Guaranteed features a climatic ending, which neither Mark or Aubrey wanted to spill the beans on.  Aubrey did share her personal reaction to the ending, whatever it may be:

Plaza:  That was not really in the script, the way that the movie ends as it is now.  So when I saw it at Sundance for the first time, with an audience, I didn't know how it was going to end.  It was a secret that was kept from me for a long time.  So it totally blew me away, on multiple levels.

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