Colin Trevorrow Interview
"Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before." The investigation of this classified ad provides the plot of Safety Not Guaranteed, a new comedy/sci-fi/romance feature starring Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), Mark Duplass (co-director of the recent Jason Segel/Ed Helms comedy Jeff Who Lies at Home with his brother Jay), and Jake M. Johnson ("New Girl"), and directed by Colin Trevorrow, in his fictional feature debut. DVDTalk sat down with Trevorrow in Seattle to talk about Safety, his previous documentary experience, and what might be in store when Safety eventually arrives on home video.
DVDTalk: Before we get started, I have to tell you, one of my Twitter critic friends, Sara Vizcarrondo, she told me to tell you that she loved Reality Show.
Colin Trevorrow: Wow, that's amazing...I don't even know where she would have gotten a copy.
DVDTalk: I'm guessing she saw it at a festival.
CT: That would've been years ago...you actually can't get it anywhere now. The guy it's about -- the movie is basically a documentary about how awful he is -- he actually lost a job or something over it, so he made us take it down everywhere and you can't find it anymore.
DVDTalk: Makes me think of King of Kong.
DVDTalk: So, Safety Not Guaranteed. This film is based on a real classified ad, or maybe it was a viral video, and I was wondering if you brought that video to the screenwriter, or vice versa?
CT: It was originally printed in Backwoods Home Magazine, which is a publication out of northern Oregon, that helps you learn how to can your own deer, or build a cabin out of two sharp tools in case of the impending apocalypse. It became a very viral, emailed thing, and also then turned into an internet meme on its own, with the ad next to a photo of a guy with a mullet and the song "Push It to the Limit" was playing, and that turned into its own beast. Derek Connolly, the writer, who's my writing partner, saw it, and had the brilliant inclination to build a story around it, and brought me the first draft of the script. So, the way I was introduced to it was getting to read the script for the first time, which was really inspiring to me, because I was able to see, "Oh my God, there's this iconic love story in this, and we could make something really cool."
DVDTalk: IMDb trivia says -- and it may be wrong -- that the guy is in the movie. How did you contact him, and what did he think of this idea that you were making a movie based on his ad?
CT: They are not wrong, he is in the movie...early in the film, when the characters are staking out the post office to find the time traveler, he's the first customer who comes to the P.O. box. I tracked him down, I called him, and sort of harassed him for six months to get him to give me the opportunity to do this. We wanted both his permission and his blessing, and I know we probably could have changed the words around, changed the language, and made it "inspired by," but I really wanted the real thing, that was important to me. Ultimately, we pretty much bought the rights to that classified ad like it's a novel, and he's become a friend of the film, he came to Sundance and watched the movie, and I'm sure he'll be quite the hero of Gold Beach, Oregon here pretty soon. [laughs] It's his legacy.
DVDTalk: It sounds like a situation that's almost like the film, where you have to feel out, "is this guy crazy, or is it a put-on?"
CT: Yeah! I mean, John's not crazy, but I think we're all a little crazy.
What John does have in common with Kenneth is that he brings his own weapons. [laughs] True story. There are pieces of John in Kenneth, for sure.
DVDTalk: At the Q&A last night, you were saying that Kenneth was originally written as more of a redneck, hillbilly type. With a script that changes like that, how close would you say the finished film is to what you had in your head when you first read it? The romantic tone, was that all there?
CT: Yeah, it was there, and the first time that I read it versus the script that everyone else read for the first time is different, because Derek and I developed it together for a period of time, and really went back over it, and tried to make something cohesive, that juggles a lot of difficult tones that don't normally go together. It's very nuanced; a lot of the dialogue stayed the same, it's just the way the character is presented, and it comes down to elements, like, even the length of his mullet, and the intensity of the backwoods side of that personality. By casting Mark Duplass, I think we actually made a huge leap away from that. Just having that actor and his very natural screen presence in that role as opposed to someone who'd be playing it big, and broad, and Hollywood comedy style...it'd really be two different movies, just based on that style. So even though Aubrey Plaza is the lead, I feel like Kenneth is the tone-setter, Mark Duplass is the tone-setter.
DVDTalk: In reducing that larger-than-life quality, is there a conscious decision to move away from movies like, say, Napoleon Dynamite?
CT: Absolutely. It was my intention from the very beginning to populate the film with real people. I think that it's the ultimate trick that the movie plays in many ways. It's a very low-fi film, a very naturalistic film, to a point, and I think part of what makes where we go so unexpected, because it's a pretty consistently independent-feeling film for awhile, and then the pieces of the indie start to fall away, and you see there's something else underneath that, that's powering through to get out. I knew you wouldn't care what happened to those characters unless they felt real, and all of those performances, Jake, and Aubrey, and Mark, and even Karan, all four of them start out as caricatures, they're sort of archetypes, "the Indian nerd," and "the douchebag," and "the emo girl," and piece by piece, we deconstruct that, and turn them into real human beings.
DVDTalk: Yeah, I thought it was nice the way the Jake Johnson character turns from that stereotypical jackass character into someone the audience really cares about.
The SIFF website actually has you listed as a first-time filmmaker; it wasn't until Sara mentioned Reality Show to me just ten minutes ago that I found out you had a documentary background. Is adapting a classified ad like a stepping stone going from a documentary to a narrative feature?
CT: Yeah, absolutely, and that's interesting, because [Reality Show] is a documentary and it isn't. It's footage of a real thing that happened, which is this guy, who is kind of a lunatic, and really just the world's biggest asshole, took a crew off of Craigslist, and a bunch of women, and told them they were on a reality show. He took 'em down to Mexico, hired a bunch of guys for nothing to shoot it, and he was really just...I don't know what he was doing; he was really down there to sleep with all these women, essentially. And I was hired to direct that. It was my first thing, you know: "I'll pay you $500!" "Great! I'll do it!" And it turned into this absolute disaster. It was so unwatchable and unusable that I got him to give me all the footage of it, and because we were in this nightmare, the crew started filming each other, and doing interviews with each other interviews about how horrible it was, and so I just took this bucket of otherwise unusable footage and cut it into something that had momentum and has a story. That was a film school in itself, that process, of having to sit there and say, "how can I form a story out of nothing?" Here, I had to form a story out of something, but those skills do come in handy.
There's an example in this movie that I directly attribute to Reality Show. Mark had gone out -- there was a day he had off, an afternoon, so I told him to just go to Kenneth's house and be Kenneth all day, and we sent a guy with a camera, and just filmed them on a 5D. It was separate from the production, no lights, nothing. And while I was cutting, I went in and looked at all this footage, that was just gonna be put on the DVD or used for whatever, and I cut together that little sequence where he's training, and talking about regret. It's actually sort of the tonal turning point of the movie, in the middle, where he first brings up that this mission is about regret. I cut that, and I also used that footage at the end. None of that had ever been intended, I wasn't even present when that was shot. That, I attribute to Reality Show.
DVDTalk: That's great.
CT: No reporter has ever talked to me about Reality Show. [laughs] You have an exclusive on that one. It's never come up.
DVDTalk: I can't even take credit for it!
This might've been more a question for Aubrey, but as the role was written for her, do you feel she was actively looking for a role that requires more emotional investment? I knew her as sort of a stand-up comedian, and I love "Parks and Recreation," but it just feels like this is a more acting-heavy role.
CT: It definitely was. I mean, Aubrey did stand-up in that film, Funny People, but she'd never done stand-up before that, so that was her acting. There are a lot of things people, I think, assume about her that are actually her acting, like "Parks and Rec" and all these other things. Aubrey is an actor. She's a very warm human being, which no one would imagine is possible, but it's true. Yeah, maybe it takes a little while to...she doesn't wear everything on her sleeve, but I felt that about her, I sensed that about her, even though I didn't really get to see it until well after we had shot the movie. I saw it on camera. Personally, she doesn't let everybody in, and yet I not only believed she could do it, I knew she wanted to do it, and I felt like the best way to do it was in the context of a film where you could really see her blossom on camera for the first time. I think she did a great job. It didn't shock me. I believed in her.
DVDTalk: Another thing you talked about at the Q&A was that instrument Mark plays, I forget what it's called...
CT: A zither. Or an Appalachian dulcimer, depending on which coast you're on. It's like Hardee's and Carl's Jr.
DVDTalk: Was that something the composer brought in?
CT: It was in the script. That was something of Derek's, and it wasn't always going to be an original song, and that was something that was important to me. I wanted to be able to control the tone of that song, because it could be a moment that just completely falls flat or is ridiculous. I've said before, if you're going to earnestly sing a song around a campfire, you'd better be a Muppet! [laughs] Or else we're just not going to buy it.
Ryan Miller, who wrote the score, and is the lead singer of Guster, and has written their songs, is an incredible songwriter. I have a lot of respect for great movie songs, and just music in films in general. One thing that was really important to me was, let's go back to the reason why songs for movies exist. Songs where the composer is able to know a story, and write something that directly serves the narrative and the character. No one does it anymore. Not a musical, but in a film. It was a very retro thing that we do, and a brave thing that Mark did, which is to sing it live, and play it live in the movie, but I think it works well.
DVDTalk: It's a very good song, because I've seen plenty of independent movies where a character whips out a guitar, and you just tense up...
CT: [laughs] And we knew that. You know that's happening in the audience, and we have him take a little pause because we know everyone in the audience is like, "Shit, I really like this movie up until right now..."
DVDTalk: You also mentioned that you were influenced by '80s film; was that specifically in regards to the ending?
CT: No, just all around. I'm a Star Wars kid, I'm a Back to the Future kid, I'm a Spielberg kid. I'm not a He-Man, G.I. Joe kid. That's wasn't my thing. There's very specifically a tone that was mainly Amblin, and the tone of Amblin for me is fantastic things, supernatural things, magical things, happening to real people. It seems now, we've really gotten away from having real, everyday people, and people who aren't wealthy, average folks, who talk like real humans and talk over each other like they're in an Altman movie. I was re-watching E.T. recently, and that scene where they're all around the pizza, bringing the pizza in, and gambling and stuff together, it's such an amazing tone, it's so rough, and nobody's really talking about anything, and it feels like you're in that room with them. We did it all around this movie.
I feel a lot of films that are shot digitally, even low-budget independent films, they look super slick now. Because the technology is so good that they look too good. We wanted to pull back, and get back to that place where it looks like it was shot on Super 16 in the '80s, the way independent films used to look, when people were shooting on short ends and borrowed film from people. I love how scrappy and...even when you look at those two Star Wars trilogies. That first trilogy, beyond being actual movies instead of being total horseshit, that world was junky, and old, and textured, and the new movies are all so sleek looking...you lose something.
DVDTalk: It's interesting that you mention E.T., because I was thinking about that movie when they're all standing there at the end. What I meant, though, and I'm not even sure this is a question, is just that lots of movies are influenced by '80s culture, and I appreciated that this film does that without just regurgitating or even strongly referencing the same thing, that the influences weren't present to the point where they take over.
CT: Yeah, I was really conscious of that, because I know where my instincts come from. I know where I live. Part of what I did to balance it out was, like, bringing in Mark Duplass, because that's a very different -- Mark doesn't think you should have lights at all! [laughs] So it's a combination of that, and me being like, "We're not going to shoot this until we get these fuckin' fans in here. We need fans, because the time machine makes wind!" Very different sensibilities, and when you combine those sensibilities, you're gonna get something different, you get a hybrid. While I enjoyed Super 8, because I was that fat kid directing all his buddies, and I loved that part of it, I also didn't want to make something that was a carbon copy or a mirror of the things that I loved. I like how you can go back and watch David Lean, and John Ford, and see the influence that had on Steven Spielberg, especially David Lean, in the camerawork, and yet, you don't watch any Spielberg movie and think of David Lean. Once you're looking for it, you see it all, but it's not in your face.
I'm not comparing myself to any of those guys, for the record. [laughs] I'm not saying I stand next to any of those dudes.
Potential spoilers follow. Skip down to move past them.
DVDTalk: You also mentioned you screened the film with a different ending.
CT: We didn't screen it any public forum, we had private screenings of it. That ending...it was the original ending, it's...it's hard to talk about, because we don't want to explain what the current ending is. The opposite of what happens happens. What it is...is certainly...I always have a hard time talking about it.
What we decided, really late in the game, or what I really decided, and I had to kind of go out on a limb for it a little bit, even though I did get a lot of support from everyone eventually, is that I wanted the movie to feel like there was a reason we all came. It gave the movie an added weight, and an added importance. Just from a filmmaking standpoint, every movie, you want to do one new thing, and to me, the new thing that I wanted to offer in this movie was, let's have a movie that's a certain kind of movie for 99% of it, and then at the end, do something that changes the context, the genre, everything about the movie, by this thing you do, and completely recontextualize it. For a lot of people, I think they might go, "oh, that was good," and then this thing happens, and they go "oh, that was great. I had no idea this whole time it was great, I just thought it was fine!" I've heard that from a couple of people, I always like that.
DVDTalk: I don't know how much you were, you know, up against the door listening, but it must've been rewarding to hear the audience burst into applause in reaction to that ending last night.
CT: Yeah! I was there. I came for the last...I usually watch the last eight minutes, just because I'm always curious to see what happens there. It was a great, great response. I heard them laugh and applaud a bit too, when Jake puts his arm up in the air. It's a very cathartic moment because that's what everyone wants to do at that moment.
DVDTalk: Since I do write for a Blu-Ray and DVD site, have you done anything in preparation for the home video release?
CT: I have. I did an interview last week, and Mark did an interview, and...we don't have a ton of behind-the-scenes stuff, because...first of all, I don't think anyone was making this, thinking it would be a thing that would require any behind-the-scenes stuff. You're making this little movie, and there's barely even any on-set photography! We'll put as much as we can, I think we want to put a featurette about the building of the time machine, that's something we did get some footage on. I just want to make sure there's nothing indulgent about it, and we're really showing people something they're genuinely interested in, and we're not going to drone on forever. As a viewer, if I'm getting a Blu-Ray of this, I want to know how that thing was constructed, and I'll want to see a little something about how we pushed that Datsun during the car chase, because it wouldn't run, and the stuff that sets this movie apart is how it's just a bunch of 14-year-olds running around with video cameras, essentially. That's the stuff I like to watch.
DVDTalk: That alternate ending, probably?
CT: Not going to see it.
CT: We had that debate this week, and we all looked at it, and there's two reasons. One, because we're dealing with something magical at the end, for me that strips away some of the magic. Once you see it, you can't unwatch it. I've had the experience -- I know your website, and I watch a lot of Blu-Ray behind-the-scenes stuff, and there's some stuff I wish I wish I could unwatch, because they strip a little of the magic away from the movie for me.
DVDTalk: Every time you watch the movie, you're going to think about it.
CT: I'll think about it, exactly! It's in my brain now. I'm such a proponent of the theatrical experience, and the cinematic experience, and we've reached this point where the magicians are not only giving away their tricks, but they're telling us how they're doing the tricks in advance before you even come to the magic show. It'd be nice to get a little of the mystery back in.
The other reason is, if we ever are asked to do a sequel -- which I don't think we should do, but if the studio wants to do it, I'm gonna do it, because I don't want anyone else to do it -- in the event that that were to happen, based on what I would want to do -- and it's crazy -- I might need to use that footage.
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