When an unusual classified ad inspires a cynical Seattle magazine employee (Jake Johnson) and his two tag-along college interns (Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni) to go on a road trip and look for the story behind it, they discover Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a mysterious eccentric who believes he’s solved the riddle of time travel, and is seeking an armed companion to embark on a risky adventure. If that, the plot for director Colin Trevorrow’s delightful new “Safety Not Guaranteed,” sounds a bit outlandish, it’s actually rooted in a real ad that appeared in the 1990s. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Trevorrow one-on-one recently, about his movie, his stars, what he would do if he could travel through time, and how Huey Lewis’ mullet figures into the equation. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Take me through this unusual process of development, because when I first heard about the movie it triggered a remembrance of hearing about the ad, which is one of those weird viral sensations that, like “Winnebago Man,” kind of straddled the pre- and post-Internet eras.
Colin Trevorrow: It’s funny that you mentioned “Winnebago Man,” because the relationship in that film is very similar to my relationship with the author of that ad. His name is John, he lives in the mountains of Oregon, and he did not receive me well at first. And it was about a year where I was continually hounding him and trying to convince him to let me do this. I’ve seen a lot of hate directed at me on the Internet because (of the perception that) I’ve turned this into a sappy indie love story, and it breaks my heart, man, it hurts my feelings, because I care so much about that tone that [the ad] evokes. I don’t think the movie is a sappy indie love story, I think there’s some hard-ass shit in this movie, and it’s a good balance. But we wanted to both honor that by having this guy have a mullet and shotgun, and push it to the limit, I’d argue, but then also because I knew the actual source of it, John wouldn’t want this thing to be campy and silly. John is a real guy who wants a girlfriend, so there’s that side of it. We’ve seen enough things [where] that whole geek thing is getting a little tired. Being a bit of a geek myself, I’m interested in what’s beneath the geek, what’s going on in there? So I think this is hopefully a movie that will speak to even all the guys that think they’re going to hate it, and … delve into what makes us love the things we love, and why, having gone through the 1980s, we can’t let go of our “Star Wars” figures.
ShockYa: What about John’s story — how closely does [the movie] conform to some of his experiences, or is that something you’re guarded about?
CT: It’s not something we … well, what we tried to do is go back to the source, so it’s about the ad. …In that ad there’s a certain tone of bad-assery to start with, but there’s a longing in it too — the fact that this is a personal ad, that this is someone who clearly, to me, has a mistake he wants to fix. What Jake’s character goes through in his mid-30s, looking at his choices he’s made and thinking [he] might not be the guy he wanted to be when he was younger, I think everybody goes through that. I wanted to find a way to balance what affects people about the ad, and also try to satisfy as many of those people as possible. It’s a weird Rorschach in a lot of ways. So it became a challenge … because we wanted to open this up to as many people as possible.
ShockYa: So did John discuss with you the impetus behind the ad?
CT: Yeah, the story isn’t as interesting. He wrote it because it was late at night and they needed to fill another classified ad, but what is interesting is that he chose to phrase it that way. And he does bring his own weapons wherever he goes; he brought his own weapon to our lunch, the first time I met him. So the way the way that is phrased and the kind of things he says is inherently John, so there’s definitely a piece of him in Kenneth.
ShockYa: Jake’s character pines for an ex-fling, what he calls “the mouth that got away.” Maybe not quite in those same terms, but is there a person like that for you, because for a lot of guys there’s a relationship that was good but dates to a time in their life that they weren’t ready to settle down.
CT: Yeah, it’s hard to speak about because I’ve been married for 10 years and I love my wife very much, [and] there’s certainly not a girl out there other than her that I wish I was married to, but I definitely had a relationship where I wish that I had been different and older and treated her differently and made different choices. I think if you hurt somebody, as you get older and look back on it, there’s a real [desire] to make that right. I think that all of us have that. Even good people can treat people badly, and I think that time travel is such a universal idea not because we all want to go back and kill Hitler but because we all want to go back and make ourselves the person we are now a bit earlier.
ShockYa: The soft-toss question is what time would you go back to, but more broadly speaking, would you want to go back to a specific era or back to a time in your own life if you could choose only one?
CT: I could say a stock answer, which would be … that I’m totally down with late 50s and early 60s, when I could be on a street corner singing acapella with a bunch of black guys and be cool, but I think with most people if you ask them, everyone has a point in their lives where they felt like they didn’t appreciate that as much as [they] should’ve , when things were easier and less complicated.
ShockYa: How was casting the film?
CT: Well, it was written for Aubrey, and part of that is not (just) because we think she’s fantastic, but because there are certain preconceived ideas that people have about Aubrey and I think we use those to our advantage in the movie. We don’t spend a lot of time setting up that character, we’re starting with what you know and then slowly deconstruct it. We do that with all the characters — we have the stereotypes of Indian Nerd and Douchebag Guy and Time Travel Guy and slowly turn them into real people. And that evolution is I think supported in the cinematography and music and costumes and hair. And Jake has been a friend for a long time. He’s a sitcom star now, but I think he’s one of the best actors of his generation, and that he’s going to do some incredible work. And Mark came on board as an executive producer first, helped us get financing for the movie, and we joke about it a lot, but very organically over that period of time as we were looking for the right Kenneth and I was explaining to him what I wanted Kenneth to be and he was explaining what he wanted Kenneth to be, it started to become a very cool, interesting answer to [cast him], after thinking, “What guy could we find that would look good with a Huey Lewis mullet circa ’87, but is also real and honest and grounded, so this isn’t silly and broad?” And (for as many movies as he’s done) he’s also a little unknown — a lot of people don’t know Mark as an actor. When I think back to some of the movies I love from the 1980s — not all of them, but some, like “Goonies” or “Back to the Future” — you didn’t know these guys. They were those characters.
ShockYa: The film won the screenwriting prize at the Sundance Film Festival, but was the ending ever a sticking point for certain people?
CT: Oh, sure. We shot an ending that wasn’t this one, and I also shot this as a way that we could go. In my heart I always wanted to go with this one, but I didn’t know if we were going to earn it. Like, you don’t know the movie until you’ve watched it. We cut it with the other ending… but very, very late in the game I felt like we had a movie where it still isn’t supported narratively in a traditional way, but that’s part of what makes it such a surprise. And I think you can be rock ‘n’ roll in movies — like, fuck the rules, this is what feels good.
Written by: Brent Simon