Colin Trevorrow interview: Safety Not Guaranteed, Star Wars and Flight Of The Navigator

Ahead of the UK release of Safety Not Guaranteed, we spoke to director Colin Trevorrow about its making, Star Wars and more...

When a hoax classified ad appeared in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997, its writer, John Silviera, couldn’t have predicted its impact. Silviera had written several fake and humorous adverts for the publication before at the request of its editor, who often asked for jokes and riddles to fill the gaps in the classified’s section.

The one that appeared in issue 92, however, was a little different. “Wanted: Sombody to go back in time with me,” the ad read. “This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back…” News of this strange classified quickly spread, becoming first an internet meme, and now, a movie written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow.

A tender mix of comedy, drama and sci-fi, Safety Not Guaranteed follows an intern (Aubrey Plaza) and her cynical journalist boss (Jake Johnson) as they try to find out who wrote the Wanted ad published in a local newspaper. Although the movie’s inspired by Silviera’s advert, Connolly takes his movie in unexpected and entirely fictional trajectories, and the result is one of the most refreshing and tender indie movies of the year.

And as we found out when we spoke to Colin Trevorrow, the story behind its conception and writing has several parallels with the movie’s plot.

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I was wondering if we could talk about the story behind the film first, because that’s really interesting in itself.

Yeah, well it all came from that classified ad, which is a real thing. It existed on the internet for a number of years before we got close to it. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across it before, but the meme had the ad with a picture of a guy with a short blonde mullet, and the song Push It To The Limit. That thing caught fire, and Derek Connolly, my writing partner, saw it.

It came at a funny time, because we’d just had a meeting with our agent, and our agent had said, “Everything seems to be about branded entertainment right now, so go to WalMart, go to a store, walk the aisle of products, and find one that you can make a movie out of, and write about that. And we just got so depressed. We were like, “This is over, we don’t want to do this.”

Derek, instead, started thinking. He thought, “Okay, this has brand awareness. This is kind of an upcoming brand in a way, on the internet. So this is Derek’s version of Battleship.” [Laughs]

Right! There’s a connection between the behind-the-scenes story and the plot, because you had to track down the chap down who wrote the classified, didn’t you?

We did. Did you ever see the documentary Winnebago Man? It’s great if you get a chance. There’s a relationship in that movie that was very similar to this. It was me trying to convince this guy who had this deep-seated distrust of me, right off the bat. I was just some Hollywood douche bag coming to ruin his story. And it took a while for me to build this trust, and he met me for lunch at Vermont, where I live, which was a good way to illustrate that I’m not necessarily a Hollywood douche bag.

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We got on, and I tried to explain what we were trying to do, that it was a love story, which he actually responded really well to. He’s certainly not a crazy guy in any way, but he is like Kenneth [one of the lead characters in Safety Not Guaranteed] in a lot of ways, and it’s funny how so much of his personality is really infused into that classified ad – in that he does carry a gun. Everywhere he goes, he’s always strapped. He had a gun when we met for lunch.

So everything about this movie was put together in a very earnest, non-cynical way. The fact that it stars Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson and Mark Duplass – these are not the most famous actors you could have gotten. We could have done a version of this for five million dollars with very recognisable faces, but I chose to do it this way because I wanted these actors.

It felt like everywhere along the way, if we did some kind of cynical move, it would somehow drain the spirit of the movie that had already evolved. So we tried to stick with that.

So how important were the Duplass brothers in getting this made? Were they fairly instrumental in getting backing together?

You know, they really put it over the top. Two things were crucial. One is their name – Big Beach was really interested in working with them, and so it helped. And Big Beach really liked the script and were circling it for a while, but we just needed that thing to put it over the top. That was part of it, and the other part of it was, we’d been looking at doing it for more money, and Mark [Duplass] was pretty confident that with this group of people that he shot Humpday with and Your Sister’s Sister with out in Seattle, that we could spend $750,000 and get it done. For Big Beach, that was enough reassurance – it was a pretty low-risk investment for them.  I mean, everything’s a risk, but compared to other things, it was pretty low-risk.

It all happened very quickly, and everyone let us shoot the script we wanted to shoot, and we were pretty much out in production in Seattle a month after we decided we were going to do it with them. It just happened. I think you can almost feel that energy in the movie, that sense of “Let’s go fuckin’ do it!” 

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Absolutely. Did that pace mean there was a lot of improvisation on the shoot?

We shot the script, and most of what you see is the script. Where we did improvise is where, in the scene we already had, if we had the A and the B route, we’d always try and find the C for the D. It’s like, what else can we bring out of this to make it as rich as we possibly can? And I feel like, in a lot of scenes, we were saying, “This is what the scene’s about.” And we’d have this extra moment, where Mark asks Aubrey what’s her favourite song. She says Over The Rainbow. That’s just a question he asked unprompted, and she gave her actual answer.

Being able to capture moments like that, in the context of a sci-fi movie, I felt like, that’s us doing something kind of new. We’re really mashing together two different styles – one of them being Mark’s own style in the mumblecore, the constant search for moments between people, and this weird sci-fi question of the movie.

It’s interesting, because there have been a few really great, character-driven sci-fi movies. It’s almost a new strand of indie sci-fi we’re seeing lately.

I think that’s a coincidence, actually. I think a lot of these filmmakers are of a similar age. We’re all in our mid-30s, we all grew up in the 80s, and I think we grew up on films that used sci-fi… most of Spielberg’s films and Donner’s and Zemeckis, their films were very character-based. And the way the people interact and families interact in Poltergeist and E.T. – they were very grounded, very real.

For us, we’re used to sci-fi existing in our real world. So by the time we’re the age where we’re making films, we’re “Well, yeah, of course there’s a time machine.” It’s all very natural, and I think it’s a really good thing, because hopefully it’ll bleed into really large-scale sci-fi films and we’ll be able to define some of the emotional truth outside of this sub-one-million-dollar range.

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As you said earlier, Safety is a romantic comedy at heart, isn’t it?

Yeah. It is. I’d say it’s more of a romance at heart, but it’s funny. It’s a sci-fi film, it’s a romance, it’s a romance, it’s funny throughout. And at a certain point there’s a bit of a thriller element to it, where you’re starting to wonder whether this guy is completely insane or not. And you can’t really manufacture how all those tones are going to come together and work, and we usually knew to a certain extent what we were doing, there was another extent where we didn’t know what we were doing. We ended up with this thing that was its own new  weird little hybrid of other things.  So out of our own ignorance for what you should and shouldn’t do, you get this! 

I was interested to read that there was a little sub-plot you had to leave out about the central character’s name, Darius. I wondered if you could tell me what that was.

That wasn’t really a sub-plot, it was just a little detail, and it ended up being something we had to get rid of for momentum purposes – it just didn’t really connect with the rest of the story. But unfortunately, it left us with a girl who has a guy’s name. It didn’t really occur to me that it was going to be something people would draw attention to, because Darius, to me, sounds like a nice girl’s name. I hope it catches on.

The guy that works with Kenneth, and she gives him the money to help his wife? That guy’s name’s Shannon, so I think Derek had a thing for giving people an opposite gender name!

There are lots of things in the script that are quite off-kilter anyway, aren’t there – things that you think might be returned to later and they’re not.

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Derek has a very instinctive way of writing, and he definitely wanted the two of them [Darius and Kenneth] to have been outcasts when they were younger. And there may have been 50 ways you could have done that. There are a lot of moments, knowing myself, that I may have done a little less irreverently, but that, I think, is why Derek and I are why we’re a good team.

Also, on this particular movie, I really wanted to honour what Derek had written, in a way that a lot of directors probably wouldn’t. I imagine that this movie will be a little different than the movies we make in the future, because those movies are going to be co-written by us. And [Safety] is absolutely Derek Connolly, start to finish – every single line of dialogue. I don’t know why I got so obsessed with this, but it was more out of a sense of being so thankful that he allowed me to direct this movie instead of going out and selling the script. I just really wanted to honour his vision.

So I understand you might be going on to do Flight Of The Navigator next?

That is right, yes. It’s not going to be next, but it’s something we’re going to be writing a script for. I can’t see beyond cracking the story for that movie, so I can’t even begin to think of what making it would entail. All we’re trying to do is find a story that we care about and will work.

Our question is not, what is the Flight Of The Navigator remake, it’s why is Flight Of The Navigator being remade. 

That must be difficult, to try and find a new angle on the story.

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Absolutely. It’s difficult with everything, and for something like that, especially something I have a real connection to and care about from my childhood, it’s a real challenge. And there’s other layers to it, and building any story is hard. But our next story is an original, and developing the next one we’re going to make and [Flight Of The Navigator] at roughly the same time, I can really see the difference. There’s almost a freedom to be building something from scratch.

There are a lot of different elements in play when you’re remaking something people care about. And just the thing about remakes in general – I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of remakes, and yet I can argue that this was almost a defensive measure; I knew they were going to do it, and if someone’s going to remake Flight Of The Navigator, I’m going to remake Flight Of The Navigator!

Can you imagine applying the same indie atmosphere to Navigator that you brought to Safety Not Guaranteed?

Well, I hope that by indie it just means there’ll be a certain level of emotional honesty and that it’ll be character-driven – and in that case, absolutely. The best of all kinds of movies are character-driven, and I definitely don’t want to lose sight of why Derek and I started to write movies together in the first place. I feel like we’ve found an interesting little corner of the sandbox here as far as the way we’re telling sci-fi stories. I don’t think it’s limited to sci-fi – I think anything fantastic can co-exist with people you and I know, and not these hyper-real movie people. That’s something you really have to struggle against.

Almost specifically with Navigator, if found that you know you’re writing this big Disney movie, but when you take your first pass at it, your characters tend to talk like they’re in this big Disney movie! So you’re, “No, no, no, no. Back to one.”

That’s something we’re really playing close attention to, and we just want to make sure that the characters are making choices because it’s what you would do in that situation, and not what we need that character to do so we can move the story along to the next set-piece or whatever, and all those other traps these movies can fall into.

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I think the best part about it is that it’s not the next film, and it might not be the next film after that. There’s another original that Derek and I wrote for Disney, which we’re really excited about. Wherever it comes down the line, what I do know is that everyone’s intentions are good – the producers and the studio themselves. Nobody wants to make a bad Flight Of The Navigator remake. There’s just no interest. We’re going to do it if it’s good. 

So you must have been totally bemused, then, by the Star Wars rumours that were flying around the internet.

Yeah, that was an interesting couple of weeks. The only thing about it all is, the reason why I had to come out and say something about it was because it had entered this phase where I’d said something that applied to Flight Of The Navigator, which began to be applied to Star Wars. The headline was something like, “Colin Trevorrow will make Star Wars not suck.”

That’s such a loaded statement, and not something that I said. And I certainly didn’t want that kind of misinformation to be attributed to me. I feel like, on a more macro scale, there’s started to be a relationship between filmmakers and people who watch their films – you know, on Twitter and on the Internet. That relationship’s based on honesty, so the minute I knew that I was definitely not in the game, I made sure that I made that clear. Because I don’t want people to think I’m out there pulling strings on this thing. I don’t have a PR rep. I live in Vermont. It’s just me on my computer, seeing these things catch fire.

But I tell you, man, I’m every bit as a Star Wars fan as anyone else. And I deeply understand why we’re all so caught up in this right now. I think it goes beyond just the making of another movie. I think it’s a generational thing, and in a lot of ways, it offers a strange sense of hope for people. I think it goes pretty deep, and my friends, who grew up in the same era that I did, and that Kenneth did – the Star Wars references in Safety Not Guaranteed are there for a reason. It’s because this is about a guy who’s not quite left his childhood behind. I think that we all – and I include myself here – we all have a real affinity for that time and for our specific childhood. It means a lot. It means a lot to a lot of people.

So what can you tell me about what you’re working on next? Is there much you can say about it?

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It’s called Intelligent Life, and it exists in the real world, but there’s an element that we’re extrapolating out a little bit. It takes place around the Office for Outer Space Affairs at the U.N., which is a real thing. They claim that this office is for regulating the uses of outer space between nations. The conspiracy theory is that they’re preparing an ambassador to represent Earth when first contact is made. So we’re telling a story that’s not about that ambassador, but is in that world.

 I think it’s really cool, it’s another one of those stories that I like that could be awful, and could be great. I feel like everything me and Derek have written, that it could be absolutely terrible, and Safety could have been terrible, but that excites me. We’re going to take a little sci-fi and kind of a romantic thriller, and it’ll be a little funny. It’ll be on a much bigger scale than Safety – not a massive budget, since it’s still an independent film by Big Beach – but we’ll have more resources, and I’m really excited about it.

Colin Trevorrow, thank you very much.

Safety Not Guaranteed is out in UK cinemas on the 26th December.

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