CS Video: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
June 19, 2012
Despite its rather bulky title, Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is more than just the typical big budget thriller about a coming apocalypse, since it's more about how different people react to learning that an asteroid is heading our way which will destroy the earth in three weeks.
Specifically, it's about insurance salesman Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell), who is still going about his day-to-day life after his wife left him. An encounter with his flaky neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) sends the two of them on a cross-country journey to find Dodge's high school sweetheart who has written him a letter wanting to see him again.
Those expecting something like what we've seen from monster budget FX-meisters like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay may be disappointed by the film's low-key approach to the apocalypse, but those looking for the type of characterization and performances normally reserved for indie films should enjoy how Scafaria and her two leads have created a comedy that that starts out dark and cynical but then grows more heartwarming as it goes along. (You can read our review here.)
ComingSoon.net attended the New York City junket and spoke with Scafaria, Carell and Knightley about how the project got going and how they developed their characters and relationships. You can hear what they had to say about the dark romantic comedy in the video interviews below, then stick around for a longer interview with the filmmaker:
As promised, we also have a separate phone interview we did with Ms. Scafaria a couple days later, which you can read below:
ComingSoon.net: How long ago did you actually start writing this? I knew about it when we talked for "Nick and Norah"…
Lorene Scafaria: I felt like I was jotting ideas down for it since the late '90s weirdly, but I definitely was writing in early 2008 I'd say, and then I sold it as a pitch with myself attached to direct right before "Nick and Norah" came out, so yeah, I'd been writing all these thoughts down for so long, just because I'd been sort of obsessed by death and all that. (laughs) But I also felt like I'd been writing all these archetype characters for a really long time. Dodge was a guy who had sort of been sleepwalking through life, which had always been interesting to me. I felt like he existed in many different incarnations, different scripts, for a long time, and then when thinking who would be the most interesting person to watch facing the end of the world, it felt like a guy who has been half alive is someone who could probably benefit the most from the end of the world. So 2008 was the start of it and after I sold the pitch, I wrote a few drafts.
CS: It's kind of an interesting character to have as a lead because many people are sleepwalking through life--and we've seen them in movies before--so it's probably very relatable for some people whether they want to admit it or not.
Scafaria: Well, yeah, I don't think everybody knows what they want out of life. I don't know that everybody has it all figured out, and I don't know that at any age that really stops. I think certainly he is that kind of everyman, but I do think that for our purposes of the story, it felt like you want someone who is relatable in that way, but also someone who hasn't really been living. I think most people don't really live in the present obviously so when you take the future away from them (laughs) they're definitely going to chase the past. I think more people do that then they'd like, but I think that's pretty common for people to chase the past and he's probably been doing that in his head his whole life but he finally has the strange kick in the pants to actually chase it.
CS: Did it take a long time to come to Steve and Keira? You hear those names and you don't think it would work but they work really well together.
Scafaria: Yeah, the casting process was quick once it got going, because there was a very limited window of where we could shoot. I'd always wanted to work with Steve. He was someone I fantasized about working with for ten years. I felt like I was trying to write these characters for a really long time, just a guy who has been sleepwalking through life was something that I was really trying to express and this sort of free-spirited girl that pulls him out of it. In so many of my scripts, I had imagined Steve Carell in the role but never imagined we could get him. In terms of Keira, once we had Steve on board, it just felt like, "Oh, who is the right person to light a fire underneath this guy and start to pull him out of his shell?" And she's such a luminous, engaging actress that you really can't take your eyes off of her, and I just thought, "Oh, this is the right combination." To see a comedic actor play a more dramatic role and a dramatic actress get in there, I thought maybe this mix might work out.
CS: Was it hard to convince people to let you direct this or was it always part of the deal when they bought the script?
Scafaria: Yeah, when I sold it as a pitch I was attached to direct, so I didn't give anybody a choice in the matter. It was really just a matter of whether or not we could get it made. Once Steve Carell got attached, he legitimized completely and made it real.
CS: The end of the world seems to be in the zeitgeist now whether it's big movies like "2012" and even though you've been working on this for a while, do you have any idea why?
Scafaria: I'm sure that 2012 is on people's minds and stuff like that. I do think the world has reached a kind of fever pitch with lots of social changes happening certainly in the last decade with the internet and wars and all the rest. Nuclear war is something that's a terrifying thought for people, so I think we've reached a fevered pitch as humanity, but I don't know, for me this is less of a response to end of the world movies and more of a reaction to where romantic comedies has gone over the years so for me, I really was trying to approach it more from that place and use that kind of epic backdrop as a way to explore a very intimate character-driven story. Yeah, romantic comedies for me have reached a formulaic place so I just wanted to tell one that had very high stakes and characters that felt more relatable to me. It feels like in a lot of them the guy is kind of a man-child or a womanizer and the woman is a Type A personality. Because that's not really me, I've been more of that kind of free-spirited girl who is drawn to the withdrawn kind of guy, so this relationship speaks to me more in that "Harold and Maude" kind of way that I've always loved. I think certainly people are maybe thinking about things in a new way. Everybody is hopefully thinking about time more these days, because I do think that's something that's important for all of us to face and to realize is that time is really our greatest commodity. I definitely feel it's all I have to give somebody and the only thing people have to take from me is my time. (Laughs) In that way, I've just been fascinated what that can do to a love story when you take forever away from them.
CS: Since you weren't focused on the apocalypse aspect, you probably knew fairly early on, you wouldn't need a huge budget for visual FX or stuff like that.
Scafaria: I wanted to keep it small and show it through a much more intimate lens than that, and kind of have it out there obviously, but my initial approach was to think of it as a Western actually, which is how things like Dodge's harmonica ended up getting in there. I pictured the asteroid as that posse on the hill coming for him and you can't really outrun your fate. I always wanted to keep it small in that way and science fiction only in terms of it being out there and not something that was the genre of the movie and I just never wanted to see the asteroid, I just wanted to feel it through the characters' eyes.
CS: I want to ask about the music because the choices you made were pretty amazing and very funny like having "Wouldn't It Be Nice" right after the news report of the world ending. Also "The Air That I Breathe" was terrific. Did you write a lot of that stuff into the script and was it hard getting some of those songs?
Scafaria: Yeah, I wrote two songs into the script. I wrote "Wouldn't It Be Nice" in the script because I felt that just captured the tone of the beginning of the film, that sort of surreal tone so well. The Beach Boys, what's so amazing about their songs is how it blends that melancholy message with the upbeat sunny sound, so I knew I wanted that to kickstart that whole idea of the film, and "This Guy's In Love With You" was written into the script but for more personal reasons. (laughs) Those were the two I wanted when it was just a script. Yeah, I wanted it to be classic, because I wanted to conjure up that sense of nostalgia, and I always wanted her collection to be indicative of her taste but to represent songs that would've been in his life, so in that way, it's the kind of thing that unifies them even though they only get to hear certain songs together. In thinking what people would be consuming at the end of the world, it felt like music is that kind of universal love for people. I don't think people would be watching movie or TV quite as much and I think songs have always been that collection of memories. This just seemed like something that would be really important to this character. Music's always been something that's been really important to me so I obviously have my own taste of songs that I liked, so it was tough to get because we didn't have a big budget for music or anything like that, so we had to stretch the dollar where we could. I was so excited to have things like Scott Walker and Herb Alpert and the Hollies in there. Those are songs that I love that I feel resonate and feel a little more timeless than that kind of modern music.
CS: It's funny that people don't really listen to music together much anymore outside of concerts. Because of the iPod, everyone tends to have their own individual music-listening experiences.
Scafaria: Yeah, yeah, and as much as I love having my playlist on shuffle and all that, I grew up on tapes and CDs. I'm not cool that I have a record collection (laughs) but I really miss album art and I miss reading lyrics and I miss that feeling. I have a friend with a record player and when we listen to stuff together, it feels like the old days where you're watching the radio and you're really absorbing the music in a different way. Yeah, I miss that sort of communal feeling and concerts are great. It's such an amazing feeling to be at a show with thousands of people, all experiencing the same thing. That is where you get that feeling from, but to listen to whatever kind of music it is but with someone else and really be absorbing it, I miss that.
CS: One of the things about the movie is that the tone kind of shifts from being a very dark comedy to something else. When you work with guys like Patton Oswalt and Rob Corddry, do you just let them go and do their thing a bit? That "double stuff that cookie" line seems like it could only come from Patton.
Scafaria: Oh, "Double stuff the cookie" can only come from Patton. (laughs) The entire speech he gives before that point was written and then with every single take, I just never wanted to stop him, so once he gave the speech that was on paper then it becomes all Patton. Sorry, I'm remembering now, but "double stuff that cookie" is actually in the script - it's everything after that where he's like (singing) "Two chefs in the kitchen" (laughs), that is all Patton. I wish we could have every single take of his in the film and that could have just been a 20-minute moment for him (laughs) but we'll have to save some of that for the DVD. Yeah, I forgot that I wrote "double stuff that cookie" (laughs)
CS: I literally just gave you an out to credit/blame Patton for that "double stuff that cookie" line…
Scafaria: (laughs) I'm so sorry, Mom! I can't believe I wrote that. That's terrible.
CS: Do you think you'll have a lot of his extra stuff on the DVD eventually?
Scafaria: Well, you know I hope more for bloopers reels than (that). Deleted scenes I'm less interested in showing because I think there's a reason that we lifted some things from out of the film but as far as bloopers, there's just too many good outtakes for this with Rob and Patton. The scene with Rob and the little girl drinking, both of those takes I'd love to put on the DVD. The tonal shift, I think that was part of the fun of using a lot of great comedic actors and then brilliant dramatic actors and showing all sides of humanity.
CS: By the way, I'd love to see a spin-off movie where we get to see what happens with Patton and Rob's characters after that party.
Scafaria: I wish! Let's do that next! There wasn't any more that we left out, but I couldn't believe that we got them to do that. I feel like, especially with those two guys, it was almost like they wanted to come in and blow off some steam. I remember Patton was done with his stuff and he was like, "Aww, I needed that!" (laughs) It felt like everybody wanted, if nothing else, to tell the story and maybe play a character that was reflective or completely outside of themselves. It was amazing. It was really one day with Patton, two days with Rob, and that was it. I felt like everybody wanted to just talk about these themes more than anything else and that was how we assembled such a good group of people.
CS: Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Have you got the directing bug now where you feel you'd want to direct whatever you write?
Scafaria: Oh, yeah, for sure. I still love writing so I'd love to write things for other people to direct still and direct things that other people write, but I'm working on a noir film right now that I'm hoping will be the next thing. But you say "noir" and it will never get greenlit but… (laughs) I'll design a new proper way of pitching that, but yeah, it is a noir film, but still a bit of a mash-up in terms of genres. Hopefully that will be the next thing that I direct.
SPOILER WARNING FOR THE NEXT QUESTION/ANSWER ABOUT THE END OF THE MOVIE!
CS: I don't want to spoil the ending but building up to this asteroid hitting earth, something eventually has to happen. You can't go "Oh, we're mistaken" so was it hard knowing that you'll eventually have to lead to what some might not consider a happy ending?
Scafaria: Yeah, say whatever you want, but I was really adamant about the fact that the world was coming to an end. In movies where I feel like there's an individual man who is dying, it always seemed strange to me that his cancer gets miraculously cured. (laughs) In my experience, that didn't happen so for me that would have spoiled the themes I wanted to say. I do think death is inevitable but I think it's there to remind us what's important in life, so in that same way, I didn't want the asteroid to miss because it would have said something so different from what I wanted to say which is that it's never too late, but we do need to appreciate the time that we've got and figure out what's important and fill the hours in the right away with hopefully whatever makes you happy. If it had been a different ending, it would have said something so different to me about it. And yet, in that same way that death is inevitable, I guess I always thought of it as a happy ending because they've found each other and in spite of the idea that we all have to die, what could be better than being in the room with someone that you love or somebody that loves you? That always seems so much more important to say than to save everybody's life. (laughs)
CS: I really like the ending but I also like the ending of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" so I might be a little weird.
Scafaria: I love the ending of "Brazil." I love all of "Brazil."