Interview: Safety Not Guaranteed ‘s Colin Trevorrow & Jake Johnson


One of the more popular movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Colin Trevorrow’s directorial debut Safety Not Guaranteed, which stars Aubrey Plaza from “Parks and Recreation” as Darius, a cynical young woman who has faced tragedy in her past, who gets a job as an intern at a Seattle newspaper.

She ends up being assigned to work with one of the paper’s less reliable reporters Jeff (Jake Johnson from “New Girl”) to investigate an odd classified ad:

“Wanted: Someone 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.”

Along with another intern named Arnau (newcomer Karan Soni), they head up to Ocean View to find out if the writer of the ad is for real, and there, they find Mark Duplass’ Kenneth, a grocery store clerk who is deadly serious about his time travel mission, as Darius finds out as she gets closer to the eccentric individual.

A few weeks back, spoke with Trevorrow and Johnson about the quirky sci-fi comedy, as well as talking a bit with Johnson about how “New Girl” has taken off in the last few months. He also mentions having a comedy with Steve Carell in the works based on his own idea, which will be directed by Max Winkler, who previously directed Johnson in Ceremony.

For some odd reason, The Goonies was mentioned twice in the following interview. I know a little bit about how Derek Connolly found the classified ad and wrote the script, so how did that script get to each of you? Did you know each other beforehand?
Colin Trevorrow:
Well, Derek and I have been writing partners for quite a while, and this was something he discovered, he wrote the first draft, he brought it to me, we went through our process on it, and found ultimately what the movie was going to be and then at that point, we went to Aubrey and Jake and the Duplass Brothers and packed sh*t all together based on that draft that really was very close to the draft we shot with. It didn’t change much after that initial period.

CS: Was it a long period of time between when you first wrote it and when you made it?
Not really. He wrote it and there was a bit of time and then when we finally reached the point where we realized we wanted to go and make something, so we took two to three weeks that were pretty intensive and we were together the whole time going through our process trying to build it out and make sure all of the characters had a place to go and were real and breathing and all the things a movie needs to be.

CS: Jake, then you just got a finished script?
Jake Johnson:
Yeah, it was all done. I got a call from Colin saying “We got a part for you in this movie that is written for Aubrey as the lead. It’s a really fun part for you and I’d like to read it.” Colin and I were friends before, so I was very interested in doing it and luckily the script was very good and I loved it.

CS: Were the Duplass Brothers kind of a package thing where Mark was already in mind to play a part in this or did they come on board as producers.
It actually started with us going to them as executive producers, because we knew they would be able to help us get the movie made, and at that point, we went off in the process of finding a Kenneth and just very organically, Mark and I, in just talking about it, just decided that the value of making a movie at this budget level is that you can put people who are cool in the movie and put people who you think that are different and just some weird choices and we thought that may be a way to ground the movie and not make Kenneth seem silly or broad and take someone who has a certain set of preconceived notions for how he is and how real and naturalistic he is and put him in this very broad role. We created a balance in that part that really could have gone another way and I love the balance that he brought to it.

CS: Did you or Derek go looking for this guy with the ad? Backwoods Home is a strange magazine for anyone to be reading so how did Derek find the ad there?
No, he wrote an article in Backwoods Home about how he had written the classified ad and people had been making fun of him and using it all over and he was pissed that they had it in World of Warcraft and all over the internet and he felt that people were almost mocking him. I went and I met with him and that was part of the package that we brought to Big Beach.

CS: Wait, that’s the guy who wrote the ad?
Yeah, the original guy. Found him…
Johnson: He’s in the movie.
Trevorrow: Yeah, he’s in the movie.

CS: Is he really?
Yeah, in the scene where they’re staking out the post office and two people come by, the first guy who comes with the white beard is him.

CS: Wow, that’s hilarious.
So we actually optioned the classified ad as if it were a piece of literature and bought that as part of the package.

CS: What kind of questions did you have for that guy when you met him?
I really had to endear myself to him – he did not trust me at first. He said “no” to me pretty consistently for a long time. This was over the course of a year that I slowly got him to trust that this was going to be his legacy and most importantly, we weren’t going to mock him or make fun of him or make him look bad. We revered his classified ad, we loved these six sentences and we were going to make something that’s honest and real and not hokey, because he’d be furious if we made something hokey.

CS: When you found out you were playing this character, did you feel you needed to do any research about journalism or was your character very much in the script.
You know, I didn’t do any research. (laughs) You know what my research is? The different things we’ve done where we sat down to talk to press for movies, that was my research. Nah, I think Jeff was all there on the page. What I really liked about him is that he starts off as kind of an ***hole and you break him down a little bit and I thought that was all there, so it was pretty fun to jump in there.

CS: As far as the dynfunctional characters you’ve played, he’s kind of a 6, so did you have to gauge exactly where to put him?
Yeah, that’s right. This is the character so in the world of the people I’ve played, he’s not that crazy. This is a very normal human being. Pretty soon people are going to start figuring out that it’s saying a lot about me as a person, and people will be like, “The characters you play are mostly very dysfunctional and crazy. We’re starting to do the math on you, pal.” (laughs)

CS: Was there any kind of improv in this? You said you shot the script as it is, but was there room for any of that, because you obviously have very funny actors who all have a background in improvisation.
It’s more that we shot the script as it was and then some. Every time we had an opportunity, we would make sure to do a couple takes where everybody could get a little loose with it and see if there was an additional moment that we could find that would make the scene richer.

CS: Was setting the movie in Seattle, because that’s where the original guy was based?
Yeah, and I grew up in Oakland so I have a little more of a West Coast connection. Derek is from Miami, so he originally wrote it to be in North Carolina, and the character was much more of a sh*t-kickin’ gun-totin’ rednecky kind of guy, and again, with creating the balance with Mark, we still made him have shades of that character, but we made him from the Pacific Northwest, and I also just wanted to shoot in Washington, because I feel like it has a certain sheen of magic about it and harkens back to a lot of the movies I loved in the ‘80s that were set there.

CS: You mean like some of Cameron Crowe’s movies?
Yeah, and “Goonies” and that kind of mystical feeling that those forests have. As the movie goes along, it goes from being a very real, grounded film into a place of magic, and I wanted to be able to do that visually over the course of the movie, so the trees get taller and the houses and the cars get older and more moss-covered and by the end… well, I won’t tell you because we don’t want to ruin any surprises.

CS: Did that environment feed or inform your character at all?
Not really, but as an actor, it made it interesting to go to Seattle, because we had so many locations and there really is so much rain. It’s not a joke. They say it rains in Seattle because it rains in Seatte, so every location, almost every day, there was a period of the day where it rained a little, so it almost changes the way you do stuff like the stuff the stuff I did with Jenica (Bergere), the woman from my character’s past, when we were outside, we shot that scene on the table and there was this beautiful view behind us. Well, that wasn’t there all day. It cleared for like ten minutes, so you go like, “Do the scene right now, go! Go!” and you’re like, “Yeah, we act and we work around this weather,” where if you’re in L.A., it’s always the same weather so it’s almost like the city is a soundstage, so part of Seattle is you have to work around Seattle’s weather.
Trevorrow: I think there was one location that I did think influenced everyone’s performance, which was when we went down to the town. There was this town called Ocean Shores that had this vibe of having been forgotten, and it was this old beach town with go-karts and abandoned fish restaurants, and there was this night when Jake and Karan’s character go out on this binge partying night, and that night, I felt like all of us were deep into this sad, forgotten world.
Johnson: Also, there was nobody else in the town so we kind of took it over. The whole crew, we all went to this little bar and got a bunch of drunks and the bartender would be like, “Alright, for all you guys, 16 dollars.” “What f*cking year is it?” Another place was the house where Duplass’ character lives. We were shooting there and it was a really creepy old house, and the door to the upstairs was locked, and a few people started talking like, “Because there’s a dead body up there, man.” Everything in that house while we were shooting, it was very easy to be creeped out by the Kenneth character, because that was one of the first few days of shooting.
Trevorrow: Actually the reason why, which is even creepier, is that that house belonged to a guy who had grown up in it and when his mother died, he had left it as it was and the upstairs is pristine and it’s his childhood with all of his toys while he was growing up and that’s why there’s a lock on it and you’re not allowed to go up there. And yet, there’s something about the character, we actually infused that into Kenneth, so we gave him that backstory of this being the parents’ house that was left to him. It’s all practical, the way that moss grows on the house, the way the earth just swallows it up, that’s all very real, and I think you can feel how real that location is.

CS: There are a lot of locations in this, but you’d have thought Kenneth’s house was built from scratch with all the set dressing, so was a lot of that actually there already?
Everything but the contents of his actual room. We brought in his room. Everything else–the couches, the old TVs, the wallpaper–all that stuff was as it is. And the exterior of the house is exactly the way it is. And likewise, that old truck that they go to, that was one of our locations that is exactly the way it is, the moss-covered truck with the broken window.

CS: Was it in the script like that?
No, it was a tree in the script, and I got to this place and saw this truck, and it was immediately like, “No, no, it’s this truck.”

CS: Is Derek involved while you’re shooting as well? Is he there on-set?
Yeah, I was conferring with him constantly through the whole thing. I would say that Derek got to be one of the more involved writers, and he was a producer on it as well with me. In a lot of scenarios, the writer gets a bit marginalized once you go into production, but because we’re just a creative unit, I don’t think there was a day where I went a whole day without getting his opinion on something or having him tell me what Kenneth would say at this moment. I never put words in Kenneth’s mouth. Only Derek can write what Kenneth says; it’s very specific.

CS: I want to ask about working with Aubrey because she’s pretty amazing and this is a great role for her which really showcases her talent, probably ’cause you wrote it with her in mind. Can you talk about working with her and what you feel she brings to the scenes?
Well, look, and I’m okay to be quoted on this: “Aubrey Plaza is a piece of sh*t.” (laughs) Aubrey’s really talented. What I think the thing that Aubrey brings to the table, apart from being very good, is she’s an interesting person, and so the whole experience of working with Aubrey is the experience of working with Aubrey. It’s not like when they call “action,” she turns on the charm and then when they call “Cut” she’s quietly reading in her room. She starts at 6 in the morning, the car arrives and then you shoot all day and then at night, there’s a dinner and something’s happening, and then there’s something at the hotel. She’s in on the game of it, but it’s a whole fun experience that as an actor, it pulls you into her and it pulls you deeper into this world where she, myself and the guy who plays Arnau, Karan, form this weird group that we hung out all the time and we got so tight. Our dynamics were very similar to the movie, and I think she likes that and she creates that, and that goes towards her skill set.

CS: How did you find Arnau? He’s the one guy in the cast who hasn’t done a lot of movies.
He hasn’t done any movies. No, he’s one of the biggest stars in India. (laughs)

CS: You can’t tell journalists that because they’ll believe you.
(laughs) If it was a story, he’d literally be their Brad Pitt, he’s their Beatles.

CS: So then I amend my previous question to “How could you afford him?”
(laughs) No, Karan we found through an audition process. We knew we wanted somebody no one had ever seen before, and what’s challenging about that role and what I think he did an amazing job with is that he really starts out as an archetype, as a stereotype to an extent. He’s the nerdy Indian guy and we get that, but then over the course of the movie, we sort of deconstruct him and turn him into a real person. We tried to do that with all of the characters, starting with the douchey guy and the morbidly cynical girl and crazy grocery store clerk, and by the time you get to the end, hopefully these are real, living, breathing people and I think Karan’s transformation on that front was the most astounding to me from where he starts to where he finishes is such an amazing arc. When we went out, my suggestion to Jake is, “Treat Karan the way you’d treat Arnau, for two weeks,” and those guys, because of the way we ended up shooting the film – we shot Aubrey and Mark for the first two weeks and we shot the rest of the movie because Mark had to go onto another movie. So we have the whole love story and then we were able to take these three and make slight adjustments, but really, the other benefit of it is that Jake got to create a dynamic between him and Karan that you see on film throughout the whole movie.

CS: So is Karan more like Arnau at the beginning of the movie or the character at the end?
It’s different and it’s interesting because he’s a little bit of both. In terms of the business and acting and being on set, he was very new to it, so this was one of his first things, so he really didn’t know a lot of stuff – as an actor, he knows a lot of stuff, but as in like we get to Seattle and we’re getting our hotel rooms and he’d be like (in Arnau’s deadpan voice), “What are you doing for lunch?” “Oh, we got the day off, do whatever you want.” “But where do you think you’ll go?” “Alright, give me an hour to shower and then we’ll go for a walk, we’ll go to the Public Market, you need some stuff in your room… oh, you’ve never had like a (situation) where you’re hear for a month,” so we ended up palling around a lot together.

CS: Let’s try to talk about the time travel without spoiling things, because obviously, the time travel aspect is a good draw when you say that it’s a movie about a guy building a time machine, so did you and Derek have problems figuring out how to give the movie a pay-off. It’s not a time travel movie where it’s all about time travel…
Well, you know, it’s a movie with a question at its base, which is “Is this guy crazy or are we really going to see some time travel?” The way it was constructed, we didn’t build it for the time machine to do what it does. We built it the other way, and this gets into territory where we’re going to ruin stuff, but what I can say is that the way it was constructed was like a funnel and like any good story, it bounces back and forth between, “I believe this guy” and “I don’t believe this guy” and as it gets tighter and tighter to the point where within a given minute you either believe him or don’t believe him and hopefully that builds into a moment that is cathartic. We just felt that we could make that momentum continue to build at a pace that wouldn’t slow down and also gives us the opportunity to really just put the brakes on the movie for just 15 minutes at the end of the second act and just hang out with these characters. We don’t really talk about time travel for this big chunk of the movie and in order to do that, I want to make sure that we were invested enough in that question that we could afford to take that 10-15 minute break and then just like floor the gas for the last ten minutes and go all time-travel, leading up to whatever might happen.

CS: What’s interesting about Aubrey as a character is that she’s so cynical at the beginning so the audience goes along with her, and actually with all the characters. No one believes at the beginning and as it goes along, she believes a little more.
We definitely wanted the audience’s experience with the movie to mirror her own arc–you’re right about that–and not just hers, but Jake I think, up until the very end, he never fully believes anything until he really sees it. He doesn’t go through that same transformation whereas I think with her, you really see how much she wants to believe by the time we get to the end, and I think the audience very much wants to believe by the time we get there. Ideally, all the joy that character experiences at the end of the film, the audience will feel the same.

CS: I’ve been really wanting to ask this but what was the deal Mark Duplass’ fake ear? I completely forgot about it but then when I watched it again, and I remembered, “Oh, yeah, he has a fake ear” although it’s never mentioned again. It seems very random.
It’s a random thing and that’s definitely Derek. He has moments where he wants to just inject something weird. The cocktail of a movie is a very strange mixture of a lot of elements, and I think that what we wanted to do, from a narrative standpoint, is establish that these are two people who for different reasons were picked on when they were young or were outsiders and have damage. As far as the choice of how to do it, we didn’t want the audience to ever start getting too comfortable or feel like they knew what was going to happen, so pretty regularly throughout the movie when you reach a point where you think, “Oh, I know this scene, I know what happens here,” we try and do the other thing. That was an example of a point in the movie where things are getting very easy for the characters and we felt like we just wanted to pull the rug out, and it kind of reflects the title in a lot of ways.

CS: I always like your characters like the one you played in “Paper Hearts” and “Ceremony,” so with a movie like this where you know they’re open to weirdness, are you able to throw in some things like that?
Yeah, well the beauty of this and what I look for in movies is with this movie I saw Jeff’s arc and I liked it, and then when he goes crazy and goes on the go-karts, that whole sequence, part of it was a quarter of the page, and Colin told me as he was doing the schedule, “And then on May 18th, we blocked out the night and that’s for Jake going f*cking crazy.” (laughs) Those are the days I get most excited for. I’m not a Shakespearean actor. I will never be out in the park doing “Hamlet.” I like for a part to have… “Okay, I need that for story and this,” and then that’s where I get to go f*cking crazy in my fantasy world.

CS: I saw that you and Max Winkler sold a show so are you going to be in that?
Well, that was a movie. We sold a TV show to Fox that they ended up passing on, but when we sold it, I was hoping that maybe I’d be in it but then “New Girl” occurred, and you can’t obviously do two TV shows, and then we just sold a movie that Steve Carell and I will hopefully play brothers in where I’m just describing my character as a comedic Joe Pesci. Take old school Joe Pesci but in a summer comedy. Max is going to direct it, Rodney Rothman is going to write it. I’d written a version of it and then we talked to Rodney Rothman about it and he had a really fun slant, so we thought, “Let’s try to package it with you writing it” and then we pitched it to Steve Carell and he was interested and then hopefully we’re going to do it next year.

CS: “New Girl” certainly changed a lot for you as an actor, first of all because you’re probably recognized a lot more wherever you go…
Hence “The Goonies” beard…

CS: Are you doing anything in your break from the show?
Yeah, I might be doing a movie called “The Pretty One” with Zoe Kazan. It’s a real fun script but I’ll find out about that in the next couple weeks.

CS: How are you juggling the movie stuff with doing the TV show?
It’s interesting and it’s different. I was on a path that I was very comfortable with, and then “New Girl” occurred, and I’ve really viewed “New Girl” as a weird little independent movie when I shot the pilot. I thought we were just shooting a 22-minute movie in 8 days with Zooey Deschanel, who is a movie actress, and these other guys and Jake Kasdan. It felt like we just did this thing and the audience wasn’t going to get behind it, but this will be one where we go, “Wasn’t that great? Didn’t we have fun?” Then the pilot happened and the ratings were really big and it became a thing, and it’s awesome. I’m trying to figure out how to mix and match and do both.

CS: The show’s been getting better and better with each episode, and I get that impression from everyone I talk to really, and it’s turned in this ensemble thing which I’m not sure anyone expected.
I think so, too. I don’t think we expected it. I think all of a sudden on that show–and I felt it from the people around–was that first I’d get a lot of “The show’s good, she’s good” and then you’d get a lot of “Schmidt’s crazy” and now we’re getting, “I tell you, that’s a good show. Everybody’s good on it.” It’s a real ensemble. It’s not a vehicle. Every character’s different, everyone’s got their thing and it’s slowly coming together.

CS: Right, like normally on a sitcom, the thing with Schmidt and Cece would be one episode, but they actually have their own running subplot.
Totally. What (Liz) Meriweather (the show’s creator and showrunner) tries to do, which I find really interesting, is that we shoot basically 40-minute episodes until each story is treated like the A-story and then when they cut it together, it never looks like the script, but they’re trying to cut all these stories down to fit into 22 minutes. Each story while you’re shooting it, you’re valuing it. You’re not like “Oh, my runner is this I’m wearing overalls and I’m a goofball.” You’re like, “Oh, no. This could be potentially be the most important story of this episode,” so we have to bring it.

CS: So there’s a lot more than what we see on TV.
Every episode, there’s so much cut out.

CS: What have you and Derek been up to since finishing this? You guys tend to write a lot of stuff that we never hear about.
You can write a lot of screenplays and make a living and never have one of those movies get made, so that was part of the inception of all this was that both of us reached a point where we just wanted to do something and make something tangible. People seem to really like this movie and it makes me very happy, and I hope I will get other opportunities to make films as a result. This has been a big change, because the existence of a writer and the existence of a director is the way you get to think about story, and the way you get to write, so what I’m really excited about is writing to direct and being able to really visualize films as opposed to just taking notes and hoping that you please your boss and get your next check and all these things that make up the life of a working writing. Now I actually get to build things, which is very satisfying for me.

CS: When you started writing this, did you know that this was the one that you two were going to stay on until completion?
No, not at all. He wrote it in a fit of inspiration, very very quickly, as he often does, and that’s why there’s weird stuff throughout the whole thing, a lot of which I didn’t cut out because I didn’t want to take out the weird stuff – that’s kind of what I love about it. At that point, I developed the script with him and worked with him to hopefully convince him that I could direct it and then basically begged him and then offered him money and then it devolved from there. He ultimately let me do it.

CS: Because of the way the movie ends, I’m sure there are lot of questions about what happens next.
I have a sequel to this movie that is so crazy, that I don’t know if anyone would approve, but I think that if we ever were to do a sequel to this movie–which I don’t necessarily say we should–I would want it to be as irreverent and strange and off as this movie is. I certainly wouldn’t want to betray what makes this unique by doing a sequel where they’re fighting through time and fighting dinosaurs. (At this point, we start making a couple jokes that would definitely spoil the end of the movie.)

CS: Have you guys been developing other things or gone back to what you were doing before?
No, we’ve had a lot of great opportunities already as a result of this and there are some things that we’re working on, and hopefully you’ll be hearing about one of them soon.

CS: Possibly doing bigger budget stuff?
Yeah. I don’t know if it’s possible to do a smaller budget than what we had, so by default, we would be bigger. (laughs) So the answer is “Yes.”

CS: You’d be surprised. Did you ever see “Primer”?
I did see “Primer.” That did have a lower budget, that’s the one example you might find.

Safety Not Guaranteed opens in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle on Friday, June 8.