A few eyebrows were raised when the programmers for this year's Sydney Film Festival announced that Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed would fill the prized closing night slot. The film had played well at Sundance and was building buzz, but the question remained: Was this starless, indie-cool, time travel-themed romantic drama from a debutante director really worthy of the prestigious position?
I have a theory that I unknowingly made an Australian movie
Anyone who attended that screening will attest to the film's crowd-pleasing impact; the final moments of Trevorrow's wonderfully droll yet imaginative heartwarmer brought the house down. “I have a theory that I unknowingly made an Australian movie,” said the director, talking to SBS Film via phone from his Los Angeles base. He recalls fondly the wave of well-wishers who greeted him in the State Theatre lobby post-screening. “People really loved it there. It played as well, if not better, there in Australia than it has anywhere else in the world. I have made a film which somehow seems to really connect with Australian audiences which is something I wear as a badge of honour.”
Trevorrow and his writing partner, Derek Connolly, conceived of the oddball romance between a magazine intern (indie 'It-Girl', Aubrey Plaza) and eccentric inventor (Mark Duplass) after discovering a classified ad in a 1997 edition of the survivalist's journal, Backwoods Home Magazine. Placed by sub-editor John Silviera (credited as 'Time Travel Consultant' in the closing crawl) as a nonsensical space-filler, it was a call-out to anyone who would be interested in joining a strange man in a time-travel experiment. It ran almost exactly as it appears in the film: 'Wanted. Somebody to go back in time with me. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.' The magazine received thousands of responses and the ad became an early internet meme.
The San Francisco native, who cites Back to the Future as his favourite film, fully comprehends why time travel narratives hold us in their thrall. “Time travel plays directly into one of our main human feelings, which is regret. Time travel and regret are a sci-fi idea and an emotional idea that are linked to each other,” he opines. “We had a script that was very funny, that had mystery and it had that question: 'Is this guy crazy or not?' But the stuff that Derek and I really wanted to work out is, 'What are these feelings of regret and loss and what could I have done in my life that could've have made me a better person?'” The theory goes some way to explaining the film's playability with a broad audience demographic. “That is a universal thing; we all have something, at least I hope we all do, that we wish we would've done differently. Those people who say they have no regrets, I don't think they are thinking it all the way through.”
That said, Safety Not Guaranteed has won over critics and audiences not usually enamoured with sci-fi storylines and high-concept notions. “I feel like that's a win, in a lot of ways. That's what I would prefer because it means that what you spend most of your time dealing with in the movie is what people are walking away with. That really was the goal,” Trevorrow explains. “I have met so many people who have told me so sincerely that they don't just like this movie but that it matters to them. Even if I make a better movie some day, I may never be able to get that response ever again. Only certain kinds of movies get that response, really touch you. It happens by some strange alchemy and it seems to have happened in this scenario.”
Trevorrow and Connolly wrote the lead character 'Darius' specifically for the idiosyncratic Plaza, known mostly for the TV series Parks and Recreation and bit parts in Funny People and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Her droll, caustic persona was crucial to drawing out the emotionality of the occasionally fantastical storyline. “When you see Cameron Diaz smile, is doesn't shock you, but when you see Aubrey Plaza smile... well, you're gonna call your mum! That's a really big moment,” he says. “She is an archetype of a girl who exists right now, a very modern girl, and we wanted to build something that could take advantage of some of the preconceived notions of who Aubrey Plaza is and of the types of characters she plays. We then slowly break that archetype down over the course of the movie. We wanted just the very act of her emoting at all to be a notable turn in the film.”
And the ending that so enamoured the film to SFF audiences? “The ending we know now is not the script ending!” laughs Trevorrow, who prides himself on having shot the script largely as written until test screenings. “That was a decision of mine that came after we got into Sundance. We got into the festival with the original ending but I changed it right when we were pretty much finished.” When grilled if the original ending will turn up as a DVD extra, he exhibits the very qualities he captures in the film – honesty and integrity. “Nope! No, no, no. No one ever will [see it] again!”
Safety Not Guaranteed is released in cinemas October 18.