“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box [redacted], Oakview, CA 93022. You’ll get paid after we get back. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
This actual personal ad appeared in a newspaper, became an Internet sensation, and is now the basis for indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, starring Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Mark Duplass. If you’d prefer your sci-fi a little lower-budget than Prometheus this weekend, and with way more laughs, it’s worth checking out. We had a chance to talk to the principal cast members about both the movie and their own temporal desires.
Nerdist: It’s weird to consider the prospect of a film based on a 36-word ad that became an Internet meme. How would you pitch the film to someone who might not be familiar with it?
Aubrey Plaza: Well, I would say that it’s about a guy who put out an ad to find someone to go back in time with him, and he claims he has a time machine and he’s done it once before. And the movie’s kind of about these Seattle magazine workers that go on a trip to interview him and do a tongue-in-cheek story on him, but then kind of get wrapped up in his mission, and their own little missions, and things. I’m very good at pitching, as I’m sure you can tell.
Jake Johnson: I would pitch it as a funny movie with a love story and a lot of heart, but also a lot of laughs, that feels good. That when you walk out – I’ve seen it twice now. I saw it at Sundance and South by Southwest, and it’s one of the only movies I’ve been part of where universally, people walk out, and they might have some issue with something, or some scene they didn’t like, but they walk out feeling good, and there’s a fun summer energy about it. I would pitch like: See it in the summer. Get dinner, a couple of drinks, see the movie. You’ll enjoy it.
N: Aubrey, not only was this role written for you, but it was your first feature-length dramatic leading role. What was that like, having someone say, “Hey, we wrote this specifically for you”?
AP: I was very flattered that they wrote the character with me in mind. I hadn’t met the writer or the director at all, so it was very strange to know that someone would spend their time writing a movie and thinking about me in that way. I was so happy that the movie was good, the script was good and I liked it. Because I was worried that I was gonna read it and be like, “This is terrible! You don’t understand me at all!” But I liked it, so it was awesome. Then when we decided to do it and once we got the money to actually do it, it was different. On a whole ‘nother level, I was terrified that I wouldn’t live up to their expectations, you know? It was a challenge to be the lead in a movie; it was the first time that I’d ever been the lead, so it was scary, but something I’d been dreaming of since I was a kid, so I was really ready for it, excited by it and felt like it was the right one.
N: The ensemble cast had a great chemistry together. How much of what we see was improvised versus being already on the page?
AP: I really wanted to stick to the script. I did a lot of work on the script, and I loved it so much. I thought the characters on the page were really fleshed out and felt real and nothing really felt false to me, so I didn’t feel like I had to improvise, or come it with better lines or better anything. But there were times when we shot the film, especially with Mark and I, that we had to do some spontaneous improvising just to keep it fresh and to explore things, then go back to the script and bring new energy into it, or whatever. So there are times when we messed around a little bit. But we also balanced that out with sticking to the script and the story as it was written.
JJ: The thing with Colin (Trevorrow) as a director, which is impressive, is that at times he was word-perfect on the page, very clear, we’re gonna do two takes and we’re gonna move on. And other scenes, if he didn’t love it on the page, he would tell you before, “I’m gonna want to improvise this one.” Like the scene with Karan Soni and myself when I put the sunglasses on, all that was improvised. Because that scene on the page just wasn’t there yet. So every once in a while he would come in and say, “Look, we’re going to get cross-coverage of this, both of you at the same time, let’s just do it.” And that was to the credit of Colin: he knew what he wanted on page, and he knew what he wanted some freedom with.
Mark Duplass: All my stuff was shot over two weeks. But I also wanted to make sure we had enough time to get the performances right. Colin’s a first-time director and I had made a lot of mistakes on my first movie not having enough time to get the performances right, so we had some good conversations about making sure we had enough takes, and also some room to improvise if things were not working the way we wanted them to. So I felt like it was a good partnership with me and Colin, who is incredibly good visually. And that combined with the relationship focus that I brought to the film was a nice combo.
N: What was the three-week shoot like? It seems as though it must have been pretty hectic.
AP: It was like Indie Filmmaking 101, it was so crazy. Not a lot of sleep; I got bedbugs at one point – that was awesome. It was grueling at times, but very rewarding. It felt very much like we were all at camp and we just went through that experience together, experienced highs and lows. It was crazy.
N: Between this, Parks and Recreation, The To Do List, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III and The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman it’s been a very busy year for you, Aubrey. What’s it like balancing the comedy with some of these meatier, dramatic roles?
AP: Um, it’s awesome… I love being on Parks & Rec and I love having it be my job that takes up most of my year – I love it so much – but I also love movies and I always am looking to do different parts where I can flex different muscles and show different sides of me and what I can do, so it’s really fun for me to go from the show to a movie like this, or like the Charles Swan movie where I can just play this whole different person. It’s fun to go back and forth.
N: We understand you and Bill Murray hit it off on the set of Charles Swan, and that you tore down the dividing wall on set between two trailers. What was that like?
AP: Yes, that’s right. He’s amazing. Bill Murray is one of my heroes, so getting to spend any time with him was a dream come true and did not disappoint; he’s so much fun to be around. He’s the most fun ever. I was only around him for a couple days, but I felt like we had a connection.
N: Jake, your character in the film is kind of a jerk, but there’s a definite heart underneath all that. What was it about the part and specifically this character that drew you to the role?
JJ: Well, what I like about Jeff a lot is that I do think he’s a dick and I like that. He’s unapologetic. I think he’s nasty and he’s got bad intentions. But I think he loses in the end. So I thought it’d be really fun to play a character who starts in one position, kinda gets kicked in the face a little bit, and then what I really like about him is he doesn’t change. At the end, he’s not like, “Hey, I’ve been really mean.” He’s still gonna go back and be himself. He’s going to go back to Seattle and be that guy. I like that.
N: Between this, New Girl, 21 Jump Street, and Harold and Kumar, you’ve had a very powerhouse year. What is it about comedy that entices you and keeps you coming back to it?
JJ: Oh. Well. It’s where I’m getting work. I’d like to do drama to; to be able to do half and half. But I really love doing comedy, and the people doing comedy right now are really talented, so there’s a lot of great opportunities, so I’m just kinda going where the parties I’m invited to are. I’m not looking to crash the drama parties, but I would love to do both. You know, with New Girl, specifically, that was Liz Meriwether. She hand-picked me, wanted me to audition and fought for me to get the job, so I’ll kinda ride with her.
N: We understand that the ending changed. We don’t want to spoil it, but…
JJ: That’s okay, it’s a tricky thing to talk about – it was [originally] the opposite.
N: Gotcha. So you’ve known director Colin Trevorrow for a while, since you went to college together…
JJ: Yeah, we didn’t go to school together – we went to the same school but we didn’t know each other. We met when we both moved to L.A. But that was over 8 years ago.
N: So what was the experience like, going from making YouTube shorts with him to a feature like this?
JJ: Weirdly, and this is to the credit of this new era of YouTube makers, kind of the same. Just a bigger scale. But the same way he directed me before was the same way he did it; the same way I acted was the same way I did it. Just a bigger crew and bigger stakes, but we maintained that same feeling between us. We’d sit in the hotel each night at the end of the day, have a drink and goof around. It wasn’t like once we were doing this we became “Boss” and “Employee.” It was fun. Not a lot of movies come out that have a special feeling like this one had.
N: If you could go back in time: where and when?
MD: I think what I would probably do is go back to the late ’60s, and go see my favorite filmmaker John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and his whole crew, and the way they made movies, just getting together at their house on a Sunday night and hatching these films together as a family and community is something I really long to be a part of.
JJ: I’ve realized I wouldn’t go back. Because I know myself. I’d get myself in trouble and it could have huge consequences. I would, at first, do good, then I’d have a cocktail and do stupid stuff about 45 minutes later. So I don’t wanna be responsible for, like, an alien invasion that hits the world in 1984.
N: Well, the future thanks you for your sacrifice.
JJ: Yeah, man, you’re very… Everybody’s very welcome.
N: Mark, you’re a man of many hats: you write, you produce, you direct, you act. On a movie like this, how do you reconcile your roles as producer and actor?
MD: Safety Not Guaranteed was first brought to me as a producer, and I just loved the script. I felt like it was my job just to maintain that really sweet heart that it had. It’s a time-travel film, but it’s more a relationship-oriented kind of film. I actually came on as an actor secondarily; it evolved out of conversations I had with Colin, the director. We both wanted someone to play Kenneth who could ground the character and not make it too kooky, so you could feel the loneliness and the sadness within the comedy. And then he asked me to do it, and I was like, “Okay!”
N: With a character like Kenneth, it would be easy to veer in a cynical direction because he’s got the mullet, he’s got that crazy car, he has the clothes. But you gave him a sense of childlike wonderment that made him feel really well-rounded. How did you prepare for that role and approach it?
MD: Kenneth is very different from me. In the past, onscreen , I’ve played thinly veiled versions of myself, but this was a different case. So I asked myself, what is the thing that makes Kenneth click? For me it is that there is not a cynical bone in his body; he is a true believer. Anyone who thinks they can time-travel clearly is a believer, you know? And I love that quality about him. It’s not too intelligent, in a lot of ways, but it’s got a lot of heart to it. So I just tried to make sure I infused Kenneth with a sense of optimism, a sense of childlike wonder, and a sense of fist-pumping believer that would attract someone like Darius to him.
N: The song you played in the film was gorgeous. Have you played the zither for a long time specifically?
MD: When I read the script it said there would be this song played on a zither, which I was excited about but I did not know what a zither was. So the composer, Brian Miller, sent me a video of him playing the song on a zither, and I used to be a musician, so luckily it’s like an easier version of playing guitar in your lap. But I spent a couple of weeks holing up in my house and my hotel room learning the song so I wouldn’t look like an idiot when it came time to play it. It’s a woodsy, strange instrument – a lot like Kenneth.
N: What else is coming up from you and your brother?
MD: My brother and I have a movie that we directed called Jeff, Who Lives at Home [Nerdist review here]. It’ll be coming out on DVD in June, and then there’s another movie called The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, which is our last micro-budget film we made a few years ago – we’re just getting around to finishing it now. It’s about two brothers who compete in their own personal 25-event Olympics, even though they’re incredibly out of shape and have no business doing so. We’ll be releasing that in July, around the real Olympics.
N: Were you at all worried about working with a first-time director?
MD: I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, and when you meet Colin, you realize he’s not the average first-time director. He’s very confident. And he didn’t look like a first-time director on set; he knew what he wanted and he was very, very good. So I didn’t have to do much at all, except to say, “Hey man, I want enough takes to get the performance right, and if it’s not going well, I want you to let me improvise,” and otherwise it was a really good marriage.
N: A lot of people would classify many of your movies under the “Mumblecore” label – what do you think of that term, and does it apply to Safety Not Guaranteed?
MD: I think it was fair to call some of the early films I made – like The Puffy Chair or Baghead – Mumblecore, but it was never a term that I came up with, so we don’t really think about that, that much. I certainly wouldn’t consider Jeff, Who Lives at Home or Safety Not Guaranteed Mumblecore films, because that feels exclusionary to me, like it’s something some New Yorker piece wrote about it. Safety Not Guaranteed is a very hopeful and sweet film, and I want to invite everybody to see it.
Safety Not Guaranteed opens Friday. And if you enjoyed this feature, subscribe to Nerdist News for more like it in your inbox every morning.