By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Files: Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Trevorrow

Director Colin Trevorrow Takes Some Risks with Safety Not Guaranteed


Safety Not Guaranteed is one of this summer’s delightful surprises, an offbeat science fiction comedy that’s not the least bit dystopian. Challenged by his editor at a Seattle magazine to come up with a compelling story idea, manipulative reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) pitches investigating an anonymous classified ad that was placed by someone who wants a companion for traveling back in time. With two interns—the cynical Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the buttoned-up Indian Arnau (Karan Soni)—in tow as backup, Jeff tracks down the mystery man, a small-town supermarket clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Loner Kenneth is clearly paranoid about his secret project, but lets down his guard when Darius goes undercover and auditions to be his time travel partner. As the journalists chase their story, they find more than what they expected.

Vermont-based Colin Trevorrow makes his feature directorial debut, working from a screenplay by his long-time writing partner Derek Connolly, whom he first met in a comedy writing class at New York University, and interned with on Saturday Night Live. In Chicago to preview Safety Not Guaranteed for students at DePaul University, the director took time out to talk about this new Film District release.

Andrea Gronvall:  I remember as a kid watching an old syndicated after-school TV serial called Journey to the Beginning of Time, in which four boys on a boat discover that as they travel further along the water, they’re also going back to a prehistoric era. Like many children, I was keen on dinosaurs, so that show really fired my imagination. Did the fantasy of time travel grab you as a youngster?

Colin Trevorrow:  Yes. I think the first time travel story that I can remember has to be Voyagers. I don’t remember that much, but it was about a little boy and either his father or guardian of some kind, and they had a compass that would take them through time. It was sort of like Quantum Leap. Seeing a little kid go on that particular adventure fascinated me. Then when Back to the Future came out, that was the be-all, end-all cult movie experience; I fell so deeply in love with it. That movie, and another called Flight of the Navigator, had beautiful emotional beats and cores as to why the main characters were traveling back through time. In the first you’re dealing with someone who wants to make sure his parents fall in love, and in the second a kid wants to return home so he can live the childhood that he missed.

I remember seeing Time Bandits, sitting on the floor in a packed theater. I would say those movies, and the tone of those movies, grabbed me. I’ve written several time travel scripts for various studios, partially because I was interested in the stories, partially because they saw I wrote the first one and figured, “Oh, this guy likes time travel.” I’m so glad I got to make this one of my ideas, because you can’t keep doing this. This is likely going to be my [one produced] time travel story, and I’m proud of it, because I feel it really is about the emotional needs that a time travel narrative satisfies, as opposed to, you know, running around shooting dinosaurs with shotguns and stuff.

AG:  I’m glad you brought up tone, because mastery of tone is tricky, something that can elude even veteran filmmakers. But in your debut feature you’ve created this supple comic tone that ripples from caustic to tender, from wondrous to skeptical. The film has a hipster flavor, and yet at the same time it’s moving in a humanistic way, one that harks back to works from earlier decades. How did you pull it off? That’s not something you can storyboard.

CT:  No, it’s not. And I think we’ll probably start seeing a lot of this with filmmakers, or anyone my age, reacting to so many great people that came before. There’s this great tap dancer, Savion Glover—his tap dancing style is a combination of Gregory Hines and other amazing dancers, and he’s put their steps into this new thing that feels totally fresh. And I think that’s like this movie, and the tone of this movie.

You can tell that I grew up in the Eighties, that Steven SpielbergRobert ZemeckisRichard Donner school. I love Richard Donner very much, and yet I love Francois Truffaut, and Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen. And I actually love Mark Duplass’s movies and their naturalism, and wanted to bring that into Safety Not Guaranteed as well. And I felt Aubrey Plaza represents a very modern kind of disaffected young female character, who feels there’s nothing for her in the world, so that’s an element I also added. Combining all of these things into one could have been an awful mess, but I don’t think it is.

AG:  No, it’s not a mash-up.

CT:  It doesn’t feel like a mash-up at all; it feels both modern and anachronistic in its own way, like a throwback to the way films were in the Eighties–but only because we take time to let the movie breathe. I write studio films, and you’re not allowed to do that anymore, you’ve got to keep the plot going. And we took like a 15-minute break from the plot in this movie, and just let these characters hang out and fall in love and discover things. I guess that’s where maybe the hipster side comes in: “hipster quirky,” or whatever the label. I don’t even know what hipster means anymore. But I can’t apologize for wanting to spend time with these characters and learn what’s really going on with them, outside of this cool time travel story.

AG:  That turns out to be seductive, in that you’re leading the viewer to become more transfixed by what’s unfolding.

CT:  It’s not 15 minutes away from the story, but it is 15 minutes away from the plot. I had to have a certain amount of confidence that it was going to work, and yet, at the end, hopefully we deliver in a way that we earned, and also in a way that allows people to be glad that we spend much of the movie with people that we care about, and want to see win. I think the “want-to-win” factor is massive in this. If you don’t want them to succeed, this movie dies.

AG: Your casting certainly helps us root for the characters, what with the skills of Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, and your discovery of—

CTKaran Soni.

AG:  –who is so cute and so sweet. In old movies there’s this tradition involving the egghead girl with glasses, where she has to lose the glasses so the hero can realize, “Oh, there’s a woman there.” And that moment in Safety Not Guaranteed when Arnau’s glasses come off, we get to see his profile and his long eyelashes—

CT: This guy is amazing looking. It was a tough part. We knew that we were starting that character as a caricature, to a certain extent, and wanted to break that down—not necessarily break down the stereotype, but break out a character that wasn’t real, and turn him into someone very real. And that’s something that you have to beg a lot of forgiveness from the audience for, in that I think for some people that may be very off-putting:  “Oh, it’s the nerdy Indian guy again.” But when you look back on your own life and you think about how much of a momentous occasion your first kiss was, that instant that occurs in this movie might seem small, but for this character is a turning point that could change the direction of his whole life. It’s a Back to the Future moment.

AG:  Did you always see this as a widescreen movie?

CT:  That was something that was very important to me all along. And we shot widescreen with Panavision lenses from the late Seventies, early Eighties, even though we used a video camera, the Sony F3, which had come out about a week before we started. It’s a great camera, even with the flaws that ended up existing—like, there’s grain in the movie.

AG:  The grain is good. It feels like a 16mm film.

CT:  I was hoping it felt like a Super 16mm movie. That was always the goal in using widescreen, even though we weren’t shooting anamorphic—we didn’t have that luxury as we were covering 32 locations in 24 days. I think it makes the close-ups that much more effective, too, in that we’re not always up in everyone’s face, so whenever we are, you know that something’s happening and you should be listening. We made a conscious effort, from the start to finish, to change the weight of the camera. It’s very handheld for the first half of the movie, and then it gets more graceful, and then when we get to the end, we’re pretty much ball on track, very fluid.

AG:  You took Safety Not Guaranteed to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, and then to the inaugural Sundance London Film and Music Festival, How did the two experiences compare?

CT: Very, very different. The audiences in Sundance London were a little quieter, because they’re British, and yet more effusive in their praise one-on-one, and very articulate. That was nice. I took my father, and together we saw Prince Charles introduce his film [Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, a documentary inspired by the Prince of Wales’s work in combating climate change]. We were deeply moved after we heard him speak; he’s brilliant. And Robert Redford said that when he mentioned Safety Not Guaranteed to him, Prince Charles said that it sounds like an interesting title. Sundance London was a wonderful experience.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon