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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas