Why He’s On Our Radar: There wasn’t a comedy more heartfelt and nutty at this year’s Sundance Film Festival than Colin Trevorrow’s “Safety Not Guaranteed.” The high-concept indie charmer won over critics and audiences with its blend of sci-fi and romance, culminating in a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for the film’s writer, Derek Connolly, and a coveted distribution deal with FilmDistrict. Folks who didn’t get to attend the festival will be able to see what all the fuss is about when the film opens in select theaters this Friday.
The screenplay, Connolly’s first to make it to the screen, centers on three employees (Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni) at a Seattle magazine who set out to profile the man behind a bizarre and hilarious classified ad that reads: “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’lll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”
Indiewire caught up with the busy Los Angeles-based NYU grad (he finished school in 1998) to discuss his breakthrough year and the story behind the project.
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How did you come up with the premise for “Safety Not Guaranteed”?
I saw that ad online at some point in 2007 or so and immediately wondered if this was real because everyone was making gags and putting up parody videos. I thought it was funny, but there was something sad and regretful about it. I did wonder what that guy would be like, and thought I maybe knew people like him.
Then I saw Aubrey Plaza in “Funny People” in 2009 and the plot of the story came together. I started writing a week after that and gave it to Colin, the guy who ended up directing it and a long-time friend.
Did you actually go and seek this guy out or write this all based on your reaction to the advertisement?
I just wrote the script. The guy was a mystery. He hadn’t outed himself at that point yet. Coincidentally, the script was done and being sent out, and we were looking for financing. The original writer of the ad wrote an article in Backwoods Home Magazine explaining that he was the guy who wrote it and wanted to come out and reveal himself. Colin actually got in touch with the magazine and got the guy, John Silveira’s, number and spoke with him. They ended up meeting on the East Coast and they developed this relationship. It took them a while to get him to find an option… we weren’t sure of the reality of the whole thing but we wanted to be sure to cover all our bases and acknowledge him and give him what we thought was proper due credit. He actually did a little cameo in the movie. He came out to Seattle while we were shooting and he plays one of the people going to the post office that’s a false alarm that they think might be Kenneth.
Then he came out to Sundance. We called him out and he stood up and got a big round of applause. It was really neat, seeing him enjoy the whole process.
What does he make of the film. You paint him in a pretty positive light despite the initial reservations that Aubrey Plaza’s character has about him.
It’s funny because I wrote that character not having any idea who John Silveira was and didn’t change the character after we did meet him and got to know him. He’s very different from the real guy. There is some similarity — he does carry weapons wherever he goes. He carried a handgun into the restaurant where he met Colin for the first lunch. He has a concealed weapon permit in multiple states. There is some element of him in there, but mostly it’s a very different character. I didn’t get a chance to speak to him after Sundance, but Colin said he liked it.
Had you been hoping to write a high concept comedy of this nature for a while?
It was kind of happenstance. It came about at a time when a big phase in studios was spec writing — to write movies based on existing properties. We had a meeting at our agency, and one of the guys was urging us to seek out existing properties that have awareness about them. I didn’t even think about it until after I had written the script. But this is the weirdest example of doing it in a certain way. There aren’t too many people who know about that ad, but it’s funny how it turned out to be based on an existing property that people have an awareness of on a certain level. It wasn’t premeditated, it just happened. It was pure inspiration when I saw that ad.
What was your gameplan coming out of your succesful bow at Sundance?
Me and Colin want to continue to work together. We’ve worked out something to ensure that. We possibly have another one in the works right now. I got this thing that I can’t talk about that spawned from Sundance — it’s a direct result from seeing the movie there; it’s the craziest opportunity ever that just came out of nowhere. I never would have imagined I’d go from where I was to where I am now in that short a period of time. Any goals I could have set for myself have been far superseded beyond my expectations.
So what specifically do you have in the works, apart from this top secret project you’re working on?
There will be an announcement in a week or so about something. I know I can’t talk about the things I’m doing solo right now, but I’m not sure if I can talk about the things that me and Colin have going. Companies get uptight before they’re made or released or whatnot.
You’re sure building up the hype.
[Laughs.] Whoever’s interested will be on the edge of their seats I’m sure.
What do you gravitate towards in terms of storytelling?
I’m a character first guy. I love writing dialogue and writing characters. I feel like if you can make those characters likable and create a tone and mood that people watching want to see, you can be on that journey with them. The stuff I love, like Wes Anderson, does that to me.
What kind of advice do you have for up-and-coming screenwriters who are hoping for that big break that you got?
Jeez. Just keep going. When I graduated from college and our speaker said something along the lines of “a professional writer gets paid for the first time on average at age 33,” that seemed crazy to me. I said no way, it’ll just be two to three years at most. If I saw how hard it would be and how many steps you had to go through back when I was 22, I’m not sure I would have actually gone through with the whole thing.
But during the process you never see the end. You see the stair in front of you and you climb it, then another stair becomes visible and you climb that. It’s just this gradual process you just gotta keep plugging through. There are rare cases of people busting through it at a young age, but I found, and other people I know, that it’s not just a shot of lightning one day, it’s this gradual thing that builds up. There’s no moment of, “Oh, I made it, finally.” It’s years and years of tiny steps that build up to feeling like maybe you’ve made it, if that makes any sense.
That makes perfect sense.
So my advice would be to keep going. Persevere. It takes time, and that’s all I can say.