In Lorene Scafaria’s indie comedy-drama Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, Steve Carrell plays Dodge, a man trying to figure out where his life went wrong as the final days of civilization are counted down. He decides to visit an ex-girlfriend that he believes is his one true love and sets out on a road trip with his fluttery neighbour, Penny (Keira Knightley). While on the road the two find themselves, and a reason to celebrate, as the asteroid that’s about to destroy Earth gets closer and closer.
Scarfaria, who first made it on the scene adapting Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, has jumped into the director’s chair with confidence and ease and has delivered one of the most brilliant films on the subject of the end of the world. It’s got a humanity to it matched by no other work in this genre while being absolutely hilarious and sweet.
Criticize This! had the pleasure of speaking with Scarfaria while she was in Toronto earlier this month. We chatted about how the idea of the film came to be, the importance of music in her life, and how she has been writing subconsciously for Steve Carrell for years. Read our Q&A below.
At what point did directing become an option for you?
Lorene Scafaria: It was always something I wanted to do actually. I had hoped that I’d get to do it out of the gate but realized early on that I would have to write my way into it. I directed a lot of theatre growing up and I did a short film that I call the longest short because it was like 30 minutes long. It was never meant to go into film festivals or anything. It was just something for me to prove to myself that I might be able to tackle a feature. And with Seeking a Friend I sold it as a pitch with myself attached to direct so they didn’t have an option [laughs].
As this is your feature film directorial debut how nerve-wracking was it going in and what was the biggest challenge that you found?
LS: It was more nerve-wracking thinking that I wouldn’t be able to direct it or that the film would never get made. I felt that by the time we got to the starting line I was ready in my heart. Post production was difficult because I felt like I had this little fragile egg I was trying to protect from everybody smashing it to pieces.
Did your approach to writing the script change when you knew you were going to direct it?
LS: At the time, no. But now that I’m trying to write the next thing it’s so much more difficult. Now that I’ve been on the other side and have seen the logistics and practical nature of getting something made I think about every word and question everything. It’s become a less freeing process now.
Was the writing process different than your previous work and how much fun was it to think about what the end of the world would look like?
LS: I’ve always been into psychology and sociology so the most fun for me was doing that human research and asking friends and family what they would do and I made a list of things that would probably happen. That was a blast. The writing process was so different than Nick and Norah’s, which was an adaptation of a book I really loved. I wanted to do right by the authors and the story and there was a different pressure there. And there was source material to draw from and with this it was pulling things out of the air. Once I realized I had these two genres, one the end of the world and one a romantic comedy, I realized I needed to make them collide as much as possible. I’ll have a riot, but the riot needs to be a break-up scene. It actually made it easier to think in those terms.
Steve Carrell was perfect in the lead. Did you have him in mind from the start or did you have to sell him on it?
LS: I feel like I had been writing this kind of guy for a really long time. A lot of relationship movies the guy is like a man-child or a womanizer and the girl is this type ‘A’, uptight character, and that’s not really me. I kept writing these stories about this free-spirited girl who helps this introvert come out of his shell. This archetype has been in so many of my scripts, this guy in need of an awakening, and in that way I had been thinking of Steve for those parts for 10 years. For this I just couldn’t imagine getting him. I didn’t know any of these people so it was really just about getting the script out there and seeing who responded. When I heard he had the script all my eggs went into that basket.
The tone seems so important in a movie like this. What do you feel is more important, finding that tone for yourself or finding actors that get it.
LS: Probably both. Part of the reason I wanted to direct it in the first place was because I realized it was such a tricky tone and I didn’t know how to translate that to everybody. I was lucky that I was able to get so many actors who were great at blending comedy with tragedy. Steve in particular, in every part he’s played… I mean Michael Scott [Carrell’s character on The Office] is such a tragic comedic figure. There’s pain behind his eyes. I love movies that balance comedy and drama and feel they’re harder to make.
What did you find Steve and Keira’s strengths to be and did they have much time to prepare before production?
LS: We had like a day and a half [to prepare]. I didn’t even meet Keira until the camera test. We talked on the phone once [laughs]. In terms of thinking of casting them, I think Steve’s greatest strength is that blend of comedy and tragedy. He’s so subtle and reminds me a lot of older actors like Jack Lemmon and Peter Sellers. He can do so much with just a look. I think it’s his level of humanity and he’s a real person. Keira is such an old soul and runs so deep. Even in the Pirate of the Caribbean movies she has such an energy to her that you can’t take your eyes off her. The idea that she would be the one to light a fire underneath Steve’s character seemed like the right level of energy.
Being a musician as well do you get something different creatively out of that aspect of your life?
LS: With so few produced screenplays you have to have hobbies [laughs]. I didn’t live with a piano for 10 years. Then I got one when I was 27 and I thought I’d never write a screenplay again because I was so happy to sit down and mess around. Then somehow I got a song into the movie Whip It and I felt maybe I should keep recording things. Now I’ve got a band with Adam Brody and John Sadoff, who’s one of the composers of the film, and the three of us rock out every once in awhile. I get a lot out of it and I do feel it teaches me more about writing with rhythm and pace. And if nothing else it keeps me going through the producer-less times.
How involved were you in the soundtrack and Penny’s record collection?
LS: Completely. I’m not that cool, I don’t have vinyl, but I love music and it was important to me that her collection represented something. I always knew I wanted classics and classic rock, to have a sense of nostalgia to it. I also liked the idea that her albums are indicative of her taste but are songs that would have been from Dodge’s life more. In that way it represents both of them. When I thought about what people would be consuming at the end of the world, it felt like more than movies and TV everybody would be listening to their music. I asked people to make me mixes along the way. Adam Brody had a lot to do with it and he recommended a few songs I used.
What was the mood like on set and was the reality of directing as great as you imagined?
LS: The mood was great and was fun. I think it was so positive because we got a group of people together who were excited about this idea and it became this group of romantics making this film. I really did feel at ease. I had never felt more comfortable than I did on set.
Were there any movies that influenced you in the visual style or tone?
LS: There were three films for me. M*A*S*H was one that I doled out to everyone. Keira had never seen it before so she watched it and said as soon as it was over she went back and watched it again. M*A*S*H was one of those in tone because there you are in this heightened world where people are dealing with such these tragic things and coping with them along the way. There’s a movie called Songs From the Second Floor that I love. It’s a Roy Anderson film and is much bleaker and darker. And Defending Your Life, the Albert Brooks film. That was quintessential for me because it’s such a romantic film and what stakes could be higher than if you’re going to go to heaven with Meryl Streep.
What do you hope the audience gets out of the film?
LS: I think of it a bit like a choose your own adventure. I certainly hope people are entertained and enjoy the film, but I hope they come out of it thinking about their own lives and thinking how they spend their time. Hopefully a little uplifted despite of the content.
Seeking a Friend For the End of the World opens in theatres on June 22.