Friday, June 8, 2012

Then and Now: An Indie About Odd Journeys

Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni and Jake M. Johnson in “Safety Not Guaranteed”

The 1997 classified ad read, in part: “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me...Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.” Some people who spotted this request in an Oregon survivalist publication probably were intrigued. Others may have felt chills – especially if they eventually saw a picture of John Silveira, the fellow with with a spiked mullet seeking a companion for his trip into the past. At first, though, nobody knew who he was or exactly where to find him in the present.

Fast forward more than a decade and the reclusive Silvereira was tracked down by Colin Trevorrow, a nascent feature filmmaker living in Burlington, Vermont. They agreed to have lunch together. When the two strangers met at a restaurant in Quechee, a village along the eastern border of the Green Mountain State, the talk turned to cinema.

Trevorrow wanted to direct a comedic screenplay, titled Safety Not Guaranteed, written by his West Coast friend Derek Connolly. It’s based to some extent on that strange 1997 request, which had turned into an Internet cultural phenomenon over the intervening years. They hoped to get Silveira’s blessing for their project. True to the spirit of his search for a fellow time traveler, the mullet man was packing heat. “John had a gun on him,” Trevorrow recalls. “I’m not sure he had a permit to carry one here.”

Luckily, Silveira offered no objections and the movie became a reality. Safety Not Guaranteed premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, opens commercially in a few select cities this weekend and is scheduled for a wide release on June 22. With a few sci-fi flourishes, the fictionalized saga follows a trio of magazine journalists on the trail of a mysterious man in the Pacific Northwest looking for a participant to accompany him on the improbable adventure.

The fledgling reporter able to get the scoop, by posing as an eager partner in the experiment, is a disillusioned intern named Darius (the deadpan Aubrey Plaza, of NBC’s Parks and Recreation). She is accompanied on the assignment by two colleagues, the snarky staff writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson, currently on the Fox sitcom New Girl) and a nerdy fellow intern, Arnau (Karan Soni). Their ferocious editor at the magazine is played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jack Bauer’s loyal computer wizard on 24.

Darius has her own heavy emotional baggage for embarking on any potentially dangerous mission that might require firepower. “We all have regrets, things we wish we could go back and change,” Trevorrow points out. “My film is more about the idea that your mistakes are your mistakes, your choices are your choices.”

Darius’ unwitting prey, Kenneth, is portrayed by auteur Mark Duplass, an executive producer of the film and a founder of what’s known in the art form as the “mumblecore” aesthetic. (His Jeff, Who Lives at Home came out in 2011.) It’s a low-budget genre that generally focuses on relationships among post-college kids rather than on plot, with naturalistic performances and dialogue. “Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t mumblecore,” Trevorrow contends, “but I like the honesty those films have with their characters – which I wanted.”

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza
The attractive Kenneth happens to be a sensitive, albeit paranoid grocery clerk and hermit honing survivalist skills at his remote homestead. (“He could be crazy or actually building a time machine in his garage,” Trevorrow hints.) As they indulge in target practice together, Darius begins to see beyond his eccentricities. Both loners, they have a lot more in common than either initially imagines.

Set in and around Seattle, where mumblecore first took root, Safety Not Guaranteed includes cameos for comic Jeff Garlin (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Kristen Bell (star of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall). “Ryan Miller composed the score,” Trevorrow says, referring to a lead vocalist with the popular alt-rock band Guster who’s now also a Vermont resident. “We met here and we’re both transplants.”

Thirtysomething Trevorrow (rhymes with tomorrow) relocated to Burlington more than three years ago. A California native and 1999 graduate of New York University’s film school, he had spent almost a decade in Los Angeles writing screenplays, as well as making shorts and documentaries. The move to New England was sparked by the arrival of a son, Nolan, and a desire to raise the child in a more rural environment. That sort of locale seemed particularly comfortable to his wife, Isabelle, who hails from a small village in the Provence region of France.

The couple met early in the 21st century, when Trevorrow was about to crash for a while at the Oakland house where he grew up. His folks told him, “There’s a French girl in the basement.” Isabelle was then on an internship for her MBA degree and renting a subterranean room from his family.

As a boy, Trevorrow acted in live theater and sang with the San Francisco Opera. ”I saw the inner workings of what it takes to put on a show,” he explains. “So, for the film, I knew exactly what I wanted.” Although a fan of 3D and video,  he envisioned “a more classic look. I got an old Panavision camera from the late 1970s.” The cinematographer is mumblecore veteran Ben Kasulke (Humpday, a 2009 release starring Duplass).

Director Colin Trevorrow
Trevorrow’s funding came from Big Beach Pictures, the company responsible for the 2006 hit Little Miss Sunshine. His post-production sound was completed at Skywalker Ranch, owned by George Lucas. The 24-day shoot last spring involved 24 locations within a 30-mile radius of Seattle. It meant being away from home for a total of five months, the separation a bit easier for three-year-old Nolan by virtue of regular contact with his dad on Skype.

Despite such hardships, Trevorrow is determined to stay in Vermont. “It’s just right for us,” he says. “The fact that we’re close to Montreal makes it easier for Isabelle’s parents to visit. But it was a risky decision; I’m nowhere near as established in the business as I should have been.”

That seems to be changing fast. At Sundance, Safety Not Guaranteed had five screenings and landed a distributor, FilmDistrict. Trevorrow also signed a two-picture directorial deal with a major studio – soon to be announced as an Entertainment Weekly exclusive. One will be a script he penned with Connolly and the other “a well-known franchise from the 1980s that I loved as a kid.”

In the crowd of about 1,300 at a Sundance venue, Silveira stood up when introduced and was greeted by applause. “He liked the film,” Trevorrow suggests. “John was glad it’s a love story. He’s kind of a romantic guy.”

Perhaps. If you ignore the whole gun-toting thing.

Amid all the new Hollywood glitz, Trevorrow continues to sing the praises of blooming wherever you’re planted, a message implicit in his movie. “Maybe I can be an example of how it’s possible to live here and still have national recognition,” he says. “A lot of Vermonters in my generation are doing creative things. We’re not just a bunch of slackers, anymore, sitting in our parents‘ basements.” 

Hold on a moment. Isn’t that a scenario Trevorrow should cherish, given the happy memory of “There’s a French girl in the basement”?

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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