“Safety Not Guaranteed” screenwriter Derek Connolly: “It’s best to live in the present”

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One of the best films of 2012 so far is the sci-fi romantic comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, a surprise hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It opens Friday, June 15, exclusively at AMC’s Southdale 16 theater. The movie features an intriguing premise based on a real classified ad that was placed in the mid-1990s. When the ad became an Internet fascination and spawned many to wonder whether the ad was a joke or not, it became apparent to screenwriter Derek Connolly (a name you will be hearing more from in the future, perhaps in late 2012), that there was a film idea within this posting, true or not.

It was not the original ad that Connolly saw, though: it was a spoof version that gave Connolly the idea to write the screenplay. The original ad was placed in Backwoods Home Magazine, a bimonthly California and Pacific Northwest publication about living mostly in rural areas. Senior editor John Silveira needed to add some space to the classifieds issue and came up with an ad that caught many people’s attention: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

Directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Connolly, Safety Not Guaranteed stars Aubrey Plaza (NBC’s Parks & Recreation), Mark Duplass (FX’s The League), Jake Johnson (Fox’s The New Girl), and newcomer Karan Soni. Three magazine employees (Plaza, Johnson, and Soni) discover an ad placed by someone looking for a partner to time travel with. They travel the Washington coast to investigate where the ad came from and who placed it. Through some funny detective work, the trail leads them to oddball Kenneth (perfectly played by Duplass). Plaza’s Darius (the actress’s best peformance to date) decides to confront him and tells him she wants to be his partner for his time-traveling experience. As Darius begins to find more out about Kenneth, a strange but perhaps brilliant man, her character becomes more involved in not only time traveling with him, but wondering if she is starting to develop feelings for him.

I spoke with Connolly by phone last Friday—he spoke from a secret location where he is hard at work on a new top-secret project. He said he was “extremely nervous the night before and I couldn’t sleep,” knowing the film was opening in Los Angeles, New York, Portland, and Seattle, where the story takes place and where the film was shot.  “I wish I were in L.A. today and could have gone to the 9:40 a.m. screening to see if anyone was actually in the theater.”

When Connolly saw the ad, he mostly saw it as a big Internet joke and how people were making parody videos about it; it was not until a few years later when he saw lead actress Plaza in the Judd Apatow movie Funny People (2009) that he thought Plaza would be right for the person who goes to answer the ad and he felt like the story could come together. “I probably started writing about a week after I saw that movie and the story was already there, so it was pretty quick and I had my draft of the film in a month.”

Connolly showed the script to his friend and fellow screenwriter Trevorrow, who he had meet at NYU film school. Both had been Saturday Night Live interns, and in 2009 they were screenwriting partners. Being frustrated with the studio system and having to hustle for jobs in L.A., it was Trevorrow, who suggested they work on Safety together, outside of the Hollywood system. “Colin really liked it and thought, maybe we should do this ourselves and break out of these things that we’re mired in, and he made it happen.” Connolly continued, speaking about the process of getting the rest of the cast assembled. “Jake Johnson was a good friend of Colin’s and having Aubrey on board, Jake trusted Colin and was a fan of Aubrey’s. As far as the Duplass Brothers—Jay and Mark—they had read the script and originally came on board as producers and they wanted us to help it get it made.” When Mark offered to play the role of oddball Kenneth in order to help get some financing and move forward on making the film. “It was probably around three months when Mark joined the cast that all the financing came through and we were in Seattle beginning to start shooting.”

When the film premiered at Sundance this year, little did Connolly know that the film would take off as it did. He had never been to a film festival and suddenly, his film was accepted into Sundance and was put into the US Dramatic Competition, becoming one of the most buzzed-about titles. Once the film screened, Connolly’s life changed forever. “It was thrilling to have the film premiere at an awesome venue [the Library Theater] where many other people have had their film premieres at, and then once the movie was over, people were cheering, laughing, and applauding to a standing ovation. And then later in the week, you’re getting an award for it [Connolly won the Waldo Salt screenplay award] and a distribution company is buying it [Film District]. It was crazy, and thinking about where I was a week before Sundance [compared] to where I am now, six months later, is unbelievable and mind-blowing. And in my giddiest of dreams I couldn’t have scripted the course of events any better.”

Connolly spoke about some of the films that have inspired him, although he does not like to watch a lot of movies or read too many things while he is writing. “Probably some of Wes Anderson’s stuff, especially Bottle Rocket, was a big influence on this—and even early 80s adventure movies where there are characters that you really love and want to be with on their adventures. Movies like The Goonies and Romancing the Stone, where you want to get out from behind a desk, or in this case, a magazine office and go somewhere and have your own adventure or be in a fantasy world—that kind of movie influenced me a lot for Safety.”

When asked what he hopes audiences take away from the film, Connolly paused for a few beats before he answered. “It’s odd. It depends on their individual circumstance. If they are happy with where they are, hopefully they have a good time. There are people that have come up to me after certain screenings and they were in tears and they have said the story struck a certain chord with them. Maybe they have regrets in their life and wish they could go back and change. It gives them a sense that it’s never too late and ultimately, it’s best to live in the present, as opposed to being stuck in the past or obsessed with the future.”

Connolly also laughed when I asked him if he believes in time-travel. “I’d love to. It’s probably my greatest fantasy—if I had one wish that probably would be it. I’m a big science geek, and from what I’ve heard from the top physicists, it’s practically impossible to travel backwards in time. I wish it were true and I hope they are wrong.”