Storytelling, Inspiration and Time Travel – Colin Trevorrow Interview

safety not guaranteed colin trevorrow interview

“When an unusual classified ad inspires three cynical Seattle magazine employees to look for the story behind it, they discover a mysterious eccentric named Kenneth, a likable but paranoid supermarket clerk, who believes he’s solved the riddle of time travel and intends to depart again soon.” – From


In a way, every filmmaker must be a time-traveler at heart. From the guiding visions of previous directors to the demanding voice of the inner child, they draw from the past to find their place in the future. In Safety Not Guaranteed, director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly used the subject of time travel to explore regret and redemption, and created what feels like an anachronistic classic in the process.

Colin joined me to talk about his respect for storytelling, mining inspiration from disillusion and finding reality in absurdity.


AC: Before we get to Safety Not Guaranteed, let’s start with Home Base. That’s where I first saw your skill at work. What was the inspiration for that? Where did that come from? Was that just something that popped into your head, or was that an actual revenge fantasy at work?

CT: No. Yeah, definitely. Well, I guess you could say there was a little bit of that, just because it was sort of, you know… I guess at various points in your life you sort of approach things in different ways, and when you’re young, you approach things in an immature way. So, I think probably, the way my young brain applied being hurt was, you know, “I want revenge,” therefore that’s what I wrote about.

And yet, I look back at that short film and there is something that’s very consistent in that, with the work I’ve continued to do since then. And I didn’t know it at the time, but it was really sort of stating, “This is what I want to offer. This is my little corner of the story telling universe,” which is to present sort of a preposterous idea that could be taken as comedy and then end up mining that for its truest, most emotional angle. And [Home Base] is weird, in that it starts off with this just ridiculous “I’m going to fuck your mom”, and then by the time you get to the end of the movie she’s having this… and at least the characters are taking it completely seriously… they’re having this big mother-daughter argument, and yet the audience thinks it’s hilarious. And I thought that was just a cool dichotomy—kind of a cool little dynamic—to have the audience looking at something different, tonally, than the way the characters are looking at it. And I think Safety Not Guaranteed has some of that in it.

AC: So, you’ve written for basically every major studio since then. Did you always want to end up directing?

CT: I did, and yet I’m not presumptuous enough to feel that I was entitled to anything more than being a successful screenwriter, which is already so impossible to become. And I was so conscious of that. And having had success in that and making a living doing it, there was a part of me that was willing to say, “This is already an impossible dream, let’s just settle for this.” And then there was another part of me that, after doing it for a while, just really wanted to see if I could actually create something that was tangible, that you could watch.

And a lot of these movies that are written… there’s a lot of screenwriters that could make a really good living and never have a movie made. And that was an experience that I really held with me from the writer’s strike, when I got to walk on the picket line with all of these guys who were multi-millionaires, and yet they were complaining to me that they’ve never been able to see anything they’ve written said by an actor—like, actually realized. And that stuck with me. I felt like, I don’t want to turn into one of those bitter old dudes. Well, they weren’t old… if they’re reading this. They were guys who, you know, they were all really smart and they were great writers, and there’s a real sense of frustration among writers in all levels of the spectrum. People who are hugely successful to those who are just trying to make it, there’s a deep reason why we do this, and it’s a want to be able to tell a story that will fall onto the ears of someone else. And there’s this sense, when you get into the studio system for long enough, that there’s really no ears out there, and you’re just sending stories out into the ether. So that’s why I started to actually make something.

AC: So, do you think a director benefits from being a good writer, or storyteller? Do you think there’s a difference between being a good writer and being a good storyteller?

CT: That’s a good question. I think that good writers are good storytellers and good directors are good storytellers, but there is a skill that great writers have that great directors may not necessarily have, or even need to have. And there have been a lot of brilliant directors from the very beginning who have directed screenplays written by other people. I happen to work with a writing partner. Derek Connolly and I write together, and in this case he wrote [Safety Not Guaranteed]. So I’m very conscious of how a writer’s singular voice can create moments, even when it comes down to the way the characters interact, even if I say, “Okay, here’s a scene where I would like this to happen.” The way that Derek makes that happen is what takes it from just straight-up storytelling to something inspired. And I think that, in the writing, there can be inspiration. And I think, in directing, there can be inspiration as well. And that’s why I think that I have a privilege in being able to have a writer that is inspired in his own right, and he gives me a lot to work with—to be able to pull from that and say “Okay, well how can we move this to the next level?”

AC: Let’s talk for a second about inspiration. The personal ad that inspired Safety Not Guaranteed was originally posted in a magazine, but I actually first saw it as an internet meme that had already taken on a life of its own. Was that something that concerned you when you started to develop this into a movie—that alternate perception?

CT: It excited us. It didn’t concern us, because we were responding to that fact; that it had become an internet meme. The inception of all this, in a roundabout way, was that Derek and I were taking jobs writing for various studios, doing rewrites and things like that, and we went in and had a meeting with our agents and one of our agents said, “Look, the thing that’s really big right now is branded material like Battleship and board games. Go out and find a brand that people know and already has some awareness and write something about that.” Like, walk the aisles of Walmart and look for a product. And we were so depressed by that meeting. And Derek, instead of going around and wallowing in his depression, took that and said, “What kind of a brand, with pre-awareness can I find that’s cool?” You know, that’s not some product. And so the way his brain calculated, he saw this thing—this internet meme—and he thought this is something that does have a certain amount of awareness. People know about this, but it’s also cool and funny and it’s interesting and new. So it was almost Derek’s roundabout way of embracing the mandate of Hollywood at the time. (Laughs) Finding a brand. And that was something that I got very excited about and I thought, “Oh cool, people will see this thing and know it’s a real thing. We didn’t create that classified ad, and people love it because its funny in a very… sure its ironic, and there’s a hipster angle to it, but I think there’s obviously a real humanity behind it, and I think there’s something that we can’t quite put our finger on that makes something become a meme. That makes people grab onto something and want to send it on to somebody else. And, if you’re going to share something with your friend, you want your friend to think that you have taste in what’s good. And so if something catches on at that level, it’s because it’s good. And we figured, all right, let’s extrapolate on this.

AC: So, where did you go from there? Did you actually approach the guy that placed this ad with a completed script?

CT: Well, the script… you know, Derek took this into his own hands and the idea to make a movie out of the “Safety Not Guaranteed” meme was entirely Derek’s. And he actually wrote the first draft of the script before I even know what he was doing. And it was different that the movie that was ultimately made in a lot of ways but, fundamentally, that core idea was there. At that point, it fell on me in my more producorial role to find a way to take this thing that did exist before Derek started working on it, and try to option that material. So, I tracked this guy down and we realized he lived in Northern Oregon, and he was a writer for this magazine, “Backwoods Home.” And I formed a relationship with him over almost a year… it was about six months before he even met with me, and really started to speak. And I wrote a lot of emails to him. And then, over time, we formed this friendship and built a certain amount of trust where he felt like, “Okay, I’m going to allow you to make the ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ movie.” And, in a lot of ways, it really was up to him. If he had said no, we probably still could have done it, but I didn’t want to do it. Because we would have had to change the actual words in the classified ad; we would have had to make up our own version of it. And I didn’t want to do that. Because it was perfect.

mark duplass safety not guaranteed colin trevorrow interview
Mark Duplass as Kenneth

AC: So how much did your interaction with him inform the character of Kenneth? They seem to have some parallels.

CT: What’s even more interesting is that the character of Kenneth was already written based on the language in that ad. But the language in that ad came out of his brain, so we just naturally wrote a character that’s a lot like him in a lot of ways. (laughs) But only because those six sentences [in the ad] are infused with the way he sees the world.

AC: What was it like working with Mark Duplass?

CT: It was great. I sort of had two different relationships with Mark. One was with him as executive producer, just being very supportive to Derek and I and really making sure that we were able to make the movie that we wanted to make and that we shot the script that we wrote. And he allowed us, at certain moments… like when you’re on set and you need that extra fifteen minutes to get something that might not be in the script but you know it’s going to be special, Mark really had the pull to be able to say, “You know what, I want these fifteen minutes. I want to be able to get this thing.” And for us, being in a situation where we’re shooting in 24 days, in 30 locations, you know every minute was crucial. So, having an executive producer who was also the actor who was also a filmmaker in his own right, even though it sounds like a nightmare it actually had a ton of benefits. And I think it really worked in the favor of the movie.

AC: The character he played seemed to have some very interesting traits—from his clothes and hair down to the car he drove. Was creating that aspect of Kenneth a collaborative effort between you and Mark?

CT: It comes from so many different places. There is no one person responsible for all of that. If anything, I would say that I was responsible for culling all of the good ideas and choosing which good ideas to use. But, the good ideas came from everywhere. And the yellow Datsun 280Z from 1978 was the production designer’s choice. He bought that car off of Craigslist for eight-hundred bucks, and it had a screwdriver starter and they put a push-button starter in there. And that was legit, man. (Laughs) That was the real deal! We ended up putting a Shelby Cobra engine into it, when we were in post at Skywalker Sound. So, it’s actually a vehicle that’s never existed, because we put a fake engine in there.

And his outfit… I just woke up one morning and had a very clear vision that Kenneth would wear cargo pants and a Cosby sweater with a jean jacket over it. And that’s just how it was gonna be. And we don’t know where these things come from. But it’s funny, I heard another director speak at a film festival this summer, and he was talking about “fetish filmmaking,” and how everything you see in his film is just really one of his fetishes, and he doesn’t give a shit if you like it or not. That’s just what you’re gonna watch. And I was like, “Oh god! My fetish is for someone to wear all of the best articles of clothing from the 80’s? in one?” That’s MY fetish? To be all awesome and drive a cool Datsun? I guess this is me. I learned a lot about myself.

aubrey plaza mark duplass safety not guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass in the mythical yellow 1978 Datsun 280Z.

AC: You know, there was something about this movie overall that really felt like it was pulled out of the 80’s, especially in light of what’s typical for movies these days. It had echoes of Spielberg’s early stuff.

CT: We grew up during that decade. It’s not a coincidence, and I think you’re going to end up seeing it more and more in the filmmakers who are going to be given the opportunity to direct films in my generation. We all grew up in that decade. So, when you look at the great directors—and I’m not equating myself with these guys—you know, Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, these are guys who grew up during the 70’s. And I think it’s very clear when you watch their films that they are taking the films of the 70’s and putting their own twist on those films. And I think that this is very clearly… these are guys that just came up in that time.

So we have that set of cinematic values, in that we want our fantasy to be grounded and we want it to be real people who are dealing with real human issues, for whom also there is fantasy existing in their world. That’s what I’m going to do with my next film and that’s what I did with this film. And, it’s hard to create that balance. But I think, in the end, there’s just a really natural warmth to people dealing with very human, everyday issues in the same context as aliens, time travel and robots.

And also, to compliment Derek a bit, finding the kind of humor that used to work in those films is extraordinarily difficult. That’s not even something that I can do myself, personally, if I were solely in charge of this operation. What you’re getting is a director who may have certain visual instincts and tonal instincts, and then you have a writer who’s actually able to write dialogue that makes you feel like you’re in that time and you’re in the room with these people. You know people like this. That’s hard. And that’s something I admire. I’ll never claim to be able to do what Derek can do.

AC: One of my favorite moments is the song Kenneth plays on the zither by the campfire. Where did that come from?

CT: So, that came from another side of my life. I live out here in Vermont, and I have a good friend, Ryan Miller, who is the lead singer of Guster, and he had composed the score for one very small indie film and he really wanted to get into that. And I am not only a huge fan of their music, but I feel like I care about music a lot and I studied music a lot when I was young, so I have a real appreciation for the songwriting skills that Ryan has. He did the score for this entire movie and it was very complex, and he did a lot of great stuff. Then, we came upon this moment where we needed Kenneth to sing a song and, originally in the script, it was a Van Halen cover. And we realized thare was just no way we could get the rights to a Van Halen song. So, we were like, okay… what if we have Ryan write a song that actually feels like it comes from Kenneth, and make him go out of his way to write lyrics that feel like the character wrote them and not lyrics that he would write. Because Ryan’s lyrics are not necessarily as on-the-nose as those lyrics are, but that was a conscious choice.

And so the way that ended up playing out was, Ryan had a zither in Burlington, Vermont where he and I both live. And, on his iPhone, taped himself playing that zither. In a hotel in Seattle, Mark Duplass had a second zither and he saw the fingering and taught himself how to play it. And [in the movie] that song is recorded live, at two in the morning, by a real fire, and it’s the first time that Aubrey Plaza ever heard it. So, the reaction you see on film is actually her reaction to hearing the song for the first time.

AC: The fingering did look like it matched up pretty well to the audio.

CT: We don’t even have the zither separate from the vocal track. That’s what actually happened. And I think you can hear it. I think people can sense when something is real. Even if you can manufacture something perfectly. Like, we could have those tracks separate and we could have dubbed it. It’s almost like when you see the animated, motion-capture humans? When they’re not entirely human and you can see it in their eyes? I think that stretches all the way across every aspect of filmmaking. Digital effects, everything. You just know when something isn’t real.

AC: So do you have a favorite time-travel movie?

CT: Well, yeah. But it’s just such an obvious answer.

AC: Back to the Future?

CT: (Laughs) Yes, Back to the Future is the greatest time-travel movie ever. It’s not just the greatest time-travel movie, it’s just one of the best movies. And I think that one of the reasons that I’m so connected to time-travel—that movie isn’t just about time-travel, it’s about screenwriting, in a lot of ways. It really is the archetype for how to introduce questions and then provide satisfying answers over the course of a narrative. And it’s about everything. I’d say it has the greatest… well, secondary to maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I think is the greatest possible stakes that I can remember in a movie. Preventing the Nazis from getting the power of God is the number one, most awesome set of stakes. Making sure your parents fall in love so you exist is right up there. That’s some universal, crazy shit, right there.


Safety Not Guaranteed is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes. You can also find it on Netflix and in RedBox.

safety not guaranteed box art