Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: Interview with Lorene Scafaria
Taking audiences on a humorous, moving, and intimate journey against an epic backdrop of Earth’s final days, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is the feature directorial debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria (“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”). Set in a too-near future where time at once stands still and is slipping away forever, the writer/director explores what people will do and how they will feel when humanity’s end is near.
A 70-mile-wide asteroid is en route to Earth, and the last best attempt to counter it has failed. Dodge (Steve Carell) has always played by the rules of life, while his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) is an extrovert who hasn’t. The two misfits meet first when Penny has a rough night and then again when she belatedly delivers Dodge a lost letter from his high-school sweetheart Olivia. When a riot breaks out around their apartment building, Dodge realizes that he must seek Olivia out before it’s too late while Penny makes the decision to spend her last days with family in England. Seizing the moment, Dodge promises to help Penny reach her family if she will provide transport for the two of them in her car immediately. She agrees, and they escape.
Themes in the Film
Scafaria: I had a small obsession with “the end is near,” and a larger obsession with love. So it became a fun challenge to see what would happen when worlds collide – so to speak. I figured I would keep the screenplay at a very human level in scope and tell a story of relationships; what people would do, and how a person with feelings towards another person would be affected.
Scafaria: I kept trying not to write [a “road movie”], though eventually I gave in and started to embrace the concept a little more – but I keep halting the lead characters’ road trip because of basic things like gas. They find themselves in some pickles along their route. I took six months off. Then I came back and rewrote the script, concentrating more on the concept of time – having it, and losing it…There is a lot in this story that is me; of the two lead characters, I’m more the Penny type, but I have a strong dose of Dodge in me as well. Up until this tipping point, these two people have lived their lives very differently. As much as Dodge has avoided life, Penny has been diving in headfirst. Together, they find they can face the end of the world.
Scafaria: [Carell’s like the] actors who could do comedy with pitch-perfect timing but also be subtle and still, like Peter Sellers or Jack Lemmon; Steve can do so much with a look. We were ridiculously lucky to have him. When making a movie, he is a collaborative, generous, kindhearted gentleman.
Scafaria: I knew [Knightley would] be amazing and stunning and super-smart. But here’s the surprise; she is so damn funny. So there’s this refreshing blend of Keira, known as a dramatic actress, being more of a comedienne; and Steve, known as a comedic actor, doing a more dramatic role. Steve and Keira play off each other so well and have such great chemistry. Getting to hear my words said by these two actors? I couldn’t have asked for more.
Aleister as Sorry the Dog
Scafaria: Sorry enters the story right when Dodge has reached his lowest low and given up hope altogether. He wakes up that morning and finds he has been given someone else’s burden, which becomes a responsibility that gives Dodge’s life meaning again. When I saw Aleister and his wonderful scrappy snaggletooth and wiry coat, I loved him and felt, “Here’s our hero dog.” [Dogs] just make the set better. Or maybe I’m a crazy-dog-lady-in-the-making.
The Film Crew
Scafaria: Our amazing crew got the scene done, with stunt work and pyrotechnics and vermin, as how I had envisioned it…Which was, basically, as a mini-version of a sequence I admired in [Alfonso Cuarón's] “Children of Men.” I also had fun filming our Friendsy’s [restaurant] scenes, where things get chaotic for Dodge and Penny. Our Friendsy’s extras should win MVP awards.
Collaboration with the Crew
Scafaria: I had had high hopes we would get [Director of Photography Tim Orr] for “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist;” I’d seen and loved his work. When that didn’t pan out, I became obsessed with working with him some day, and I felt so fortunate when we landed him for this – my first time out as director. We mapped out the entire shot list well before production started, then revised it as we went along, and certainly improvised when we had to on a given day. It was a very symbiotic collaboration. We agreed on our process together out of the gate, coordinating on shot composition. I come from a theater background, so I had to keep reminding myself to try to get as much coverage as possible. I learned more from Tim than from anyone else, and often referred to our time together as “my film school with Tim Orr.”
Scafaria: I always intended to be vague about [the year in the story] in the telling. The only time we see a date is on a bottle of cough syrup, and we don’t know if the expiration date is coming up or it’s already come and gone. By being only relatively in the future, I had options to play with the look of the film. [Production Designer] Chris Spellman and [Director of Photography] Tim Orr helped create the aesthetic for the movie. I was inspired by films like [Albert Brooks’s] “Defending Your Life” and [Roy Andersson’s] “Songs from the Second Floor,” movies which created their own world. Chris [Spellman] and I figured out the tiny little stories within our story, whether it was for an object or for a person you see only fleetingly.
What to Save at the End of the World
Scafaria: There’s always that “what if” question; in case of a fire, what are you going to grab when you’re on your way out the door? What can you in fact physically carry? Dodge by then feels responsible for the dog, but for Penny these albums have long had meaning to her; her record collection is something that she’s taken care of for years and years – in part because it is a connection to her parents. Music is important to me, so I felt that this story wouldn’t be complete without it. Part of showing Penny’s journey was through what – if not who – she has.
Albums to Rescue from a Disaster
Scafaria: Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby,” some Gene Clark, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” The Beatles.
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