The genesis of SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED derives from this mysteriously simple ad above, which appeared in the survivalist magazine, Backwoods Home in the mid–90’s. The ad was rediscovered by someone and posted online where it became an internet sensation. In 2007, when writer Derek Connolly stumbled across it, he immediately imagined the characters, story line, general set–up, and title for a film. He initially envisioned a male–bonding story. However, when he saw FUNNY PEOPLE with Aubrey Plaza, it all clicked – he was going to write a character specifically for Plaza, whom he didn’t yet know but hoped he could interest in the story.
By the time Connolly saw the ad there were many jokes, parody songs and videos circulating online. “My first thought was what if the guy who placed the ad was sincere and really wants to go back in time, yet everyone is making fun of him,” recalls Connolly. “There was something really sad about it all. What if he is really lamenting something from his past that he wants to go back and fix. That’s what drew my attention. The title was perfect, tying the whole idea together.” Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow had been writing partners for a number of years, having met while both were studying at N.Y.U. and interning at Saturday Night Live. Connolly gave Trevorrow a first draft of the script, which they then developed together. “I thought it was a really inventive way to approach a time travel movie and the emotional needs that would cause someone to want to time travel, so we decided to try to track down the author of the ad to hopefully get the rights to use it,” says Trevorrow. They found the ad’s author, a writer living in the mountains of Oregon, and after gaining his trust over a period of years, he granted the filmmakers the rights to use his ad.
“Derek is a true writer. He looks at a blank page and gets excited. Although I too am a writer, I look at a blank page and am filled with dread. That’s what makes us a good team – we have a different, yet complimentary set of skills,” says Trevorrow. With script in hand, the duo got it to Plaza, and she immediately accepted the role of ‘Darius.’ She remembers, “I was sent the script and told it was written specifically for me. I didn’t know the writer or director but I really liked the story so said OK. The transformation that my character goes through is what really spoke to me.”
As with Connolly, Jake Johnson and Trevorrow met and became friends while attending NYU, and had often talked about working on a film project together. With “Jeff,’ Trevorrow hoped that he finally found the right piece of material and got the script to Johnson, who quickly came on board.
One thing that attracted Johnson to the script was Kenneth’s belief in time travel. “Jeff acts like he doesn’t believe, but deep down he does. I like to think that time travel could exist. My character is really a jerk but deep down before whatever happened to him, I don’t think he was a bad person. I can relate to him because sometimes it feels so good to say what you’re feeling, not to care, to know that you’re saying the wrong thing in certain moments, and to celebrate that.” He continues, “My character thinks he’s the coolest guy ever. I think he understands the deeper values in life but they’re not his goal. In this film he does get turned around when he realizes there are more important things than an Escalade car. It kicks him in the face a little and he remembers who he is.”
With Darius and Jeff cast Connolly and Trevorrow now had to find their “Kenneth” and they reached out to Mark Duplass, who was already familiar with the classified ad, “Long before I had been sent the script, I had been emailed an internet parody video of the ad. I thought it was great but then forgot about it. I had a pile of scripts on my desk but the title SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED caught my attention although it took me a moment to make the connection.” Duplass had been a fan of Plaza and Johnson’s but had not met them prior to this film. “Jeff is gregarious, sweet and amenable. Darius is much more of a puzzle. Those big brown eyes that come get you yet you’re not sure what she’s thinking.”
“The script struck me as a great underdog story,” says Duplass, who in addition to playing the role of ‘Kenneth’ came on board to executive produce the project. “Two of my favorite films are ROCKY and AMERICAN MOVIE. They share protagonists who the world seems to be against but they have purity and passion of heart in the way they go about doing things. Kenneth has that, but has it in a way that is at once heartwarming and ridiculous. It was the combination of the absurd and the heartfelt that drew me into his character.” Added Trevorrow, “Kenneth’s character could have been silly and goofy, but we thought making him more grounded, a more real human being that was doing preposterous things would make the film more balanced.”
“We connected with Derek’s script immediately,” says Duplass’ producing partner, Stephanie Langhoff. “His characters are simultaneously funny and fragile, and it is hard not to root for them as they seek happiness, each in a different way, over the course of their journey. Colin’s vision of how to tell the story and the attachments of Aubrey and Jake made us only more excited to get involved with the project, and we couldn’t have asked for better partners in making the movie than we found in Big Beach.”
Duplass comments, “This role is unlike any I’ve played. It was a big challenge for me and was one of the first roles that I really researched and spent time trying to figure out who Kenneth is and what makes him operate in the way that he does. Ultimately I discovered that the connection I had to this character was a spiritual one. Kenneth is a believer. I love cracking jokes and making fun of things, but at the end of the day I want to believe that things I can’t intellectually understand are possible.” Further, “What’s great about Kenneth is that he can sit in a room with 1,000 people and they can all tell him empirically why time travel will never happen. And he’ll then look them in the eye and say, ‘yeah, when you’re thinking with your brain that makes sense, but when you’re moving through the world with your heart, I still want to believe.’ That speaks to me. I want to live in that world, and that’s what connects me to Kenneth.”
In many ways Darius is her own worst enemy whose insecurities prevent her from taking chances. “In the beginning of the film she’s kind of closed off and doesn’t know who she is. She has defense mechanisms and really low expectations of the people around her,” says Plaza. “I like portraying flawed characters that are insecure because I relate to that and I know a lot of people like that. I think it’s always good to put those kinds of characters on screen to honor them.”
The character of Darius is a departure from Plaza’s previous roles. “I’ve never had to deal with a big loss like Darius has so I don’t know what that feels like,” she continues. “This was an extremely important learning process for me as an actor. Dramatic parts are scary for me but I learned a lot and want to keep doing more dramatic roles,” she states.
With the three principal cast members in place, Duplass and his producing partner Stephanie Langhoff approached Big Beach to produce and finance the picture. “What we discovered when we read the script for Safety was a truly unique story that explores the emotional and physical aspects of time travel that feels all together familiar in its trappings but completely original in its journey. The fact that the Duplass Brothers were attached to produce and there was this really exciting, fresh cast with a great new voice at the helm made us seize upon the opportunity to become involved.” said John Hodges of Big Beach.
The search for intern ‘Arnau’ was challenging. Karan Soni auditioned early on and the filmmakers knew there was something special to his take on the character but he had no experience. With a first time feature director it seemed wise to look for a more experienced actor. While they continued to audition actors for the part, no one compared to Soni and everyone realized that the path to wisdom was to cast the best actor regardless of his resume. “Karan was surrounded by great actors and improvisers, and he rose to the occasion,” states Trevorrow. “Karan, Aubrey and Jake became somewhat of a family unit with a strong bond of camaraderie and it is felt on screen.”
Soni had just graduated from college when landing the role. “It still hasn’t sunk in which is a good thing because it helps me focus on the work,” he says. “There were points when I was extremely nervous and Jake and Aubrey helped me through not understanding the feelings. My character is a fish out of water and that’s how I felt – art imitating life!”
Soni knows first hand what it means to be an outsider, having himself moved to the U.S. for college after growing up in India, “My character is definitely weird but because he has a journey though the film I think audiences will see him more as a real person rather than just a strange guy. This journey helps pull him out of himself.”
In addition to the terrific principle cast, and in a testament to the strength of the material, Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin and Mary Lynn Rajskub joined the ensemble for a day or two each for the Seattle shoot. All three brought something new to their parts that helped elevate the story and those around them. “The grounded nature of all the performances helps us dance around different tones,” says Trevorrow.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED was shot in 32 locations over 24 days in Seattle and surrounding areas. The production was on the move every day (external). “Usually a film of this budget has 3 — 4 locations, but we wanted it to have scope and to feel, as the film goes on, bigger and bigger,” says Trevorrow.
The film was separated into thirds stylistically. The beginning has a more energetic, independent feel to it with hand held shots. The middle of the film is where the characters begin to relax into themselves, and in the last third it becomes very grand and cinematic using a lot of crane shots. “That was a conscious evolution,” notes Trevorrow. “We did the same thing with hair and makeup on everyone. The film grows in scope as the characters immerse themselves deeper in the fantasy island.”