Actress-playwright-singer Lorene Scafaria made her mark in 2008 with the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a sweetly hip little love story. That breakthrough also earned her a spot in Hollywood’s new “Fempire” gang of women screenwriters, along with her pals Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), Liz Meriwether (No Strings Attached, New Girl), and Dana Fox (The Wedding Date, What Happens in Vegas).
Now Scafaria’s written and directed her feature-film debut, another rom-com with a twist: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. In it, an approaching asteroid spells doom for the planet Earth in just two weeks, leaving some folks wallowing in anarchy and hedonism, some sticking to their daily work routines, and some, like Steve Carell’s morose Dodge, personally and existentially adrift.
Lonely and lost amid the varied extreme (and sometimes not so extreme) reactions of his fellow humans, Dodge finds his lot accidentally thrown in with Penny (Keira Knightly), the free-spirited downstairs neighbor he’d never spoken to before. Driven by end-of-the-world emotional quests (Dodge to find a high-school sweetheart he let get away, Penny to get back to England to be with her family), the pair wind up on a mini-road trip that exposes them to the wide (and often hilarious) range of human behavior and social breakdowns that accompany The End, but also offers them both one more shot at honest romance.
The picaresque Seeking a Friend for the End of the World also features fine supporting work from Adam Brody, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, William Petersen, T.J. Miller, Gillian Jacobs, Derek Luke, and Martin Sheen.
I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk with Lorene Scafaria to talk about Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, about how 9/11 and later her own father’s death informed the script, and why TGIFridays resturants would likely become orgy sites.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World opens in theaters everywhere today.
Lorene Scafaria: It was so long ago, it took a while. But in the late ‘90s obviously there was a rash of end-of-the-world movies coming out, and then 9/11 happened. I moved from New York to Los Angeles the week before 9/11, so I was just alone and isolated in my own world. Right after that I realized I was desperate for human contact–I was calling up old friends I hadn’t talked to in a long time.
And I went back and saw this real change in New York–people were looking each other in the eyes for the first time in years. And I think I lasted about a year, it didn’t last forever. But I saw such a change in human behavior–I was thinking so much about how these things on grand scales can actually affect one person in their relationships, and not just in life and death situations. So that was the very beginning, but it was in my head for a long time.
Then right before Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was coming out I remember thinking, “I love that story, but it doesn’t really have a ticking clock to it.” There was the sense that it could go on forever, and so I thought, “Well, what if you took ‘forever’ off the table?” What if we just said that wasn’t even a possibility–what would that do to people’s ability to meet and fall in love? And I thought, “What’s the loudest ticking clock?” I really wanted to do a romantic comedy, which I love, but with a larger concept so I could tell a very epic story but through very intimate details.
Scafaria: I’d always wanted to direct–I directed theater when I was younger, and I made a short film in 2005. I worried about the tricky tone of this story in other people’s hands, and about the ending being changed. These are themes that I’d been exploring for so long, these are characters I’d been trying to talk about for so long, it just felt like the culmination of everything I’d been trying to do, so I couldn’t let it go.
In trying to write a romantic comedy, did you ever feel trapped by your so very fatal and final premise?
Scafaria: There was always the challenge of whether or not it was going to be too sad for people. I was talking to a person the other day and saying, “Isn’t it weird that at funerals everybody’s so full of life?” You go to one of those brunches after, and everybody’s talking and telling stories, and so happy, and it feels like this very uplifting experience. I thought, “Well, there must be a way to have that feeling.” There must be a way to feel like things are final and yet sort of beautiful and feel the journey was worth it and that you ended up in the right place.
I’ve definitely been through some dark times myself, and in the middle of my writing this script my father got sick and passed, and I took six months off of work. Then I came back and wrote it with this totally different perspective of time. I saw my father appreciating his life right up until the end, and that was beautiful. Death’s horrible, and it’s inevitable and this great equalizer, but it was the happiest moment in a way because he had my mother and I, and that was what he wanted. You’re in the right place and you’re with the right people and it’s going to happen anyway. So it was a challenge, and yet I thought “This should hopefully end in a bit of a high.”
Plus deadlines make you finally get your shit together and focus emotionally. And the film features the ultimate deadline.
Scafaria: It’s like I’m going through therapy right now. (Laughs) It’s kind of freeing: “Okay, you take forever off the table, that’s not an option, what are you doing?” How do you want to fill the time with the most important sort of quality time you can? It’s sort of a strange thing–you’ve got the worst ticking clock in the world, but it brings you closer to life. And so, as morbid and it is and as dark as it can seem, to me there’s this feeling of, “Oh wait, we’re all facing it together, we’re all in it together.” There is something sort of unifying and beautiful about that, and the idea that it can bring out the best in people. And obviously other people are going to riot and shoot heroin… and more power to them. (Laughs)
Scafaria: That really keeps you going a lot of the time. You need a sense of normalcy again. When I asked some people what would they do, one person was like, “Oh, I would totally go to work, and I would be terrified that no one would be there. But this is my place to go.” I think there’s something really comforting about sticking to your routines. I would never go to work again (laughs), but I would still want to make things, because that’s what I like to do. I would probably find projects that I would have no reason to start or to end, but I would find that to be very comforting.
I was pleasantly surprised by the wonderful chemistry between Carell and Knightly—on paper it doesn’t seem like it would automatically work.
Scafaria: I felt like Steve had such good chemistry in Get Smart with Ann Hathaway, and I thought, “He needs a firecracker under him.” Especially for this character Dodge, who is so guarded and really needs someone to pull everything out of him. I was really excited about the idea of people who have been passing each other in the hallway and absolutely not thought of each other. The idea that something like this would happen, and everything would change, and unknowingly a soul mate is living right below you.
So I was really excited to see Steve and Keira’s chemistry. We only had one rehearsal before we started, and it was so great–I thought, “Oh, this is what I had sort of hoped and imagined.” They both need each other, and I do think that he learns something and gets brave as a result of being on the journey with her. You want him to be happy and her to feel safe.
Scafaria: I think we went a little far in a lot of directions. Early drafts went all over the place. Ultimately it was more about how long do we spend in each place? I knew I wanted a riot, and I knew there would be people who were suicidal, and I knew there’d be an orgy somewhere.
I had a big “a-ha” moment while writing when I realized the two genres I was working with had to collide. So as I was writing I was becoming more aware of thing like, “Oh right, the riot needs to be a break-up scene.” The riot scene is from the end-of-the-world half of the movie, but in our rom-com world, what does a riot scene do for these characters? Same thing with the orgy and Friendzies restaurant–those used to be two different scenes for a long time, and then I was like, “Duh.”
The ultimate in forced hospitality.
Scafaria: Exactly! To me the question was always, “How many of these little things can we get in there without getting too religious, without getting too political? I just wanted to focus on society and people as much as possible, and play it for comedy as much as we could. That was always the goal.