bestnom1000x50

An interview with Lorene Scafaria

 

 

It wasn't so long ago that I was whining about how after such a big deal was made about Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, the number of women making movies actually declined. Now it looks like things might be changing.  

For example, Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" opens this Friday, Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" opens July 6, and Julie Delpy's "2 Days in New York" opens August 17. 

Not to mention Lorene Scafaria's directorial debut, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,"  which comes out next Friday, June 22. It's a wry little comedy that involves a man named Dodge (Steve Carell), a woman named Penny (Keira Knightley), a dog named "Sorry," and an asteroid named Matilda. Will Dodge and Penny find true love in the two weeks or so they figure the human race has left before Matilda obliterates the planet?

 

I interviewed Scafaria a few days ago when she was in town promoting the movie.THere might be some spoilers below.

PK: I use two tape recorders ever since I interviewed Wim Wenders for an hour and my tape recorder didn't work.

LS:  No! Wim Wenders, oh my God.

PK: He was a nice guy; he actually agreed to another interview afterwards.

LS: Oh that's so nice.

PK: He said when we started, "I don't think your tape recorder is working."

LS: He's incredible. I went to the Berlinale Talent Campus many years ago. It was this thing they had at the same time as the Berlin film festival. They sort of had all these professionals come in and teach these courses. He was the only one I was waiting on in a line from like 4 am to...

PK: Did you have a film or a short there or something?

LS: No, I was just, you know, it was like being a student and taking classes and stuff. But he brought umm, the blues when he did that...when Scorsese did that blues thing. His part of it that he did is the best, "Soul of a Man." It's the best part of it, and it's one of the best things I've ever seen.

PK: Yeah, he has a real affinity for music. Well, so do you

LS: I do, yeah, I do.

PK: How come you didn't write any songs for this, or did you?

LS: No, no, I felt like it was enough. Writing and directing is enough. I didn't want to get too crazy.

PK: I interviewed Julie Delpy a while ago  for "2 Days in Paris." She -- it was for budgetary reasons -- but she acted in it, she directed it, she produced it, she laid cable.

LS: Really?

PK: Yeah

LS: I was definitely carrying some sandbags around. But I didn't... No, she's a powerhouse. Wow.

PK: So there are, I mean I guess it's obviously  because of the Mayan prophecy, but there are a lot of "end of the world" movies coming out these days. But it seems like they're by smaller, independent, more artistic filmmakers, like with your film. I mean going back to "Tree of Life," "Melancholia,"  the Abel Ferrara movie at Sundance.

LS: What was that?

PK  "4:44: Last Days on Earth."

LS: 4:44? Yeah I heard about that. I mean I don't know what, I mean I'm sure it's just on everybody's minds in a way.

PK: It wasn't until I saw your movie.

LS: [laughs] Yeah. I mean this was...I sold the idea in 2008 so it was really funny to me that it would come out in 2012. I mean that was purely by accident. But I remember saying, "we need to make this now, there's going to be so many more of these coming out." I just felt it. But, I mean, we made ours before "Melancholia," before I saw "Melancholia" or any of that, which is a very different mood obviously.

PK: Yeah this is kind of like "Melancholia" with Burt Bacharach.

LS:  There you go, that's what they should put on the poster.

PK: I liked "Melancholia," though.

LS: I did too, and I love Lars von Trier. But I mean that's sort of the most visually stunning way to see it.

PK: Yeah, the first ten minutes...

LS: Yeah the first ten minutes and the last ten seconds.

PK: It's always the last 10 seconds that get you. Well I'm surprised that, I don't want to give away any spoilers but you're allowed to retain the, uh, inevitable ending.

LS: Yeah, that was hugely important to me, even when I sol it as an idea. One of the reasons I was even working at the studio that made Nick and Nora was because I trusted them to keep that intact and I had to hold on to that the whole way. And it's not like there were so many times where it came up, but any time it did it was like, "that's not even a possibility." It was so important to me, theme wise, because what I felt I was trying to say was that death is inevitable and ...

PK: What?!

LS:  Unfortunately. And that, there's um, I don't know. In there's some movies where an individual man is dying and there's been a few of those where it's like, "oh his miraculous cancer...is miraculously cured." And it's always like "oh, he's fine" and it always just felt like a cop-out for me, because I've been through deaths and there's not any ninth inning turn around or anything.

PK: That's when you realize the futility of the power of prayer.

LS: Yeah. I mean, there is a point of no return, I think. And with this, I felt in order to tell the themes that I wanted to and that was just as important. If it had missed and you know, they're sort of like "are we right for each other" that would have been a completely different story, that I didn't have any interest in.

PK: So they die happily ever after.

LS: They die happily ever after, yeah! I like that.

PK: So nobody said, "Can't they just wake up and it's a dream" or something like that?

LS: Yeah, no.  No.

PK: "But how can we have a sequel?"

LS: Well, I was thinking the sequel could be from when Dodge's wife leaves him in the very beginning, and just follow her for the whole time. I think that'd be fun.

PK: You could have like an infinite number of stories.

LS: Yeah, just follow each single person and the rest of their time.

PK: You've got a TV series there.

LS: Yeah, I'd like to see this as a musical.

PK: That'd be a good idea, the same, what is it two week period in the film?

LS: It's supposed to be three, but it shifts on them.

PK: And just pursue as many different people who are involved in the story.

LS: I think that'd be fun;  the ending would have to stay the same.

PK: You've had this idea for some time now though back in 9/11 was it that you...

LS: Yeah, well the late 90s had a great, you know, that rash of end of the world movies that were coming out, so it was in my head even when "Deep Impact"...

 

I remember seeing that and thinking that the moment that I cared about was Tea Leoni and her father sort of standing there on the beach and I was so much more interested what was happening to the human relationships. And even movies like "Day After Tomorrow"  we, like, "oh, Jake Gyllenhall has a crush on this girl"

 

and that's what I'm thinking about almost more so than where his father is in the snow. So it was always in my mind and stuff.

But yeah, 9/11. I moved from New York to LA a week before it. So I was stranded in LA with no one, I knew nobody and I was just sort of desperate for human contact and calling up an old friend I hadn't talked to in a long time.

PK: In New York?

LS: Yeah, and I couldn't really get on a plan because you know nobody really wanted me to. So I was just really grounded in LA and no seeing my family or my friends and feeling very far away from everything. It was just sort of interesting that here's some huge cataclysmic sort of event and what it does just to an individual's behavior and relationships: people getting back together, people breaking up, people have children, I mean it really, really was an interesting period of time. And of course you go back to New York and people are looking each other in the eyes for the first time in long time and that didn't last, but it was like that for a little while it felt like a real community again, just sort of like we're all in it together. I was a real feeling and so, so with this, while I wanted to show the darker side and people rioting it also felt like people do and come together and feel closer with each other.

PK: Great way to start the next phase of your life, I guess.

LS: Yeah. That's right. So that was in my head at that point. So I guess I'd say I was jotting down notes for a long time. But it wasn't until 2008 when I was sure I wanted to do it. ‘Cause "Nick and Norah" ["Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," for which she wrote the screenplay] was coming out and I remember thinking this is a movie that could go on forever in a way, this is, you know infinite.


PK:  You aren't daunted by the big topics, the end of the world and the infinite.

LS: Yeah, exactly. Well this is something that could go on forever and there's not really a ticking clock to this story in a way, other than the sun rising. And in that way I thought what if these people the loudest ticking clock you could possibly give them and what would happen to a relationship or a love story, so what if you really took forever off the table and, um, certainly a guy like Dodge...there's no future and he certainly hasn't been living in the present and everything he thought was a safety net is gone. He would certainly chase the past, he's probably been chasing the past his whole life. You know plenty of people do and, I mean, don't imagine that there's going to be something else up ahead. And so that was really interesting to me, that if you took "forever" away would you be doing the same thing if you took the clocks out of your head is...are you still gonna want to be with this person are you still going to want the same things in our life?

PK: Sounds like a comedy to me!

LS: Yup! Laughs galore.

PK: There's one thing about this movie and other movies I've seen by women directors is that you mix genres. I mean this is always like a screwball-tragedy sort of thing.

LS: Yeah, that's interesting, what other female directors are you thinking of?

PK: Well actually I was thinking of Kathryn Bigelow, but she's not as many laughs.

LS: Just a few. I guess it was a conscious decision t these two genres I had to make collide and use together. And so as I was going... that was why I was, like, of course, there's going to be a riot, there should be a riot scene, but realizing that the riot should be a break-up scene. Should also beher, Penny, going through that with Owen, so it was interesting. It was helping me to write. These two genres have to work together and within the scenes themselves. So that's how Thank God It's Friday's becomes an orgy  and all the rest.

PK: I thought it was Friendzies. So there isn't an actual Friendzies?

 

LS: No actual Friendzies. When Friday's wouldn't let us do that in their restaurant we tried Applebees, we tried a couple other places but...I actually enjoyed sort of making up a name for a place like that.

PK: It was good, I didn't get it until like an hour ago.

LS: Good I'm glad. It'll hit you in waves.

PK: Hopefully I'll get all the other jokes I missed. What's it like writing a screenplay and then becoming a director? Did you find it a natural transition?

LS: I did. I did because I'd been writing for so long and everything had been kinda on paper I'm someone who wants output as much as possible. I was so determined to have this thing made. But you know writing is such a lonely process, I mean it's so isolating and to me the anxiety of a deadline being noon tomorrow and it's just you and your hands and brain and...

PK: You're describing my life.

LS: Right! I mean every day is school all over again. So to me that's more anxiety inducing than showing up on set and feeling like, oh, we're all in this together, there's 100 people around who have power tools and are experts at their own things. And I felt really at ease doing that. And it was fun for me to be outside, and start to do that. But it was also so rewarding to be...to cross things off the list that had been there for three years to realize, "oh we just did the trucker scene, we're done with that." This idea that's I've had in my head for years is actually completed and so it was hugely rewarding. And I directed a lot of theater growing up and did a short, I called it the longest short. It was never meant to go to film festivals, but was something to sort of prove to myself that I could maybe tackle a feature someday. PK: did it go to film festivals?

LS: No no, I mean it didn't, it had no business at film festivals. It was just so long, it could have been a pilot for something. But that was it.

PK: It could be one of the extras on the DVD.

LS: Yeah, I think I'd be so embarrassed by it, it certainly wasn't the thing that got me this job or anything, but it at least helped my own confidence in going into it. And from theater and everything I felt like I could work with actors. And then I had an incredible crew like Tim Orr [the cinematographer] was sort of like film school every day. So I learned a lot as I went.

PK: It seems like such an immense sea of trivia that you have to deal with, all the decisions and...

LS: Yeah, the decision making part was fun... that was always something that I thought...I could just think on the fly. But, you know, you reach things that happen that are completely out of your control. And that was something that I you know...I didn't mind either. I sort of like that kind of problem solving where you show up and they're like, "we can't film the street that you saw, we can't film then, so now what?" those were challenges that I didn't mind so much. When you hear "it's going to rain," and there's nothing you can do about it.

PK: Challenges are opportunities, like with TGIF and Friendzie's.

LS: Yeah. I mean that's, its true. And I guess I always thought that restrictions are kind of helpful in a way. In a way, I wanted this budget to at least be small enough so that things wouldn't get so bloated and blown out of proportion and people would be like, "why didn't we see the asteroid?" and I wanted to keep the scale at least small enough and hopefully be able to afford things like songs we wanted, you know, things like that.

PK: You got a big budget cast though.

LS: Yeah! They worked for nothing, which is crazy. I mean it was the only way it was going to get done. So they worked for nothing, and I can't believe the group of people we got together. I think everybody was just interested in telling the story, they were interested in the ideas enough that it was sort of like thinking about this kind of stuff, like if a character speaks to you in any way. And we managed to get, you know, Patton Oswalt to come out for half a night and do his thing and when he was done he was like, "aaaghh I needed that." 

 

So I felt like everybody just came to blow off some steam almost.

PK: Is that William Peterson in the truck?

LS: Yeah, yeah. We actually had him at a table read, which is unbelievable that we had him at a reading. It was four months before we really started casting and just sort of testing the material out and hearing it out loud and that he...that "Manhunter"  came out.  I'm like, "you came for a reading?!" That's just wild. So he read the trucker then and I asked him...I think he was the first person cast.

LS: Yeah, it was the first stuff we shot actually. Which...I mean it was great because I'd met him before, but it was still fairly intimidating that that...what we had to do to him  that day.

PK: Good pyrotechnics.

LS: Yeah. Not bad, not bad.

PK: Caught me by surprise.

LS: Yeah, well the sound is...explosive.

PK: So you didn't want to make this into a road movie, I read somewhere that, you were trying to avoid that?

LS: I did, because I was reluctant. ‘Cause you know "Nick and Norah" was one. I love the idea of, like, bad road movies; In a way like a Manhattan road movie is so ridiculous. I loved that, so in this way too I like the idea of what if this is a road movie and gas is running out so... but I was reluctant to do it because of ‘Nick and Norah" and thinking I don't want to do that again. And then as I was writing it, and going of course they shouldn't hit the road on page 60. It really is a journey and what would people do at this point besides try to you know, go and find people if they're not in your backyard. So I finally gave into it, and I was really happy that I did.

PK: They did run out of gas a little bit.

LS: Right away!

PK: reading over your biography, nothing was ever handed to you it seems like you really had  to struggle from the beginning to get your...like you sent in your first screenplays unsolicited.

LS: Yeah, I was from Jersey and I wasn't even surrounded by anybody who was into film. There was no one, and no courses, no family members [laughs] that were directors or anything. But, yeah, I was always so interested in it, and let's see...I was answering phones at Shooting Gallery [a now defunct Indie studio] in New York when that film company was up and running and I was just a receptionist and used their stationary to send out query letters, and wrote scripts at the computer there.

PK: Oh, that's why they failed.

LS: Right. They were like "the phone! No one's answering the phone!" And then someone actually answered a query letter and told me to move to LA and I think she switched agencies while I was in Texas driving across the country and I never heard from her again so when I showed up in LA I...

PK: So you drove?

LS: Yeah I drove to LA. And I had nothing once I got there.  Again a week before 9/11

PK: They said comedy was dead after that. Comedy and irony were dead at that point.

LS: Yeah, everything was dead at that time, and yeah it was tough to write. It was tough to figure out what stories are still within you when your head was everywhere else. So I'd say I wrote about five scripts at that point. And my roommate at the time, we looked up what scripts were selling, or what movies were being made. There was a lot of children's adventure at that time so we decided, well, let's write a children's adventure together and it got optioned somehow and it ended up being the first thing of mine that went around and suddenly I had a career in children's adventure [laughs] which I really didn't know what I was doing and a writing partner which I also didn't know what I was doing. So we worked at that for another year I'd say and then kind of broke away from that and it was another two years after that that a script was optioned. I wrote my eighth script that was called "The Mighty Flynn" and that ended up being sort of my calling card in town. And that's how I ended up getting the "Nick and Nora" job, it  was basically off of that. But, yeah, it was like, talking to agents-in-training and our agent was an agent-in-training and we became his first clients. And then, you know, switching agencies a few years later, it was a strange path for sure but I do think that sometimes you can write your way into stuff so I felt like I ...it had  been a long time out in LA kinda meeting people and working in the business without having a whole lot of output.

PK: But you made a living?

LS: Totally able to make a living. From "Nick and Nora's" on, I feel like I didn't really have a career before but from the ninth script on I felt like I had a career. But you know sometimes I would be writing five things at a time and the glory days were like that and...things have changed even since then. It's not as easy to sell a pitch, they'd want to hire you for one step at a time. You know everything is sort of changed and a lot of screenwriters I know are moving into TV cause it's a much more fair world for a screenwriter...for the writer. And for me I always wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to direct, so for me it was like, "well I don't want to abandon ship, I want to keep trying at this." I can't, I love it too much.

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