Until the dark day of I Can Has Cheezburger: The Movie!, Safety Not Guaranteed will stand—as far as I can tell—as the only motion picture inspired by an internet meme. While its origins make Safety Not Guaranteed sound slight and disposable—a few steps above Battleship in Hollywood’s “Oh shit, what else can we turn into a movie?!” descent—the difference is that Safety Not Guaranteed is both staunchly independent and very, very good. Funny and sad and sweet and clever, it’s a film that transcends its roots to become—and I know we’re only halfway through 2012, but fuck it—one of the best films of the year.
“It’s about emotional time travel,” director Colin Trevorrow tells me, adding that the theme of the film, despite it being both a comedy and a romance, is pretty somber: “You can’t go back.”
That sentiment also contradicts the classified ad-turned-meme behind the film. Published in 1997 in Oregon’s Backwoods Home magazine (your source for “practical ideas for self-reliant living”), the ad reads: “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” By the time the ad hit ytmnd.com, it was accompanied with audio from Paul Engemann’s “Push It to the Limit” and a photo of an intense man with an even more intense mullet.
Rather than smirking along with the rest of the internet, Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly saw the germ of a story. Connolly took those six lines and ran with them, and Trevorrow lined up Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass to star (Duplass and his brother, Jay, also serve as producers). But before they started filming, Trevorrow wanted to get permission from the man behind the ad. And at first, John Silveira—a man whom Trevorrow described in the Wall Street Journal as “a unique animal—a survivalist and a poet, an armed raconteur”—“did not trust me at all,” Trevorrow says. Silveira, an editor at Backwoods Home, had written the classified to fill space; while he was as surprised as anybody by the ascension of what he called “the time-travel ad” to “minor internet phenomenon,” he didn’t want the film’s protagonist to be portrayed—or, rather, invented—as he had been online.
Luckily, neither did Trevorrow. In the film, Kenneth, played by Duplass, isn’t “silly and goofy,” Trevorrow says—he’s awkward, yeah, and possibly insane, but he’s also sincere and likeable. While Darius (Plaza)—an intern for a Seattle magazine who’s assigned to write about Kenneth—lies to get close to him, she soon realizes there’s more to Kenneth than his bizarre classified or unfortunate mullet.
“Aubrey’s role was written very specifically for her,” Trevorrow says, adding that she “informed what the dynamic would be” and the screenplay’s “initial draft didn’t really have a love story.” That’s hard to imagine, considering how natural and engaging Darius and Kenneth’s unlikely romance is in the finished film. Even as Darius deals with the awkwardness of her aging editor Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and her Asperger-y fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), the core of the story remains Darius and Kenneth’s deepening, frequently hilarious bond. And throughout, a question: How much should Darius, and the audience, trust Kenneth? It’s a story that’s funny, strange, honest, and daring—in other words, not what audiences expect during blockbuster season.
“There wasn’t that studio breathing down our neck,” Trevorrow says about why his Sundance-approved film turned out as well as it did. “You’re seeing a very honest, earnest tone.” And while he admits the pretty astounding fact that the film was “shot in 24 days, for well under a million dollars,” Trevorrow adds that he hasn’t been making a big deal about it—since Safety Not Guaranteed is playing in the same multiplexes as stuff like The Avengers, he’s wary of people underestimating it or putting it off until it hits Netflix. “We achieved that trick in making people think it’s a bigger movie than it is,” Trevorrow says. Here’s hoping enough people see Safety Not Guaranteed to make it a legitimately big movie. It deserves it.