NEW YORK CITY - Lorene Scafaria has seen the end of days. In fact, the screenwriter of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist has been living with specifics about the Earth's destruction for years, ever since she came up with the pitch for Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World as her directorial debut. On the film's press junket at the Waldorf Astoria, she sat down to discuss death, casting, awful chain restaurants and the importance of having an apocalypse playlist.
The first thing I noticed about Seeking A Friend is the shabbiness of its world. Cars still have cassette decks; cable-news networks are filled with old CRT monitors. It feels like a clue to how long these people have known about the meteor; it's like nobody's bothered to upgrade anything. How long have they lived with the knowledge?
I certainly imagine that for a few months it's kinda been out there - they're sort of assuming that Bruce Willis is going to stop it. [laughter]
Yeah, I wanted to give a timeless quality to it. I didn't want it to be too modern, and I didn't want to be futuristic either. So there's a bit of a throwback feel to it. The only time you really see the date - and it's a vague one - is on a cough-syrup bottle. There's an expiration date.
Your movie's coming out just six months before the Mayan calendar says the world ends. Any resonance there?
It's such a surprise that it's coming out in 2012. I sold it as a pitch in 2008, so I had no idea we'd be capitalizing on the Mayan calendar. [laughter] I have real hope that we'll make it. I have such big plans for December 22. [laughter] I'm probably more afraid of nuclear war than an asteroid or anything like that. I didn't want [the movie's apocalypse] to be due to human error; I wanted it to just feel like the sky was falling.
This is your directorial debut. Were you nervous or intimidated by the challenge?
I was more nervous about never doing my first feature film. There was so much work to just get to pre-production that by the time we were there and it felt real, I was less nervous. I was sort of just hoping my body would hold up to that kind of torture, being awake for 20 hours a day.
Was this a difficult project to get produced? And did you have to campaign to get to direct it?
I sold it as a pitch with myself attached to direct, so I didn't give them any choice in the matter. But I'm sure it took the producers a lot of courage to say okay. And of course once the cast was reading the scripts, they had to approve of me as the first-timer.
And you landed Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.
It's truly amazing. I think everybody read the script and was just interested in exploring the themes. Steve said he felt very akin to his character, Dodge, and Keira seemed to say the same about Penny. It was very fortunate that we were able to pull that together, because without someone like Steve Carell I could never have gotten the movie made.
Penny has a fanatical attachment to her record collection. I'm assuming you curated the albums?
I tried to handpick as many of them as possible. I wanted them to be classics, nostalgic songs that would fit into her collection and yet somehow be sort of representative of [Dodge's] life, music that he probably grew up on or didn't listen to at the time but should have. Music has always had an important role in my life, but I'd also been thinking about what people would be consuming at the end of the world. More so than movies and TV shows, music is such a collection of memories - it seemed that it would be important to everybody. There's a sort of universal love of music, but it's so subjective, obviously.
Did you plan scenes around particular songs?
I wrote two songs into the script. The Beach Boys' Wouldn't It Be Nice, that kicks it off - Pet Sounds is their best album, and to me, nothing could juxtapose the end of the world in a more hysterical way than the Beach Boys. Even though it's such a melancholy sort of music, that sunny exterior, I thought, really captured it. And Herb Alpert's This Guy's In Love With You was always written into the script, too, but for personal reasons.
I actually had a lot of people make me mixes... things like the Hollies [track] came from other people contributing their songs to me. And as we went, I wanted to make sure that the records [Penny] was holding kind of reflected a lot of the songs that we were hearing. So that was a challenge as we were going along - you know, before anything, we had to get the rights to have her carry these records, and the hope was, as it went along, the songs would actually match up.
The scene where Dodge and Penny stop at a horrible chain restaurant looks like it was a lot of fun to shoot.
I'm from Jersey, so I have a love of T.G.I. Fridays, and chain restaurants in general. Originally, when I was thinking of different things for the film, I had an orgy scene, and then I had a scene in Fridays, and I was like, "Hang on a second." [laughter] Because you go to a Fridays and it already seems like everyone's on ecstasy and way too happy sitting in the booth with you and stuff. So when I decided they should be one and the same- honestly, I can't believe anyone let me shoot that. The whole time it was on paper, I was like, "Is anybody gonna get this?" And that was the most fun thing to film, the two nights that we were creating an orgy in a restaurant. T.J. Miller is hysterical, and Gillian Jacobs, too. They're both such great comedic talents.
Are you're happy with the experience on the whole? Or will you never direct again?
I always wanted to direct. I directed a lot of theatre [when I was younger] so I always felt pretty comfortable with actors... I was always trying to write my way into directing, and always, always wanted to do both. I've felt like a hired hand for a really long time, and with this, the themes were too important - and the tone was too tricky - for me to leave to somebody else. It was definitely something I've wanted to do for a long time. I still plan to write things for other people to direct, and I'd love to direct television that somebody else writes, for instance, but the goal is to chase this feeling.
Casting Carell as a suddenly single depressive makes perfect sense, but Keira Knightley feels like she's working outside her usual comfort zone. How did you cast her?
She's got such energy to her that's sort of special and unique - you watch the Pirates movies and you really can't take your eyes off her. Obviously she's gorgeous, but there's a light that she seems to bring to everything - especially in terms of playing opposite Steve. I really wanted a firecracker to light a fire underneath him. And I liked the idea that a comedic actor would play the more introverted role, and a dramatic actress could come in and somehow play the comic relief. I thought it'd be so fun to see her loosen up and play something lighter. She still brings tears to my eyes in it, but she's got an energy about her, and a light, that's so rare to see. She's such an old soul, and so, so deep. Both of the actors bring so much humanity to their roles that I thought they would play well off each other.
Was there any pressure to change the movie's ending?
No. When I sold the pitch to them, I told them if they changed the ending I would lose my mind. [laughter] I think it would have been such an insult to the themes that I was trying to express that it would have been just a different movie. It would have been such a cop-out.... Death really is inevitable, and something that we all have to face. It's a necessary evil in order to appreciate everything about life, for the journey to have been worth it.
There are no special effects in the movie at all. Was that a factor of the budget, or a decision you'd made on the page?
It was in the script. In truth, I mean, it'd be pretty horrible - I watched a simulated video of what would happen if a 70-mile-wide asteroid hit Earth, and it takes seven minutes for the fireball to surround the whole thing. And when you're watching it, Pink Floyd is playing, which really adds a lot to the experience.
So, an awkward question from the Canadian in the room.... Seeking A Friend is very similar, at least in terms of the premise, to Don McKellar's Last Night. Were you aware of that film while working on this one?
Oh, Last Night? I never saw it. People have [also] talked about Melancholia, and I'm not afraid of it, but people have talked about Last Night; it's one of those things I'm so afraid to watch, just because I've heard so much about it in the last six months.
Were there other movies that inspired your approach to this script?
It wasn't so much end-of-the-world movies, but Defending Your Life is one of my favourite movies of all time. Again a very high-concept love story - what a world they created, and what bigger stakes can you get than "Are you gonna go to heaven with Meryl Streep?" And all the pasta that you want! Oh, I love that movie. So Defending Your Life was one, and then M*A*S*H was one, too. I remember giving that to Keira - she had never seen it - and she watched it once and then watched it again right after. And Songs From The Second Floor - I feel like I've been talking about it to death, but it's one of the most amazing movies of all time. I mean, it's a much bleaker universe, but that really was, for me, a pivotal film. That was hugely important.