Lorene Scafaria has had an interesting history in Hollywood as a screenwriter. After spending years toiling away on various screenplays, several of which were optioned (including the near-legendary MIGHTY FLYNN), her sweet, musically based romance NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST was made in 2008. During her quieter times, she dabbled in acting and singing (a song of hers is featured in the Drew Barrymore film WHIP IT).
And now comes her touching, end-of-the-world romantic-drama SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, which Scafaria also decided to make her directed debut, and it's a moving and funny experience with Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, as well as a host of funny cameos. And that's about all you need to know about Scafaria that she doesn't cover in our lively interviews conducted recently in Chicago. Enjoy Lorene Scafaria…
Capone: Hi, it’s great to meet you.
Lorene Scafaria: Hi, Steve! It’s nice to meet you, too. I follow you on Twitter.
Lorene Scafaria: I do.
Capone: Me personally or the site?
Lorene Scafaria: You personally. I hope that's alright.
Capone: Why would you do that?
Lorene Scafaria: I think you said something nice once, and I was like, "I'm going to follow him." I follow the nice.
Capone: Whenever you are writing any kind of film, whether it’s science fiction or anything, that is focused on the end of the world or leading up to the end of the world, you run two risks, both of which I think you avoid. One is that you cop out and don’t actually have the world end, which would make everyone hate you. Or the movie is just really sad.
LS: [laughs] Right.
Capone: You manage to avoid both emotional outcomes. I think it’s a fairly uplifting film in the end.. Why did the last few days of the world's existence need to be the setting? Why did that need to be happening in order to tell this story?
LS: That definitely was the point, at least. The hope was to come out of something feeling uplifted in spite of the choice of ending. Death for me, you’re younger and you glorify in a very strange way, and as I was getting older there were way too many funerals, way too many of those things to go to. Then at a certain point, you start to realize when you go to funerals, you go to a brunch after a funeral, and there’s never been a more hopeful place. You’ve never felt more enlightened or more in love with the person or in love with your friends and your life and all of that, and so I just always thought “Gosh, people don’t look like this at baby showers.”
People don’t seem quite as happy when they are celebrating life, they seem to be facing their own mortality. But when collectively everybody is facing their own mortality in a situation like this certainly some people are just going to jump off a bridge, and other people are going to realize how important time is. To me what could be more important than figuring out what to do with your time and how to spend it and what people to spend your time with, and so it was certainly most important not to cop out at the end. [Laughs] I think I said that from like day one from selling the pitch.
Capone: I sat there going, “It’s not going to happen.” I really did feel like it was not going to happen.
LS: Well because so many films that I have seen where people or individuals are dying and suddenly there’s magic and their cancer is cured. For me, I’ve lost some people to real-life cancer, and it doesn’t work that way usually. But more than that for the story itself to have an impact, I think life has to come to an end. It’s the same way that we’ve got it in real life; we have death to appreciate life, and so I thought it was just as important that we reach that conclusion in order to see that road along the way, and as long as these two people found something of what they were looking for. Death is very sad and inevitable, but what could be a happier conclusion actually than that? So if people find that uplifting, I hope so.
Capone: At that point in their lives, somebody walks out on both of them, and they are these two emotional Hindenburgs that were bound to crash into each other eventually, just because of their proximity. I feel like there’s an inevitability to their meeting.
LS: I think they needed the end of the world in order for it to happen, and especially Dodge to me is the kind of guy who needs the biggest kick in the pants to motivate. I think that it’s exactly what he needed; it’s exactly what both of them needed in a way in order to find each other. I always liked the idea that these two people have been walking these halls and barely saying hello and having no realization of what kind of connection they could have, and then something like this comes along to show them. There moments like that--9/11--I called up old friends that I hadn’t talked to in a long time, I was reconnecting with people that I might have regretted something with. It brought that out, and wanting to make human contact was so important. So I think that’s were this came from. In a way, it was just the idea that the worst-case scenario could bring people together. Were you in New York during the big blackout? I want to say it was like 2005 or 2006.
Capone: No, the last time I lived there was in the early nineties.
LS: Oh, okay. I was there for this big blackout that happened, and it was after 9/11, and I was at the airport and I had to find my way back, and you just realize how quickly it takes everything. "I can’t go to the ATM. I can’t charge my cell phone. I’ve no idea what I’m going to do,” and a woman at the airport is giving me $20 to give her like the last juice on my cell phone, I’m giving twenty to get a cab. It brought out this wild humanity in everybody.
Completely opposite of 9/11, I found my brother in midtown, and it was at a block party and everyone was just emptying their beers out onto the streets and just letting everybody walk around, and you just started making these connections with people that you never have before if it wasn’t for stripping away the rest of the world. I was looking at moments like that and thinking “Wow, something communal happens when we are all without means.” And death is the great equalizer. If we're all facing the end at the exact same time, obviously everybody is going through it incredibly differently.
I was enjoying thinking of people like the unhappy couple at the party who is trying to figure out what to do with their time, and they’ve probably never wanted to do the same thing on the same day and the idea that “We’ve got to chart out the next couple of weeks together, and our wants and needs should maybe line up.” So yeah, that was really interesting.
Capone: These two people have huge issues before they meet, but in creating characters, how do you have to make a conscious effort to make your characters something more than just a collection of their issues and quirks?
LS: Yeah, and I think that’s really important. I think the actors bring so much to it that I can only do so much on paper certainly. All my life, I was like “I don’t want it to just be like “He plays the tuba and has allergies.” “This is all that’s wrong with him.” So it is a challenge, but really like to observe the people in my life so much, and so Dodge and Penny are sort of conglomerates of people that I know.
I think a lot of it was “Who would best serve this story?” When I was trying to figure out “Who is the guy that should be at the end of the world?” At first I was like, “Oh, maybe it’s a guy who thinks the world revolves around him. Wouldn’t that be interesting?” and then suddenly this is happening. But then I thought to myself, “Well no, someone who hasn’t been living, someone who’s been sleepwalking through life is actually probably the right person to face this, to watch go on this journey. And who should help him and who would pull that out of him? Who would help him open up like that?” And so that was sort of how these two characters came to be.
Then with their specifics, it depends along the way. Dodge and his harmonica came from me wanting to write this as a Western originally and thinking of the asteroid as the posse up on the hill. So little things like that trickled in from various places. My love of music turned into her with the records, and my obsession with dogs happened quite by accident, but it was really about exploring "Who are the people who be the most interesting to watch go through this? Even if you just saw them for second.”
Finding a true everyman to wander through this and wake up as a result of this was tough, but of course we found the perfect everyman for the job, I think, and of course he brought so much to it in that way. Dodge is such a guarded character, and I always like talking to Steve about how not every person is the funniest person in the world, not every person is a comedian, and I like the idea that Dodge is not this guy. When he says something to her in the car, it was like, “This could be his first joke in like 10 years [laughs], and this is the first time someone has laughed at his joke maybe in 10 years, and what does that mean for him for this moment?”
So it was really fun to explore the specifics of what an everyman could be and how special and unique he could actually be when you look at him and his experience, his life, and his family, and all of that. So I don’t know how every little thing got in there, certainly, but it really was about “Who do we want to see face this?” And someone who has been half dead seemed like the right idea actually to pull them out of it. And for her, she's a character who has regrets in a different way, someone who has lived life to the fullest and whatever that means would probably still be faced with a world of regret as well, whether it’s seeing her family. So I was really excited to see those two characters collide at a point when all you would be doing is thinking and feeling.
Capone: And as far as him going through so much of his life half dead--I don’t know if you intended this--but the fact that he does come to life in her presence almost makes the movie more tragic.
LS: I know, and it does. But it was such an important thing to me that you want him to be happy. More than anything, you want him to be happy, and of course it’s tragic. I mean it’s so tragic to find love at the worst possible time. There couldn’t be a worst time to find somebody, yet what could be a better time to find somebody obviously than facing those weeks by yourself?
Capone: Was this always a screenplay that you wanted to direct, or did that just kind of happen?
LS: No, I sold it as a pitch with myself attached to direct.
Capone: Why was this the one?
LS: I had always wanted to direct, so I was always hoping that would be the case. I had directed some theater growing up and did a short film--“the longest short” I call it--because it was my way of proving to myself that maybe I could do a feature some day. But with this particular one was, the tone is so tricky, things like the ending I didn’t want to be compromised somewhere along the way. I didn’t want it to not be rated R, even though people might ask why. I didn’t want to pull back on any moment really. So things like that that were so important to me were, and it just felt so important that I’d be the one to tell the story completely.
Capone: So it’s a defense mechanism?
LS: “I don’t really want to do this for a living, but I don’t want anybody else doing it.” No, these themes have been so important to me for my whole life. I feel like I’ve been writing Dodge as a character in the last 10 scripts. I feel like I’ve been trying to help this guy find love for a really long time, and so it’s more that it's the culmination of all of the thoughts in my head, and we'll see if there’s a second movie; that’s more the challenge.
Capone: How many scripts did you actually write before you got paid?
LS: Eight. Well let’s see, I wrote five and then I had a roommate when I moved to L.A., and he and I wrote a children’s adventure that got optioned, but really I don’t know. I expected to be like, “Yeah, I’m quitting my jobs,” and then nothing happened for two more years, and I had an acting career in children's adventure, and it was all very strange. Number eight was a script called MIGHTY FLYNN.
Capone: Which has been floating around for a few years.
LS: Yeah, I poached some thoughts from that for this even, because once UP IN THE AIR got made, I was sort of like “I think that will be dead in the water.” I was watching UP IN THE AIR going like “Ah, it's dying.” I remember when I was writing MIGHTY FLYNN, it was a dead script, and so I wasn’t worried about it, but many years went by after I set it up, and it was at Warner Independent and nothing took place. It was good for me, because it became my sample that got me hired for NICK AND NORAH, which was script number nine. So that was really it. Nine was when I felt I had a career, but there have been plenty since then. I was thinking to myself, I think I’ve written 18 or 19 scripts by now.
Capone: Good grief.
LS: [laughs] But it’s proof that you can have jobs without having a lot of output, and that kills me. That is so frustrating for me, so that was all the more reason that I was like, “If I don’t push this rock up hill, nobody else will,” and I’m so tired of just paper.
Capone So back to the directing thing, what do you remember about that first day on set?
LS: It was so wild. I felt incredibly comfortable, which was strange.
Capone: Over prepared?
LS: I was probably over prepared just because I knew the script so well by then that I felt like there wasn’t too much someone could ask me about that that I wouldn’t know, certainly lots of other things. But it was such a great team and it was such a good group of people. These are the nicest actors on earth, obviously, and my crew was so incredible that it felt so much less lonely than writing. Writing is so lonely, you’re home all day trying to figure things out, and it’s just you and your head hurts and your hands hurt and something is due by noon. That for me is pressure, when it’s just you and your thoughts for 12 hours straight, and this felt like as long as I could stay awake, as long as my body would hold up to this kind of torture, I thought “My head is at least in this enough.” So that first day was intimidating just because William Peterson was showing up, and I love him. “Manhunter” was there!
Capone: You go right to MANHUNTER.
LS: Straight to MANHUNTER, and what we were going to do to his throat in that scene. So for me, I was just like, “I hope these things work,” but at the same time, that’s not my area of expertise. So I felt like, “If everybody that we have assembled here is an expert, then I can oversee this and feel confident about the big picture, and everybody else has their little projects covered for themselves.” But it really was such a great group of people, and I remember that first day, I couldn’t believe how much the weather changed. I was in 15 layers to start, by noon I was down to a t-shirt, by night I was back to 15 layers, and I was like, “I can’t believe we’ve been outside this entire day.” But yeah, set was lovely. It was such a high time for me.
Capone: I noticed that both characters in different ways seek closure with their families before the world ends. Why was that so important to you?
LS: Personally, it was important to me because I moved from New Jersey to L.A. many moons ago. I was absolutely the black sheep of the family, and if there's a regret that I have, it's her speech at the window, wanting to spend more time with them. But at the same time, I know I'm a romantic and I've spent a lot of Christmases with boyfriends' families. So that was on a personal level how that came to be. But I do think that when you talk to people about what they'd want to do at the end of the world, a lot of it's about closure, tying up loose ends, taking their regrets and putting them somewhere. For the most part, people want to be with friends and family.
What I liked about it was that she went in search of her family and came across some ex's, and he goes in search of his high school sweetheart and comes across his family. For me, I like that their goes were not exactly what they intended to be, yet he's the one who had so much more closure with his family, whereas she would have loved to see them again. I feel like he was one who really needed to hear things he didn't know before. I fell like it's never too late to get that kind of closure. You never stop being somebody's kid just because you're 40-something. That was important to me that he get to have that feeling.
Capone: I love that in addition to these two great actors, you've front loaded your supporting cast with all of these great, mostly comedic actors in these small parts. How did you manage that?
LS: It was wild because we had everybody's picture on the wall, and I'm like, "Is this the world we've built for ourselves?" They are such high points of the film--the dinner party, the Friendzies restaurant scene--and they really are populated by people cracking up in the best way. People like Connie Britton, who people don't really consider a comedienne…
Capone: I first saw her in "Spin City," though.
LS: That's true. And she was in THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN. Do you remember that? She was so beautiful in that. It was a strange thing because each individual person came in a different way. Patton [Oswalt] was a first choice who I never imagined we would get. Rob Corddry was someone I knew socially, so I wrote him that part, but I didn't know what age Dodge would be so I didn't know if that would come to be. I thing it was important to set that kind of comedic tone early enough and to allow things to be a surprise at any turn. Rob Huebel is there for very briefly before things really happen.
For me, it was more a balance of these comedic and dramatic actors, the same way Steve and Keira were taking on things that they don't very often as actors. I thought, "This will be interesting to see Steve do something much more dramatic, play a more serious character, and to see her not in a corset and bright and bubbly. It would be a different thing for this dramatic actress to do." I was excited about the blend, more than anything, but I did think it was important to capture to high intense comedic scenes with the right sort of comedians to do it. I can't believe who we assembled.
Capone: Patton's monologue represents everything that's wrong with everybody.
LS: [laughs] Everything that's wrong with everybody. We shot that on the last bulk night of shooting, and he got up and said, "Oh, I needed that," and stumbled out. He's so great. It was brief, but we had a blast.
Capone: Do you know what you're going to do or try to do next? Do you have some things you can pull out of the drawer?
LS: No, no. I'm so tired of the drawer. I've been writing a noir film that will hopefully get made by the end of this year, maybe.
Capone: Are you planning on directing that too?
LS: I am. I'm addicted; I can't stop. I'd love to still write for other people, and I'd love to direct for things I haven't written. I'd love to try all of it, but this definitely felt the most comfortable to me.
Capone: Explain to me this support group you've got going on with Diablo Cody and [WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS and COUPLE RETREAT screenwriter] Dana Fox…
LS: And ["New Girl" creator] Liz Meriwether, who's amazing. We pull her in and force her to be a part of our click. It started very naturally. I think Dana and Diablo met at a round table, and then Dana came home and said, "Oh, I met our third." And the three of us became very good friends, and we met Liz and brought her on. We help each other. I've been watching Diablo's first cut of the [untitled] movie that's her directorial debut, and Dana and I have been giving notes on that.
I've been helping Dana with her TV show ["Ben and Kate"] that she just set up at Fox. It's just that kind of collaborative thing. It's just so lovely to be able to talk ideas out with your friends, and to have a group of girls that aren't competitive. We're all rep'ed at the same place--three of us with the same guy. It's not like we write the most wildly different things. Each of us has our own very particular voice, but it's not like one is doing action and one's doing horror. It's a really supportive group of friends; we're friends outside of all of this. But we also get to sit around and shoot the shit on ideas. It's remarkable.
Capone: Cool. Well, thank you so much. It was really great to meet you.
LS: You too. Thanks to you. And follow me on Twitter. Come on, I follow you, Steve.