There's no question time is running out for Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in the new dark comedy "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World." But for writer-director Lorene Scafaria, the film isn't so much about the time her characters have left but the realization of what they're going to do with it.
"I felt like time was the most important theme running through it," Scafaria told me in a recent interview. "It's so strange sometimes for it to take some cataclysmic, tragic event to have people open their eyes up to different things and finally experience life."
Opening in theaters Friday, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is about just that: the world coming to an end in three weeks, and hopefully for two people -- Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) -- they can find the meaning in their lives before it all -- specifically, a 70-mile-wide meteor -- comes crashing down.
In Dodge's case, the bad news has left the guarded, introverted insurance salesman without his wife (Nancy Carell) after she bolts when they learn there is no hope of averting the disaster. For their neighbor of three years who Dodge never knew -- the free-spirited, music-loving Penny (Keira Knightley) -- her last wish is to get home to her native England to be with her parents.
Despite the impending doom, Dodge still finds a beacon of hope: Not only does he discover his first, true love wants to reunite with him; his new, unlikely friend, Penny, inspires him to take a road trip with her to find the woman before the world ends.
Time, for the duration of the project, has meant everything to Scafaria. After selling her "End of the World" idea to Mandate Pictures as a pitch in 2008, the filmmaker completed a couple of drafts of the script before her father became sick with prostate cancer. She took six months off to spend time with him before he died, and she came back to the project with a new perspective.
"It made me realize how important even 15 minutes is. Time is really the only commodity that we have, and it's all I have to give to anybody," Scafaria said. "The only time I get upset is when someone is wasting is my time."
Going back even further, Scafaria, a New Jersey native, said the story was also somewhat shaped by the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. The filmmaker, who lived in New York City for two years before moving to Los Angeles a week before 9/11, said she felt lost not having friends nearby.
"I found myself in LA, where I knew absolutely nobody and wished so desperately for human contact," Scafaria recalled. "I began calling old friends that I hadn't talked to in a while and really began reaching out to people."
When she made it back to New York, she found that "the city had changed, obviously, in tragic ways, but also, it felt like a community again."
"People were looking each other in the eyes on the subway again, but it didn't last, unfortunately," Scafaria lamented. "But for a little while, anyway, it felt like people were focusing on what was important and how and who they were spending their time with."
Rhythm Of Life
Scafaria is a member of the alternative rock band The Shortcoats, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that music greatly influences her work as a filmmaker (she also wrote "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist"). Songs like The Walker Brothers' haunting hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" are in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" not only because it's a great song, Scafaria says, but because it has touched people's souls in real life -- and Penny's and Dodge's lives in the film.
"I thought, 'If it's the end of the world, what would people want to be consuming at the end of the world and the end of their lives?' It doesn't seem like it would be movies and TV shows as much as music," Scafaria observed. "Songs have always felt like such a collection of memories to me, so in that way, I felt like Penny is holding onto memories of with her albums, and while these songs are more indicative of her taste, they're more reflective of Dodge's life."
You don't have to spend no more than 10 seconds talking with Scafaria to realize she's not a Debbie Downer. Still, in a town that prides itself on happy Hollywood endings, the storyteller wasn't about to take a hard left turn away from the ending of the film that she intended.
"I can't say the film was an easy sell, yet, I was always trying to explain that the idea behind it was to leave people with an uplifted feeling," Scafaria explained. "Even if the ending was inevitable, what could we want more than to be looking into the eyes of someone that we love at the end?"
"The ending was something that I was never going to bend on for people. I was very adamant about that, even when I sold it as an idea," Scafaria added. "I was just happy as we were moving along and along that nobody was forcing my hand in any direction."
Fortunately, Scafaria was able to align with Focus Features for the distribution, because, she said, the studio clearly understood what her intentions were.
"They're such an incredible company for the kinds of movies that they make," Scafaria said. "They've made some of my favorite movies that have a darker undertones, like 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' and 'Lost in Translation' -- movies that have unlikely couples and sort of heady subject matter. I think they were excited about the fact that 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' is a comedy, and more than anything, the subject matter seemed like something they wanted to tackle."
Better yet, Carell and Knightley wanted to tackle it, too. Their participation reaffirmed Scafaria's sense to live -- and passionately tell -- a story that, while darkly comic, was ultimately about enlightenment.
"It felt like we all were making the same film and wanted to say the same things. Even if some people perceive it as dark or depressing, we knew that other people would see it as we intended, which is life-affirming and uplifting," Scafaria said. "In reality, death is there to remind us what's important in life. Without that, it would have taken away what I wanted to say."