Lorene Scafaria wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite romances of the last several years, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. And now she has written and directed another romance, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” with Steve Carell and Kiera Knightley as neighbors who meet just as life on earth is about to be wiped out. I spoke to her about the role that music plays in both films (she is also a musician), and how contemplating the end of the world clarifies your priorities.
I want to begin by asking you about the music, because I know you, yourself, create music and music seems to be important in both this film and “Nick and Nora.”
It’s true, yes. I’ve got a pattern going, I think. But music is just so important to me, personally, obviously, and so I liked the idea that we’d have this sort of soundtrack for humanity in there What it really came down to in crafting the characters and everything, I just thought—what do you really want to consume at the end of the world? You know, besides as much food as humanly possible? And I feel like you know, really people dip back into music, that just is sort of a universal love for people, whatever the music may be. And so I did love the idea that certainly this girl is carrying around a bunch of records that, unless she finds the player for it, she’s just holding onto these possessions, but that this music has meant so much for her and her life that she will hold on to them. I’ve just always thought of music as a sort of collection of memories so that’s how I decided that it should be a major part of the movie. I knew I wanted it to be kind of classic rock, the kind I grew up with. I feel like friends’ older brothers got us into the Dead and Doors, really, so we were listening to that version of classic rock. I wanted to have that sense of nostalgia and feel like these could be songs that Dodge could be listening to or should be or would have if he were the kind of guy who really absorbed culture like that. They’re actually part of Penny’s collection, and so in a way I was using it as sort of dedications between the characters in a way.
The names of the characters seem very meaningful: Dodge and Penny.
Dodge, certainly, to me, is a man trying to outrun something and a guy who’s been sort of avoiding life his entire life—so Dodge felt very appropriate for him. I also loved that it was a very American name. And Penny — it’s like when you find a lucky penny. She was that little shiny copper thing for him to find. And Pen also means swan, so there’s something in there for both of them. Ridiculously, if you looked at all the names, you would find embarrassing things like that throughout. There was the character Roache that Patton Oswalt plays. He’s the kind of guy who’d survive the apocalypse, you know? The roaches of the world, they’re going to be fine.
Tell me a little bit about moving from being the writer to being the director and what you as a writer learned about writing from directing?
It’s now so much harder to write because I feel like I have this newfound perspective on it where I actually don’t feel as much of a free writer, now. I’m thinking of things a little too much from the director’s chair.
Yes, I’m sort of skipping ahead to, “Well, if I’m filming this…” That’s probably a good thing in the long run, to hone in on it. It’s definitely making me think so much more as a writer, now. When I started, I always wanted to direct. I directed a lot of theater when I was younger and always loved working with actors and then I made a short film a few years ago that I call the longest short, because it was like a 30 minutes. It was not something I was ever going to enter into festivals, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could maybe tackle a feature someday. With this one, I just was desperate to do it. From the very beginning I always wanted to be able to tell the story through to fruition and I can’t believe how satisfying it was. I’m a list-maker so I love to make lists and cross-things off. I’m not very organized, I just like to make lists. When we are filming something like the trucker’s scene and we get to cross something off a list. It’s been in my head for three years and it’s just so rewarding to see it through all the way. I’ve always enjoyed having a vision for the big picture and with this, so much was specific on the page. It was really fun to be able to do it all, actually.
One of the great things about your concept is that it’s tremendously clarifying; everything else drops away and you have to think about what your priorities are. I loved the way that, on their journey, Dodge and Penny meet people who deal with the end of the world in so many ways—mostly different forms of denial.
I try not to judge too harshly what it is that everybody would want to do in that situation, especially because everyone is dealing with their own mortality at the same time. I sort of loved that the two of them have these “higher callings” in a way—you know, at least they’re about human contacts and relationships and regrets and closure and all of that, and those always seem like the truest pursuits. I did so much research on what people would do, talking with as many people as possible about what would you do, what would you take with you, what would you want to hold in your hand? And you know, there were some very interesting answers across the board, but the most common was to be with family, to be with friends, to be with your loved one. I really liked exploring what happens if one person doesn’t really have that loved one, where do they go? And I do think someone like Dodge certainly would chase the past. I think most people would, I’m not sure everybody would be like, “I’m going to meet somebody new!” She’s lived her life much more to the fullest than he has, but has maybe her own regrets, like seeing her family.
One of the things that’s nice about it is that Dodge would not have done his some-day thing if not for Penny. She gave him a reason.
Yes, and through something so tragic. I don’t think any of this would’ve happened without the end of the world. That’s the kind of thing that is interesting. Sometimes the most tragic moments in your life, you’re like—“Why is this happening to me?” and it takes a little while, but then you think, “that might’ve been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
If you’re a writer, that’s where you get your material.
It’s all therapy for me. You’re just seeing my glorified therapy session.