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Writer/director Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed explores the lives of three tart-mouthed 20-somethings searching for deeper meaning to their shallow lives. For those of you still with me, you'll be ably rewarded; it is also a time travel-themed love story full of warmth and character-driven humour. Having played to the Closing Night audience at the Sydney Film Festival (where it's rousing finale was met with spontaneous rapture by the jaded crowd), Trevorrow's debut feature goes into wide commercial release in Australia this week. Below is an edited text of the San Franciscan's chat with SCREEN-SPACE, during which he discussed the film's genesis, production and, with surprising candour, its US box office fate.

I can’t imagine a high-concept/low-budget premise such as Safety Not Guaranteed is an easy sell to financiers. Was the script-to-budgeting period the usual tough slog?

To a certain extent, high-concept/low-budget is an easy sell. I mean, nothing is an easy sell but in most cases it comes back to the script. If the script isn’t good, high-concept/low-budget can be as much of a disaster as anything else. But on something like this, you are reliant upon the characters feeling real and the story being engaging because you just don’t have anything else to fall back on. There are no fireworks...well, maybe a little bit in ours, but for the most part the people have to be the fireworks. And when you’re talking about convincing someone to lay down money on a movie, it comes down to that script in the end. They certainly had no reason to trust me! It wasn’t my name attracting anyone to this movie.

In both Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson (pictured, right; with the director), you capture actors on the cusp of big careers. There is a naturalness to the performances that I assume stems from your influence on the set...

Well, Jake and I have been friends for quite a long time. I have just literally come from the set of The New Girl, where I caught up with him because I haven’t seen him in a while. And that’s just a friendship that existed before the film and that I knew, no matter what, it would exist after. The film is just a great opportunity for the two of us to get together and use the very natural language that we already speak within a filmmaking environment.

So the actors found that chemistry and rhythm in the rehearsal process?

There was no rehearsal on this! We just didn’t have that luxury at all. And not because I don’t like to do rehearsal, which I do. But I do like to find the moment right there, on set. Extended rehearsal can sometimes take away from feeling of discovery that can often capture on film while it’s happening. Whether I wanted rehearsal or not didn’t matter because we weren’t going to have it. Everybody did a lot of homework and came with their characters fully formed. I warned all these actors before we went in that I was going to be very technical director, focussing on something that has absolutely no budget look like an actual movie and so you have to come with these characters fully rounded, complete and whole. Of course, we had a lot of conversations about them at different points, but I really wanted them to be able to play in that sandbox but they had to build the sandbox before they came to set. And they did; everyone understood their character really well. That allowed us to open it up and let the scenes breathe and improvise a little bit.

The casting of Mark Duplass (pictured, left; on-set, with the director) must have been pivotal, given his independent-film background and grasp of what can be both idiosyncratic and warm on screen.

Mark was a big part of that just because that’s what he does on a lot of his films. Not exactly what we did, because his films are completely improvisational and we did have a script. His character could be played very broad and theoretically it could have become a funnier character but I think that playing him as less hilarious and a bit more damaged and real is what creates the balance in the film.

As the writer of the film (with Derek Connolly) and director, was the editing process difficult? Were deeply entrenched visions of the film challenged and changed?

The editing process is an amazing one. You can do a bit of a rewrite when editing. A lot of times what changes are scenes that, you know, feel a bit on the nose. Scenes that perhaps are telling the audience information that they have already deduced on their own. In this case, the script and the film were very similar except, of course, the ending which we changed very late in the game. That’s what you can do in the editing room – make something happen that no one ever thought would be possible.

I want to ask you about the film’s US box office, if that’s ok with you. The film has had a hugely positive critical response; Aubrey’s doing Letterman and the film is in Sundance and closing the Sydney Film Festival, amongst many other festival slots, and the internet loves it. So I was stunned to find it will barely creep over US$5million. And similarly loved films aimed at that 20-something demographic, like Ruby Sparks and Jesse and Celeste Forever, are doing even less business. Has Hollywood forgotten how to sell to this demo?

That’s fine to talk about. I think there a couple of factors involved. One, you’re dealing with a generation that just doesn’t go the movies as much as...well, any generation before them. When you and I were kids, there was only one way to see a movie – if you didn’t see a movie when it was in the theatres, then you were never going to see it again. Now, if you don’t see a movie in the theatre, you can see it in 5 different places for the rest of your life whenever you want to (laughs). And that’s a very big difference. Also, movies in America are very expensive to go and see, especially if you factor in kids and stuff like that. Frankly, I’m not sure that if I looked at my film, I wouldn’t say ‘Man, we are going to really enjoy that when it is on Netflix.’ That’s just the reality. If I’m going to spend $50 to go to the theatre, I am going want to see The Master in 70mm or I want to see The Dark Knight Rises. There are other movies where my brain automatically says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to love that and I’ll love it in my home on my couch.

That’s an admirably pragmatic way to look at the business side of your creative output.

I’m not crushed by the box office, to be honest. A lot of the films that I love made far less at the box office and went on to become movies that really matter to people. Everybody cared so much about this movie and everyone involved, all the actors and the writer and certainly with me, wanted to be as good as they know they are. Historically, when you look back at a lot of movies with young people, they have that sort of ‘first-film urgency’ stemming from a need to prove you can do what you have gambled your life on.

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