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Interview with Mark Duplass of “Safety Not Guaranteed”

Updated: Sep 5, 2018

By Shelby

“WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”

Those six sentences set the story of Safety Not Guaranteed, the Sundance and SXSW favorite that opens today in Austin, in motion. Part comedy, drama, romance, sci-fi and road-trip movie and unlike anything you’ve seen before, Safety Not Guaranteed comes from first-time director Colin Treverrow and writer Derek Connolly, who earned the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. The story follows magazine writer Jeff (Jake Johnson, who also plays the delightfully lost Nick on New Girl) and magazine interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza, who more than delivers on the promise she’s shown for years as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation) and Arnau (Karan Soni) as they set out to find Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), the man who placed that classified ad. By the time later in the movie when Jake Johnson’s character says, “I don’t even know what the story is anymore,” you won’t either, in the best possible way, because the story of Safety Not Guaranteed will have rocketed past all your expectations, defied every genre out there and, most impressively, left the cynicism and irony so often laced through pop culture splintered in its wake.

I fell hard for Safety Not Guaranteed when I caught it at SXSW, so I was thrilled to get a chance to interview Mark Duplass, who in addition to acting in the movie, also executive produced it. His Kenneth may have a loose screw or two, but he’s also the kind of man who writes songs for his lost love on a zither and, as a kid, worried his Star Wars action figures would get lonely if he left them at home. In other words, I couldn’t help but root for the guy. That sentiment is true for Duplass in real-life too. He and his brother Jay are Austin’s favorite filmmaking sons, hometown heroes who have co-directed and co-written some of the best indies in recent years, from Sundance breakout The Puffy Chair to Baghead to Cyrus to this year’s doubleheader of Jeff Who Lives at Home and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, the latter of which also played at SXSW this year.

In the latter half of 2012, you’ll also be able to catch Mark acting in the indie romantic comedy Your Sister’s Sister (from his Humpday director Lynn Shelton), the family drama People Like Us, the highly anticipated Kathryn Bigelow film about the Navy SEAL team that captured Osama bin Laden and, finally, season four of his FX fantasy-football comedy The League. So I’m very grateful that he took the time to talk to me about Safety Not Guaranteed, the amazingness of Polvo’s and his strange affection for the infamous Jester cafeteria.

First off, can I ask you about Austin?

Definitely. Love the 512.

What do you miss most about living here?

Barton Springs in August when it’s hot enough to suffer the freezing water. Being able to walk to Polvo’s from where I lived on West Mary. Maria’s on a Sunday morning. The Emo’s inside show with the weird band you never thought would be good that blows you away. Sneaking into the music building at UT to play their pianos and record them because they sound awesome. I miss the Jester dorm cafeteria. People complain about the food there, but I loved it.

What do you try to do when you come back?

All those things. And going to Casino El Camino for an Amarillo Burger and a pitcher of Shiner. The problem is that when I come down it’s for SXSW or something so I’m there for two days, and I don’t get much time to just fart around and just get that 78704 pacing. I don’t have that in my life anymore, and I miss it.

So what made you want to get involved with Safety Not Guaranteed?

I fell in love with the script. I thought it had that combination of funny and sad, and the lo-fi science-fiction time-travel element felt very exciting to me. So it’s a relationship movie with this weird sci-fi component, which is how I felt when I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. They had tried to get money and couldn’t, so they came to me and Jay and said, “We heard you know how to make movies cheaply,” and we said, “If you want to make a movie cheaply that makes you no money, we’re the perfect fit.” In three months, we were filming.

What made you take a chance on a first-time director and writer?

We’d done it a bunch of times. I like the relationship of being a producer and actor. I can help set the movie up and get it on its feet, and sometimes you get lucky. Colin didn’t behave like a first-time filmmaker. He’s very good visually, better visually than I will ever be, even on his first film. I just tried to keep my eye on the relationship stuff.

How involved were you with casting?

Jake and Aubrey were already attached. When Karan Soni read for the role of Arnau, he was light years ahead of everyone. Then for the smaller roles, Jeff Garlin and Kristen Bell are friends.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to play Kenneth?

They came to me first as a producer, and we talked about different people that could play the role. The conversation came about organically, like, “Let’s not wait forever to try to get a huge movie star to play this movie; let’s just make this fucker.” That led to me, because I work for cheap.

His character could have been kind of cartoonish and ridiculous, but you really made him feel real. How did you approach that?

Thank you for saying that. It was one-hundred percent my goal to make him funny, to honor the quirk that was embedded in the script, but also to get to the root of what’s going on with him, that he’s this sad, fractured guy who needs to believe time travel’s possible so he can eject from his current reality. I find that sweet and sad and lovable. And I loved the wish fulfillment of playing someone with no cynicism who has the wide-eyed purity of a believer.

Did you always want the movie to have such a hopeful tone?

The DNA of that was in the script. The only thing that changed was that we shot multiple versions of the ending. The one in there was the one we always hoped we could make work. That’s a big testament to Colin and Derek.

And last but not least, when does yours and Jay’s new movie, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, come out?

Do-Deca comes out July 6, so it’s being released right next to the real Olympics. We’re blasting it out in VOD too, so you can watch these two out-of-shape, ultra-competitive brothers slog their way through ping-pong right alongside the real Olympics. There’s something very fitting about that.

Safety Not Guaranteed opens today in Austin at the Regal Arbor.

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