There are lots of great indie movies out there, but few have the marketing budgets to compete for attention alongside gargantuan studio releases. This is the first in a regular EW series highlighting the weird, wonderful world of those smaller films worth seeking out.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Stars: Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Mark Duplass (The League, Humpday), Jake Johnson (New Girl, Paper Heart)
Filmmakers: Colin Trevorrow, director; Derek Connolly, screenwriter.
Release: June 8 — New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, expanding wider on June 15 and 22. Full listings here.
Story: Plaza and Johnson play two snarky magazine writers (is there any other kind?) who investigate the origins of a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel. They uncover the sweet, intense, and paranoid grocery store worker Duplass, who is convinced he holds the secret to going back in time, and hopes to rectify past mistakes. Also, he’s bringing weapons. (Those traveling with him need to bring their own.)
Origin: Inspiration for the indie time-travel saga came from unusual source material — a six-sentence classified ad written as a joke 15 years ago that went viral as an online meme.
“WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322, Oakview, CA 93022 You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
John Silveira, a senior editor for Backwoods Home Magazine, penned the ad to fill some empty space in 1997, and Internet pranksters spent years creating goofy photos and videos of the character they imagined traveling through time. You may have seen it bouncing around sites like YTMND.com, usually accompanied by a photo of an intense-looking mullet man and the song Push It to the Limit.
Trevorrow and Connolly weren’t interested in mullet boy or ’80s glam rock. Instead, their story asked: What if this is for real — at least in the mind of the man who placed the ad?
“I just felt like I knew people like that when I was growing up, that kind of guy that a lot of people really make fun of,” Connolly tells EW. “That’s what was going on with the ad on the Internet. It was all a big joke. My reaction was, what if this guy really cares about this?”
Plaza finds her cynicism dissolving as she gets closer to Duplass’ (maybe) mad scientist. Meanwhile, her fellow writer spins off into his own parallel story about going back to change what once went wrong. After he discovers that a woman he used to love lives in a nearby town, he gets distracted from his assigned duties in an effort to win her back.
As the movie developed, the origin of the ad was still a mystery. Then its author stepped forward. Suddenly, this material was owned by somebody. Trevorrow and Connolly already had a script, cast, and financing in place for a feature film based on the concept when they went in search of Silveira for his approval and the rights to use the ad.
“He was very resistant to it for a couple reasons,” Trevorrow says. “All the people on the Internet were bastardizing this thing and using it without his permission. And he didn’t like that the character was turned into a joke.”
When Trevorrow explained that Duplass’ character was motivated by heartbreak — he wants to go back in time to fix deep regrets that have haunted him for years — Silveira acquiesced, and ultimately even shot a cameo in the movie. Look for him as the professorial bearded gentleman whose P.O. box is next to the one owned by our hero.
Silveira, who didn’t respond to requests for an interview, was paid a flat fee for the rights (“It was certainly more than I got,” Trevorrow says) and he also retained some publishing rights, in case he wants to compile a book of the letters his ad attracted to that P.O. box. As Silveira wrote in his article about the origin of the ad:
What have the people who’ve responded wanted? Most seemed to have believed the ad. Several hundred, while admitting maybe it was a hoax, hoped it wasn’t and wanted to go back in time for the sheer adventure. Though pay was offered, many of those said they’d do it for nothing. (Hell, I would, too.)
Some letters came from guys who gave me a list of some pretty sophisticated weapons they could bring along with their credentials: black belts in martial arts, explosives expertise, language skills, etc., along with assurances they can pretty much take care of themselves. I believe ‘em.
At the Sundance Film Festival premiere this year, Silveira was in the audience, and finally got to take a bow for the six sentences that have provided such a good time to those who discovered the ad. He even got a standing ovation from the crowd. Afterward, he told Trevorrow he was sorry he played hard to get on the movie deal. “He said, ‘If I’d known it was going to be this good, I would have brought a girl,’” the director said.
It’s not too late for you to avoid making the same mistake as Silveira. Find this movie and a date.
If you must, place this ad somewhere: WANTED — Someone to go see Safety Not Guaranteed with me. Must bring your own smuggled candy…”