Spinning Platters Interview: Lorene Scafaria on “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”

by Jason LeRoy on June 20, 2012

Steve Carell, Lorene Scafaria and Keira Knightley on the set of SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

In the dystopian romantic comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Steve Carell and Keira Knightley star as Dodge and Penny, two strangers in the same apartment building who unexpectedly find themselves becoming close companions for the final few weeks of Earth’s existence. As the film begins, we learn that the final effort to stop a massive asteroid hurtling toward Earth has failed, meaning that the apocalypse is imminent. While everyone around him chooses to celebrate with drug-fueled orgies and looting, Dodge would rather mope in private. But then he meets the exuberant Penny, who lives just below him and has been getting his mail for years. When a dangerous riot imperils their building, Dodge and Penny embark on a road trip across a bizarro end-of-days landscape, searching for one last connection with whatever had been meaningful to them in their lives. This delightfully imaginative film comes to us from writer/director Lorene Scafaria.

Prior to making her directorial debut, Scafaria, 34, was best-known for two things: writing the screenplay for the immensely funny and charming Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and being one of the subjects of Deborah Schoeneman’s much-maligned 2009 New York Times story “An Entourage of Their Own,” which profiled Scafaria and her three closest friends, fellow screenwriters Diablo Cody (Juno), Liz Meriwether (New Girl), and Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas). Schoeneman’s profile intended to be an empowering piece about the rise of a powerful female clique in Hollywood, but unfortunately some of its more lifestyle-leaning details (“Whenever one of them has a movie opening, they all rent a white limousine and go from theater to theater to watch the first audiences react,” Schoeneman enthused; the women were quoted as saying they called themselves the “Fempire”) fostered a perception of them as a vapid and self-satisfied Sex and the City-style foursome, reinforcing much of the misogynistic ranting that had already been directed at Cody, the group’s most well-known member.

But as tends to happen when one chooses to persevere through an onslaught of internet mockery, all four women have only grown more successful in the ensuing years. For Seeking a Friend, which is distributed by the prestigious Focus Features, Scafaria has assembled a formidable cast that also includes Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, Martin Sheen, Rob Corddry, Derek Luke, and NBC Thursday night MVPs Gillian Jacobs (Community) and Jim O’Heir (Parks and Recreation). A distinctive blend of expertly observed gallows humor and piercing poignancy, the film firmly establishes Scafaria as a gifted storyteller. Below, she sits down with Spinning Platters for a wide-ranging discussion on topics ranging from Lana Del Rey’s redeeming qualities and Robyn’s superiority to Lady Gaga, to the stupefying backlash against Lena Dunham’s Girls and Scafaria’s reflections on FempireGate.

When you’re doing interviews, can you tell when journalists are all sourcing their questions from your Wikipedia page?

Yes, but I don’t mind. It’s probably more the questions like, “What would you do if the world was ending?” Because it’s such a boring answer by now. I mean, I’d like to think I live a pretty honest life, so my answer would be, “I’d spend it with friends and family and my dogs.” It’s pretty much what I’m doing now, but, like, no work. [laughs]

Well, speaking of sourcing questions from your Wikipedia, there’s an anecdote on there about how you used to fake book reports for free pizza in elementary school. Was that Book It?

Yes! You know Book It?

Yes!

Okay, Book It was amazing! I scammed Book It all the way to Pizza Hut. I was so much more interested in writing than reading at the time, so I made up the titles — I can’t believe I didn’t get caught, because I did so many book reports about fake books, and sometimes I’d say, “Oh, it’s my grandmother’s favorite so I can’t bring it in.” And I would always, like, not recommend it too highly so that no one would go looking for it. [laughs] I heard that Dolly Parton did the exact same thing! I mean probably not Book It, but fake book reports. So I’m in good company. [laughs]

It’s a good legacy. You’d get the stars on the button?

Yes!

Would you wear that big button?

Of course I would! I mean what a liar, but yeah, I took my grandmother to Pizza Hut like all the time, and I felt like a hero in my family. Little did they know. I think that’s how storytelling came about! Early lying turned into creative writing. [laughs]

The things you do for a personal pan pizza.

Exactly! I can’t believe you did Book It. Did you have Young Authors?

I don’t think so.

That was something that was so beneficial growing up. It was the kind of thing where we were forced to write a book a year, so I was really into writing from first grade onward because they kind of made us. They’d bind it with little spirals and I was totally obsessed with it.

Nope, we just had Book It. I can’t decide if you’re my nemesis or my ally. I’m just glad you were a state away and weren’t messing with my Pizza Hut.

[laughs]

That would be a great movie. Book It nemeses.

I love it. That’ll be the next one. Not quite the same ticking clock in the background…

It’s a different urgency, but the conflict is there.

[laughs] That’s so funny.

So I was on your Myspace music page, and you haven’t logged in since July 2011. What gives?

MySpace sucks, I’m sorry. I put out two albums by myself. The first one was recorded in a friend’s apartment and it was just the two of us making all that noise, and on the second one I worked with a producer and sort of a home studio. But I’ve got a band now that’s kind of fun. The old stuff I get kind of embarrassed by now, because it’s just me. But I have a band with Adam Brody and Jon Sadoff, one of the composers on this film, called The Shortcoats, because we play mostly to dogs. [laughs] But we have an EP on iTunes, so that makes me happy.

You could have a Lana Del Rey-style makeover. She had that first album that she disowned before taking on the new name and persona.

I think my lips could use some work, and I don’t have her nails. [laughs] But I met her one time and she was just the nicest person. So I’m always rooting for her. She was surprisingly sweet, given that you never know with someone’s persona…

She’s been bullied all to shit. It’s not fair.

It’s not fair. It’s tough for the very beautiful. [laughs] It’s really difficult.

I saw a picture of her the other day where she’s comforting a hysterically sobbing gay fan. She looks like Mother Teresa.

[laughs] Aw, see? She is so sweet. She’s a doll.

On the subject of gay music fans, was there a backlash to your Robyn > Gaga tweet?

You know, I don’t know! There might have been. I can’t help it. I listen to Robyn’s songs so much more than Gaga’s. I mean sure, if I’m out dancing — well no, I’d still want Robyn. I really can’t help it. I feel so much for her songs. Maybe it’s just her lyrics, but it gets me emotional more than Gaga.

I have been trying and failing to find “Dancing On My Own” at karaoke bars throughout San Francisco ever since it came out, and they don’t have it anywhere.

Really? What about “Call Your Girlfriend”?

Nope. Nothing from Body Talk.

Really?

Just a song or two from the eponymous album and, like, “Show Me Love.”

I am surprised! Those are show-stoppers! But when I do karaoke, I do it for me. I don’t do crowd-pleasers. I’m always like, “Listen, it’s going to be Alanis Morissette’s ‘Uninvited’ and you’re all gonna have to watch me go through this.” [laughs]

You’re like, “And I am not leaving the stage for that three-minute instrumental at the end. I will stand there for the entire song and pretend there is fog swirling around me.”

[laughs] It is not a singalong for me.

Yeah, I like to bring the room down.

Karaoke is just for me.

[pause] I feel like I should ask something about the movie.

Aww. If you want…

I mean, I have other stuff too.

Yeah, go for it!

Okay, I’d like to do that thing journalists do where they make an observation and invite you to agree with them.

Good. Right. I’m ready.

So I was a big fan of Nick & Norah, but I came across some bitching about how it’s not a realistic depiction of life in New York. And now, Girls is going through a similar round of blog bitchery about being a poor representation of life in Brooklyn. Would you care to agree with me that New Yorkers can be overly hostile toward movies and TV that depict life in their city?

I think so. I mean, that was my New York. I was a bridge and tunnel kid like Nick and Norah. I would go into the city and have those nights. And I mean, I wasn’t mugged! They all acted like, “Oh, you can’t find parking,” and I’m like, “You know what? At three in the fucking morning, you actually can! It’s not that hard!” [laughs] But I get it. And that was supposed to feel a little bit more like a fantasy nostalgic night, so I didn’t mind so much that there was a little bit of unreality there.

And that’s why the Girls backlash has surprised me so much. Because first of all, it’s brilliant! And second of all, that is a very specific New York, so it might not be everybody’s New York. But if you’re that girl, that is the New York that you grew up with. And Lena Dunham should know! She lived there and lived that life. So the backlash that that show gets makes me crazy, because…I just think people are jealous. [laughs] I do! I get it if people just can’t relate. I understand if it’s just not relatable. But if you can relate but still don’t like it, I think you’re just jealous.

I have never seen a writer be taken to task so much for not representing the entirety of human existence.

And you know what’s so brilliant about that show and her character is that she’s so self-deprecating. I think that people miss the fact that she’s making fun of herself, so they think it’s this story about privileged people…

That it’s self-aggrandizing…

Yeah! And it’s not that at all. And she’s lovely, and a genius genius genius. Before Tiny Furniture came out, it was such a buzzword in LA. So every meeting I went on, people were talking about it, and I was like, “If I hear Tiny Furniture one more time…” Then I saw it, and I was like, “Oh. It’s genius. Obviously.” But it was one of those things where it really forced my hand with this movie. I sold it as a pitch with myself attached to direct in 2008, so I always knew I wanted to do it. But it was one of those things where I was like, “This is why I always wanted to direct.” And I wasn’t that wunderkind like she is, so I couldn’t pretend I was some sort of genius at 23. [laughs] It took ten more years to get there, but that’s okay. It was an inspiring thing to see that somebody at such a young age wrote, directed, and starred in something that could be so personal and emotional. I love her.

Me too.

I’m so glad you love Girls!

Oh, totally.

Anytime I talk to someone who doesn’t like it, I shut down. [laughs]

Yeah, I don’t even know what to say to them. But it feels like everyone I’ve talked to in San Francisco really loves it. I get the sense that a lot of the animosity against the show is coming out of New York.

That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s a tough crowd. But they were really friendly with this movie, and I expected a lot of backlash since it takes place in New York but we filmed in LA. So I was surprised, actually. I expected a lot more “That’s not New York!” from people. And in my mind, I always wanted it to be sort of a vague New York. I didn’t want to see buildings or landmarks we’d recognize. So people were more kind to me on this one than I thought they’d be.

On the topic of buzzwords, it’s been three years since “Fempire” happened.

That’s right!

What are your reflections on that whole moment?

I think when that article came out in the New York Times, I was the most embarrassed by it in a way, because it was the Style section and stuff. I was just excited to have a photo with my friends! They really are my closest friends, so I was just excited to have an article about us. And then it just felt a little bit more about what we were wearing and how hard it is to be a girl. Which it is! But it’s that hard walking down the street. It’s the same everywhere, this is it, this is the skin I live in. I don’t know what to say about it.

But I’m so proud of everybody. At the time I felt like we all had one thing under our belts, but Diablo obviously had an Academy Award under her belt that we could all hold and take pictures with. [laughs] We said that between us we had an Academy Award. But since then, Liz created New Girl, which is my favorite thing since Friends. And Dana now has this show coming on the same night on the same network, Ben and Kate, which is so great. And Diablo is editing her directorial debut, Lamb of God, which is a beautiful film. I’m so excited for her. So I feel like everyone’s been keeping really busy.

So in that way, when I reflect on it, I’m just so proud of everybody for definitely more than just whatever we’re wearing. It’s such a supportive group of people. It really is that support system that has gotten me through. That was something I remember saying after the fact: I think that everybody viewed it as if we thought we were so cool, that we were all drinking martinis or something. And I remember one person commented on the picture and said we looked like a DanActive commercial. [laughs] I was like, “Oh my god, nothing truer has ever been said. We might as well be rolling around in a bed together.” But we were just having fun.

I think the truth is that we’re all self-loathing, and the support that we give each other is what gets us through. I certainly have friends who aren’t writers, and I grew up as a tomboy with more guy friends than girl friends, which is true to this day. But the idea that a bunch of girls that are working in the same industry can swap stories and talk about ideas and share thoughts like that? It’s really exciting. And I feel like now with Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling and all these incredible female writers who are creating shows and are show-runners and all this stuff, hopefully some day it won’t even be a question. It’ll just be a fact.

I’m now proud of it. And it just took some years to kind of get used to it. I think feminism scares people and I think that’s a shame, obviously. But it’s something that I don’t mind so much anymore. If people thought it was icky, I’d rather be the trailblazers of ickiness. [laughs]

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World opens in San Francisco on Friday, June 22.

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