Writer-director Lorene Scafaria makes Armageddon fun in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Last year’s Stanley Cup riot wasn’t the end of the world, but if you squinted, it probably looked like it. And when the iconic image of Scott Jones kissing Alexandra Thomas half a block from the broken glass and burning cars on Georgia Street was beamed around the planet, writer-director Lorene Scafaria suddenly found herself with a sort of emotional motif for her apocalyptic rom-com, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
“I was using that picture in my little Seeking a Friend ‘lookbook’ at the time,” she says, calling the Georgia Straight from a hotel in Toronto. “She was hurt, right? I know, it’s a tragic actual story, but I remember seeing that image and being, like, ‘Wow…’ I’d just never seen anything that looked so, so romantic.”
Vancouver’s little end-times preview ended up informing the riot scene Scafaria orchestrated for her directorial debut, opening in Vancouver on Friday (June 22). With cinder blocks crashing through the window, neighbours Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) are propelled out of their apartment building, onto the road, and eventually into each other’s arms while the world around them prepares for an asteroid to seek its cataclysmic impact 21 days later with Earth.
That’s all well and good, as Knightley’s Annie Hallish record collector brings some much needed (if late) energy to the remaining days of the depressed insurance salesman played by Carell. The quietly savvy part of Scafaria’s script, however, is in the variety of ways people are depicted behaving in the face of Armageddon. For one group of regular middle-classers, it means listening to Radiohead while they try heroin (actually an on-set ad lib by Patton Oswalt, according to Scafaria). For others, it comes down to a bullet-headed refusal to do anything at all.
“I did a lot of research, human research, just asking people what they would do,” Scafaria says, “and some people said they would go to work because they wouldn’t know where else to go. And another friend, he’s a boss, said, ‘Oh, I’d go in and I’d be so afraid that none of my employees would be there.’ Part of it was sort of the stages of grief. I was thinking a lot about that in terms of the structure of the story, and thinking in terms of denial at first, and how you just sort of shuffle about and go about your business, and you can’t really face up to it just yet. The other part of it was thinking [that] people’s habits are there for a reason, and sometimes they’re just a coping mechanism to continue on.”
Scafaria also concedes: “I do think that there would be violent acts and things like suicide, and riots would take place, and an orgy or two, I’m sure,” and she wrote one of the more off-kilter, suburban bacchanals that we’ve ever seen into her film (word to the wise: if the world’s coming to an end and you’re not the orgy type, maybe avoid family restaurants). But, by and large, most of her characters handle the impending doom pretty well.
“You know, I was in New York during the blackout [in 2003],” she recalls. “And it looked like the end of the world. I mean, there were no streetlights, and I don’t know how or why it looked like Mad Max within 10 minutes, but it did—and it just turned into this great block party. There was no looting, and nothing happened, and all the restaurants opened up and were just handing out beers, and my brother and I, we were walking through Times Square when it was dark, and the streets were just filled with people having a good time; it was strange. And you’d think [that] after 9-11, everybody’d be freaking out and thinking, ‘Who knows what’s gonna happen?’ And instead it was a real communal experience.”
Speaking of communal experiences, we probably can’t ignore that this isn’t the first or even the second time in the past 12 months at the movies that we’ve been smacked into oblivion by another celestial body. Our collective, overheated anxieties are very obviously extending all the way to the box office, although it’s to Scafaria’s credit that she rewires the impulse into a light-footed romantic comedy. Of course, that’s assuming—and we’re not—that Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia was meant to be taken seriously.
“I’m gonna say this is funnier than Melancholia,” Scafaria says with a laugh, “but Lars Von Trier is a comedian. He’s one of my favourite filmmakers of all time, and every time this is brought up, I’m always, like, ‘He’d probably kill himself if he heard the comparison.’ So, my apologies, Lars, but my film is funnier.”
Watch the trailer for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
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