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'Safety Not Guaranteed' filmmaker details how want ad evolved into movie

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly sat in a hotel conference room in Austin and spoke with a sense of wonder about their previous night at the Paramount Theatre.

The partners were still experiencing a high after the South by Southwest screening of their first feature film collaboration, "Safety Not Guaranteed." (The movie opens today in Austin.)

"I think that was our best crowd experience," Connolly said. "We've seen it probably 15 or 20 times with audiences now, and I think that was my favorite moment, last night."

"They were pointing out jokes I didn't even know existed in the movie," Trevorrow added.

And the two men had an obscure libertarian-leaning, survivalist magazine from California to thank. (Along with a great script and sensitive direction.)

The two men wouldn't have ridden into Austin on a wave of buzz from the Sundance Film Festival were it not for an advertisement placed in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997.

"Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke," the ad read. "You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."

More than a half-dozen years after the ad first appeared in the niche-market magazine, it caught fire as an Internet meme. A video parodying the ad, featuring a man with a mullet haircut, received thousands of views on YouTube, and Jay Leno lampooned the ad during one of his segments on "The Tonight Show."

The viral sensation inspired Connolly and Trevorrow to make their first feature film. The two met while studying at New York University and working as interns at "Saturday Night Live." After years of friendship, the two started writing as a team in 2004. Their projects included a sitcom pilot and several screenplays. But it wasn't until they became aware of the Backwoods Home ad that inspiration truly struck.

"It was so meaty to me. I just felt like there was something there. In 30 seconds I had the whole framework of the movie in my mind," Connolly said. "I knew the character, and I felt like I knew guys like that growing up, and I felt like I knew who would word it in that specific way. I felt a lot of sympathy for that guy."

Connolly's sympathy for the character took what had been a derisive and mean-spirited Internet plaything and turned it into an exploration of a troubled but sensitive soul.

The writer admits that he fantasized about wanting to go find the man who placed the ad, so he used that conceit as the movie's central premise. Three Seattle magazine reporters, played with a blend of wit, bravado and vulnerability by Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni, set out to find the anonymous man behind the ad.

But once they find the dreaming and slightly tortured soul named Kenneth, who's given depth and heart by University of Texas grad Mark Duplass, the snarky writers discover a humanity behind the lunacy. They also realize a lot more about themselves.

In their investigation of Kenneth's fascination with time travel, the magazine writers begin to re-evaluate their own desires and regrets and come to terms with their own fantasies about the future.

"The feeling was always sort of this nostalgia ... of people being hung up on something in the past, and then (another guy) stuck worrying about the future," Trevorrow said. "Nobody is living in the present, and that was sort of what everything was built around."

As for the man who wrote the ad? Trevorrow and Connolly approached him in Oregon before making the movie. They say he greeted them with skepticism, curious of their motivations. And he later posted online that the ad was made up and was merely a filler for the magazine's classified pages, further confusing matters.

Whatever the case, Trevorrow and Connolly contend that they've tried to show empathy for the man behind the ad — and that they believed the ad was true.

"He was told about the story and he started to see that we were not trying to take advantage of him or make fun of him in any way. We really wanted to make this his legacy. And it is," Trevorrow said. "Knowing him now it makes me very happy and gives me a lot of satisfaction that we have embedded him in pop culture the way he deserves."

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986.