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The Writer-director: Upending the end of the world

Life-affirming action is what Lorene Scafaria was after in 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,' starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.

April 29, 2012|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Writer-director Lorene Scafaria, whose new film is "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria, whose new film is "Seeking a Friend… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Hollywood's usual last-minute heroics don't factor in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World." In writer-director Lorene Scafaria's opening scene, a space mission to prevent a 70-mile-wide asteroid from hitting Earth fails spectacularly, giving everyone on the planet just three weeks to live. With the clock ticking, Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) try to figure out how to do just that.

Romance and the apocalypse don't seem like obvious movie partners, which is precisely why Scafaria (who wrote "Nick and Norah's Infinite Play List") chose the end of days as the backdrop for her directorial debut. "It's about epic times," Scafaria said of her story. "But I wanted it to be the opposite of the end-of-the world films of the '90s, where people set out to save the world. This is really about characters."

While many of the black comedy's characters opt to spend their final moments engaging in debauchery — what better time to try heroin, unprotected sex and rioting? — Carell's insurance salesman and Knightley's disorganized dreamer struggle to find something more lasting before the lights go out for good.

The 33-year-old Scafaria was inspired to write "Seeking a Friend" by the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred soon after she moved to Los Angeles where she knew hardly anyone. "Nothing mattered except who was safe," she said. "I was in search of human contact." Yet the script, which Scafaria sold on condition that she direct so that it wouldn't turn into something treacly or get some preposterous new ending, was more heavily influenced by the death of the filmmaker's father. "It changed everything," she said.

Giuseppe Antonio Rodolfo Scafaria was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died in 2009 at age 70, and Scafaria was with him the last six months of his life. "He still wanted to learn and change and make connections," she said of her dad. "To see somebody that alive with just a few weeks to live was so life-affirming."

When "Seeking a Friend" (opening June 22) starts, Dodge's wife has run away, and even though his insurance boss is offering promotions — with so many people killing themselves, management positions are opening fast — Dodge feels called to a greater purpose: tracking down the one girl who got away. Through happenstance, he is joined in his search by Penny, who fears she has missed her last chance to see her family in England and, like Dodge, is suddenly all alone.

Dodge's life has been defined by compromise and disappointment. "He's put all of his hopes and dreams behind him," Scafaria said. Penny is in many ways his opposite. "She has chased experience and as a result feels she hasn't accomplished much." Penny may have fewer regrets than Dodge, but she ultimately is as unfulfilled.

As the asteroid nears, the two travel through an increasingly chaotic landscape, encountering not only people who pay assassins to put them out of their misery but also survivalists hoping to live through the catastrophe in a bunker stocked with potato chips, video games and guns. Yet for all the fatalism, Dodge and Penny discover enough random acts of kindness — including their stumbling across a beach where scores of parents are baptizing and frolicking with their children — that they begin to see the world's end as a perfect place for a fresh start.

"I wanted to make a movie about all the hard stuff — whether it was a metaphor for death or divorce," Scafaria said. "But I wanted it to be uplifting, to be about what it's like to be surprised."

john.horn@latimes.com

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