How a Time Traveler's 'Help Wanted' Ad Became a Surprisingly Touching Movie

When you heard that they were making an indie movie based on the famous 1997 time travel-themed "help wanted" ad, you probably expected a screwball comedy, or some kind of stoner slapstick extravaganza. Something akin to Hot Tub Time Machine, perhaps. So it's kind of a surprise when you see the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, and it's actually a lot sweeter and more personal.

How did this come about? We talked to Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow, and he filled us in.

Trevorrow says he and writer Derek Connolly tracked down John Silveira, who wrote the original ad, and optioned it. "We own the ad," he says, noting that it's possibly the shortest original work ever to be optioned for a movie. "He did it as a lark, but there are elements of his personality in the ad. The fact that he says you should bring your own weapons is very John."

So why isn't this movie a straight-up comedy? Trevorrow says it started out as one. "The initial script was more of a comedy mystery road trip movie," says Trevorrow. But he and Connolly decided to flesh out the more personal aspects. "We started talking about, 'Okay, how can we take some of the emotional reasons we all have for needing a time machine and infuse them into the story, and make this a richer experience than just the comedy and mystery — which all stayed intact and which works, I think. I wanted to make sure we had another layer to it, and address some time-travel issues that maybe are ignored in favor of the actual practical time travel [in most stories.]"

And in fact, as Kenneth the putative time traveler says at one point during the film, this is a story all about regret — which is probably the most plausible motivation for someone to want to go back in time. And meanwhile, the reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) is doing his own kind of time travel by finding his high-school sweetheart, whom he reconnects with on Facebook. "We've been talking a lot about how Facebook is our time machine now, and it's really the way you may never have seen again, and it's a new ability that we have now."

How a Time Traveler's 'Help Wanted' Ad Became a Surprisingly Touching Movie

A big driving engine of Safety Not Guaranteed is the ambiguity of whether this guy really can travel in time. Trevorrow says they tried to push that as far as they could. "We wanted people to be focusing on the characters and what was going on with these people, and yet keeping an element of momentum and even emotional suspense, as we sort of plow through this story. And we wanted to leave that tension always hanging, even though there are points in the film where we just put the brakes on the plot and just spend time with the characters. We felt it would be important to have that science fiction question hanging out there."

And along with that ambiguity goes the balance between humor and darkness — as the film toys with the question of whether Kenneth can time-travel, or is just crazy, it also plays with some pretty dark themes. Trevorrow says that balance between humor and intensity was hard to strike.

Part of that balance is because we don't necessarily know what we're doing there. We're out there trying to find the truth in every moment, and have everything feel real, so we went with our instincts. And we didn't necessarily play by the tonal rules that we'd normally have to play by in the feature screenwriting business... And because we had that freedom, we followed our instincts, and created something that may feel more erratic tonally than a normal movie would. But we were excited by the challenge of still having that feel real, because I think life is pretty damn erratic tonally.

There's been a trend recently of indie movies that have a science fiction element in the background, like Brit Marling's Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice. Trevorrow says they weren't conscious about this emerging genre during the making of Safety Not Guaranteed. "I guess those movies had been at Sundance when we were making it." As to why this sub-genre is emerging now, Trevorrow says:

I think it's a natural progression that's just happening, because small independent films are able to have some effects that feel big and cinematic, and can exist on that larger plane. It allows for some bigger stories to be told. But I think the independent mindset will always focus on the human elements of those stories, which makes for a pretty cool hybrid, I think. Because science fiction is best served with a dose of humanity and emotion.

Safety Not Guaranteed is opening in several U.S. cities today, after a limited opening last week in Los Angeles and New York.