In “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” an apocalyptic romantic comedy, a young woman grabs a few possessions for what may be her final road trip. With an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, Penny (played by Keira Knightley) doesn’t take clothing or a toothbrush. Instead, she does triage on her large record collection, selecting LPs by Herb Albert, Wilco and John Cale.
“I’m not that cool,” says first-time director Lorene Scafaria, who also wrote the movie, which opens Friday. “I don’t have a vinyl collection.”
Sitting in a Georgetown hotel suite, the filmmaker seems reasonably cool. She’s wearing blue jeans and a simple yellow shirt, but they’re set off by long red hair and spike-heeled, open-toe shoes that reveal pink toenails. She’s clearly not the kind of person who would let the prop department pick her heroine’s personal soundtrack for possible Armageddon.
Scafaria is 34, so she “grew up with tapes and CDs, these things I can’t believe are now obsolete.” But however she listened, vintage pop and rock music became essential to her. “End of the World” is full of tunes from her childhood (and before). So was “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” the 2008 movie she scripted. Her new movie’s title, she says, “actually comes from a Chris Cornell song.” (That would be “Preaching the End of the World.”)
The writer, director and sometime actress is also a musician. She plays keyboards in the Shortcoats, a band whose other members are ex-boyfriend Adam Brody (who has a small part in “End of the World”) and Jonathan Sadoff (who composed some of its score). Scafaria contributed songs to the soundtracks of “Whip It,” the 2009 women’s roller-derby drama, and “Nick and Norah.”
In her new movie, the director says, “vinyl became a larger metaphor. I think music conjures up memories. And it’s so personal, someone’s record collection.”
Although “End of the World” is an original script and “Nick and Norah” was adapted from a novel, their scenarios dovetail. In both, a potential couple are thrown together for a quick adventure. But where the previous movie featured teens, the new one introduces an exuberant young woman to a soul-stifled middle-aged man, Dodge, played by Steve Carell.
Some might suggest that this is a classic male fantasy. “I guess so,” Scafaria says. “But I saw it as wish fulfillment for a free-spirited girl. Which I am.”
Penny, she explains, was named for being a lucky discovery, while Dodge’s name symbolizes the fact that “he’s been avoiding his whole life.” Among the things he’s missed, of course, are great songs. The albums Penny brings on their trip are “what Dodge should have been listening to but probably wasn’t.”
As global destruction looms, Dodge decides to search for the old girlfriend who got away. He and Penny, a neighbor he just met, travel through a landscape that looks like California (it is), but with place names from Scafaria’s native New Jersey. She calls the setting “vague East Coast.”
Penny also looks for an ex, but her thoughts are with her family in Britain. Airlines have stopped flying, so she seems to have little chance of going home. Waiting for the end is the only option.
This sounds a bit like a
rom-com version of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” a comparison Scafaria has heard before but “can’t wrap my head around.” She concedes that both movies share at least one thing: Their impending cataclysms don’t spur macho heroics. “There’s no talk of trying to stop it,” she says.
“End of the World” was filmed before von Trier’s film was released, so “Melancholia,” wasn’t an inspiration. Instead, the movie is rooted in two personal developments. One was Scafaria’s move from New York to Los Angeles a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She felt alone in Los Angeles, but “I was grounded for at least a month. I couldn’t just fly to see my family in New Jersey.”
The other was the illness and death of her father, one of the two people to whom the movie is dedicated. (The second is the producer’s late mother.) In the script, Scafaria’s loss is expressed in the farewell call Penny makes to her relatives, which became a showcase for Knightley. “I always thought of it as a phone call to the other side,” says the woman who wrote it.
The one-sided conversation was filmed “just as it is on paper,” Scafaria says. “But that scene was so emotional. It was waterworks for everybody when we shot it.”
Directing a scene she scripted is a longtime ambition for Scafaria, but she had herself “attached” as director when selling the “End of the World” screenplay primarily “so it would actually get made.” She’s written 19 scripts so far, and many have been optioned, providing her with a reasonable income. But only two have been produced.
“ ‘Nick and Norah’ was number 9. This is 18,” she says.
“I was so tired of things just being on paper,” she adds of her unfilmed screenplays. “And a couple of them I’m still in love with.”
A few of the scripts remain in development, and “End of the World” could resuscitate others. That would be fine with Scafaria, but it’s not her focus.
“I like to look forward,” she says. “I’m fine with writing number 20.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
(rated R, 101 minutes) opens Friday at area theaters.