"I wanted to tell an epic story in an intimate way," Lorene Scafaria says.
So she set her romance during the final two weeks before the end of the world, then focused on an insurance salesman (Steve Carell) and his neighbor (Keira Knightley) as they try to cap off some unfinished business before everything goes dark.
The result is Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which opens Friday, June 22.
Scafaria, who wrote the script for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, says she was pushed to end life on Earth by her experience on that earlier film -- and by the growing media interest in the Mayan calendar's supposed prediction of the world ending in 2012.
"As movies started coming out like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, I found I was more interested in the relationships of the people who were dying than what was actually happening to them," she says. "And the other factor was that I moved from New York to Los Angeles just before 9/11."
"When it happened, I felt pretty stranded. I knew nobody and was in desperate need of human contact. I was getting in touch with old friends -- and I found it interesting that this cataclysmic event would have such an effect on my own human behavior and relationships.
"So all of that was percolating. Then, in 2008, as we were finishing Nick and Norah, I was thinking about the fact that the word 'infinite' was in the title. And I thought, well, what if you took forever off the table? What if you gave these characters the loudest ticking clock there was?"
Given an apocalyptic concept, Scafaria focused on who this story was about. Dodge (Carell) and Penny (Knightley), unacquainted neighbors who become traveling companions, each trying to help the other fulfill a final wish.
"I feel like I've been trying to write these characters for so long," the 34-year-old filmmaker says. "They're both archetypes I'm interested in. Guys in movies are either a womanizer or a manchild. And the women always seem to be uptight, Type A sorts. But I've always been drawn to withdrawn people as characters. Steve Carell says he related to this character more than most of the ones he sees. And Steve is everyman -- but he's a chameleon."
Directing her first film was "like going to film school everyday," she says. "I was learning to make decisions on the fly. It was sort of 'Fake it 'til you make it.' But writing is such an isolating thing to do. Deadlines mean even more anxiety. But directing, surrounded by 100 people with power tools, I felt safe."
The New Jersey native started as a playwright -- then sold the screenplay rights to her first play and turned her attention to writing movies. Nick and Norah was her ninth screenplay -- and the first she sold. Seeking a Friend, she points out, is her 18th - -and her directorial debut.
"I sold it as a pitch with me attached to direct," she says. "I wrote a couple of drafts. And then my father got sick and passed away. So I took six months off to take care of him -- and came back with a new perspective about time. The story didn't change. But it was more about the idea of time as the only commodity that matters.
"Now the only thing I regret is wasting time. Spending time with my father, every 15 minutes was a lifetime. I like to think that, since then, I've tried to use time as wisely as possible."
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