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Lorene Scafaria on Writing Personal Stories, Overcoming Writer’s Block, ‘Coherence,’ and More

Written by on June 19, 2014 

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Around 15 years ago writer/director/actor/musician Lorene Scafaria began her road trip to Los Angeles. With the promise of an agent waiting for her in Los Angeles, it sounded like the right time to make the move…until she reached Texas, where she learned that agent had switched agencies, leaving her with nothing.

Since then she’s has released an album, sold a handful of scripts, adapted Nick and Norah‘s Infinite Playlist, and wrote and directed one of the best films of 2012Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Now Scafaria can be seen in writer/director James Ward Byrkit‘s Coherence, a very clever piece of suburbia sci-fi. Without spoiling the film, it’s about a group of friends that have a dinner party interrupted by a strange occurrence, which is really all anyone needs to know going into this movie.

Scafaria was kind enough to speak with us for a solid hour in Los Angeles a few weeks back to promote the film. Since the conversation ran long and we didn’t want to cut too much out, our interview with Scafaria will be published in two parts.

Kicking off part one is a brief mention of an excellent script she sold years ago to Warner Bros., The Mighty Flynn, which she hopes to direct herself one day. In addition to future projects, here’s what Coherence star Lorene Scafaria had to say about the hurdles of writing technology, telling personal stories, salsa dancing, family, and much, much more:

One of your earlier scripts that hasn’t been made yet is The Mighty Flynn. You said how you were worried if it’s outdated. Is that because the story relies heavily on the yellow pages?

That’s just it. Maybe I’m crazy, but when I wrote that everybody didn’t have a cell phone. When I went back to rewrite it I thought maybe it’s been long enough since Up in the Air where I could do it again [note: it’s also about a corporate downsizing expert]. Looking back, though, I thought I’d have to do it as a period piece. I forget the year where there was mass firings in New York, but I thought maybe I’d change it to that period. Technology is really ruining things for dramatic purposes.

When you’re writing a scene, do you ever have to stop and ask yourself, “Why don’t they just call or text this person?”

All the time. Don’t you think that in movies? When someone says, “What are we going to do?!” It’s really easy: you have a phone in your pocket, so call 9-11 [Laughs]

[Laughs] It’s so boring to watch characters on the phone, and the same goes for characters on computers.

I hate it.

coherence_2Unless you’re David Fincher, it probably won’t work. 

My boyfriend is also a writer, so we’ve been discussing how computers have been shot in film and how tweets are shown. I saw Chef recently, and that had birds flying threw trees and stuff. I mean, everybody tries. I have to hand it to everybody for giving it a shot, but I think you’re right about David Fincher. We were watching House of Cards last night and I was thinking, “This is the way to do it. There’s two words filling the screen and a blinking cursor. We’re in the moment.” There’s a great 17-minute short film from the perspective of somebody’s computer. Have you ever seen that?

I haven’t.

You should check it out. It’s really cool. This thing I’m writing now, fortunately or unfortunately, is all about technology. I’m writing this thing for Warner Bros. based on a blog, which scares me, you know, writing something based on a blog. The blog is actually really fascinating and based on these two people who dated for 40 days as this experiment. The first script I wrote I didn’t want to bring the blog in. I tried so hard to leave technology out of it, but it really did read as the smallest and nonspecific movie. People do email each other, call each other, and text each other. I had to wrap my head around using technology. I hate it and want to leave it out of everything, but now I’ve incorporated the blog and realized all my instincts were wrong [Laughs].

[Laughs] I’m sure we’ll start seeing big dramatic scenes done over text messages, which probably wouldn’t be very interesting.

Yeah. Maybe that’s why that short is interesting to see, because maybe there is a way to hang some interesting drama or tension on that. I certainly will text someone, in my single hours [Laughs], and see those three dots and stare at them.

[Laughs] Did you see Locke?

I love Locke.

I was amazed by how well that worked. It’s kind of similar to Coherence, where it’s so simple you wish you thought of it first.

I know. Locke I was so impressed with. Just fading from headlights to headlights should not have been so gripping, but it absolutely was. There’s been some movies this year I’m really psyched about.

What else have you liked?

I thought Enemy was great and I loved Under the SkinUnder the Skin is my favorite [of the year] so far. Aren’t they all A24 films? A24 is kind of kicking ass.

It’s been a really good year for movies.

I know. I just saw X-Men last night and really liked it [Laughs].

[Laughs] I actually didn’t like Days of Future Past. I feel like they’ve pretty told that story before.

It’s all so boring. They’re all the same. X-Men is, like, the greatest actors all in a giant superhero movie, which, for me, is different than other superhero movies. I mean, Hugh Jackman may be the greatest actor of all time. Did you see Prisoners?

He s great in that.

He’s so fucking good in that. He had the moment in Prisoners where he’s like, “[Hugh Jackman impersonation] You have to handle this! [Pause] I’m sorry.” Then he hugs his son and tears shot out of my eyes. I don’t even know how it got me, but I felt like the ghost of my father was tapping on my shoulder.

Hugh Jackman can basically do anything. 

He really can. Hosting the Tonys in a couple of weeks? Nobody that tough and cool should be able to do it all. I’ve never seen range like that.

He’s one of the few macho guys on film that cries like an actual person. That scene in The Fountain where he’s just losing it is amazing.

Right. Robert De Niro used to be my absolute hero, because when a tough guy like that breaks down you feel it so much more. When De Niro cried in The Silver Linings Playbook, I just couldn’t describe what I’m feeling. Did you like Noah?

I really like Noah.

I like Noah so much. I love Aronofsky, but I was blown away by it. What a powerful image it was with all the people clinging to the rock and him inside the ark. It was all really intense, of course, because it’s Aronofsky and God [Laughs]. Even just to have that scene of him holding the knife over two babies. He makes you think he’ll do it. I thought, “Maybe I don’t remember the story well, but I’m pretty sure these babies are going to die.” [Laughs] I’m becoming more of a fan than a critic. Once you realize how hard it is to get anything made, let alone anything remotely good, it changes the way you see a movie. There’s just too many factors.

That’s why I hate it when a critic says, “It’s not perfect.”

I know. The hardest thing with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is I thought I could make a flawed movie or no movie [Laughs]. I decided to make the flawed movie, because this is it, you know? You’re just looking at a calendar saying, “These are the people we have. This is how much time we have. This is the plane we’re getting.” Obviously it’s so much better to get out there, make something, and just assume someone will get it.

I always like how Danny Boyle says your first movie is always your best movie, because you think it’s your only chance and you’ll try everything.

Totally. I felt like that afterwards. I thought, “Well, I said what I wanted to say. This is all my ideals. I think I’ve said everything.” After that, you just have to figure that out.

That makes sense. After reading The Mighty Flynn and revisiting Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, you can see some connections, like, a character trying to connect with their cleaning lady or someone’s final words interrupted by death.

Absolutely. Once The Mighty Flynn wasn’t happening I looked for what I could steal from myself. I felt like I had been trying to tell that story for a long time. Once Seeking a Friend came out these characters seemed like clichés to people, and yet I was still trying to tell the story of a guy who’s sleepwalking and in need of an awakening and the free-spirited girl who helps him. Obviously people can call her a manic pixie dream girl, but I thought, “No. That’s just me. She’s British, but she’s me.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] It must’ve stung if a critic ever called her unlikable.

I really did take it personally for that reason. I couldn’t believe that you put on a pair of chuck taylors and suddenly you’re dismissed. For me, it was that my dad used to wear them, so I put them on the character. You make these personal decisions, but then realize, “Oh right. These sneakers could really crush it for people.” Those reviews or opinions mean nothing to me. You know, the reviews with people flipping out that Steve Carrell is so much older than her made me think, “Well, that’s how you went into it. You’re missing the point.” People who don’t like the film are fine with me [Laughs], but those critiques I can’t even listen to.

Afterwards I thought, “Am I ever going to want to make a personal film again?” It really was a personal thing for me, as much as it was high-concept and not my life story. Afterwards I wanted to swing the other way and write something not personal. After that, I thought, “No, fuck that! I’m going to write the most personal thing I’ve ever written.” Immediately after I wrote about my mom, my dad, and me.

What comes easier: writing the personal story or the impersonal story?

I don’t know. It was so easy to write a character whose voice I know so well. I felt I had source material just because of my mom calling me eight times a day [Laughs]

[Laughs] Your mom sounds great, though.

She is. She moved here after my dad passed away and I thought it was incredibly brave that, at 60-something, to pickup your life, move 3,000 miles away from everything you’ve ever known, and basically hangout with me in warm weather. If this movie gets made, I hope it’ll bring in mom tourism to Los Angeles. After she moved here I had a lot of friends’ moms and dads want to move here. I mean, there’s the warm weather, so it’s not hard to get them out here. We don’t live in the worst place. Well, it depends who you ask [Laughs].

coherence_1[Laughs] Maybe you went through the same thing, but I think moving away from your family almost makes your relationship with them better.

Absolutely. It’s what made my relationship with my dad really good. It’s almost an unnatural thing to be a family, you know, having four or five different people live together for so long and share bathrooms [Laughs]. I can’t even believe I shared a bathroom with my brother for 18 years. It’s a trip having my mom live out here. The reason I wanted to write the script is we were both grieving my dad at the same time in very different ways. My mom is a completely optimistic person, while I try. [Laughs]

[Laughs] You can see that in Penny.

Yeah. That phone call to her parents is how I felt. Every speech she made was probably true to me with some regrets about not spending enough time with some people. When you getaway it makes it so… I would talk to mom for hours when she lived in New Jersey. Now she’s here with me and I’m, like, “I don’t have time!” [Laughs] It’s really intense. I’m her best friend, maybe her only friend. She really is the loveliest person. Even as they get older they’re human beings and really become your friends. I’m grateful I had as much time with my dad as I did and my mom, but it’s wild to think, “I’m 36, I don’t have kids, and I gotta entertain my mother.”

I used to say to my brother and my dad, “If we weren’t family, we wouldn’t be friends.” Not as an insult, but because… it’s just kind of a funny situation.

Isn’t that funny? Of course. My brother and I are completely different people. I remember being new in L.A. and it took a while to meet the right group of friends. I feel like I went through a few different groups of friends before landing on the sole group of people. It takes two years to get used to Los Angeles. I still look around and can’t believe I live in a place with palm trees. I mean, that’s bizarre to me. They shouldn’t even be here [Laughs].

Again, I think it is about making friends. You’re just indoors all the time. You’re either in your house or someone else’s house. For me, at least, I wouldn’t be out at clubs or bars. L.A. is good for day life. It’s not the nightlife city, like, New York or D.C.. [Pauses] Oh God, I just remembered salsa dancing in DC.

[Laughs] How was that?

It was great. You know, I just got notes yesterday for this romantic comedy I’m writing. I said to them, “I’ve never received a set of notes for a romantic comedy that didn’t suggest a scene of salsa dancing.” I could search salsa dancing on my computer and 10 scripts would popup. It’s always, “You know what wouldn’t be a bad idea? Put them in a salsa dancing class!” [Laughs]

How are you with bad notes?

Pretty good. There is such a thing as bad notes. A lot of the time it’s about the note behind the note, with people not knowing how to articulate exactly what they want you to change. I’ll usually hear bad notes on a Friday, bitch about them on Saturday and Sunday, and realize on Monday what I think they’re trying to say. You try to act accordingly, but even on this new one, it’s a learning experience. Every single time it’s new. Like I said, with this first draft I really needed to be told to embrace the blog.

Do you still read your scripts out loud to your mom?

Totally. She’s my best audience. I just forced that upon her the other day. She completely indulges me. Nobody else lets me be so self-absorbed.

[Laughs] That’s the thing with writing, though. I mean, you’re stuck with yourself.

It’s just so lonely. Many of my friends are writers. We used to have a lot of time to sit around and discuss our ideas, but not they’re raising kids or, you know, Liz Meriwether is running New Girl. Everybody has lives to get back to me, except for me. I felt like I had really bad writer’s block after I finished the script about my mom. I was so down after Seeking a Friend and trying to get that going. I realized how much I loved directing. I feel most at home on set as a director, so I started to chase that. It coincided with feeling a little blocked as a writer, so until recently that was the main pursuit, like, shooting this pilot I recently did.

Now I’m back to beating myself up about the writing. It really is two different sides of the brain. I like both writing and directing, but it’s almost like I can only do one at a time. Still, I want to direct the things I write, so I had to get my groove back a little bit. It was certainly the worst case of writer’s block I’ve had.

When did this happen?

Just last year. 2013 was the year of writer’s block. Not writing would be one thing, but everyday it was writing and saying, “Well, this is garbage. What a waste of a day. What a waste of a week.” I couldn’t get past page 30 of anything. Television is now king and people are trying to get me to do TV. They say, “A pilot is 30 pages! You could be done by now!” I know, but I moved here for film. I love television. I could only hope to create these perfect shows, like, Modern Family or Breaking Bad. When they wanted me to turn the script of my mom into a television show, I thought, “There’s a reason some stories have a beginning, middle, and end.” There’s some great characters you want to see more of, but…

Sometimes less is more.

I think so. I don’t know if I want to live with the story of my mom for five years [Laughs]. I love television and would want to work in it, but every time it comes around, I miss film. I said years ago when Seeking a Friend was coming out that television is becoming independent film, but I’m hoping it’ll swing the other way. Just now seeing A24 and Megan Ellison‘s Annapurna makes me think, “Somebody is supporting the right stuff.”

With Coherence, it’s not a low-budget film, it’s a no budget film [Laughs]. To make something compelling like that is inspiring to me. This kind of movie makes me look around my house and think, “Let’s do something here. Let’s shoot in the living room.” There’s still access to some things, but I miss the tweeners. I miss the 10 million dollar movies. I know things are now either 80 million or $200,000 or, you know, a found footage movie.

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Coherence opens in limited release on June 20th.

Make sure to check back in the next few days for part two of our discussion with Lorene Scafaria.


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