Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a film many years in the making. The surprisingly moving story of the last days on earth is reflected by writer/director Lorene Scafaria‘s own personal life. Speaking at a roundtable in NYC with the Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist scribe opens up about a family tragedy that changed the making of this movie, as well as her directing style, unique music taste and what it was like working with Steve Carell, Keira Knightley and more. Check out our conversation below.

We heard from Keira that one of the wonderful things about working with you was that you were so definite, you knew what you wanted. She said, “Steve and I were so impressed that she was so decisive. We’d say, ‘do you want us to do it this way?’” And you’d go “No, that was good.”

That’s great. I had this theory in my head that was just “say something. Say yes or no. And then as they walk away think about whether or not you said the right thing.” (laughs) So I tried to be as decisive as possible, but I think, if nothing else, because I knew the script and because I knew the text very well, I felt as if I could talk about the subject to death with them. Yeah, we were able to make some decisions on the fly.

And she said she called you up the afternoon after she read it and she said she’d do it.

That’s right. It was such a great phone call, obviously, but she said that she read the script, and she cried and she went out to dinner with friends of hers and they all talked about it, “oh what would you do, what would we do?” And they all decided they’d go out dancing all night, and so they went out dancing all night. And I was like, “Well that’s just the best reaction. That’s a perfect Penny-like response to reading the script.”

But the big question is, we’ve never seen her in something like this, so what made you say, “Oh, Keira Knightly is Penny”?

She has such an energy about her that I felt like, with Steve as Dodge, he’s so great at playing this sort of every man, but he’s also such a man and a guy like him who has sort been sleepwalking through life needs someone who can really light a fire under him. And she is a firecracker and so I felt even though you haven’t seen her playing the comedic sort of role, she’s such a strong, vivacious, luminous sort of person, that it just felt like the right fit.

Your bio mentions that you have a big background in improv as well as theater. How does that all influence your writing and directing style?

Honestly, improv has influenced probably my entire life. That’s what got me into college and stuff (laughs), so it was just such a great tool to learn how to speak on the fly and fake confidence as much as humanly possible (laughs). And that helped so much in terms of just trying to act. At some point I felt at least I can sympathize with them if they tell me they don’t feel comfortable saying a line or this isn’t hitting them in a certain way, I felt like if I was in their shoes and I felt the same way, I would really want to find a level of comfort there. And I directed a lot of theater growing up so if nothing else, I felt like I could talk to the actors more as a result of having that.

Do you allow them to improvise a lot in the movie or do they mainly just stick to the script?

They mainly stick to the script. I feel like Steve didn’t want to improvise that much and it didn’t seem to play like that. And it depends, I mean you get T.J. Miller in a Friendzy’s outfit and I let him do whatever he wanted. So it really depended on the scene.

Where did you come up with the concept of this film?

I moved to Los Angeles about a week before 9/11 and so I found myself in a city where I didn’t know anybody, and I wasn’t getting on a plane to see my family or anything and I was just so desperate for human contact and calling up old friends and trying to find an ex-boyfriend, and just being in search of that, that stayed with me for a while. And then, I’d say when Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist was coming out, I was thinking of that film and, I mean, “infinite” is in the title and it is the kind of story that feels like it could kind of go on forever.

I just thought, “Well what if you put a cap on it. I mean, what if there was sort of like an ending to this and gave them the loudest ticking clock? And if you take forever off the table, what does that do to a love story?” So I sold it as a pitch with myself attached to direct, not giving anyone a choice, and then I wrote a couple of drafts of it. And then my father got sick and past away I took like six months off of work to hang out them, and then I came back to this story with a sort of brand new perspective of all of it. But really time more than anything, and just realizing how it’s kind of our only commodity. All I have to give somebody is my time and the only time I’m upset is when someone wastes my time (laughs) and so it all kind of culminated all my years of thinking about death kind of came together.

When Melancholia came out did you have an agonizing moment of “Oh my god what’s this gonna do to my movie?”

No, I mean only when people started to make comparisons did I even really realize. I’ve been a Lars von Trier fan my whole life, namely The Idiots, and so when I saw that, it just feels so different, that bleak Scandinavian wonderfulness. And so beautiful and visual and everything so I don’t know, I felt so different from it but it was more like I just knew more were coming so I was like, “we have to make this now.” Because I just felt like this is coming.

The end is coming!

The end is near! Yeah, it’s so funny that the movie is coming out in 2012 when I sold it in 2008, so the idea that we’re capitalizing on it, the Mayan calendar really did it for us. (Laughs)

How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally?

I think the cast helps. You have two people who are so capable of doing that balance of comedy and drama. Steve in particular is one of those people who, you know you watch The Office and I feel like Michael Scott is a painful character to watch and there’s something tragic about him and so I think that helped. I think through my own experience too, I’ve always been a person who if you give me 15 minutes I could probably laugh about whatever just happened. So it was going through death and realizing that death is one of the most surreal things ever imaginable and in that way it is kind of funny.

In that way you find these moments of humor in the darkest hours, and so for the film it was always just so important to me that those moments can collide. And using those genres, that was part of the writing process for me like, “Okay, we’ve got an end of the world movie, we’ve got a romantic comedy, we really need to use these in the same breath as each other so the scenes like the riot became a breakup scene at the same time. It was a constant reminder to find the light and the dark, and hopefully, in that way, my goal was to try to have that feeling be life-affirming or uplifting in any kind of way because it is inevitable. But in that way, it is sort of a unifying thing. I mean, we’re all sort of in the boat together.

I have to say that’s a harsh break up.

(Laughs) Not great.

Was that some wishful thinking you had?

I mean the character was based on someone. It was not played by the person it was based on, but it was based on a musician I might have known.

Speaking of music, Penny’s character carried around her LP’s everywhere. Is that what you would save if you had three weeks left?

I’m not that cool, so I don’t have a vinyl collection, but music, when I thought about what people would really want to consume in their final weeks, I don’t know about movies and TV, I don’t know that people are really watching The Graduate all over again even thought they should, but it felt like there’s such a universal love of music for people. And it is so subjective but it’s more of a collection of memories than anything else. And so, to me, when she’s grabbing those things it’s like, I loved in High Fidelity how he’s organizing those autobiographically and it is that feeling of, “oh, this song reminds me of that time.” And your glory days are sort of there. And I always kind of wanted her taste to represent Dodge’s life, that these are probably songs that he maybe grew up with and maybe listened to or maybe he wasn’t the kind of guy who was listening to these things but she’s got them. In that way the vinyl always represented to me her love of something, that she cares about something so much that it’s about preservation and it’s nostalgic as well obviously. I mean my own love of music, it’s in there.

How would you define a good friend and how do you think that the advancement of modern technology is affecting the quality of friendship, or human relations in general?

Well, I was really enjoying stripping away as much technology as humanly possible. It’s ruined romance really. Obviously across the board, in every way. There’s no scenes anymore of people running to the airport gates and there’s no handwritten letters anymore and I just wanted to strip all that away. I didn’t want texting. I didn’t want any of that to be a part of it. It’s funny, I’m someone who is just now embracing the Internet, I’m just now coming to terms with, this is life. And I feel like at my age, I sort of straddle the era of I distinctly remember what it was like not to have it and now it’s such a part of life and it’s ruined privacy and it’s had such an effect on social graces. I think a good friend is obviously there for you in the hard times and yet, when I was thinking of this, it is one of those things where, people cope with things so differently that when I went through my father’s death, you get so surprised of who’s sitting next to you when the big one hits and probably even more surprised by who’s running away when the big one hits. I do think that’s what a true friend is.

I had a little fortune cookie that I had saved forever that said “A true friend walks in when the rest walk out” and I always liked that. But I think it’s distancing us. I think everybody is sort of at arms length and gotten more rude as the years go by. I think people don’t think too much about what they write online and it’s become that. And yet, in my very recent sort of embrace of this, you can also find so much humanity on the Internet. There’s really something about seeing people in their natural habitat (laughs) and there’s something sort of unifying about it. Twitter was something that I was kind of horrified by at first, and then I was doing it and feeling like I was drowning in it, and then at the same it really does bring people together. People who have felt alone a lot in their lives get to see that other people are like them and so, I don’t know, hopefully there’s a balance to find for people socially. Because this is the time of the greatest social change I think, and it’s fascinating.

Well thank you for making a movie with humanity in it. That’s very rare.

Thanks, thanks. I’ve just always enjoyed studying psychology and sociology and all that and I’ve always liked to look at other people with a sympathetic eye and I feel like I look at myself with a critical one. And so in that way I just kind of wanted to show as much of humanity as possible and in various ways.

If you think about a lot of the romantic comedy classics, even the zany ones like Bringing Up Baby, they have little moments that were really touching.

Yeah, this was less of a reaction to end of the world movies and more of a reaction to romantic comedies because it’s a genre that I’ve always loved that has kind of gotten off-track a little bit, or stayed directly on track I should say. It’s gotten pretty formulaic and I’m a romantic so I like watching people fall in love and if it’s truly a romantic and comedic film, those are sort of my favorites.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World hits wide release on Friday, June 22nd.

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