Lorene Scafaria Interview: “The Meddler” Director and Screenwriter Talks About Her Films, Music and Creative Inspirations
Lorene Scafaria is a multi-talented artist who has found success in both film and music. She earned widespread acclaim for her adapted screenplay of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s book Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), in which she also had a small part. The film met with high praise, telling the story of a boy and girl who meet at a nightclub and develop a relationship as the night’s adventures bring them closer to each other. Scafaria’s next project was the critically favored comedy/drama Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) about a man and a woman who meet with only a few days left before Earth is destroyed by an asteroid. The film stars Keira Knightley and Steve Carell in a humorous and touching story of humanity’s end. In both films, music plays a key part of the plot and brings the characters together. Music is another passion of Scafaria and she has released two solo albums, both available on iTunes (Garden Party and Laughter and Forgetting), and another with fellow actor Adam Brody in the band The Shortcoats. (On a personal note, We Can’t Be Friends is one of our favorite songs and one you should take a moment to listen to). She had a prominent role in the well-received and award-winning sci-fi thriller Coherence (2013) about a group of friends enjoying a dinner party when a comet passes overhead and creates a terrifying paradox. Ms. Scafaria’s next film, The Meddler, stars Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne and J.K. Simmons, which she also wrote and directed.
After reading our review of her film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (here), Ms. Scafaria kindly agreed to an interview. A genuinely gracious talent, we thank her for her time and her considerate, insightful replies.
Could you tell us about your upcoming film, The Meddler?
Scafaria: The Meddler is about Marnie Minervini, a recent widow and eternal optimist who moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles after her husband dies to be closer to her daughter. But when her daughter’s work takes her out of town, Marnie has to fend for herself in LA. Armed with an iPhone, a full bank account, and lots of love to give, Marnie ends up meddling in other peoples’ lives. But putting herself out there may just be the best thing to happen to her.
What were some inspirations in developing the script?
Scafaria: The script is not-so-loosely based on my mother. After my father passed away, she sold the house in New Jersey and moved three thousand miles to be closer to me. You could say I’ve been raising her in Los Angeles ever since. We were both grieving my dad’s death very differently, and at first we had a rough time of it. But I was deeply impressed with how she handled her grief, so beautifully and optimistically, and I wanted to tell her story, but give her a little more adventure and fun and trouble and maybe even a love interest. The script is basically my wish fulfillment for my mother. But hopefully other people will find the character and situations relatable.
The film stars Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, and J. K. Simmons. Tell us about the cast and your experience working with such talents.
Scafaria: People were initially very discouraging of the project, saying it would be too hard to get a film made about a woman of a certain age. They wanted me to make it a traditional two-hander, mother/daughter story, or else make it for television, since female characters are “allowed” to flourish there. But I had pictured Susan Sarandon as the character for so long and had no intentions of making it anything but Marnie’s cinematic story. So I sent the script cold to Susan’s agent who fortunately liked it and passed it along to Susan who also liked it. We met and that was basically it. It took a little longer to figure out who would play the other roles. I met Rose and JK within a few days of each other and I think it was just meant to be. Everyone really wanted to work with Susan. I was so happy that she embraced the character of Marnie and it really consumed her. I had shot the first few minutes of the film with my own mother as a sort of sizzle reel and when I showed it to Susan she said “This is everything.” So that’s where the character started. But I got incredibly lucky to work with this caliber of actors. They certainly made my job easier.
Your previous film, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World told the story of a man and a woman who were strangers, coming together in the final days on Earth before an asteroid comes. It feels like a very personal story. Tell us about what inspired you to write the script.
Scafaria: It’s funny because even though the idea was very high concept, the story did feel really personal. I had set out to make an end of the world love story but halfway through writing the script, my father’s prostate cancer took a turn for the worse and we had a six-moth long goodbye. So Seeking a Friend really became about dying. It was a way to talk about time, and the affect time has on us. For instance, what would happen to a romance if “forever” was taken off the table? How would two people go through the motions of getting to know each other with the loudest ticking clock ever? I really liked exploring all the ways people face their own mortality; whether they’re optimists or realists, starting a riot or mowing the lawn, it was all interesting to me. And I like to think that how you view the ending is fairly revealing of how you feel about death.
In that film, there was a great mix of comedy, romance, and genuine drama. Was maintaining that balance difficult and was there a time when you wanted to only go in one direction?
Scafaria: I’m not sure I was completely successful balancing all of it. It certainly was asking a lot from an audience to go from broad, satirical laughter to genuine tears, but to me, that’s what dying looked like . . . at times it’s so surreal, it’s funny, and then it’s instantly too heartbreaking for word . . . and time sneaks up on you and scares you and surprises you, and you’re super-present but also out-of-body. I was trying to capture that feeling, if nothing else. That’s why choices were made like the asteroid coming early. If you were a person expecting the asteroid to miss Earth and spare everyone, it wasn’t that kind of movie. It always bothered me in movies where people are dying and then suddenly their cancer is magically cured. That wasn’t realistic to me. If anything, it sneaks up on you and comes sooner than you’d expect, even when you’re expecting it. It was meant to be a story of the inevitable.
Keira Knightley and Steve Carell are well cast as Penny and Dodge. Were you involved in any aspect of the casting and what was your experience like working with them?
Scafaria: I liked the idea of an unlikely pairing . . . two people who would’ve passed each other in the hallway and not paid each other any mind, until the world is turned upside down and everything’s changed . . . and now they can open their eyes up to things they wouldn’t have before. I never intended for there to be such a big age gap between the two characters, though I’d argue that that’s part of the point. It wasn’t “Hollywood” casting . . . it was about having two people meet under extraordinary circumstances . . . and what happens when you strip away all the things that would normally get in the way. Steve and Keira were both absolutely lovely to work with, and they worked so well together. And it was so fun to see them both do something different . . . he got to be somber and she got to do more comedy.
Seeking a Friend had many great moments and left a deep impression with viewers about the “What if?” scenario and the relationship between the leads. We particularly enjoyed the moment when Penny talks about a love of records, which is easily comparable to taking care of ourselves and loved ones, a beautiful moment that was touching and sentimental. Is there anything about this film that you’d like the audience to take away?
Scafaria: I never really wanted to preach or provide anyone with answers, or the meaning of life . . . I just wanted to raise questions and hopefully allow people to think about their own lives and how they spend their time. Time is precious, but things don’t have to last forever to be meaningful. You don’t have to save the world to be important to someone. It’s probably not productive to live each day like it were your last, but maybe try to live each day like it was your first.
Music plays an important role in your life. It has been an obvious influence in your writing with Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, the subtle use of it in Seeking a Friend, and with your own singing. Tell us about why music is so defining in your work.
Scafaria: I think music plays an important role in everyone’s life. It’s emotional storytelling. Songs can be so much more powerful and visceral than films. In a way, it’s a purer art form because it’s more individual. I can’t write to music, because it inspires too much feeling in me. But I’ve always written scenes with certain songs in mind. It’s a part of directing that I’m obsessed with . . . finding a way to combine my love of movies and music. And I’ve always loved songwriting and managed to record a couple of albums, but I’m less comfortable singing and performing, so it’s always been more of a hobby.
Tell us about The Shortcoats.
Scafaria: The Shortcoats was a band that I had for a little while, but I can’t say we’ve jammed lately. It was with my incredible composer Jonathan Sadoff and actor Adam Brody, but everyone has kept their day jobs. We recorded a little EP called This Time Last Year that I’m still really proud of. And I’ve loved working with Sadoff on both film scores. It’s such an important part of the way the films speak to the audience.
What have been some of the larger challenges in becoming a filmmaker and especially in having your vision brought to the screen?
Scafaria: I didn’t go to film school so I knew I had to write my way into the director’s chair. Since Seeking a Friend wasn’t a success at the box office, it became incredibly hard, if not harder, to get the second film made. I didn’t want to compromise and do a project that I didn’t believe in just so I could get back on set, so I took some directing jobs in television while trying to continue to push The Meddler uphill. I learned what to fight for on the first one and I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes, so it took a few years but ultimately it was all done the right way. The script should hopefully bring in the right cast which hopefully brings in the financing and then it’s up to you to know how to spend the money, how to manage your time. You have to fight the entire time for your vision. Every choice is an important one because they all add up.
You cover a lot of ground as an artist, acting, directing, singing, writing. Is there a direction you see yourself going more prominently and is there anything else you are exploring going forward? Any new projects you’d like us to keep an eye open for?
Scafaria: Writing and directing are my main focus. I’m not ruling out anything but I’ve never truly pursued acting or singing. Maybe someday I’ll be in something I write or take a stab at a musical, but we’ll see.