Great storytelling shines through at any budget. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria knows this well, and that commitment to excellence has enabled her to tug at our heartstrings for years. From Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, for which she penned the screenplay, to Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, her directorial debut, Scafaria’s track record has attracted Hollywood’s most talented stars to her projects. Her current offering, the Susan Sarandon-starrer The Meddler, is no exception. Paste chatted with Scafaria about her early days as a pizza thief, resistance to selling out for a paycheck, and her gratifying road to success.
Paste Magazine: Word on the street is that your inspiration for diving into the entertainment world somehow involved writing fraudulent book reports to get free food from Pizza Hut. Any truth to that?
Lorene Scafaria: That whole story is true. I don’t know if that would have been the very beginning, just because I was probably writing things even younger than that. My aunt got me a business card when I was 5 years old that said “author,” so I think I was probably interested in writing and obviously drawing and anything else kids did with a pencil.
Paste: This was just how you learned how to profit from your art for the first time?
Scafaria: I think so [laughs]. I think that was when I learned to monetize it with Pizza Hut gift certificates in about the 4th grade. There was this program called “Book It” at my school. I feel like they did it in a lot of school districts, but definitely in Jersey. The kid who read the most books and gave reports on them in class got a gift certificate to Pizza Hut every month. I would make up books, make up the title and the author and the plot and I would make sure that I wouldn’t rate them too highly so that nobody went looking for it. I was always like, “It was just okay.”
I took my grandmother to Pizza Hut like every single month because I could invent books faster than other kids could read them.
Paste: At least you were paying it forward.
Scafaria: I was paying it forward. It was all about grandma. I can’t believe I didn’t get caught. What could these books have been about? What did I think the storytelling actually was in the 4th grade? It couldn’t have been great.
Paste: It actually sounds like a fun game to play now.
Scafaria: It would be… Yeah, you’re right. There’s definitely an L.A. board game night somewhere in there.
Paste: This probably wasn’t a direct result of your Pizza Hut capers, but I read you produced your first play in Red Bank when you were only 17 years old. What led to that?
Scafaria: I was just always into writing. I really was writing screenplays in like 5th grade. I think you should put “screenplays” in quotes because I don’t know what those also could have been like. I do have a few of them still and they’re mostly like high-energy action or thrillers—things that I really knew about in 5th grade.
I’ve always loved storytelling. I’ve always loved writing. I probably did enjoy lying and pulling one over on people at some point in life and maybe that segued a little bit more. I liked acting and I was in plays when I was a kid and then I remember just going into the city, going into New York City, and they would sell screenplays on the street for $20 each. They still do. I just saw them back on the street. It made me so happy when I was just there. I remember buying A Clockwork Orange for $20 on the street when I was young, too young, and being so obsessed with the screenplay and the screenplay structure and trying to study it, and then I started just writing a lot of ultra-violence and my mother was very worried about me and where I was going to go.
When I was 17, I wrote a play about businessmen because I was kind of obsessed with David Mamet and so had four of my friends who were around the same age pretending to be these 40-year-old businessmen cursing in an office. Yeah, it just grew from there. Writing plays turned into writing screenplays that were more official than the ones I was writing when I was a kid. I think I had written three of those and I graduated college and was living in New York City and answering phones at a film company and sending query letters to agents in Los Angeles. That was sort of the beginning of taking it very seriously when I was 21, 22. That’s when I made the move to Los Angeles. One of those agents that I wrote these query letters to actually responded. She rejected me, at first, and then called me four days later and told me to make the move to Los Angeles, and so I packed up my car and I drove across the country.
When I got to Texas I called her and they said, “She no longer works here.” That was a surprise. I arrived in L.A. with basically nothing. I left New York thinking I was going to really make it. Then I arrived and everything was kind of still the same, then just hustled here and that was what got me here. That was in 2001.
Paste: It’s really interesting because everyone has the idea of the struggling actor who moves out west and then they’re a waiter for 10 years trying to find their big break. Nobody really thinks of people who aren’t primarily looking to be in front of the camera and how they may potentially be going through those similar struggles. Would you say that that period of your life was kind of the same experience as maybe a prospective actor might have as far as just trying to hold down a day job, trying to make contacts, and trying to press the flesh?
Scafaria: Yeah, I think the grind is still the same. I think that for me, personally, and maybe other people would feel this way too, being in front of the camera feels like you’re just being scrutinized in other ways … things are about looks a lot more. Certainly once you’re a working writer who’s taking meetings and going around town, of course, people are judging you no matter what anyway, but at least they are judging the work first. That was sort of what I felt about it.
It’s the same exact thing. You move to a city. You don’t know anyone. You don’t know who to talk to. You don’t know how to make friends, let alone make contacts, and I’ve never been one of those people who … I’m definitely a hustler but I don’t like to be nice to anyone who I wouldn’t normally be nice to. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know. I wouldn’t kiss ass or anything.
It was definitely hard in the very beginning to know what the path should be. I had a writing partner for a little while. We were doing all this research to find out what scripts were selling from first-time writers and we found out they were children’s adventure. We were just roommates separately writing scripts and then we both wrote this script together that was children’s adventure that we ended up setting up at Revolution Studios.
I have to say, it was probably six months after I got here. It certainly was a grind and continued to be a grind after that. I got really lucky that there was any hope pretty soon after I got here to just keep hope alive. I didn’t do anything else for like more than two years after that. You can certainly have ups and downs and then you can really make a living as a writer without having movies or anything produced forever. Then I felt like the struggle went from, “Oh my God. I just need people to read my scripts” to, “Okay, now I need someone to actually produce one of these and turn this into a movie so it’s not just on paper anymore.” There’s just a lot of different stages to it.
Paste: That being said, is there a stage where your entire goal is to ignore your creative instincts and just write whatever you think will sell?
Scafaria: No, definitely. Definitely not. I remember feeling like I had a voice and I did feel like I had stories I wanted to tell and it’s only in the very beginning when you’re trying to figure out how to break into the business—at least, for me. In the very beginning we’re trying to figure out how to break into this. That was what we were both doing. Once we set up this children’s adventure suddenly we were writing partners with a career in children’s adventure. That wasn’t even what I had wanted or thought was going to happen. You don’t realize how quickly you’re just put into a box like, “Okay, that worked so just keep doing this.”
Once my writing partner and I parted ways and we were both doing things separately and I was going back to basically writing alone, I really was just trying to write stories that I wanted to tell. A lot of those are comedy-dramas and human stories and dealing with the human condition in one way or another—usually character studies or some person that I would find fascinating or a relationship that I would find fascinating and want to unfold it.
Those were always the stories I was really interested in. Of course, before a certain date you were allowed to write romantic comedies and then those died. Then it was me starting to try to figure out how to fit in the marketplace without actually trying to change anything too dramatically about my own voice. The first script that I wrote after my writing partner and I broke up, I remember feeling like, “Okay, this is it. This is the one. All the others that came before it felt like practice for this.” I remember thinking that if that script didn’t work that I didn’t know if I belonged here anymore. I didn’t know if I had a place here or that my voice or my point of view or my perspective had any place in Los Angeles or in screenwriting.
Thank God that one got picked up and optioned and started a career for me. That was my eight script and it helped me get the job for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist which was my ninth script. Again, not counting the ones that I wrote in 4th grade. It took a really long time to feel like I belonged, even though I felt like, “Oh God. I don’t know what else to do with myself because this is what I’ve been doing and wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
No matter what, it feels like with every single project you have to start back at the beginning again. At least for me that’s been the case. As much as getting Nick and Norah’s made was a triumph and very exciting after years of working on it, it still felt like that the next project I was going to set up and everything that was going to come after it maybe got a little boost from that but still felt like you’re starting over again. It’s a new project. It’s a new day. It’s new people. It’s new producers. It’s always something.
Paste: One trend you’ve definitely bucked in your films is that long-standing shortage of quality roles for women of a certain age. Not only does The Meddler feature Susan Sarandon as the main focus of the film, but you were also involved with Ricki and the Flash, a movie that featured Meryl Streep front and center. Is that something that you take a lot of gratification in?
Scafaria: Yeah, it was very exciting with The Meddler. I certainly didn’t realize how hard it was to get made when I was writing it. I thought I was just writing another human story, even though it was based on my mother and based on me and very personal. I still felt like, “I think people will be able to relate to this if they have a mom or [have] been through a similar situation.” The movie was really hard to get made because it’s about a woman of a certain age. Really, that was it. It starred a woman of a certain age. The next biggest part is a woman over 35. Not that that has to be another age but it kind of is. It does feel like people turn 40 and disappear.
It’s so gratifying because even someone like Susan, who is a legend and an icon and been so great for so long, hasn’t really gotten an opportunity like this in a while. I’m sure she’s been offered things that she’s turned down but to carry a film and to be in every frame of it … I think that was something that she hadn’t experienced in a long time.
It was just really hard to get this movie made because people begged me to make it a two-hander. People begged me to either make it a traditional mother-daughter story and have the daughter role be as big, if not bigger, than the mother character, or make it more of a traditional romantic comedy, have the love interest come in a lot earlier. Both of those things went against the entire point of the story so I just resisted that for years while it was seemingly impossible to get this made if I didn’t do that. It just went against the whole idea of the film—to peel back the layers of The Meddler and see this woman and follow her and allow her to be a mom’s character study.
Of course, the romantic part would have been strange too. She’s a widow. It’s a reluctant love story, if anything. It’s certainly about someone who’s openhearted to everything but romantic love. Those are those notes that were among other notes like, “Can you age everybody down?” “Can you please make the mom character in her 50s and the daughter in her 20s?” Which also would have gone against everything. I kind of heard it all when I was trying to get this going, and I ended up just sending the script cold to Susan Sarandon’s agent, unsolicited, with a little letter that said, “I’ve been thinking about her forever.”
I just wanted to take a shot in the dark after everything seemed so impossible, and then once Susan came on board you realized that [you] don’t count anybody out. ... Actors are so valued by what they did last week and last year and it’s such a shame because I don’t think people realize that a lot of actors carry a higher value just because of who they are and how other actors want to work with them. Once we got Susan in, it was certainly a struggle to figure out exactly who was going to be the supporting role, but everybody wanted to work with her. J.K. Simmons and Rose Byrne wanted to work with Susan. Having her on board only meant that she was actor bait for people and we got the two of them and then secured financing after that, and of course it was made for a very low budget and that helps.
It’s amazing to realize how many stories can be ignored or how these characters can be so marginalized in things or made fun of. Most characters of a certain age in movies are either very horny or so pathetically old and decrepit, and I think Susan was certainly happy that she wasn’t dying in this or helping someone die. I think most of the scripts she’s even being sent for people who are her age aren’t necessarily fully fleshed-out characters.
I love Ricki and the Flash. … Honestly, I was just an EP on it and I really didn’t have a lot to do with it at all. It was just … I loved that movie and I love that Diablo [Cody] wrote that about her husband’s mother and I wrote this about my mother. Her husband and I are best friends from college. Our moms are both like these Jersey women who’ve had Oscar winners play them in the last year. That’s pretty weird.
Paste: As a Jersey Girl knee-deep in writing, directing and eventually filmmaking, did you cross paths with Kevin Smith during the early years?
Scafaria: Oh, yeah! Oh my God. That’s such a fun question because I was in this movie when I was 19 that Kevin Smith executive produced. It was made for $40,000 in New Jersey. It was called Big Helium Dog. The writer and director of it was Brian Lynch, who is now just crushing it. He writes screenplays for mostly animated movies. He’s amazing. He was also one of the first screenwriters that I knew in Jersey… He was writing in his parents’ basement in Lincroft. I think the first time he made $5,000 on something I was sort of using that as proof to my mother that things were possible.
Yeah, Kevin Smith executive produced this movie. Michael Ian Black is in it. There were so many people in it that are from The State and from Broken Lizard, which is another comedy troupe, and suddenly then I was the female lead. We filmed it in New Jersey when I was 19. Then Kevin did these commercials for MTV. They were like these MTV bumpers with Jay and Silent Bob and I’m actually Jay’s sister. I’m in the View Askewniverse. I am Jay’s sister and I was like carrying Kevin’s … I think she was his 6-year-old niece. I was trying to go get government cheese and it was just a very sweet thing that Kevin let me be a part of because I think he realized that Big Helium Dog, which was our $40,000 movie, wasn’t really going to see the light of day. He was very kindly keeping us all busy.
That was such a long time ago. It was so fun to feel like someone in New Jersey was capable of something like this. That really did change the landscape for everybody, I think, in a way because it was like, “Oh my God. Kevin Smith, he just made it. He wrote something and he made it.” It was just like, that was why ’90s filmmaking was so inspiring. I was a huge fan of Tarantino and so many other people that were coming out then and Kevin and Tarantino were sort of like the guys that year. It was very exciting.
Paste: I’d be very surprised if your character of Jay’s sister didn’t appear in some sort of View Askew fan fiction somewhere on the web.
Scafaria: I’m in there somewhere. There’s a Kevin Smith calendar somewhere with hopefully a drawing of me.
Paste: Your career and opportunities took off so young and so quickly. Was there a time that you can remember where you distinctly felt overwhelmed, or perhaps a specific turning point where you were able to grow into the enormity of what your career had become?
Scafaria: Yeah, I mean, after Seeking a Friend came out, that wasn’t an easy time for me. It’s not easy to put material out there. I loved making it but sharing it is scary, of course. After Seeking A Friend didn’t do great, it didn’t do that well for box office and anything, I was definitely very worried about my future. I felt like I was in director jail and felt like I don’t know what compromises I’m going to have to make just to keep on working. I did go and direct episodes of television and work with some friends on things.
Mostly, I was just nursing my wounds and trying to figure out how to battle the voices in my head to do the next thing. That was a really hard time for me in terms of my confidence. I would say the happiest … the thing that I’m so proud of is that this was the movie that I was able to climb back with because there was certainly projects that were swirling around or sent my way that I wasn’t crazy about or I didn’t love what they had to say or I didn’t feel like they were of value to the world. I would pass on them and other people certainly would do those projects and have careers for themselves.
I just really wanted to tell this story and say something in my own voice. At the same time, I didn’t want to compromise everything out of the gate. I wasn’t as desperate to make The Meddler as I was to make Seeking a Friend. I was just very desperate to make my first film. I felt like, “I don’t know when I’ll get that opportunity again.” You just make these compromises out of the gate like shooting in Los Angeles or the East Coast. Something that seems like, “Well, it’s all right. We can do it. Whatever it takes to get the movie made” and then you realize, “Oh my God. That changes the scope and the landscape and the look entirely of this film.” Something like that you don’t realize you need to fight for.
For this one I just thought, “Oh, okay. I actually need to fight for everything. Not just the people who are starring in this but absolutely every detail of this, I need to fight for.” It was a giant learning experience. At the same time, as soon as I was back working on The Meddler I had my confidence back because I know where I’m most comfortable is on a set now directing and working with actors and working with a crew. It’s just a shame that writing isn’t the only thing that does it for me anymore because you can do it anytime. Now, unfortunately, the thing I love the most requires millions of dollars and hundreds of people. It’s a little different now.
The feeling of Seeking a Friend was like a very out-of-body experience. My father had just died. My mother was on set every day because we were just trying to get through this, and of course it was my first film and I’m so lucky I got to work with such great people on that who made the experience so wonderful and everything, but it was still just this out-of-body experience that The Meddler was night and day to that. I was so present and I was so excited about every choice and felt like all the choices were adding up to the right story. That was really exciting because the script is really ambitious on paper, everything from the Grove to the Apple store to a Beyoncé song on a loop. It just seemed really expensive and big on paper.
I shot the first few minutes of the movie with my mother as this little sizzle reel. I was going to just use it to show potential financiers that I think we can make this movie for a lot less than you think. Then it ended up being this incredible tool that I showed to Susan in order to entice her and get her even more on board. When she saw it she said, “Oh my God. This is everything.” She just loved my mother as a character and really wanted to take on the role. It was all very exciting and to finally feel like I was able to take something that was on paper and deliver it the right way. The compromises weren’t so huge out of the gate that even if there are little things in there now, of course, that bug me for one reason or another it’s not the same. It’s definitely what I set out to make and what I set out to say.