There have been countless comparisons made between Lorene Scafaria, the talented screenwriter behind Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Juno writer Diablo Cody since both of them penned indie-minded comedies that attracted understated charmer Michael Cera to star. But the similarities between the two promising writers end there.
Unlike Cody, Scafaria has been in the business for quite some time, writing screenplays (Nick and Norah is merely her first to be produced) and appearing in independent films. Scafaria’s adolescence and love of music inspired her to adapt Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist into a screenplay from the book of the same name.
The movie, directed by award-winning moviemaker Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), centers on Nick (Michael Cera), a geeky heartbroken musician, and Norah (Kat Dennings), a college-bound girl questioning her assumptions about the world. On their quest to find their favorite band’s gig and track down Norah’s drunk friend, the two teens share a night of unforgettable experiences.
Scafaria’s witty script, along with the Manhattan backdrop, a soundtrack bursting with indie-rock talent and the writer’s brief cameo as a drunk, is the perfect ingredient for this romantic adventure-comedy. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist debuted third at the weekend U.S. box office and will be released internationally in early 2009. But before the movie made a splash with audiences, MovieMaker spoke with Lorene Scafaria about the movie, her inspiration and projects on the horizon.
Kristin Forte (MM): First off, how do you feel about having your first screenplay turned into such a high-profile movie—with up-and-coming young talent and an award-winning director?
Lorene Scafaria (LS): Unfortunately, it was my ninth screenplay but certainly the first one to be produced. I had no idea when writing the first draft four years ago that it would turn into a high-profile film. The fact that an actor like Michael Cera got on board certainly propelled that. It’s amazing, though still weird, to see lines of dialogue splashed up on the billboards. Pete Sollett became attached after the second draft and I knew he was perfect for it. His first film, Raising Victor Vargas, captured such an authentic voice of a specific neighborhood of youth culture and I knew he’d be able to do it again. I feel incredibly lucky to have been the only screenwriter on the film, with a cast that made bad lines good, good lines so much better and came up with lines that were funnier than what was written. Hats off.
MM: What about the book Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist made you want to adapt it for the big screen?
LS: I grew up in suburban New Jersey, so I immediately identified with the characters, especially Norah. Everything from feeling uncomfortable in my own skin to having a father who’s larger than life (even if only in your mind), her plight really spoke to me and seemed like it would speak to a lot of young girls. It wasn’t hard to get inside the characters’ heads—the authors’ voices are so strong. David Levithan wrote Nick’s chapters and Rachel Cohn answered with Norah’s and I was lucky enough to have great source material. But it certainly helped that I knew the streets they were talking about and also had frequented Veselka in the middle of the night for borscht and sweet potato pierogies. I, too, have fallen in love with a musician, or 10, so I fell hard for Nick, and rightfully so. Nothing like a wounded bass player to heal. So I spent four years with Norah (and the voice of Rachel) trying to help Nick get over Tris [the girl who recently dumped him]. It was great.
MM: Have you ever experienced a crazy night like the one Nick and Norah have in the movie?
LS: I’m happy to say yes, a thousand times yes. Growing up an hour train ride from the city that never sleeps was good for getting into trouble. I wasn’t nearly as cool as Nick or Norah. I wasn’t into some underground scene. I shook a few glow sticks at The Limelight in my day, but hey, it was the 1990s. I just knew there was always good music and great friends and new love and revelations and a drunk girl puking in a Port Authority bathroom. Part of what I started to really love about the book, and ultimately about developing the script, was that it became a goal to make a road movie in Manhattan—the most ridiculous city to be stuck in a Yugo for the bulk of the night—and yet that’s where all the fun of the night really happened, in those moments between locations. I’ve also spent enough sleepless nights there to know it’s not that hard to get a parking spot at three in the morning on the Lower East Side.
MM: Has music played an important role in your own life? How?
LS: One of my first memories is my mother’s face in the rear-view singing along to Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” Later on in life she would play country music and refused to change the station until my brother and I could sing along to “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.” Also, the mix tape was key to my upbringing. We have many forms of communication now but I don’t think anything speaks quite like a good mix tape. Music was always important. My grandmother bought me a piano when I was born and I noodled with that my whole life. But once I went off to college, I never lived with a piano again, and then 10 years later I received one as an incredibly generous gift. I swear I never wanted to write a screenplay again. I started writing a bunch of songs and from that point and well into the writer’s strike, I started recording with a friend in his studio apartment. I’m hoping to release the album proper at some point. I managed to play my first live show at The Hotel Cafe [in Los Angeles] without throwing up, so it’d be real fun to do that again.
MM: Your next project, Sweet Relief, is also based on a book. How do you think your process of writing a screenplay differs from other screenwriters who are writing a story that they developed themselves? Would you ever think to write the screenplay for an original story of your own or do you prefer to use other’s source material?
LS: Unfortunately that project was put on hold for the time being, but I’m hoping to revive it at some point. I think Marla Ruzicka’s story is so important for people to hear, especially young people. She was a small town California girl, blonde and bubbly, who ended up raising $20 million in government funding to aid civilian casualties of war in Afghanistan and Iraq before she died at 28 in a car bombing in Baghdad. I felt like I understood Marla well; I fell in love with her family and friends, but no matter how much news footage I watched or stories I had heard, I had wished for first-hand experience. I had especially wished I had gotten to meet Marla. I think it’ll come back around. I hope so.
Writing from source material, whether it’s a book or someone’s life story, is incredibly difficult. Of course, some of the work has been done for you. But to choose what of it is cinematic, what to leave out altogether, even if it’s a detail you love, it’s a real challenge. I’ve written many more original screenplays than adaptations. It feels safer, that’s for sure.
MM: Aside from being a screenwriter, you’re also an actress who has been in a few independent films. How did you get started in the film industry?
LS: I started out doing improvisational comedy and was always in the school plays and into performing. I was a natural born liar and a bit of a ham, so it felt right. In college, I managed to eke out a few small roles in some independent films—one or two truly embarrassing—but I think acting was an incredible foundation for writing. I used to write these Max Fischer-esque plays and ended up putting up my first one when I was 17 in what is now a shoe store in Jersey. It starred my other teenage friends as four middle-aged businessmen in an office. I thought I was David Fucking Mamet.
Then I kept writing plays that I also acted in. I answered phones at a now-defunct film company and used all their stationary to print up the tickets. My first script was an adaptation of that play. And a few scripts later, I packed up my car and drove to L.A. The sixth one was set up at Revolution Studios with my old roommate-turned-writing partner, Bryan Sipe. Then I set up one of my own called The Mighty Flynn at Warner Independent, and that script became my sample for the town and helped me get the job on Nick and Norah.
MM: Is there one role you prefer over the other—screenwriter or actress?
LS: I like it all. I feel most comfortable screenwriting. That’s the one where you can wear your pajamas all day, right? I do find myself missing acting. Hence, my cameo as the drunk girl in the back of the Yugo, making out with Seth Meyers for a night wasn’t a bad gig either. I don’t know. The music is sort of taking over these days. We’ll see…
MM: Can you tell us anything about your future plans or upcoming works?
LS: Along with a few other things in the works, I’ll be making my directorial debut with Mandate Pictures on a project of mine called Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. It’s sort of an apocalyptic romantic comedy. And should anybody be interested in my little side project, hopefully there’ll be an album for your listening pleasure in the near future. But I’ll be sure to keep my day job.