If He Could Turn Back Time
by Jay S. Jacobs
Andrew Bowler has spent most of the last decade thinking about time machines, and he’s not so sure they would be a good thing.
The writer/director first started writing about them in about 2010, which led to the 2012 short “Time Freak,” which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short. That recognition prompted him to make a full-length script based on the concept, which he was looking at as his feature directing debut.
Buzz-worthy actors Asa Butterfield (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) and Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) signed on the dotted line and the movie was a go – getting a limited theatrical release in late 2018 before hitting streaming and video on January 8, 2019.
The story is about Stillman (Butterfield), a scientific genius who is not quite as smart when it comes to relationships. When his dream girl, Debbie (Turner) dumps him in the middle of a date, Stillman builds a time machine to try to correct the mistakes he made which may have led to the breakup. He enlists his goofball friend Evan (Gisondo) to help him win her back.
A couple of weeks before the video release of Time Freak, we took a call from Bowler to discuss his film.
You originally explored the idea behind Time Freak in a short film back in 2012. How did the idea come to you?
The idea originally was from spending one night out with friends – probably drinking – and the jokes were “What is the worst thing you could do with a time machine?” If there was a time machine and you completely wasted it, what would it be? That joke came from little regrets. Any time we’d be out somewhere thinking of something, we’d be like, “Oh, if I had a time machine, I’d order a different drink,” or something like that. So, it started as a little gag between us. I thought that’s not a bad idea for a short film.
The short was nominated for an Oscar. As a young filmmaker, what was it like to receive that honor?
It was amazing. It’s amazing. I share it with my wife [Gigi Causey] – she produced the movie. We were both co-nominees, which is awesome, because everything I went through, I went through with my wife. 2012 is a little while ago, and it’s still something I get very warm feelings just thinking about now. Making a film with my wife and deciding to spend some money on it – not just go the cheapest possible route – [and] having the nomination always made us think we made the right move. We did it right. It’s still how we feel, obviously.
When did you decide you wanted to make it a feature? Was it hard to expand the short to feature length?
You know that joke I had about using a time machine for bad ideas, I thought that would be a feature first and foremost. Then the idea really zapped out as a short. Then we did the whole short experience and I said, okay, there’s still a feature in here somewhere. The fun of the short is watching somebody make silly decisions and waste an opportunity. But I don’t think you really want to watch a feature film about somebody wasting time (laughs) and making silly decisions. This tends not to be what we sit in movie theaters to see, unless it’s 11 minutes, like the short.
The real challenge was holding on to that neurotic energy, that regret, that we thought the people were really relating to. Finding a way to translate that. How can we humanize it? How do we humanize that into a feature version? Then that became: Oh, if you’re reliving a relationship, boy won’t that be filled with all those areas of regret, and potentially have more at stake? It’s a big transition.
Beyond the time-travel aspects, the film has a very comic vibe. How important was it for you as a writer to make it funny?
I love comedy. It’s something I’ve always been drawn to. It’s funny, it was maybe the last piece of my early filmmaking toolset to put together. I always wanted to be a director. I went to film school. I realized it was going to be a lot more, I was going to be a writer, as well. My earliest ideas were all very earnest and all very dramatic. I had something to say and they just kind of said them.
Okay, I see…
Then, I graduated and got into a lot of the New York improv scene in the 90s – which I was a part of – and really loved that. [I] really started to find my footing with comedy. I thought, well, if I couch some of these quote-unquote “important” things that I have to say about characters in being funny, then in a way you can communicate a lot more. Especially, it allows you to not take yourself so seriously. Quite literally, you present an idea and you’re able to de-emphasize it with comedy. Take some of the edge off. Therefore, it doesn’t feel preachy. It just feels like we’re having fun.
I’ve always felt that time travel films are one of the perfect story-telling devices; it’s very hard to make one that is not interesting. How long have you been intrigued by the idea of time travel?
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of time travel. I can tell you, from coming up with this idea in 2011, which was when I was writing the script – or maybe 2010. That’s now eight years at least, or nine, living with this. I’ve become a lot more versed in time travel than I ever was before. People will say to me, “Oh, you’ve been doing a lot, do you consider yourself an expert?” It was an aspect of filmmaking and storytelling that I thought – as you did – was certainly always very interesting. But I never thought I would find myself so immersed in it for so long. (laughs)
What are some of the time travel stories – either on film, or in literature, or whatever – that inspired you to make this film?
Primer was a real big one for us, because it had a very homegrown feel. We thought we could split the difference between a Primer and a Back to the Future, maybe, and find some grounded element for the time travel and the design. We definitely took a lot of inspiration from that. I’ve found that people have compared the film a lot to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I think is certainly a very flattering comparison. That one was also about looking at the fractured relationship. For me, the real challenge of a lot of the movie was how were we going to pull these different pieces [together]. The movie jumps around a lot in time. It jumps around in time literally by jumping around in the time machine, but also there’s flashbacks in the movie separate from the time machine. So, Eternal Sunshine was one of those things where when you think of, well, what’s a movie where you’re getting the flashes of a relationship. That one comes immediately to mind.
It reminded me a lot of Groundhog Day, too…
Exactly. Yeah, it’s got that feel, too.
One thing that was interesting about your film was that Stillman and Evan weren’t really worried about the butterfly effect and changing history, which is normally a big deal in time-travel films. You also avoided a lot of the time travel staple ideas like running into themselves in time. Why did you decide that the characters would not worry about changing the future and avoid other time travel clichés like that?
Yeah, that’s artistic license. The good news about time travel is that it doesn’t exist, so you’re starting from the very basic idea that you’re making something up. Now, you have to make it up in a way that convinces people that you’ve thought it through. But as long as you cover that, you can basically carve it out any way you want. I just couldn’t think of fresh jokes or fresh ideas that involved seeing themselves or doubling back on themselves. No part of my brain thought that was fun, or something to be explored. So, I just came up with that idea of inhabiting your body, which is how we handle it in the movie. You go into your body, almost like your soul time travels. As soon as I did that, I thought, oh boy, does that clean up a lot of mess that we don’t have to deal with it.
Another thing that was interesting was that eventually Stillman just used the time machine for mundane things – like I think he said he went back in time to make the bed even though he could have just done that in normal time. Do you think that most people would start to take even something as incredible as a time machine for granted and misuse it eventually?
I think so. That’s one of the things we try to get at with this movie. Hopefully. With this insane power, the most powerful invention ever created, you’re still living in the realm of being an ordinary human being. What that’s like to be grounded in that, in the things that nag us all. Like I said before, in my earnestness – I am an earnest filmmaker, but I try to be funny. In my earnestness, that is one of the things that intrigues me about this. It creates a human element.
Yes, it does.
Everybody gets drawn in and says, “Oh well” with that power. It’s almost like a story about winning the lottery or being able to fly. Everybody can immediately relate to what your checklist would be. I hope some of the fun of the movie is trying to remind people that, yeah, we all have big ambitions about what we would do with it. But would we really be able to escape ourselves?
Along those lines, if you had a time machine, what experience in your life would you be most likely to revisit?
I probably wouldn’t do anything. I’ve made two time machine movies, and the moral of both is time machines are no good. So, I think I’d be quite a fool if I finally got one and said: Yeah, yeah, I’ve been preaching that lesson for years now, but let me be the one to make it right. (laughs)
You got a few really hot young actors to play the leads. Were Asa and Sophie and Skylar always in the back of your mind when writing the film, or how did you decide they would be right for the roles?
They weren’t in mind. They were fortunate circumstances. One of our producers had a relationship with Asa and sent the script to him and a number of people in his age bracket that we were very excited about. Asa, at that point, I joke that that’s the starter’s pistol. He read it and he liked it. That meant we were going forward with the movie. He had a window in his schedule that everyone was excited to have him in, and so we went forward. The script did have to be made younger for him. It wasn’t really significant, but it wasn’t necessarily written for somebody that was 20. Then, of course, there was the ripple effect around that. We were super-thrilled that Sophie was interested and available for that. I think they make a great pair.
Stillman seems to believe that there can be a scientific formula for love. Do you think there are really people who feel that way?
Yeah, I do. We work super hard to fix the uncertainty in our life. If we think someone doesn’t love us, rather than looking at ourselves and saying, “Well, what is it about me that can’t trust the amount of love I’m being given by this person?” we say, “What can I do to get the amount of love that I really need?” That becomes a black hole. You’re not really going to fill it. Life is filled with uncertainty. Most of us spend a lot of time trying to work away that uncertainty. Get some certainty in there, in a world where nothing is guaranteed.
This was your first feature film as a director. What did you learn from the experience?
What I learned from that experience is that I’m glad I spent a lot of my life caring about movies. I felt pretty at home walking on that set. I had spent many years reworking that script. The truth is, the first day that I got there was more of a relief than anything. The feeling that I felt stepping on that set for the first time was thank goodness that I’ve finally made it to this – not oh gosh, what do I do now? If you really care about movies, and I care desperately about movies, it’s just really hard to get them made. So, you just spend a lot of time planning for that movie, and I’m glad I did.
This is a storyline that you have been tweaking one way or another for several years. What was it like to actually sit in a theater and watch the film with an audience?
Amazing. Amazing. I sat next to my wife. We had done previews, too, so [it was different in a theater because] there were coming attractions for a Jennifer Lopez movie and I was like, “Wow, this is a real movie.” I told the guy who sold me the ticket that I was the director. It was so funny, because it took a second. We were talking about parking validation, and I said, “Have you seen this movie?” He goes, “No, I haven’t seen it.” I said, “Have you heard it’s good?” I think he said yeah. I said, “I’m the director.” He said, “Yeah… wait, what?” I was like, “This movie. I directed it.” He said, “Oh, oh, well great.” I said, “I’ve been dreaming of this moment my whole life.” He said, “Well, here’s your ticket.”
What’s next for you?
I sit here at my desk right now writing another script that I’m very excited about. Not revealing too much, I like the genre, I like the idea of low sci-fi, as they call it. Grounded sci-fi. It makes it a little more affordable to do. Also, I like it because it allows me to keep the characters more human. Maybe this one will have a little bit more of a relationship to the world we live in now, which gets crazier and crazier every day. It gets harder for an artist to not have their stuff speak to… at least through the fun of sci-fi comedy… the world around us.
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 4, 2019.
Pictures © 2018 Courtesy of Lionsgate. All rights reserved.