The classic Time Travel paradox is would you go back in time and kill Hitler… In Jamie Greenberg’s new film FUTURE ’38, he offers as inventive wrinkle on that. Set in 1938, the film proposes to use to time travel to go to the future to acquire the means by which to win the oncoming World War. In fact, the film is not only set in 1938, it is shot as if it was made in 1938, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, a glorious color palate (it purports to be one of the first color films), and spot on screwball-comedy speak that feels ripped right out of the classics. With a plot that involves going forward, to 2018, it allows us to look at our own present, and dreams of the future, through the lens of the 1930s.
“I had been researching to write a completely different script that was historical,” says Writer/Director Jamie Greenberg, “a fictionalized version of the Cold War event. I was going to the Library of Congress and I spent forever reading up on it. I think I researched myself to death.” In his frustration searching for something easier, he landed on something he thought might be more fun, time travel. “What does every young man want to write? Time-travel!” he decided, “there’s nothing closer to our hearts.”
But future-set movies often require large budgets and Greenberg wanted to write something he could direct and actually make on a modest budget. “I said, ’well, we already live in the damn future.’ We live in the Jetson’s already, and we tend to take it for granted,” he remembers, “look at what your phone can do. Sometimes to send a text to someone in the kitchen, your phone is sending a message up to a satellite in outer space so it can bounce back down to the person in the kitchen.” To highlight this thought, he decided to set the film in 1938, when anything seemed possible, and bring those characters into our world. “Wouldn’t it seem so gee-whiz to someone from the thirties?” he tells me. I had a chance to sit down with Jamie Greenberg, the unconventional mastermind behind FUTURE ’38 at Slamdance in January. I think he was wearing a full-on yellow suit at the time. This is a man who understands the world he set his film in. “I started doing tons and tons of research and watching fifty, or sixty, or seventy screwball comedy features from the time,” he explains, “it’s written in that screw-ball, BRINGING UP BABY kind of style. Our Director of Photography, Allen Macintyre Smith, did an incredible job shooting it that way. And the actors, across the board, from the leads down to the smaller parts, the character parts, they just embraced that genre.”
Setting the film in 2018, but a 2018 imagined in 1938 meant that any invented jargon or terminology had to sound like it came from the minds of those people. Greenberg explains, “I thought it would be fun if there was a 1930s projection of the internet. But of course they wouldn’t think of it quite the way we do. They would think of it as something electrical, not electronic. Hence, their version of the projected internet is called the Electro-mesh.” The script includes lots of funny replacements, like the characters using the phrase LOL and for a moment, you wonder if it is anachronism, but it turns out it means something else entirely to them.
At the heart of any screwball comedy of the 1930s it a bit of light-hearted romance, and FUTURE ’38 does not disappoint, bringing 1938’s Essex (Nick Westrate) into a time-crossed love with modern girl Bankie (Betty Gilpin). “I’m always fascinated by the very strong female characters,” Greenberg says, going back specifically to Bringing Up Baby, “in that film, Katherine Hepburn just owns Cary Grant, throughout the entire film. Bankie is always a half step ahead of Essex. Essex is bumbling a little in a funny, charming way and Bankie is always the one who seems a little more cool, a little bit more sly.”With such a specific tone in mind, Greenberg had the challenge of entrusting it to actors that, as a small independent film, he had to offer the role to without the privilege of an audition. “Now, if I was making an action film, and I wanted to offer the part to Tom Cruise, who has done thirty action films, that’s not much of a stretch,” says the writer/director, “but if you’re doing a film like this one that has rhythms that you don’t see modern actors do very much, then you feel like it’s a little bit of a crap shoot to go ‘offer only’ with an actor.” In the end, he arrived at two actors that he couldn’t be more perfect in the film. Betty Gilpin, who plays Bankie, was just finishing her stint in NURSE JACKIE on Showtime and really responded to the script. “We offered her the part,” Greenberg remembers, “which is the homerun of all homeruns, because now I can’t imagine anyone playing Bankie other than her. She’s so funny, she’s so gorgeous, she just owns that part.”
Nick Westrate, who plays Essex, actually replaced the actor they originally had in the role. Greenberg had the good fortune of scheduling three days of rehearsal before cameras started rolling, a Wednesday to Friday before a Monday start. “Everything seemed to be going fine,” the writer/director describes, “and then Friday night, I got a panicky call from the casting director saying that the lead actor was pulling out of the film. I’ve never heard of an actor doing this. I’m not going to name him, but that is the most horrible thing you can do to filmmakers.” Because Essex is in virtually every scene in the film, Greenberg was distraught, but his lead actress found the solution. “I spoke with Betty and she said, ‘I think we can get through this.’ She connected us with Nick Westraite. I think I met with Nick on a Saturday. He said, ‘send me the script.’ And then on Sunday, he signed. I said to him, ‘you know, it’s a hard part. There’s tons of words, and the language is rather Baroque and complicated.’ We were supposed to start shooting on Monday, I said, “’how long do you need us to push off production?’ He said, ‘give me one day.’ One extra day! We started on Tuesday instead of Monday, and he aced the part. He owned it so perfectly. Besides the fact that the experience took about a year off my life, it ended up being a win-win.”
The way it played out is a good lesson for filmmakers. The rehearsal was set up with a lot of the first day being just the two leads, Greenberg could tell his original Essex was struggling a bit. “He would say, ‘let me rehearse, let me rehearse the emotions and the humor, then I’ll go home’ — I had given him some reference films to watch – ‘Let me go home and work the accent and by the time we shoot, I’ll have it.’” However, the last day of rehearsal they brought in all the New York-based character actors, some of whom had come and auditioned, some of whom Greenberg knew from the world of sketch comedy or his short films from his first feature. “I think their proficiency intimidated the lead actor,” he suggests, “They’re all pros and they would come in and just— I have a character who plays a classic Irish cop— come in playing a classic this, or a classic that.”
In the end, Westraite came in and nailed it, and has perfect chemistry with Gilpin. “They managed to do the period film adjustment and they put more colors into that what a mere sketchy comedy would be,” Greenberg beams, “they magically manage to inject this emotion, and little bits of sadness and pathos into the film, while still managing to do this 1930s, Humphry Bogart-kind of an accent. That’s two plates you have to keep in the air and it’s really, really hard.”
One person in the film who didn’t have to balance that style and performance, is Neil Degrasse Tyson, who introduces the film as a true artifact rediscoved from the thirties, one of the first films that gets time travel right. “I’m happy to report that he is every bit as cool in person as he seems,” says Greenberg, who was searching to open the film with “someone with tons of gravitas, someone who would do it with a complete straight face, but maybe with a little bit of a twinkle.” He even gave the director a critique of the film. “He had one particular little plot point he wanted to clear up with me and we had this wonderful talk,” Greenberg says, “I’m thinking, you know, normally when you work with a celebrity for something like that, you’re never even confident that they watched the film. But he just completely engaged. He’d watched very carefully. He engaged with it. And he loves popcorn! He was delighted to be eating that popcorn that he’s eating in the film.”
FUTURE ’38 took home the Audience Award at SLAMDANCE and the Grand Jury Prize at Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa. It screens this Wednesday in Austin with Greenberg in attendance as part of the OTHER WORLDS AUSTIN Orbiter Year Round Screening series, 7:30 at Flix Brewhouse in Round Rock, more information is available here.