One of the biggest challenges SciFi filmmakers face is creating a fully realized ‘other world’ on a reasonable budget. Sure, “Guardians of the Galaxy” can take us all over the universe with new civilizations and alien races every act, or “Edge of Tomorrow” can bring intricate alternate futures crashing down on our own planet. The one realm that seems available to indie filmmakers is the time travel film. Shane Carruth did it for $7,000 in PRIMER, one of my favorite films of all time. Last years’ Other Worlds Austin was dominated awards-wise by the very slick hitchcockian Time Lapse.” I would also suggest time travel fans seek out “The Infinite Man,” a very smart romantic comedy from Australia. Ricky Kennedy’s THE HISTORY OF TIME TRAVEL has taken the bargain-budget possibilities of science fiction one step further, as a well-crafted pseudo-documentary on an invention that continues to undercut the very interviews the film contains.
After screenings at the Roswell Science Fiction Festival and the Miami Comi-con last year, THE HISTORY OF TIME TRAVEL just played the nation’s oldest science fiction festival, The Boston Science Fiction Festival and Marathon. The first nine days emphasize emerging directors with distinct visions from around the globe (my own short played there in 2013 so I have a great deal of love for the Fest). The Festival concludes with The Marathon (a.k.a., “The ‘Thon”), a 24-hour orgiastic motion picture endurance test featuring classic, new and schlock films. They call it ‘binge viewing with 700 close friends’. The ‘Thon’ starts at noon on the 15th and ends at noon on President’s Day, so if you are anywhere near Boston, you might want to check it out. Kennedy’s film screened on the fest’s opening weekend (along with post-apocalyptic “The Well” ), and audience response was unsurprisingly unified in its excitement. I had a chance to speak with the writer/director about his film and its unconventional approach to telling a science fiction story.
“Since I am a college student, most of the things we have to do are very, very low budget,” Kennedy admits; “people are donating their time and stuff, I thought I need to write a script that I can work around our restrictions.” The biggest limitation the director felt he had as he was completing his thesis for Steven F. Austin State University, was access to solid, committed actors. “Getting actors to commit to two or three weeks is very difficult,” he says, “so I thought if I can do it in a doc-style and just have them for one day, and they sit and just do an interview, that would be the bulk of the film.” The conceit of Kennedy’s film is that it begins as a ‘what if’ type program on a science fiction network discussing the possibility that there may have been a secret government program to develop a time machine, around the same time we were developing the nuclear bomb. As the ‘facts’ come out and the ‘talking heads’ reveal that we more than likely did develop a time machine, little details in the story begin to change. An only-child from a broken home suddenly has a brother and both parents. The various scientists and historians giving the interviews never acknowledge that the facts are changing, even if they end up retelling the same anecdote with new information. The time travel becomes not just the central subject of the film, but the device by which the story is told.
“It was a lot more interesting to do a doc-style narrative because there’s been a lot of traditional time-travel films that have been made,” Kennedy explains; “the doc-style makes it unique from other time travel films, and the time-travel element makes it unique from other fake doc-style films or mockumentaries.”
It sort of becomes the running joke through the whole film we hardly ever see anyone do time-travel. In fact, we don’t see much of anything, even though these events are reshaping the world we are watching. “All the really cool stuff is happening offscreen,” says the writer/director, “and we’re just seeing the effects, and that was fun because it fractured the narrative and the audience has to pay attention, and use their brain to filling the gaps. They’re not just passively sitting there.” The film really gets interesting as it is revealed that the Soviets managed to steal the time machine shortly after it was developed. After that, the historian starst referring to all the advancements the Soviets made, such as stealing our plans for the sputnik launch and even landing on the moon long before the US. Subtle changes appear on screen, once prominent scientists at Ivy League institutions now have title-cards showing they are teaching at community college. Props on tables and notes on whiteboards all shift.
But the interviews go forward, even as what they are talking about becomes more and more a story of the US’s descent into irrelevancy than one of our greatest victories. The whole time the ‘talking heads’ never recognize their world is getting steadily bleaker. “That was one of the ideas that very early on I decided, if I do it in the doc-style and I interviewed people and they are talking about time travel, how would they know these details?” Kennedy recalls; “we’re on the outside looking in, and we see all this stuff happening, but the main characters are unaware of it.”
A lot of the visual inspiration for the film was drawn from the documentaries of Ken Burns, a style that Kennedy embraced because of its simplicity. “You have a shot of someone talking, and then you cut to a photograph or a piece of stock footage, or a letter,” he explains; “and it’s so simple, and I thought that will work for [History of Time Travel] because the story is so complex. There’s stuff going on offscreen, I wanted it to be visually simple so that when you do see stuff change in the background, it becomes very obvious.”
It also allowed the director to keep the filming as simple as possible. For the most part, each interview is one set up, with wardrobe and props changing as they move through the timeline. “We filmed it in chronological order,” he says, “we started with the first timeline and we actually jumped to the final timeline which is similar to the first, so we didn’t have to change any art direction. And then we did [timelines]two, three, four, five all in order.” Each timeline represented a new advancement for the Soviets and set back for the US. “If you watch as they go through it,” he points out, “they start off very happy and enthusiastic about time travel.” And then gradually, top buttons become unbuttoned, ties loosen, and they start to look worn down.
In a sense, they are living now in what Russia was in the 80’s or 90’s. Russia is the super power and America is an also-ran second-best superpower. With each timeline shot in order, Kennedy says, “by the time we got to the darkest timeline, everybody was exhausted.” Shooting in this way not only served the story, but also helped a fresh filmmaker tackle his first major project. “For my first film I wanted to do something that I could wrap my head around and that I could pace myself,” he says, “instead of running myself into the ground with eighteen hour days every day for a month.”
In fact, the entire production of HISTORY OF TIME TRAVEL is a great example of a filmmaker understanding how hard making a film is, and removing obstacles to accomplishing the task long before the filming began, all the way back to the first incarnation of the script. “When I was writing it the first thing I had to do was to establish how I wanted time travel to work,” Kennedy says; “you just set up these rules and then you try to stick to those rules as much as possible and that took two or three months. And then I had to write the story on top of that.” He knew the script would involve elements of what was considered ‘history’ changing as the film progressed. If this ever came into conflict with specifics of time travel, he let the story win out, making sure it made sense and not getting bogged down in the details. “I don’t explain how the Time Machine works, just with the Time Machine does,” he says.
Planning the shifts in history, Kennedy also focused on something the audience could easily wrap their heads around. “A lot of alternative fiction, like “Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove, where it’s like ‘what if the South had won the Civil War?’ or Philip K Dick’s “The man in the High Castle”, ‘what if the Nazis had won World War II?” He explains that would need to be a rewrite of so much of history, and every rewrite means getting further and further away from something recognizable.
He admits: “I’m not a historian, and that would be so much work. … I stuck it in the Cold War because visually people instantly know that — the US versus the Soviets — and then I can just tweak some things, the Soviets landed in the moon, Sputnik was built by the Americans and the Soviets just stole it. Little things like that we’re not having to completely rewrite the 20th Century. I can just take it and twist.” One detail that I particularly love is a globe behind the professor that with each successive timeline gets more and more red. “That was one of those things where once you commit, you can’t go back,” the director says, “we only had the one globe.”
The current situation in the Ukraine and Crimea is not lost on Kennedy. “I tried to do something in the past that was irrelevant but now it might become relevant again,” he says wondering if we are on the brink of another cold war. Whatever the future may hold, The History of Time Travel is a fun look back at what might just be our own scientific past, because, the central premise of the film states over and over again, we would never know. As Kennedy’s History of Time Travel continues on the festival circuit, the best place to track its progress might be its facebook page. This is a film I’m hoping SyFy picks up on a lark and mixes into its regular programming unannounced.