Oscar shorts: A new take on time travel in ‘Time Freak’
Ever wish you could go back in time and undo that embarrassing mistake you made or change that stupid thing you said? Sure you do. But everyone who has a time machine on his or her hands seems to be using it for joyrides to medieval Europe or for missions to kill the mother of a future resistance leader. Not in “Time Freak,” a short that made the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' cut for live action shorts in this year’s Oscar race.
“Time Freak” depicts an amateur scientist who invents a time machine with the dream of traveling to ancient Rome –- until he’s sidetracked, neurotically amending his recent actions, getting stuck traveling around yesterday.
The short's director, Andrew Bowler, 38, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, wrote and directed his first feature, “The Descent of Walter McFea,” in 2001. He’s done television producing work in New York on shows including the Food Network’s “24 Hour Restaurant Battle.”
On "Time Freak," Bowler said his influences were as varied as “Back to the Future” and “Primer,” but he also strove to develop his own take on time travel. In the end, he’s created a quirky comedy that’s original enough to have captured the academy’s attention. 24 Frames’ Emily Rome talked to the New York-based filmmaker about the 11-minute film, the road to the Oscars, and the feature-length take that may be in “Time Freak’s” future.
ER: Where did you get the idea for this story?
AB: “Time Freak” was always a joke that I shared with friends –- the worst thing you could do with a time machine. So we would always kind of joke to each other, like, “What did you have for lunch?” “Oh I had a sandwich, but if I had a time machine I'd go back and have a salad instead.” And one day I thought it would be a great feature, and when I sat down to write the feature, the short sort of popped into my head, and [I] just wrote and made that instead.
ER: What did you do to make “Time Freak” stand out from other time travel movies?
AB: With time travel there's definitely a lot of well-worn ground. We made a choice to not have the characters see themselves in the past. We just say you inhabit the same space [when you go back in time]. We did that as a way to try to really set ourselves apart, because I think with time travel you can feel like you're hitting the same jokes and the same ideas that have been hit before. There’s a challenge with any comedy to be original, but in a time-travel comedy the ante is way up because you have to avoid all the jokes that people already know going into it.
ER: How did you decide what the time machine should look like?
AB: We played around with some ideas and decided it needed to look homemade. It needed to ride the line between looking like something that you would make in your basement but also something that could really transport you through time. One of my best friends I've been making films with for a long time, Michael McDermott, volunteered to do the production design on the movie. We didn't have any money to pay him or money for him to have a staff. We basically locked one of my best friends in this basement and just had him build the entire lab by himself. Everything you see in there was more or less built by one person.
ER: What does getting on the Oscar shortlist mean for what you’re able to do next?
AB: The effect remains to be seen. Who knows? I think generally in this business you do as many things as you can to create as many opportunities as you can, but at the end of the day, you can’t think too much about that. You just sort of jump up and down and scream and yell like my wife and I did [when we heard the news] and not worry exactly about what kind of effect it's going to have on your career cause you gotta just keep plugging away.
We celebrated for a little while, then I tried to tell myself that I had to go back to writing. I'm working on the “Time Freak” feature. You have to be ready for the opportunities when they come. If you get on the Oscar shortlist, if something comes up, the first thing somebody’s gonna say to me is, “What's your next project?” So I better have a good feature script.
ER: How are you expanding the story into a feature?
AB: The idea of the short is a guy neurotically redoes yesterday. The feature will focus more on the romance and all the neurosis and regret that comes with a relationship.
ER: If you were able to go back in time, where – uh, when – would you go?
AB: Maybe I'd go hang out with my parents when they were my age -– do a little “Back to the Future”-inspired thing. You know what I'd really like to do? I'd like to go see the past generations of people that I came from, like great-great grandfathers. I'd like to go meet them. That'd be awesome. I just hope I wouldn't screw something up that would end up destroying my existence.
“Time Freak” has been accepted into 30 film festivals, beginning with AFI Fest in 2010. It will continue its festival run this year and will also be available for purchase on iTunes in mid-January; the exact release date for download will be announced on the film’s Facebook page. Los Angeles residents can see the film at the Hollyshorts Monthly Screening series on Jan. 13 at the Showbiz Store & Café.
– Emily Rome
Photo: Michael Nathanson as a time machine inventor in "Time Freak." Credit: Sebastian Piras