Q&A: Team from Oscar-Nominated Film “Time Freak”

(Re-posted from LimitéMagazine.com)

Among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Short Film—Live Action is “Time Freak,” the comedic story of a neurotic inventor who creates a time machine that he uses to travel around yesterday so that he can obsessively correct his social foibles. The short is the only American film nominated in its category. I had the chance to pick the brains of the film’s masterminds, including writer/director Andrew Bowler, his producer wife Gigi Causey, and lead actor Michael Nathanson, just before their big day in Hollywood.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_DLkVR7hK0]

Where were you when you found out about the nomination?

Michael: I actually was sound asleep. My wife is a public school teacher in NYC, and she had been up early and found out at work. When she woke me up by screaming into the answering machine, I knew it was good news.

Andrew: We were at home when we heard the news. We got up at 4:45am, unable to sleep anymore. The telecast did not come on ’til about 5:50am, and then the results were posted online shortly after that. We wanted to share the possible moment with our friends and family in different parts of the country, so we shot it.

(Watch this video of Andrew and Gigi finding out they have been nominated for an Oscar.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnwiOYhIExU&feature=youtu.be]

How did the concept for “Time Freak” come about?

Andrew: It always made me laugh to think about the worst thing you could do with a time machine.  I used to joke around with friends that if we didn’t like a joke we made or something minor like that—we’d say if we had a time machine we’d go back in time just to tell a different joke.  That was a running joke for many years before I decided to write this short.

Michael, what about this part of a neurotic inventor attracted you the most?

Initially, I was just so excited to be working on a good project. The script jumped off the page. It immediately struck me as a sort of time-travel/sci-fi episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and it just hit me at two gut levels: my inner neurotic and my inner film geek. The script was so entertaining, and yet I felt for this character’s journey. It was funny and sad at the same time, and as an actor, I knew it would be a great challenge to mine the comedy while maintaining the character’s desperation. It’s rare you see a comedy that is so “human”—and that was always the goal for Andrew and me: to create a character that people could not only laugh with, but could also feel so much empathy for.

How did you prepare for the role?

We actually had a few weeks of rehearsal with Andrew both in and out of Stillman’s [Michael’s character] basement space. They actually had the space months in advance. John Conor Brooke, who plays Evan, and I got to really explore our characters through this initial process and it helped build a rhythm for working on set with Andrew. There were times when I would just linger in Stillman’s “workshop” and try to imagine what it must be like for this guy to be holed up with his own madness, and how each detail of the space was a result of his deep-seeded neuroses. I also tapped into my own insecurities. The essential thing for both Andrew and myself was to find the truth of this character, his frustration, his longing. We never really tried to “play” the comedy; we went for the truth of each moment and found that desperation is ultimately pretty fun to watch.

Andrew, what were your biggest challenges and lessons learned in making the film?

The biggest challenge came on the mind-bending day we had to shoot the hero going back in time to redo an interaction he has with a girl he likes. Each moment needed multiple versions so we could jump cut between, and each of those versions required multiple takes before we had what we needed. The day quickly got away from me and it got a little maddening trying to keep track of what we really had and what we still needed. Also, we had decided that Michael would improvise on that day, which gave us tons of great stuff since he is a terrific improviser, but it can also be a lonely place for an actor to have to pour it on take after take. As a director, you have to pay even closer attention to your actors when they improvise because they are creating so much that you need someone to be keeping track of it. I think the intensity of the day led me to hang Michael out to dry once or twice as he kept churning out stuff and I was in my own little world with my mind spinning about coverage issues.

Michael, how would you describe your relationship working with Andrew?

I can honestly say it’s probably the most in sync I’ve ever been working with a director—and certainly on camera. He and I both come from a similar school of improvisational comedy, and so our rhythms were always very much on the same page. He and I both are also pretty OCD when it comes to getting things right on a take. We would do multiple takes of even the smallest comedic beats just to make sure we were hitting anything and everything he might need in the editing room. There’s definitely a lot of Stillman in both of us. It’s very important to us to get it right. He trusted me implicitly with the character, and it’s so important to feel that from a director. It gave me the confidence to fully explore every moment of every scene. I’m just so grateful to have met him, and I look forward to more collaborations.

Gigi, how did you become involved in the film as its producer?

I had an inside track on its development since I’m married to the writer/director. “Time Freak” is a project that Andrew and I set out to do together from the beginning.

How did you go about raising funds to help bring the film to life?

Gigi: Andrew and I had recently gotten married and we had been saving to buy an apartment in NYC. As we got closer to making that a reality, we realized that we didn’t want to be tied to an expensive mortgage at the expense of our creative freedoms. We took the money we had been saving and spent it on the film instead. We didn’t want to have any regrets about fully pursuing our professional and creative dreams.

Film festivals have always been a hotbed for short films. They almost seem to be a crapshoot, as some films that have gone on to find great success had been previously rejected from big-name festivals. “God of Love,” last year’s winner, was notably rejected by Sundance. What were some of your highlights and disappointments in the film’s festival run?

Gigi: We, too, were shut out of some key festivals that we were really hoping to be a part of—namely, Telluride, Sundance, and South by Southwest. We submitted to close to 65 or 70 festivals, and have screened in about 40. We pretty much tried to follow the list of Oscar-qualifying festivals as a guideline, though we didn’t think that we would necessarily find ourselves in contention for the Oscar. Highlights of our festival year include Aspen Shortsfest, AFI, Seattle (in which we won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short [thus qualifying it for the Oscar nomination]), Stony Brook (winner, Best Short), Woodstock, LA Shortsfest, and most recently Sedona International Film Festival. It’s been an amazing festival run for us.

Andrew, I understand that you had been in touch with Luke Matheny, last year’s winner in this category for “God of Love.” What did you discuss?

Luke was very helpful a few months ago as I was trying to find a distributor for “Time Freak.” We haven’t spoken since the nomination, but he is a member of the Academy, after all, so I expect to see him at at least one party this week.

What does it mean to you that “Time Freak” is the only American film nominated in this category?

Andrew: It’s pretty unreal. Michael and I have been traveling around the country to shorts festivals this past year and we have seen a lot of great US shorts. It’s kind of strange to think that we were the only American live-action short nominated. But things like this are so subjective, you just have to say thanks and acknowledge the honor without stopping to think it means anything about anyone else’s work.

Michael: It’s an honor to be recognized regardless of where the film was made. I’ve seen a ton of fantastic American short films this year at festivals and there are certainly a bunch of them that deserve to be on that list.

Have you seen the other nominated films? Which do you think is your biggest competition?

Michael: I’ve seen the other films and they’re all so different, it’s almost impossible to compare them. Academy members have a tough task ahead. I remember seeing “Raju” at Aspen Shortsfest last year, and turning to Andrew when it was over and saying, “Well, that’s going to win the Oscar next year.” It was such a moving experience watching it, but after watching all of the films, I truly believe it’s one of the strongest collections of shorts in years.

Andrew: I have seen all the live-action shorts and it’s great to be in such a high-quality group. It’s amazing company to be in. Michael and I were at Aspen Shortsfest when we saw “Raju” for the first time. I think I have seen it six times since then and I love it every time. Our editor/producer, Geoff [Richman], was also atAspen and the end of the film sparked a debate about where the main characters would go after the film was over and what might happen to their lives. That is the mark of a truly great film: people talking about it. I can say this now that the voting closed, but I would be shocked if the Academy doesn’t recognize the power of that film. That is not to say the other films in the bunch aren’t compelling and touching; they’re all great. But getting back to the subjective nature of judging or ranking films, “Raju” affected me deeply.

What are you looking forward to most this Sunday at the Oscars?

Andrew: I am looking forward to treating Sunday as a victory lap for the team that put this film together. It has been years of working on it, living with it, and caring about it, and now it’s time to celebrate. We are lucky enough to have a lot of the team coming to the Oscars, so we just want to soak in every aspect we can.

Michael: Soaking it all in with the “Time Freak” crew. Andrew and I have been promoting the film all over the country the last year, going to festivals, getting the film out there. It’s just so gratifying to be celebrating the end of a very cool journey. It’s still surreal to me that I’m even going, and I just want to try and be in the moment with it all and soak it all up. It’s every actor’s dream to go to the Oscars—and to be the lead in a nominated film is a feeling beyond words. I’m also happy to have another use for my tux. The last time I wore it was at my wedding.

Other than your own, which film are you most rooting for?

Andrew: I thought Clooney gave a different and very special performance in The Descendants and I’d like to see him win. [Descendants director] Alexander Payne is a hero of mine, and he needs an Oscar … Also, I’m really pulling for JC Chandor to win for Margin Call [Best Original Screenplay nominee] since I thought that was one of the under-recognized films of last year.

Michael: I loved Hugo. It was such a beautiful and moving love letter to the art of cinema—and the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen. Woody Allen [Midnight in Paris] is a genius, so I’m always happy when his work is recognized. I’m also very excited that one of my acting heroes, Gary Oldman, is up for a much-deserved Best Actor [award for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy].

Are you working on any other projects right now?

Andrew: I am writing the “Time Freak” feature and hope to have it done soon. I am enjoying the challenge of writing [the film] on a [bigger] scale while still trying to keep track of why the short works.

Michael: I just finished a guest spot on The Good Wife. I have several films coming out in the spring, [including] The Happy Sad, directed by Sundance winner Rodney Evans, in which I play a dysfunctional standup comedian; and Generation Um, in which I play, well, a dysfunctional groom at a bachelor party. Just realized there’s a theme running through my work. “Time Freak” has definitely helped to get a lot more auditions, and hopefully that trend continues.

What do you hope will come from this experience?

Michael: Work, work, and more work! I’m just so thrilled that something I’m proud of gets to reach such a wide audience.

Andrew: We have already gotten so much more from “Time Freak” than we could have ever hoped when we began. We thought that if we made a good enough short it would have a nice run in film festivals. It did that, and even won some awards along the way, including the Grand Jury Prize at Seattle, which qualified us to submit to the Oscars. Everything that has happened since that moment is gravy. It feels like we got the high score on a video game a few boards back and we’re still playing.

Want to hear more from Andrew, Gigi, and Michael? Head over to the170.com, where the conversation continues.

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