Filmmaker Jay Cheel has premiered two films at Hot Docs: Beauty Day in 2011 and How to Build a Time Machine this year. How to Build a Time Machine received Corus-Hot Docs Development funding in 2011, Completion funding in 2015 and launched Hot Docs’ first Doc Ignite campaign in 2012. We spoke to Jay about procedure and obsession—both on screen and off.
Hot Docs: You had the world premiere of How to Build a Time Machine at Hot Docs this past May. What was your Festival like?
Jay Cheel: It was good. When I visit festivals with my films, I’m one of those people who probably spends more time watching other people’s films than promoting my own. Two of the screenings had a great turnout—it’s always fun getting everyone together who’s worked on the film for so long, and even better when the audience has a positive response to it. Before a premiere you really don’t have any idea. I cut my films myself and I’ll show friends and colleagues beforehand, but you never really have that honest, unbiased opinion until you screen it with an audience, so that’s always exciting. Some people had really great questions. Most were directed at Ron, the physicist in my film, because if you have the opportunity to ask a theoretical physicist about time travel, you take it.
HD: The film is more about humanity than it is about science and technology, and you touch on themes of legacy, regret, loss and fate. Why was time travel such a thrilling concept in which for you to unpack these ideas?
JC: I wanted to do a documentary that could be rooted in genre, specifically a science fiction documentary, and time travel seemed like something that could facilitate that. A documentary about time travel seems like a bit of a paradox, but it sounded like a fun challenge. I was revisiting a student film I made in 2005, but I’d like to think I’ve progressed since then. It was more about using time travel as the occasion to explore all these other themes you mention, and I think that’s what’s great about time travel as a story telling device. It’s a great way of reflecting on fantasies or regret: Just in Rob and Ron talking about time travel you learn a lot about them without them saying anything overly personal. The fact that Rob wants to go to the future might say something about how he’s curious to see how things turn out. With Ron, we know why he wants to go back in time, but it feels like more of a curse. He refused to grieve after his father’s death and he’s held on to it all of these years, and that says something about him. These two men, side by side, reveal things about each other and hopefully that reveals something about the audience. I know for myself, in making this film, a lot of the obsessiveness in Rob making his machine was something I related to because I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. And seeing time travel as a way of going back and adjust your course, again it’s back to perfectionism, you want to be able to go back and change the course that your life has taken. It’s about learning that you can’t and you have to get over it. And if it were an option you may no longer be the person you have come to be. All this to say that time travel offers a lot of great narrative storytelling opportunities, and through that you can learn a lot about someone without asking flat out: “Do you have any regrets?” I think the answer reveals itself in what one would do with a time machine.
HD: Was that exploratory reflection very evident to you when you started making a version of this film ten years ago or did it start as something else?
JD: Ten years ago it was more surface. With the opportunity to revisit the subject, making a feature previous to this, and getting a better sense of what I want to do as a filmmaker, it gets a little deeper. It was revealed through interviews that there are actually deeper paths to explore. When I originally did crowd funding for the film we had a third perspective on time travel, one of someone who has already claimed to have accomplished time travel. But once Rob and Ron were on board I felt the conspiracy theory storyline would have felt forced and course-corrected in the middle of the shoot. Instead I focus on how Rob and Ron are both inspired by the same source material but took these different paths—one towards the creative film realm and one towards the sciences—making the tone more sincere.
HD: You have real reverence for the mastery and craftsmanship within Rob’s building of the time machine, and we spend a lot of the film watching him build with such care. Why was that artistry important for you to highlight?
JC: Part of it is just my own personal interest in process. I like anything that’s procedural, whether it be in documentary or fiction, anytime you witness an expert doing something shot in extreme detail. I jokingly have said that the Food Network was a big inspiration for the film: watching cooking shows with my grandmother growing up, that presentation interests me. Whether my film could sustain multiple sequences of Rob making pieces of this machine, I wasn’t sure. But then I saw Teller’s film Tim’s Vermeer and it’s obsessed with process and detail. It gave me the confidence to do the same in my film. I always thought of Rob’s prop time machine as a surrogate of Ron’s real time machine, like Rob’s building the specs that Ron is writing on the chalkboard. So it’s partly out of necessity, because there is no process to show on Ron’s side, but it’s partly my own fascination with procedure and letting science fiction iconography fill the role of building a time machine. By the end of the film Rob gets to sit in Ron’s time machine and it gives him this catharsis—his arc is more psychological. Rob, though he is dealing with his own compulsive tendencies, serves all these other people when he reveals the machine. He gives people a moment to sit in the machine and evaluate the good and bad parts their lives.
HD: This is your second feature after Beauty Day, which premiered at the Festival in 2011. What have you learned about your filmmaking process?
JC: I basically shot and cut the whole thing myself, and this is my second film doing that. I’m just getting to the point where I’m going: “Which of these things can I let go of, let other people come in and take over.” And I’m also trying to work towards the point where I would want a cinematographer so I can focus on other things. Because the film is about wanting to control every aspect of the creative process, it had me thinking about that stuff a little more: finding a collaborator to help get at a vision together.
HD: Can you talk a little bit about receiving Corus-Hot Docs Development and Completion funding, and participating in a Doc Ignite crowdfunding campaign?
JC: We were very happy to be chosen to be included in Doc Ignite. The experience of crowdfunding is very stressful. I’m not a very big self-promoter (I’m probably the worst self-promoter) and crowdfunding requires a personality where you can go on camera and pitch your film to people and ask for support. It’s just not something I’m naturally good at. The great thing was seeing all of the people excited for the film, and all of the people who supported the film are in the credits at the end of the movie. It’s a nice acknowledgement as there are all these people enthusiastic about it and willing to give money to help me realize the film and finish it. The Corus-Hot Docs Completion Fund was extremely helpful. This was a tough movie to get funding for, and my films on paper are a tough sell. You almost have to see a 20-minute reel to understand because it’s so dependant upon the on-screen personae, which can be a challenge to capture on paper. Hot Docs was very supportive in that regard, they provided Completion funding for my last film Beauty Day as well. They saw the value in this project and were able to offer support.
HD: Are you working on anything new?
JC: Right now I’m directing episodes for a show called Dead Set on Life for VICELAND, and I’m starting to do research for hopefully the next feature but I have a few ideas that I’m sussing out and seeing what sticks. Out of the ideas I have, I’m waiting to see which one I continually obsess over and maybe that will be the sign that that’s what I should pursue. If you’re going to spend that much time with something it helps to be naturally interested, obviously. I’m lucky that everyone whose been in my films so far has been great to be around – going to New York to hang out with Rob and spent four days with him while he builds a time machine is a lot of fun.
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Interview conducted by Madelaine RussoSeptember 02, 2016