Jeremy LaLonde and Jonas Chernick are the writers, director, and star of new time travel comedy James Vs. His Future Self, screened at Glasgow Film Festival and reviewed by us. We spoke to them about the difficulties of scripting a time travel film without getting tripped up by its mechanics, the process of collaboration, and the best time travel movies ever.
Can you tell us about the film?
Jonas: James Vs. His Future Self is a comedy about a scientist who’s been obsessed his whole life about becoming the world’s first time traveller. Just as he’s about to make his seminal discovery, he gets kidnapped by an older, angrier, crazier version of himself from the future; who’s come back to tell him not to proceed, that if he does so he will discover time travel and it will ruin his life. He will end up alone. Of course, James takes this as a great bit of confidence and proceeds diligently, to his older self’s chagrin. There’s then this comedic battle between these two men who are the same person essentially. It’s about learning to be present, rather than being obsessed with a future goal or living in the past.
Jeremy: Tremendous luck! Honestly, there are stories of people spending years casting films. We just got incredibly lucky that Daniel Stern was our first real go-to. We weren’t looking for someone who was the perfect doppelganger for James, because we knew we would write into whatever that actor was going to be. We could explain time travel away in that way, and have some fun with it. For us it was finding that right essence and Daniel had that in spades. We just got incredibly lucky in that we sent him the script, hoped for the best, and he responded to the character. Daniel’s had one of those careers where he’s had the luxury to be picky, and not have to work if he doesn’t want to, so it’s a testament to him that he wanted to do the film, and really understood the nature of it. He came to us with great questions and ideas to ramp up the script in other ways. Other actors will turn up with a ton of notes and go, ‘Well I want a bigger speech from this character, and I want more of a scene!’ But the stuff he brought to the process was amping up all the other characters around him.
With Frances, we were already shooting, and we hadn’t cast [Doctor Rowley] yet. We had one time for one Hail Mary at a great actress and she came to our attention as someone who was available in that time period. We thought we would never be able to get her, but we’d be crazy if we didn’t at least try. We strongly believe that the world belongs to those who at least try, and we might as well ask as long as we get a quick ‘no’. Within 24 hours I’m on the phone with her pinching myself; ‘I’m talking to Frances Conroy, this is insane to me.’
There’s a really interesting internal tension within the film, as you want older James to succeed, but that means his own destruction.
Jonas: He’s on a suicide mission. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for his younger self. The journey that he’s been through has been so difficult and so wrong; he has such regret, that he’s willing to lose himself for his younger self and save him from that journey. So there is a nice tension there that we enjoyed playing with, which is probably one of the things that attracted Daniel Stern. It’s a fun undercurrent for a character who is very, very motivated.
Jeremy: It’s a noble, and yet very, very selfish mission in a way. He’s doing it for himself and yet for someone else. He’s never going to be able to live the life he wants for his younger self, but that’s like the stories of a lot of parents and their kids. He’s looking to live vicariously through his younger self.
Jonas: Yeah, there’s a parent/ child dynamic there for sure; or older brother and younger brother.
When you were writing, how far down the time travel rabbit hole did you go? Was there a point where you were at risk of tying yourself in knots plot-wise?
Jeremy: There are some bad versions of this script out there!
Jonas: We went pretty far. We’re both geeks and we both live time travel, and we wanted to get that right. So we did spend a great deal of time figuring out what the rules were, how the world worked, and how the science worked, and probably crammed all of that into an early draft. Part of the process of refining script was peeling that away to really the bare minimum of what would satisfy the time travel nerds, but really focus on character and story.
Because you didn’t want it to be [famously dense time travel drama] Primer?
Jonas: That’s the time travel movie that changed my life! I wanted to write a time travel movie until 2004 when I saw Primer. I remember watching it at [Toronto International Film Festival], and thinking, ‘There goes that plan! I’ll never write a time travel movie, as I’ll never be able to write anything as smart as that.’ The realisation for me was years later, that my version of a time travel movie is a comedy. It’s less about the science and more about the characters. Once I’d figured that out, and then partnering up with Jeremy and pitching him the nucleus of this idea, that was our way in.
That was going to be my next question! What’s your favourite time travel movie?
Jonas: Primer! That’s No. 1, and Back to the Future obviously is a big influence, and really had more of the tone and style that we were going for.
Jeremy: Looper was a big one for us. Back to the Future for sure is a movie I’ve watched as often as any other movie, and one I enjoy revisiting with my own kids.
Jonas: 12 Monkeys is high on the list for me.
Jeremy: There’s so many great ones. Hot Tub Time Machine! [laughs]
Jonas: I just remembered one I saw as a kid, possibly the first time travel film I ever saw; Time After Time. H.G Wells and Jack the Ripper. That was a great movie.
How long have you been writing together?
Jonas: We’ve definitely read each other’s scripts before and given each other notes as writers tend to do in our circle. This was the first time we wrote a script together, and it took us about three years from inception until we were one set which, for me, was by far the shortest writing incubation period in my career. For Jeremy, it was the longest. We’d both made four films prior to this individually. Mine take a lot longer to write, and Jeremy’s really fast.
Jeremy: So Jonas slowed me down!
Jonas: And he sped me up!
Jeremy: In terms of the collaboration, I think Jonas and I are both guys that often write on our own. Because the general rule is that we can do that, what does your collaborator bring to the table? What do they do that you can’t do, or won’t do, on your own? As much as Jonas and I do have very strong individual voices, we were able to meld them into some weird lovechild here. We were able to challenge each other and play off each other. It took us a while to tap into the right theme, we were able to challenge each other and move the script along faster.
Are you planning any future projects together?
Jeremy: We are. We have something that we’re in the very early stages of, that’s kind of experimental. As Jonas and I were driving around from festival to festival last Fall, we had a great conversation about the best way we could challenge each other in a collaboration? Knowing what our strengths are, let’s throw those all away and do something that doesn’t apply to those strengths.
Jonas: We’re going to try and make a film in a way that neither of us have made a film before. It’s a big risk, but it’s really exciting.
If budget was no object, and you could pick your dream cast, what would your ideal project be?
Jonas: All the films I’ve made have been around the same budget level. This film, it’s not a terribly low-budget film, but in the grand scheme of things it’s nothing. But I like that. I think that if you have limited resources, you are forced to be extra creative. And there’s something about those parameters that I like. I wouldn’t want a $20m or $100m budget on a film.
Jeremy: Once you get into those worlds, you’re making a lot of decisions by committee. You’re giving up a lot of creative control for money. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad project, but it means it’s potentially less personal. I’d like a little bit more money to be able to do more things. I’m a big fan of genre films, but you don’t necessarily need a ton of money to be able to do those things. I just started writing a monster movie with my son. But even then, my version of that is closer to Bong [Joon-ho]’s The Host; a smaller story about a group of people, or Cloverfield. It’s not about the army, or about the government dealing with a monster. You’re dealing with a small group of people and that stuff’s happening in the background.
Jonas: And the greatest monster movie ever made, Jaws, you barely see the shark. We’ve all learned from Spielberg’s terrible mistakes! That was a happy accident that redefined a genre for ever more! By cutting away from the source of the horror, you create a much deeper dread.
Are there any actors you’d really love to work with if you got the chance?
Jonas: Hundreds! Somebody brought up Paul Rudd today. He’s somebody that I would love to work with.
Jeremy: At the end of the day, as a director I just want to work with smart actors who bring things to the table. As much as it’s nice to work with actors who have some recognisability, as it helps with the marketing of the film; great actors are great actors whether you’ve heard of them or not. I just want to work with people who bring something to the table, something unique and endearing.
Jonas: This is a cautionary tale. I have a friend in Canada who had a great script. It got into the hands of a massive megastar, whose name I won’t mention. He was like, ‘this is amazing, this is great!’ A big budget, and people are going to see the movie. This megastar turned out be such an asshole, and so difficult to work with, that he looked back on it as one of the biggest regrets of his career. He wishes he’d made the film with his friends, or great Canadian actors. But by selling his soul – and sure, he got to work with a superstar – it was a horrible gut-wrenching experience that sucked the life out of him. Be careful what you wish for.
Jeremy: But we got lucky with something like this with Daniel Stern, who might have been a nightmare. The kind of people we work with, usually at home, are the sweetest, most collaborative people. And Frances Conroy brought so much. If she had just shown up and phoned it in, I’d have been as pleased as punch, but on that first phone call she was diving into nerdy articles. She showed up with prep and did the work of an actor. Of course she does that, she’s a professional, but you read horror stories about famous actors and then you’re so happy when you don’t get that experience. We’ve been very fortunate throughout our careers to work with not just great actors, but ones who are very collaborative.
Jonas: We’re very happy working on the smaller scale, where we didn’t have to answer to anyone creatively. This was Jeremy’s movie as the director. He got to call the shots. There was nobody who could come in and take it away from him. He got to tell the story his way, and I think that’s the way great movies are made.
And you’ve worked with someone like Tommie-Amber Pirie on numerous occasions.
Jeremy: I think I’ve worked with her five times now. Again, she’s one of my closest friends. We wrote the role [of James’ sister Meredith] for her, so she was the first person we cast. I think this is the third time I’ve worked with Jonas as an actor. It’s always nice to work with new people too. If you’re to challenge yourself and learn new things it’s necessary, but there is something rewarding about collaborating with someone on more than one thing. You get to tap into things that are a bit deeper. You get a stronger sense of what they can do. I think the director gets the compliment, like in this movie where people have said, ‘I haven’t seen this side of Daniel Stern before’, but you have to take the time to get to know them. Then you know what they’re really capable of, and not just what you’ve seen before onscreen. That’s the benefit of spending time with actors.
What are the best and worst things about doing the film festival circuit?
Jonas: It would be hard for me to come up with the worst thing, I’m a big fan of film festivals.
Jeremy: We’re really lucky. We’re in Glasgow! This festival is a beautiful, wonderful festival It’s hard to complain. I think the hardest thing is probably jut being away from our families, but otherwise this is a dream.
Jonas: Every festival we can go to, we go to. Every screening we can be at, we’re attending. For us, seeing the audience respond to the work is so great. I come from the theatre, so for me it’s all about the audience reaction. I wouldn’t want to make film if I couldn’t be there with the audience to experience it. I want to see where they’re laughing, where they’re crying. How does it play in the UK as opposed to Canada, or the United States, or Latin America? For me, that’s the joy of the film festival. Sure, it’s great to travel to beautiful cities, and meet new people, but to be in an audience and answer question after, to interact with the audience, is a great joy. I’m always looking for that.
Jeremy: To be able to see different parts of the world is an added bonus to that. Getting to experience the film connecting with an audience, and getting to talk to them after; we’re so grateful to have that experience.