By Chris Illich
The last time I spoke with Jay Cheel, he had just finished his debut documentary, Beauty Day and I was writing a feature about the film. This was exactly five years ago, in May 2011, when I was working at my old stomping ground, The Brock Press. I remember at the end of the interview he talked about how he wanted to start working on the next documentary, a film about time travel.
The director couldn’t tell me much at the time, and frankly, I didn’t even think about it until I caught wind that his second film, How to Build a Time Machine was about to premiere at Hot Docs and then here in Niagara at the Niagara Integrated Film Festival.
“The first shoot was in June 2011, so looking back, it took four and a half years to shoot, which is way more time that I would have liked,” explained Cheel.
“One of the subjects in the film was building a replica time machine and when I started shooting he had already been working on it for nine years. He’s just very methodical and obsessive and wants to get it perfect, so for me to expect him to speed it up just for the film was unreasonable. He’ll work on it for the rest of his life, he finished it enough to have a party and invite his friends over and we filmed that and it kind of gave us our ending. We were kind of waiting for that.”
The film follows two characters, Rob Niosi and Ronald Mallett. Niosi is creating the replica time machine, while Mallett a physicist has devoted his life to figuring out how to create a machine that will send information back and forth through time.
Both men grew up fascinated by HG Wells’ The Time Machine and as Cheel explained, they both connected Wells’ story to their fathers.
“When Ron was 10, his father passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack and reading The Time Machine inspired him to follow a career in theoretical physics. He wants to be able to send ones and zeros through time, and ultimately be able to go back in time to save his father,” said Cheel.
“Rob saw The Time Machine when his dad was an usher at the movie theatre, and he decided to build this prop replica to capture the kind of impression the film made on him when he was a kid.”
The film graciously contrasts the two sketches of these men, tastefully discussing ideas of obsessiveness, ethics, regret, and of course, the paradoxes of time travel.
Although, that is not where the film initially started out. When Cheel was at Niagara College in 2005 he did a short documentary for a third year class called Obsessed and Scientific. Niosi was featured in that film, but there was another element that Cheel focused on and wanted to explore.
He wanted to focus on the character John Titor. Titor was a self-proclaimed time traveler who posted on the Internet in 2001 suggesting that he was a time traveler from 2036. The story is drenched in skepticism and conspiracy, and people did not want to talk to Cheel on camera about Titor.
“A year and a half into shooting I had to course correct and drop that major element and figure out how to forward the story. It was frustrating to have to reevaluate everything in the middle of the project, but then threads emerged and I started to realize the connections between the two characters and their ideas, motivations and character traits,” said Cheel.
Cheel continued to move forward and the sentimentality of How to Build a Time Machine creates a wondering sense of sincerity, beauty and vulnerability as the film plays out as a fascinating character study of these two men.
The beautifully shot film shows a director at the top of his game. It may have taken five years to complete, but the crisp visuals and compelling subjects make it worth the wait. One can’t help but marvel at the journey these men have taken, and the capsule into their lives that Cheel has provided us.