The Writing of TIME LAPSE, or how to get your super complicated time-travel script from page to screen

Our first year at OTHER WORLDS AUSTIN, we were lucky enough to have TIME LAPSE as our Centerpiece Film. A fantastic time-travel character drama, TIME LAPSE really set the tone for what we are about as a film festival.  Well-developed and interesting characters with real, relatable struggles, an incredibly interesting and tight script - all wrapped in a compelling science fiction world.  Writing science fiction can be daunting, especially when dealing with time travel. There are so many things that can go off the rails, so many threads to contend with.  A writer has to develop characters, create an interesting conflict, and explain the mechanics of their universe all while keeping a linear through-line that not only moves the plot and characters forward, but also makes sense within the established rules of said universe.  I can be a lot to handle.  TIME LAPSE does an exemplary job of this and is a fantastic example of what is possible in screenwriting.  I was lucky enough to speak with co-writer BP Cooper about the experience, and I decided that if you’re as into story structure and the banal minutiae of the script-to-screen process as I am, you’d want to hear about it.  

**This is about to get all sorts of spoiler-y, so if you haven’t watched TIME LAPSE yet, stop reading this right now, and do so.  It’s online, because everything is.  

Well, right here, if you must know:
iTunes,  Google Play, YouTube


 OTHER WORLDS AUSTIN:  So let’s jump right into the script:  Time Lapse is incredibly tight as a narrative, what with the theme of seeing a glimpse of the future.  How did you keep such a confusing number of threads straight in your mind, and also on the page?  

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BP Cooper:  Hundreds and hundreds of note cards! Bradley [King] (Co-Writer & Director) and I had three big walls with multiple tiers littered with the suckers. On the main center row we placed the note cards describing each scene in order as it unfolds script wise. 

Then a complimentary row of note cards above that displaying a drawing which represents a photo the machine sees in advance. We connected each present image (the moment the photo arrives) with yarn to its duplicate counterpart photo of when the incident actually takes place (in the future). This yarn method was the easiest way to visualize the present moment in conjunction with the future moment that's taking that particular moment-in-time’s actual event. I get confused even describing this! 

Then in yet another section above all that, note cards and drawings showing Callie’s separate sequence of events in terms of the photos she’s been sending/receiving herself throughout the story, also strung together with yarn. Or as Bradley loved to call it “storyboard yarn” or “serial killer yarn”.

Below all the note card scenes we would cascade the story boards themselves, visualizing how each scene plays out. 

We had to build this entire sequence twice. Once in the writing room, then have it all taken down and moved to set, where it was painstakingly re-applied in order by our fearless filmmaking partner Kim Carney. Even with all of this pre-planning and complex diagramming we quickly realized something; no matter how much it was all burned into our brains in the writing room - the extent where we could close our eyes and visualize where every story beat and painting/photo sequence etc, the moment it was transferred onto a different set of walls in a new environment, coupled with not being in front of it for about two weeks while it was being moved, the visuals became somewhat erased in our brain and we had to re-learn a lot of the intricacies all over again. 

It was fairly embarrassing when we’d be on set and sometimes confused by our own script, excusing ourselves to the storyboard room so we can figure out that if Photo A arrives with painting B and came on X day, how does that affect tomorrow’s event with Photo A event occurring with Painting B whilst simultaneously Photo C is arriving with Painting C at X time while everyone is wearing outfit D, and on and on. 


OWA:  That sounds like a monster!  It definitely seems like you worked incredibly hard keeping everything straight, and in the finished product it really pays off.  Let’s move on and talk more about the characters who are driving the action.  A story can be technically sound, and conceptually interesting, but at the end of the day we need a story to be about the characters or we really just don’t care.  Tell us about the way you use the time travel element to give your characters an arc, to show how they grow and change because of this fantastic situation.

BPC:  We are big Hitchcock fans, and we both love his use of “ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances” approach. So borrowing from that template, namely REAR WINDOW plus being inspired with the “three roommates” vibe of SHALLOW GRAVE, we had the seed of what type of characters we’d be putting in harm’s way. 

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Bradley suggested two the of the characters be in a somewhat strained/one-sided relationship to help with the tension dynamic right away, and letting the photos that appear start to slowly mess with the trajectory of their couple-hood.  Then naturally making the third person a greedy opportunistic asshole and adding a love triangle element, allows the audience a chance to watch someone descend into madness via his greed.  It also added the dramatic benefit of having a villain within the group itself and not just an external one.

Creating a solid backstory in a genre film is hard. Of course it can be done, but we underestimated the fact that an audience does not want to sit through 20-30min of backstory. Our original script (and what was also shot) contained a lot more backstory on the three main characters.  We thought we were super brilliant that we somehow made multi-layered 3-dimensional characters in a genre film! Then we did our first test screening and the audience feedback nearly unanimously was “things only got good half an hour into it once the machine was discovered”. So Bradley said “Shit, we need to cut 20+ minutes of character building backstory to make this work.” I admittedly fought him on some of it, but in the end he was 100% correct. What read well in the script as character development did not mean it actually translated well to cinema. 

OWA: I think the film strikes a pretty solid balance.  Giving us characters to care about and an exciting and engaging story.  Speaking of, the ending of a story is more important than the beginning, in my opinion.  Can you talk about how you arrived at your ending?  Was it this ending from the initial idea or did it evolve throughout the process? If you had different ideas for how to end the story, how many endings did you go through, and what made you settle on the one you chose?

BPC:  Endings. Totally agree. They are everything to me in movies. Deciding factor of make or break for a movie. There are in essence 4 endings to the movie, which I still love about it. 

    Ending 1:  Finn Fights Jasper / Callie Rescues Finn 

This part is self explanatory and very movie predictable, which was the idea. Then we almost get thrusted into the next level of

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Ending 2: Callie’s Betrayal/Secret 

 From the beginning we knew one person would be manipulating everything and it all culminates in a Keyser Soze moment. It naturally worked out that it would be Callie. We aimed for something that packed a punch and made people think “Uh, wait, what the F*#k just happened?!” as the credits rolled.  

The delicate balance is if someone understands the mechanisms of the machine even somewhat, they’ll understand the ending’s impact. But if they happened to be lost throughout the movie in relation to the machine and the pictures of the future aspect, then the ending will leave them even more confused, which is not ideal for anyone. So the Callie reveal was one of those double edged swords. 


    Ending 3:  Note Falls Off Window

The note falling off the window was one of those shot-blast moments where you had to hope the people watching would actually grasp the gravity of it, or at minimum the idea of it, even though it’s buried in individual perspective and “movie rules” we manufactured along with causal loop theory. 


    Ending 4:  The Final Polaroid 

Across the street from our former writing office there is a restaurant where about once a week we’d take a lunch and over beers discuss aspects of the story. On one of these early visits I said to Bradley “It would be cool if the last frame of the movie was a picture being developed, and we see the image of a shadowed nondescript person behind the blinds, then right before we can determine who it is we cut to black”. He was immediately on board and loved the idea.

Fast forward to us completing the movie and doing that first audience test screening, people really loved the final frame. Audible “ooooohhhhs” and “aaaaahhhs” filled the theater.  But as the feedback cards came in we discovered that most people were ultimately confused by this final image of a silhouetted man in the roommates’ living room behind the blinds. Was it a cop, Big Joe, someone who knew Mr B, did Finn not actually die, etc?  So it turned out our great idea had a massive leak, and it was our editor to the rescue. 

Our Oscar-winning and twice nominated editor Tom Cross (WHIPLASH, LA LA LAND) said to us, “As Soderbergh says, ambiguity is ok but confusion is not”. Or maybe he said the Cohen Bros said that? Either way Tom said it to us and that’s what matters. Bradley took it to heart, made the hard decision and cut the silhouetted man out of the last shot - which was actually himself doing a quasi Hitchcock cameo - and decided cutting to black as soon as the picture started to develop was the best way to end it. I recall fighting him on it, he won, and he was once again and in retrospect correct. It worked better without the shadow man confusing the viewers beyond the level of where most were already mind-fucked to no end.


OWA:  Soooo now let’s talk a bit about the beginning of the story:  Did you know at the outset that you wanted to write this specific story, or did it come as a kind of nebulous idea that changed throughout the writing process?   

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BPC:  We had been working on a totally different story, one that had been in different incarnations for literally years, and it had been set aside a few months awaiting when we could dedicate ourselves to finishing it. One day I brought up the movie TIMELINE (from 2003) and said the coolest scene to me was how they put an actual camera inside of a traditional human transporting time machine and pointed it upwards so it could take a picture of the night sky. Then based on the constellations the scientists in present day could determine When (in time) & Where (geographically) the machine had sent someone whom they were searching for. This was an off-the-cuff comment when nerds are waxing lyrical about movies and sci-fi stuff - I really had no other intent behind the mention other than that it was cool and I wish we could make a sci-fi movie like that. 

That was on a Friday or Saturday, fast forward to Monday.  Bradley storms into the office all smiles and says “I have an idea!”. Then goes onto say things like “What if the actual camera is the time machine itself?” and “What if it’s so old and big it’s stuck there and then we could make the movie all in one location for our limited budget?”.  REAR WINDOW came up. SHALLOW GRAVE came up. PRIMER came up. I loved the idea but I was mentally prepared to work on that long-gestating script so was admittedly apprehensive.  Bradley said “let’s just tinker with this for 2 days, and if after 2 days it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere we’ll abandon it and pick up on the other project”. I agreed. About two weeks later we had an entire first outline, and two weeks after that a first draft of the script. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but we know how lucky we were and we’ll never pull off a feat that quickly again. The stars just aligned. 


OWA:  Finally, I would like to ask about the filming process and changes to the script made during the filming.  Were you a part of that process?  If so, were there any major changes to the script that came up during filming?  Were these narrative based out of necessity for the story, or were they workarounds for budget/ filming feasibility?  If not, were there any major changes that you absolutely hated, or on the other hand, felt were incredibly effective?
 
BPC: Yes I was a part of every process, from the onset to the end, for better or worse. There were some major changes to the movie terms of what was written and filmed vs what we ultimately edited together. Namely the aforementioned character development portion in the first act that we chopped in the edit. Then there were lots of other beats, some small some big. We were fortunate that our budget was known well beforehand, thus able to write the film with that aspect in mind the entire time. So we never veered off course in terms of scope, knowing we always had to keep it grounded and within one major location. Actually, that was one of Bradley’s first great ideas, he said the machine had to be retro and giant, virtually immovable, this way it can stay localized in one location for budgetary purposes. At the start, every other page or so I’d say “oh and maybe they now decide to throw the camera on the back of a truck and take it to Vegas!” and he would take over the producorial role and say “Nooooo it has to stay in ONE place, immovable!”.  That limitation helped tremendously, not just financially but also giving us defined parameters within which to create the world. 

As we were filming we did a great job of sticking to the shooting script. In fact, I’d venture to say we shot 99%+ of the script, which is great for an indie. Anything small thing we missed, inserts etc, we picked up later on. So it was a full realization of what we wrote translated to cinema. That’s when Tom Cross presented us with our 2hr 45min epic and reality started to dawn on us that a movie intentionally written as a slow burn will ultimately come out as a slow burn times 2!  So the true cuts had to be made in the edit vs on set. 

One of the major cuts that hurt was a scene I came up with; there was originally foreshadowing with Callie cutting tomatoes on a mandolin slicer, as she prepares a meal for the guys and has a conversation with Finn (all of which was cut for pacing). 

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The mandolin is a device I’ve always wanted to write into a script as a unit of torture given my fear of razor sharp objects. The moment I saw my wife receive one as a Christmas present I immediately thought: A, why does anything have to ever look and be so freaking sharp?!  And B,  I’m totally going to slice off a bad guys face with that thing in a movie.

That scene set the tone of how crazy sharp the slicer was, a close-up of the tomatoes looked like blood or flesh. Fast forward to the Ivan the Bookie scene, originally in the script (and what we filmed) was Ivan coming back into the living room after checking out the photo at Mr B’s, sees Marcus killed, get’s whacked in the head by Jasper’s bat.  Jasper grabs his head and proceeds to shave Ivan’s face off bit by bit on the mandolin slicer that he had previously just threatened Callie’s hand with. 

There was a killer shot of flesh chunks and blood dripping off the coffee table and cascading onto the floor in a pile. Super violent. The aforementioned shot got crazy audible gasps of horror in the test screening, making me feel overly proud of my macabre scene creation. 

Then reality struck:  the Ivan-face-cut-off scene was both “most memorable” and also “most disliked” by test audiences!  This made no sense to me at first, but then once we discussed it the bigger picture arose. People liked the feeling of being horrified (yet safe in their air conditioned seats) just as they would in any horror movie, but because this was not a horror movie, they felt the slicing of the face was misplaced and beyond the scope of Jasper’s character at that point in time.

Tom explained to us that “When Jasper kills Ivan with the bat, he’s defending and protecting his friends. Once he takes the next step and starts gleefully slicing off a dead man’s face, he becomes a serial killer type that Finn and Callie would surely flee as soon as possible”.  Once again it was one of those things that made sense on paper, read well on paper, but once captured to celluloid, the visceral aspect brings on an entirely new dimension that you need to account for. 

Bradley said “Sorry man we gotta kill that scene. At least for one test screening to see if that cures the concern”. And on the next screening the audience said Jasper killing Ivan with the bat was one of their top most satisfying scenes - and there was zero consensus about a most disliked scene anymore. 

Problem solved. Scene removed from existence. 

Until I find a way to slice another bad guy’s face off in different movie.


Thanks again to BP Cooper for letting us in on the creative process, and showing us what the process is like for something as convoluted and interesting as TIME LAPSE. Click here to read the actual script, and follow the links below to see some neat behind the scenes stuff as well!!   

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