Simon Says
"Time Machine" director Simon Wells
fourth in a series

by Bondo Wyszpolski
This interview first appeared in the February 28th issue of Easy Reader.
Printed here with permission

I knew I was a great-grandson of H.G. Wells for pretty much my whole life," says Simon Wells. "It was just a part of the family. There's bits and pieces that belonged to H.G. lying around my grandfather's house. We had a lot of books by him. It wasn't any great revelation."
Wells the Younger-by-far is the director of The Time Machine, a DreamWorks and Warner Brothers co-production that opens next week. In this version, Alexander Hartdegen (played by Guy Pearce) travels 800,000 years into the future and encounters two forms of humanity, one peaceful, the other predatory.

I met with the affable and unassuming Simon Wells in North Hollywood while the film was receiving its final touches.

Working on this project, did you feel a sense of destiny?
"It's a peculiar thing, actually. Yes and no," Wells says. "I read about The Time Machine in the trades in 1998, I think it was, when Steven Spielberg was going to be directing. At the time I was just finishing up on Prince of Egypt, and I was beginning to look for how I was going to segue into live action, because that's what I'm interested in doing… So I read this in the trades and I went to Jeffrey Katzenberg, with whom I was working closely at the time. I said, 'If Steven doesn't end up directing this movie, you do realize I ought to be doing it.' We both laugh.

"Jeffrey said, 'I'll throw your hat in the ring, but I'm not promising anything because it's a very big movie. And you've never directed anything in live action before.'

"So, that led to a meeting with [producers] Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald. We had a great couple of meetings but they still said, 'Well, we'd be crazy to give a movie of this size to a first-time live action director.' They went away and [conferred], then came back and said, 'Okay, we're gonna jump with this and give you a go-on.'"
It's certainly a big responsibility.


"Huge," Wells affirms. "None of us realized just how big the movie was going to be until we started making it."

Every director brings their own sensibility to a film. What are your influences?

"My tastes in film are actually amazingly mainstream," Wells admits. "I go to the cinema to have a good time, to watch movies I find exciting and stimulating; if it makes me think a bit about stuff, that's good. But by and large I don't go to the cinema to see the kinds of things which I may be willing to read about. I didn't, for instance, see the movie of Angela's Ashes [although] I enjoyed the book enormously.

"Certainly," he continues, "everyone of my generation has been influenced by Spielberg; I'm influenced very heavily by Bob Zemeckis… The reason I'm in the film business at all is because of Back to the Future, the very first one, which I saw in 1985. It was one of those epiphany moments of 'This is what I should be doing with my life.
'
"At the time I was an animator working in commercials, and I had no idea how I was going to make that transition. But I was very fortunate. Almost immediately after that Bob Zemeckis, who directed Back to the Future, was looking around for a director of animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and came to Richard Williams, who I was working for at the time. One thing led to another and, after Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I got to work on Back to the Future Two and Three."

Well, back to The Time Machine, too.
It first appeared as a novella in 1895 and, along with the author's The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, has remained in print ever since. An adaptation for the movies appeared forty-two years ago and starred Rod Taylor as the Time Traveler, Yvette Mimieux as Weena, and Alan Young as Filby.

"I think I saw the George Pal version of the story before I read the book," Wells says. "I can't remember when I saw the film, it was one of those films I saw very early, on TV."
It came out in 1960.

"Yeah. I wasn't even born then; I was born in '61."

I saw it earlier, in the movie theater, I tell him, at an age when movies still have a certain reality they lose after awhile.

"Yes, when you get to be a teenager there's a certain level of 'I know this is created… It's somehow faked.' Whereas, when you're under ten, it's a reality. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey - when did that come out, '68? - I would have been seven." He laughs. "That was a devastating film to see when you're seven-years-old."

The novel is darker than the George Pal film, but does John Logan's script resemble David Duncan's?

"It is closer in structure to George Pal's," says Wells, "in that our time traveler meets with human Eloi rather than this little form of humanity as described in H.G.'s book. Also, we followed the same line of going heroically to save the girl from the underground where, in H.G.'s book, Weena is taken in the night by the Morlocks and the time traveler pretty much says, 'Oh dear that's very sad, that's a shame.'" We laugh.

"He's much more concerned when the Morlocks take his time machine; he fights for that, but he doesn't make any effort to rescue Weena. Our hero is sort of the last person you'd expect to put into an action movie. He's a professor who teaches at Columbia University in New York; he's really not a man of action at all, and he's thrown into this position where he has to.


"In the George Pal film the Eloi really don't deserve saving," Wells says with a laugh. "They basically sit around, do nothing, and make no effort to preserve any cultural [heritage]; they don't even make an effort to save one another's lives. We felt there should be at least some aspects of the Eloi that would make our time traveler want to fight for them. So there was a real effort to create a culture and some understanding, knowledge and skills and ability, they could display. The finer part of humanity. Also, to contrast [them] as dramatically as we could with the Morlocks."

What else in the George Pal film did you try to preserve, and what did you seek to discard or avoid?

"It's one of those movies that a lot of people carry very warm feelings for in their hearts," Wells replies, "even though there's a lot of things about it you can make holes in. It certainly is a movie of its time; it's rather like watching the original series of Star Trek. There are attitudes that Captain Kirk displays that would be utterly unacceptable in a leading man now. There are certain things about Rod Taylor [that are] terrific in the movie, but you couldn't put a hero like him on the screen now and have quite the same sensibility.
"There were also certain costuming inventions and behavior inventions with the Eloi in particular that seem very dated… [The film] had cutting edge visual effects for its time - it won an Oscar for its visual effects - [but] there were a lot of things we wanted to update and do with the full force of technology that was available to us now.

"Early on, when [production designer] Oliver Scholl and I sat down and talked about the time machine, we were both bothered by the old design of the George Pal time machine, which is a wonderful, evocative design. But I remember, even as a child, being very bothered by things like, 'Well, which parts of the time machine travel through time?' And, 'If it's standing on the floor, do bits it's in contact with travel in time or - how does that work?'" Wells laughs. "Is there a field generated around the time machine [that separates it] from the environment?"

"H.G. sensibly avoided tackling it at all. There's almost no description of the time machine; what little there is we draw up in our reader's eye." But, he continues, "there are aspects of George Pal's machine which are so [emblematic] we really didn't want to discard them: This huge spinning disc on the back of the machine, somehow that's planted in everybody's mind in a way you not only can't escape it, you shouldn't escape." We laugh. "How many Gary Larson cartoons are there where you have time machines in the cartoons? They all have big spinning discs!" More laughter.

In the beginning, "Oliver and I just sat across a coffee table like this, scribbling on pieces of paper, passing them backwards and forwards. Then Ollie took those designs and did a comprehensive rendering of the drawings." The result, after passing through other hands, was a formidable vehicle, futuristic from a Victorian perspective.

"Each of these discs weighs a quarter of a ton," Wells continues, "and spins at thirty miles an hour. We had to keep the crew well away from it whenever we powered the thing up. Very dangerous machine." He laughs. "Guy Pearce, by the way, was terrific; he was actually prepared to sit in the machine while it was operating - some of the time. Other times we took the blades off and replaced them digitally."

How is it to work with actors who don't see or quite know what the special effects around them will be?

"That's an interesting challenge. It's very tough for the actors. It's almost easier in a sense for me because I know what's going to be there… Guy Pearce was actually intrigued by the idea of doing these scenes that he wasn't going to be able to see until later, and having to construct them in his own mind - dodging away from a Morlock who's going to be digitally [inserted]. I'm sort of familiar with it because of directing actors for voice [roles] in animation, when literally they'll come into a room like this, with a microphone, and that's it. We'll have storyboards in sequence and be able to explain what happens in the scene, but they have to construct the whole atmosphere in their minds, and very often they're working without other actors as well."

Alan Young has a cameo appearance as a flower seller. Did you try contacting Rod Taylor or Yvette Mimieux?

"Yes, actually," Wells answers. "Yvette Mimieux sent a fascinating book to both Dave Valdes and myself called The End of Time (Julian Barbour), which is a fairly heavy piece of physics theory, but she wasn't interested in actually having any kind of role. It would have been quite fun to have her be Mrs. Watchett, the time traveler housekeeper. Rod, I understand, is much more reclusive these days."

Have you seen The Journey Back (1993), the short film Clyde Lucas made with Rod Taylor and Alan Young?

"I have indeed seen that, yes. Actually, the time machine that is used in that film is not in the original Time Machine, which is in the collection of Bob Burns, but is a time machine - an exact one-to-one replica - that this guy Don Coleman built. In a way these things all hook up; Don Coleman gave us the blueprints for the original chair, which we made a facsimile of [and] built into our time machine - kind of a nod to the original time machine."
(Don Coleman and his wife, Mary, have an elaborate website devoted to H.G. Wells and The Time Machine movies: www.colemanzone.com)

There were a limited number of test screenings of The Time Machine, but without the bulk of its special effects.

"The trouble with heavy visual effects," Wells says, "is that no matter how much you explain to the audience that the stuff they're going to see is very temporary, in some cases practically a sketch, it still affects how the audience sees and reacts to the movie… It's a very difficult thing like this where there are 400 visual effects shots in the movie, maybe more. It becomes very like the animation process where, to quote Frank Marshall, who said this of Roger Rabbit, there are two stages of animation - too soon to tell and too late to do anything about it.

"What's good about these things is not so much that we'll have a really clear idea of how the film is going to perform, but we can discover if there are things that audiences are confused by or having a hard time with. That's the single most [helpful result of having a test screening]."

Wells goes on to say that postponing the film from December to March enabled the production company to hone its special effects in advance for what has stepped up to be an aggressive trailer campaign - and also to have the film come out at a time when there is less competition. Says Wells, "I think between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day there were thirty films [scheduled] for release."

As conversant as he is with his famous ancestor's literary output, that doesn't mean Wells wants to mine them for the silver screen: "I don't think I want to build my career on doing film versions of my great-grandfather's work."

Understandably, he has been taking a wait-and-see approach before committing to another film.

"It's been an utterly exhausting year and a half," Wells admits. "I realize I have to fall in love with something to commit that amount of time. I'm remaining very guarded about what I'm going to go into next. On the one hand, I want to do something slightly smaller, but then almost everything is rather smaller than The Time Machine.

"On the other hand," he smiles, "the kinds of projects that I'm actually attracted to and want to see up on the big screen tend to be very large-scale things."
That means we're unlikely to miss them. The Time Machine opens Friday, March 8.

 

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