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Jamie Greenberg talks “Future ’38”, his anti-Nazi time travel comedy

In this lighthearted screwball comedy, a secret agent from 1938 travels to the far-off future of 2018 on a mission to stop Hitler.

By , 2 Jan 18
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(Courtesy of Jamie Greenberg)

OK, so “anti-Nazi time travel comedy” might be a bit clickbait-y, but director Jamie Greenberg‘s movie Future ’38 does have both Nazis and time travel. Playfully billed as a film made in 1938 but “only recently rediscovered”, Future ’38 presents 2018… as people from the 1930s would’ve imagined it in all their technicolor glory.

In the movie, an American agent named Essex must travel 80 years into the future (from 1938 to 2018) on a secret mission to save the world from Nazi aggression. If that sounds dark, don’t worry — Future ’38 is also modeled after American screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s, meaning it’s quite lighthearted.

Though Greenberg started writing the film years ago, Future ’38‘ couldn’t have come at a better time. With the resurgence of far-right movements across the Western world, perhaps a goofy comedy about thwarting Nazis is just what we need to maintain a bit of sanity.

Future ’38‘s January 2, 2018 digital release to learn more about the creative process behind the film.

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Nick Westrate Betty Gilpin Future 38

Banky (played by Betty Gilpin) and Essex (played by Nick Westrate), the two leads of Future ’38. (Courtesy of Future ’38)

What inspired you to make Future ‘38?

I’ve always been a bit of a sci-fi nerd and fan of classic old movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Future ‘38 is my second feature — I’d made a bunch of short films, and before that I had a career in television.

After my first feature, I was primed to write my second movie script, about an obscure and somewhat humorous real-life US government project during the Cold War. I went down that wormhole and did tons of research, but lost my bearings on what that story should be. I developed such a fetish for the historical facts and research that I was deep in the trees but couldn’t see the forest at all — it drove me crazy.

Then I had a moment of clarity and said “I have to put this project aside and do something more pleasurable and easy to write, something that’ll come more smoothly”. And I said to myself: “what’ll be fun, breezy, and delightful to write?” — to which any nerd’s answer is “time travel”.

Instinctively, I thought “let’s make this about the future, because that’s always sexy and fun and you can write whatever you want”. However, my reality meant that the film would be extraordinarily low budget; I wouldn’t be able to afford all that art direction, props, sets, wardrobe, flying cars.

So I said to myself: “How do I create this Jetsons world on a limited budget?” Then I realized “well, we live in the Jetsons now!” We could cast a fresh eye on our time through the eyes of people from a bygone era, where people from the 1930s and 40s imagine the future of 7-8 decades later (a.k.a. today).

I thought it’d be funny if the underlying joke was that they’d mostly get it right, but have a few points of real departure where they got some things wrong in a humorous, very 1930s/40s misinterpretation of our time.

For example, and the following didn’t actually make it into the movie, but I read this prediction of the future in a magazine from the 30s where they had this feature on a home from what they saw as the glamorous future. One of the things they promised readers the “modern houses of the future” would have was a button that’d open the exterior walls of your home, and convey your bed out onto the porch. The point of this was so that if it was a hot day, you could press this button and you could immediately go out onto the porch and enjoy the wind. I found that charming. They thought of this elaborate workaround but didn’t think about air conditioning!

Hah, well that’s certainly one way to solve the problem.

Yeah, exactly right — that’s a perfectly plausible way to solve the problem. That example and many others caused me to become enamored with that idea of presenting our world in its mostly recognizable form but with a few key points of departure that they got really wrong.

Anyways, when I decided to give the movie a “right before WWII” theme, that dictated it’d be in the late 30s. The war started in 1939 so I thought “okay, I’ll just place it in 1938” — and things developed from there.

As you’re describing: one distinctive part of Future ‘38 is how you’ve created this colorful “retro-future” where there’s iPhones but not-quite-iPhones, computers-but-not-quite computers, and internet-but-not-quite-internet. Tell me more about the creative process behind each of those ideas. Did you just look at an iPhone, and then a magazine from the 30s, and go “hey let’s mash these together”, for instance?

Yeah, that’s basically it. In fact, on the not of the iPhone, I actually found an illustration from the 30s in which two women are looking at what’s recognizably an iPhone, except through a 1930s lens… in fact, I’ll send it to you if you want to show it?

Yeah, that’d be great.

The illustration that Greenberg is referring to (Courtesy of Jamie Greenberg)

Anyways — I come from a sketch comedy background, and in sketch comedy you usually come up with a premise and you find an appealing, humorous way to execute that premise. [In Future ‘38, the premise] and ongoing joke was to give these recognizable things [like iPhones] a slightly skewed presentation… so I just went from there.

iPhones are these things we consider extraordinarily modern. For example, I can tell a movie is from the mid-90s — even if people’s’ clothes and hair aren’t that dated — because they don’t have iPhones; iPhones haven’t taken over their world yet.

If iPhones are unconscious signifiers to us of the sleek 21st century, then sure — god bless them — in the 1930s they would’ve thought of them, but got one thing wrong. And it’d be that Mabel the Operator has to be there.

I watched many films from the 30s and 40s while doing research and, funnily enough, in these movies, you do see computers… or whatever they would’ve called it at the time. However, in the 30s, it didn’t really occur to anyone in mass entertainment that a screen could be an interface to computers.

Instead, they’re always talking to the computer or putting cards into it, and it’s either talking back to you or spitting ticker tape back out. Ticker tape feels so vintage and fun — it makes you think of the Depression, Monopoly Millionaires, Wall Street tycoons receiving key information by ticker tape! So that’s how we came up with the classic, clanking computer in the movie that prints out info on ticker tape.

For the third example, the internet [which is called the “electromesh” in Future ‘38], that’s interesting. Like many writers, I like playing with words. I told myself “well, it’s not going to be ‘internet’, so what will it be”? Well… “electronic”, that’s very modern… but “electro”… that’s very vintage. What’s a synonym for net — well, “mesh” you hear occasionally, and it’s definitely not a common term for the internet. “Electromesh” — that sounds vintage!

Essex and Banky reading ticker tape output from their “Electromesh” connected computer. (Courtesy of Future ’38)

That makes a lot of sense — one thing you were mentioning in passing was about location, and it seems like a good chunk of the film is shot in New York, where you’ve got places like the High Line. Was there a particular motivation behind that, or was that more a practical move? And I think you have a New York area code…

Indeed, I am a lifelong New Yorker. By default, I thought “well, we’ll probably be making this in New York”… so I placed the script in New York.

The scene on the High Line is not actually the High Line! Funny — many, many people think it’s on the High Line, but they don’t think it through! When the two actors are leaning on the fence with the water behind them, you see the New York City skyline behind them. If they were on the High Line, they’d have Jersey in the background!

Still, we did shoot the entire film in the New York area. We did all the principal photography in 15 days. When you only have the actors and crew for that short period of time, location determines everything.

The interiors were shot in the smallest, cheapest studio we could find, which was a converted garage in Long Island City, Queens. Some of our scenes were even shot in rooms that would otherwise be an administrative office, wardrobe, or makeup.

If we wanted to shoot anything outdoors, it had to be walking distance from that studio. We simply couldn’t just go to Times Square or the Middle of Central Park because it’d take hours to bring all our gear, set things up, and then hours to get back.

There was one exception: we shot the scene where Essex and Banky have just gotten changed and are on the way to the German Embassy at Columbus Circle (in Manhattan). There’s also a scene where they’re riding the subway. We literally shot that on the subway ride to and from Columbus Circle, since we were on the damn subway anyways.

So much of making these low-budget independent films is knowing you’ll have limitations left, right, and center, and figuring out how to roll with them — and take advantage of them. Creativity really does thrive on limitation.

One thing I conceived was how Future ‘38 purports to be this “vintage” old movie, like a low-budget Sci-Fi B-movie from the 30s — which allows us to get away with a lot.

Certainly, the way I blocked the actors was as if they were on a stage, where they’re opened up to the camera and standing in a sort of halfway between a profile and facing the camera. Many old movies have that “stagey” blocking, and frankly they did it for the same reason we did it: It’s quicker and cheaper to film.

You can shoot more in a wide shot and, when you go in for a closeup, you don’t have to go over each actor’s shoulder. That’s the modern way of shooting a conversation between two people, but it also means you have to build more set for the background of the shot.

So that worked out on two levels — it was easier to shoot, and it conveniently felt more “period” as well.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Future 38

Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the intro of Future ’38. (Courtesy of Future ’38)

Despite the budget constraints… one thing that you WERE able to do is get Neil DeGrasse Tyson to make an intro in Future ‘38’s very first scene — how’d you get him to come on board?

That was a huge score for us. We had a connection with him because Robert Miller, the genius musician who did the score for our film, also scores the big planetarium shows at the Hayden Planetarium. Neil DeGrasse Tyson runs the Planetarium and is the voice of all the big shows.

We shot the whole film not knowing who’d do the introduction. We also didn’t know who’d be the phone operator either, who’s played by Sean Young of Blade Runner (in which she plays the dark-haired replicant).

In both of those cases, someone in the production happened to know them personally. For Sean Young, it was our wardrobe designer, Michael Bevins. Anyways, Robert Miller managed to contact Neil DeGrasse Tyson for us, and Tyson said he’d be interested in doing it.

We shot the whole thing in about an hour — he was really gracious and easygoing, and I was delighted and amazed he was willing to do it with such a playful yet straight face. It was a wonderful experience to work with someone who’s a strong voice for science and rationality, which everyday becomes more important in our culture.

Sean Young as Mabel the Operator in Future ’38. (Courtesy of Future ’38)

Well, I have to ask: Future ‘38 is about thwarting Nazis… did come about because of today’s political climate, or is that just a convenient coincidence?

Ha, the fact of the matter is that these damn independent films take so long to get going that, when I first wrote Future ‘38, there was no Trump on the horizon yet. I wrote the film over four years ago.

I’ve had people express similar points though. Somebody at a festival Q&A got up and said: “Often, movies about the future present a really dark, dystopian future. It seems like things are politically dark in this country now; did you intentionally make a movie that actually presents a cheery, positive, lighthearted future to be the opposite?”

I said I didn’t, because when I wrote it I didn’t know what would be going on. But I certainly was aware that movies about the future tend to be rather dark, cold, and metallic — like Blade Runner or Robocop. I just wanted to make something that was technicolor romantic and silly, to take people for a fun and colorful ride. Oh, and I wanted to inspire a bit more appreciation of those great screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s.

Well, do you think we might be on the cusp for a renaissance for screwball comedies?

From your mouth to god’s ears — I hope so! Last night’s vote [Doug Jones defeating Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election] was a little bit encouraging, I guess.

But frankly, no. I find it a really discouraging time in this country. I think doors have been opened, and I don’t know how they’ll be closed. I think a democracy requires a little bit of responsibility and participation.

I don’t mean handing out leaflets: I mean intellectual rigor and intellectual participation with the real world. And a little education — not necessarily in schools, but a little education from sources that are in some way reliable and objective.

We don’t have the patience for that anymore in this country. It’s a terrible terrible thing to say, but I’ve started to think that we don’t really deserve the franchise. We’re too unserious as a country at this point.

By the way… one sentence ago I was saying all i wanted to do was make the world silly and sunny, and now I’m saying that everybody’s going to lose the franchise. I don’t know what that says about me! That’s a sidebar, but I find it a very very discouraging time

I’ll follow this up with a lighter question then: before directing features , you were a writer for shows like Arthur, Dragon Tales, Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego, and a bunch of MTV specials — how do you think that’s influenced your approach to directing and filmmaking in general?

It didn’t teach me how to make a film. As a TV writer, you’re strong on the writing and conceptal side, but you’re not part of any of the directing or the nuts and bolts of the production. That was all a very steep learning curve.

As you mentioned — I co-created and was a writer, producer, and actor for Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego. I wore many hats on that show. I also wrote for every season of the original show Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego.

Together, that represented seven seasons of bright, colorful, and cartoonish moments. Each moment was like a little sketch: a character would come out, a situation would develop, there’d be a funny little journey, and then the situation would resolve itself.

I have no doubt that my time in TV helped me figure out how to write compelling scenes. TV, particularly game shows, also helped me become less fussy about my writing. In Carmen Sandiego, we’d do 65 shows per season — so all the writers just had to crank things out.

But in a bigger sense: the gentleness and love in Carmen Sandiego probably spoke to Future ‘38. Even if it’s not a film for kids, I think there’s a gentleness to it, and we’ve been finding that children really like it. The film’s not risque — yes, there’s some double entendres but that goes right by kids, and the rest of it is silly and cartoony. There’s a beautiful heroine and a dashing but funny hero. I’ve been unintentionally gratified that kids are responding well to it, and that probably connects back to my work in children’s’ TV in some unconscious way.

On the note of cranking things out: Besides ensuring Future ‘38 gets distributed far and wide… do you have any other projects in the works?

Yes, I’m starting to write my next film. One thing I liked about Future ‘38 was how it takes you to a vivid, consistent world of its own. I’m not going to go into what the next idea is, but it’s also a surreal presentation of the world that has its own consistent, and hopefully very odd and idiosyncratic, quirks.

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Future 38 is now available for streaming on services including Amazon Video and iTunes. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


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