The premise of that film is that Sheila (Cuoco) is living the same day over and over so she can continue to meet and make a romantic connection with Gary (Davidson). It sounds sweet at first: This moment of meeting him was one of the happier moments she has had, so she wants to keep doing it to get it perfectly right. But when you think a little harder (and dig a little deeper, as the film does), you realize the reason she's doing that is because she is afraid that if she moves forward into the next day things will never be as good again.
Yes, Sheila is struggling. In fact, she was planning to commit suicide the night she met Gary, but when she met him she fixated on him and the chance encounter that gave her a glimmer of possibility. And eventually, after reliving the same night dozens of times, she begins to get bored with the sameness and decides to make some changes. The secret to Sheila's ability is that she has learned about a tanning bed time machine in a nail salon, and so, she decides to go a little farther back, to meet Gary at a younger, more impressionable time in his life, to alter the course of his life so that when they meet years later, he's a bit different. But because she confesses to him that she is a time traveler and even reveals the location of the tanning bed, he pulls the same trick on her.
You'd think that around and around they'd go, but at a certain point, they both have enough and end up right back where they started, just with a bit more knowledge of the universe — and each other. And the question becomes, can they learn from that knowledge and their experiences, or are they going to continue to just do the same things over and over again?
Here, Lehman talks to Metacritic about directing Cuoco and Davidson, the important of the time machine being a tanning bed, and the romantic ideal at the end of his film.
You mentioned recently that this movie is Pete unlike we've ever seen him before, but the same might be true of Kaley, too, especially for those who still mostly know her from her sitcom work, despite The Flight Attendant's success. How much of their casting was to intentionally play with the idea of image?
The minute we started casting the role of Sheila, we knew that was like a Ferrari: She does everything and she turns on a dime, and there's just no limit really on her just because she's so manic and and she's so down. And so, we wanted someone that clearly has great comedic timing, and Kaley comes from that school from doing The Big Bang Theory and those shows deliver comedy on a stopwatch; you can time it the way you can time a professional football player releasing a football. But then also, you're looking at this woman who's a control freak — obviously she's controlling her life and this other guy's life — and I look at Kaley, and — I say this with all the respect in the world — she is uber-Type A: There's a reason that she's not only been successful but now is building a little empire for herself. The minute I met her, I saw how she could relate to the character and also how she could laugh at the character.
And then on the Pete end, obviously everybody's always trying to figure out, why does every woman fall in love with him? We all want to save him; you meet him and you're like, "I want to hug you and save you; I see this really beautiful soul, this sweet child that's behind this guy who's got some demons." Truly, Pete wants to take care of other people and he wants to stop getting in his own way, and so, he was the perfect Gary, in that way. There is a lot of sweetness, but he's a magnet for someone trying to fix him, which Sheila is.
I do a lot of improv in all my films. It's a great script, but we explore where it connects to them personally, and so, having Gary tell Sheila why she shouldn't kill herself — why she should power on, why she should face these demons and look towards tomorrow — it gets a little dark, it gets a little deep, but you're getting a really intimate look at Pete's own struggles and how he overcomes certain things.
That Sheila is putting so much on Gary and this particular night says a lot about how much she's not looking inward to deal with her issues. What were the conversations you had with Noga about how to explore the why behind that?
Without giving away too many of the tricks in the process, the original script wasn't quite the same and I did have some questions as to the why. It was a wonderful collaboration with Noga, who clearly had an amazing script from the get go. This happens, I think, with a lot of films, but the process ends up being meta of the film itself — when everybody's really bringing their truest self to it and it feels like an honest film.
That being said, when you were working with Kaley on the end of the film, how did you work out if the audience would need to see something click in Sheila to see a true change or if she's just ready to take a chance that something could change?
As there's mental illness there and things that she doesn't like about herself, the biggest thing is the fear of tomorrow, which I think is relatable, especially now. Everything feels like it's on the edge, and so, it would be great to go to yesterday and face whatever horrible things gonna happen tomorrow — especially if you're not willing to relinquish the control.
It's for Sheila's character to show that she's willing to take whatever is going to come because she finally believes that this person is going to stand next to her no matter what it is that comes. That's romance, right? That is the romantic ideal. It's not that they're going to be perfect or that we're going to change them or that it's happily ever after, but the idea that someone has proven their commitment and their understanding of how imperfect we are and promises to face tomorrow with us, no matter what is, I think, a very empowering thing.
You think you can change somebody or you think you might even heal somebody, which feels like such an altruistic concept, but at the end of the day, you can hold their hand and say, "I will stand by you while you heal yourself."
Looking at the production of the film, focusing only on two main actors is always an intense schedule, add in night shoots and it becomes more complicated. But you also have characters going to the same locations, and wearing the same clothes because it's ultimately the same night. Sheila is in such a bright, sunny dress that is clearly the opposite of how she felt on that first night when this all started — until she met Gary. How did you and the costume designer Michelle Li work out what she should wear?
I love that you asked about the dress because if there's one place I don't feel confident whatsoever it's costuming or in dresses, but I had this amazing costume designer; I'd met her on my previous film Acidman, and she had dialed in this yellow gingham type idea pretty early on, with the subtlest nod to Dorothy [from The Wizard of Oz]. She's a genius. She had all these different options she bought and she showed me a couple and I was like, "They all look pretty great to me." And then it was like a week before shooting she tells me, "I hate them all. We're designing something completely original," which scared the bejesus out of me because I don't know how easy or hard it is to design a dress. But they designed that dress and and showed it to Kaley, and Kaley loved it, and I think it's a unique dress and thank goodness that Michelle was wanting to take this swing because it is going to be on screen for so long.
Why was a tanning bed the right device for a time machine, and how many of the effects were done practically with lighting changes on set?
The tanning bed was a conversion that, the production designer Laura Miller and our cinematographer John Matysiak collaborated on. We replaced the tanning bed tubes so that we didn't give everybody cancer, and we wanted it to look cool and be able to control the lighting. There were conversations about giving it a whole bunch of wires and panels and whatever, but lo-fi felt like the way to go. I remember seeing Hot Tub Time Machine when it came out and that felt like such a great move. And it's one of those places we get to where we're like, it's not broken, you know?
At the same time, the tanning bed is more about establishing it as June's world and leaning into how fantastic [actor] Deborah Craig was. I think she basically sells it: Whatever is happening in that in that nail salon, it's because of her words and her attitude. So, it could have been a washing machine or an iron or a microwave time machine and June would have sold it.
Sheila seems to know a lot about time travel concerns, namely existing in a past time period with another version of herself. She makes it a point to start her day by hitting her other self with her car, but is she dead every time, or is there a chance that she is still existing in this world and it doesn't affect things and maybe Sheila didn't have to do that?
That sounds good to me. Here's the deal with the whole multiple timelines of it all: There used to be a little bit more time travel and alternate timeline stuff [in the script], but we were either going to make the production office our time-tracker with a bunch of red yarn and consult with an astrophysicist every week, or we could make two or three dumb jokes that say like, "Time, what are the rules? Who cares?" By trying to simplify and not making too many rules and depending on them for the plot, we then had this freedom of making an emotional time travel story than it is a "Why did this happen?" kind of thing.
But it says a lot about where Sheila is at the start of this and still is at the end that she continues to try to kill that version of herself. Like, "She was miserable, I hate her, I should put her out of her misery." That is what that version of Sheila wanted.
In that regard, she is very committed to killing her. As we see in one of the times, she's running over and she realizes she's got to back over her and hit her again. Sheila's was clearly struggling with being difficult with herself versus allowing herself to be OK to exist. You're basically pitching a great sequel, which is that just at least one day in the hundreds or thousands of times that this has happened she was either forgiving enough of herself in an instant to let that person go be herself, and she might be, like, fishing on a pontoon in Indonesia. That's a really romantic idea; that's a really beautiful thought, actually.
When Gary goes back in time, although he goes back further than he planned, he seems to learn a lot about Sheila and himself in a very short time. What did you and Pete discuss regarding how much Sheila actually needed to change him by the end of the film?
We talked about how passive Gary was and how much of a reactive character he was, which is why Sheila was probably drawn to him in the first place: He's malleable. There were originally some some gags about him getting back together with Amber and things like that. And as much as we're avoiding the rom-com genre or trying to subvert it in ways, it is ultimately following certain rules [of it[, such as when two people do intersect at the right time and have an impact on each other, they cause growth. So, he's challenged to be proactive, towards the end of the film, and that's clearly what he needed to be for her. So, I think, if she doesn't come across his life, he's probably going to be a reactive guy for at least quite a while; it maybe takes him another 10 years to learn the lesson that he learned that day.
I think you were kidding before about me pitching a sequel, but in all seriousness, have you discussed a franchise here, where maybe it's learning the origins of the machine and June obtaining it, or just learning about who else June steers toward it?
To be honest, we've still talked about them mostly through through the story of Gary and Sheila. I think that June has to be a part of it no matter what; she's just a revelation both on the page and then again once Deborah showed up she elevated that character. I think you just pitched two great movies. But honestly the sequel that we were looking at was more like Back to the Future sequel where it's 10 years later and they realize their life is not the authentic life that they thought.
That is the interesting thread at the end of the film: Even though Sheila took a chance and moved forward, and they want to try to date each other, there's always the question of, if something isn't going right in their relationship, or just in their everyday life, one of them could go back in time and try to change something and the other would have no idea.
It gets heady, for sure, if you try to track it all with red yarn, but the most important part is the trust element. How do you trust someone? Just because you say, "Let's do this" doesn't mean that 10. years from now, you're not like, "Have you really been taken out the trash or have you been manipulating me this whole time?"
Get to know Alex Lehman:
In 2016, Lehman directed his first two features: the scripted Blue Jay (Metascore: 69) and the documentary Asperger's Are Us. The latter ended up spawning a six-part docuseries titled On Tour With Asperger's Are Us, further chronicling the titular comedy troupe's endeavors. He also wrote and directed indie films Paddleton (Metascore: 70) and Acidman.