‘Needle in a Timestack’ uses its story to remind us of what’s important

Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. in 'Needle in a Timestack.'
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In a world where time-travel technologies are available, four lives are altered in a film that explores love, time and a few ideologies in between. However,  ‘Needle in a Timestack’ is not a sci-fi adventure… more so,  it’s a film with science fiction tendencies that are saddled in reality.

From writer/director John Ridley (’12 Years A Slave’) ‘Needle in a Timestack’  follows Nick and Janine (Oscar nominees Leslie Odom, Jr. and Cynthia Erivo) who in the beginning of the story are living in marital bliss, until Janine’s ex-husband (Orlando Bloom) warps time to try to tear them apart using Nick’s college girlfriend (Frieda Pinto). Nick’s memory fades as time goes on and as situations play out, time and love also begin to dwindle. As audiences, we see those properties we all wonder about love and time (the fleeting nature, the unpredictability, the meaning) put center stage, and what Ridley does so beautifully is leave most of it up to our own interpretation.

Originally based on an 11-page short story from writer Robert Silverberg, Ridley sat down to discuss what went into making his latest feature.

‘Needle in a Timestack’Provided

What was it about Robert Silverberg’s short story that really interested you?

The story was really powerful to me in particular in two ways: One, Mr. Silverberg never tried to explain time travel in the story… It’s a story about technology that existed and we have to wrap our lives around that new technology. At the same time he never explained love—this sense, this feeling that all of us have. You can walk by 100, 200 people in a day and feel nothing and [with] one person you glance at, there’s something that you feel and there’s something that you carry. For everybody, it can be completely different, but for each individual, it’s very special.

So, to read a story that doesn’t try to explain time travel, that doesn’t try to explain love—it really combines these two. What happens when our lives maybe change a little bit? What happens when a relationship falls apart but we look back and wonder what would have happened if I remained with this person or what would have happened if I did things differently? What would happen if I could be with that person again? All of that speculation, but a nexus around genuine feelings and love and compassion and caring, all where there was really no bad guy. What I appreciated about this story, [the] relationships do change and there was a maturity to that. Yes, there’s that aspirational hope for everybody where it’s true love and we’ll always be together, but I did feel like the story was also mature and if you want a fairytale ending sometimes it takes work. Sometimes you have to be realistic about what relationships are and all of that in 11 pages.

I just thought it as [one of] the most sublime, intelligent, mature forms of storytelling. Certainly, when I read it, in my mind they were characters of color. I created that story in my mind, so it was something that stayed with me for years and years. It really is one of the most special stories that I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with and I’ve been very fortunate in my career…So to be able to say that about this film, it really says a lot.

When you were deciding to take this short-story and make it into a movie, what were some facets/characteristics that you kept and what did you add in?

I really wanted to keep as much as possible within the story. Sometimes in Hollywood, we get a little arrogant… There’s a piece of material that comes our way and you think oh, I love it—but I can make it better. Or, it works on the page but it will never work in the movie so we need to change everything. I’ve never quite understood that philosophy. There are things I wanted to add to give it running time that would be worthy of people’s time and attention, but it wasn’t about changing things….maybe expanding, maybe exploring things or exploring relationships.

In this film, Leslie Odom’s character has a sister (Jaden Wong). What’s her life like? How do her relationships change due to time travel around them? So, it’s not about looking at a story—whether it’s this or ’12 Years A Slave’—and going well, it’s good but I’m going to change everything because I’m a great, great writer and therefore I need to change these things to show my greatness. To me, really respecting a story and respecting what’s there, respecting what’s on the page and respecting what you care about is not changing those things but embracing them, excavating them, honoring them and doing what you can to take that original material and put it in front of an audience who you hope will feel the same way about it that one did when they read that material in the first place.

Orlando Bloom and Frieda Pinto in ‘Needle in a Timestack’Provided

Love and time are the pillars of this story. What roles would you say they play into ‘Needle in a Timestack?’

I’ll be honest, I don’t think I can explain this film much better than you just did—It’s about love, it’s about time and there are no two things that are more important to us. Time is limited, we like to think maybe we’ll get 70,80 years on this planet, but we don’t know. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring and with the last year in our collective existence if anyone doubted that, it’s shown that. Time in life, time in work, time in general.

Some people might come out of the last year and think I’m so happy to be back out in the world, I’ve realized the things I’ve missed. Some people might say you know what, I hated my job, I realize that now and I’d rather be home and be with my family. Do I tell somebody I love them? This argument that I had, is it worth the stress knowing what tomorrow will bring or knowing that I may not see this person tomorrow? So, love and time is what this film is about. It’s guided in science fiction but it’s set in reality. The reality is that we don’t have as much time as we think and we need to embrace love more than sometimes we acknowledge.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film? Is most of it open to interpretation?

Well absolutely. If you look at the end of the film, we didn’t declare what the ending was. We left it to the audience. I generally respect audiences and the people who know my work at this point, they know it’s going to challenge. They know that it’s going to be an attempt at unique filmmaking—I’m not going to say I’m a unique filmmaker, but absolutely, every time I go out there I’m going to try and challenge folks. So, it wasn’t a film about trying to preach and say here’s the message and here’s what you need to take away. I don’t want to tell an audience anything, but I hope they feel many things. Some of those things you and I talked about with time and relationships.

Orlando (Bloom) has a line in the film and he’s very, very wealthy in this film: “The only thing more fleeting than time is happiness.” It’a really powerful line to me and I try to tell my own kids that. Money alone is not what makes us happy. You can have everything in the world, but if you don’t have special people then you haven’t built those really quality relationships—not just quantity, but quality. Then ultimately, what are any of us doing with the time that we have? It’s those things. I wanted to create a film where you could walk away feeling that emotionally and hopefully a sense of beautiful things.

The only thing that was more important to me, particularly with the year we’ve had, is doing that all with a BIPOC cast. Saying that these feelings, these thoughts, these yearnings and searchings—those are true for anybody and everybody. And not to preach it—sometimes the most powerful way to say things is to not say it at all. It’s there, it exists, you’re going to enjoy this film at all then you need to acknowledge certain elements…if not, that’s on you but we’re not slowing down for any demographic. We’re there for anybody who has the capacity to really engage in a film and story like this, and not my story but Mr. Silverberg’s amazing short story.

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‘Needle in a Timestack’ releases in theaters, On Demand & digital on Oct. 15 and on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 19.

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