Traveling Through Time at the Speed of Life

Director Liz Manashil on a romance across time ... and Bowie

Allison Tolma , Ray Santiago, and Ann Dowd in Speed of Life, screening as part of Other Worlds' Orbiter series tonight

Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion that the universe has been broken ever since David Bowie died? Liz Manashil, director of time travel romance Speed of Life, has the same feeling.

Her sci-fi-tinged dramedy, which screens tonight as part of Other Worlds' year-round Orbiter series, looks at a classic time travel story from the other side. June (Allison Tolman) gets into an argument with her boyfriend Edward (Ray Santiago) on the day that Bowie died. That's when he falls through a rift in the space-time continuum, and suddenly drops in the same house, 24 years later. For him, it's seconds. For June – now played by The Handmaid's Tale's Ann Dowd – it's been 24 years of waiting and wondering and growing older and having a family and always being plagued by the question of what happened to Edward.

Before tonight's screening, Manahil did a Q&A with the Chronicle about making a film about loss, the world of indie distribution, and, of course, Bowie.

Austin Chronicle: Other Worlds founder Bears Rebecca Fonté is fascinated with time travel films (they even wrote a column on the subject for us). What was the appeal of a time travel story for you, and what was the genesis of the story?

Liz Manashil: Bears wrote an amazing review of my first feature and that's how we met. I've always appreciated that.

Back to your question! Honestly? The time travel and all the sci-fi elements were the hardest part of the movie for me. The original idea for the film was to explore the relationship between loss and regret with regard to romantic relationships. I wrote a script about an older woman who, near death, was being visited by an ambiguous figure who showed up in the form of her dead husband.

I was polishing the script when David Bowie died. I am a big Bowie fan, and his death hit me hard. I got writer's block and was sitting down at my computer. I thought to myself, why not be audacious? Why not write something truly bizarre into the script, because it would be fun! As an exercise to break out of the writer's block. That's how Bowie's death figured so heavily into the beginning of the film and the time travel elements took root instead of the widow plotline I had original wrote. And I really decided to embrace the weirdness. The horror film I wrote morphed into a romantic dramedy with sci-fi elements. I had so much fun with the concept, I let it stay and built a world around it.

AC: Time travel is a potential nightmare for storytellers. There's the approach that films like Prime take, of trying to have watertight cause-and-effect, and the more metaphorical approach of Back to the Future. Most films are somewhere on the scale between the two, and you use it more as a means to a narrative and character end, rather than a strict guide to temporal mechanics. Was it always that way, and did it change at all during writing?

“I was polishing the script when David Bowie died. I am a big Bowie fan, and his death hit me hard. I got writer’s block and was sitting down at my computer. I thought to myself, why not be audacious?”
LM: We watched several time travel movies as research and ultimately landed on the "alternative timeline" argument for our time travel film which was the most flexible solution to allow us to have every character have their own character arc that didn't combust due to the wormhole's existence. Every decision in the script was motivated by emotion and not necessarily physics, which worked well with my style of storytelling. I care a lot about my characters and I'd have a hard time with a character's memory disappearing or a character himself/herself disappearing due to the wormhole's influence.

David Bowie's death created a wormhole in our lead character's apartment because when Bowie died for me, it felt like the world broke. I think I wrote a few different endings (and it could have gone a lot darker) but ultimately I couldn't rob any character in any timeline of the potential for a full life.

AC: Time travel stories also seem to fixate on the person doing the traveling, not the people left behind, and the hole in their lives that they're dealing with. You re-enforce this by having Edward's exit being so abrupt, but what was the appeal of putting the camera primarily on June as she travels through time at the normal rate, not Edward?

LM: I'm more interested in the story of June's loss. The story I was writing was about how it felt to have a romance cut short before it had a chance to fully blossom. Also there are very few instances where we get to follow a single woman over the age of 40 in a fiction film. It was important to me to focus on her story and her acceptance of the loss. I hadn't seen that before.

AC: Ann Dowd, for my money, is one of the great character actors working today, and Allison Tolman is building her reputation fast. But you have to make sure that you have the younger and older version of June feel like the same woman, so what was the casting process for the pair of them?

LM: Honestly? I wish i could take more credit but they are both two of my favorite actors. I just wanted to work with them!! I wasn't completely sold that they looked too much like each other (which I told Allison when I first met her) but the number one comment I get after people screen the film is how much they appreciated that casting choice. We did send Allison early footage of Ann that we shot before Allison came on set but ultimately we all decided that the life before the wormhole and after the wormhole's intrusion in June's life split the character into two anyway. So both actors played the truth of the moments they had, the way they felt was most natural. They're both so stellar (as is the rest of the cast) that it works.

I personally feel the best actor in the whole thing is Sean Wright (he's also my partner, but it's the truth)!

AC: You were the manager over at the Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative, and that's been having ripple effects throughout the industry (Jim Cummings may be the name that comes up the most when I talk to first-time filmmakers), but as a filmmaker yourself, what are you able to apply from that experience to your own film?

LM: Yes! I've left Sundance but was so proud to be associated with that program. I've been working in distribution for... almost 7 years now so I'm constantly confronted with the needs of a healthy release. My first feature (Bread and Butter) had a very very solid successful release with The Orchard (now 1091) but now I'm taking more of a involved role in the release of this film. I'm pitching theatrical engagements and airlines myself and working with and Giant Pictures on digital. Very proud of the team we've built. It's really important for a filmmaker to stay involved to make the best choices for their film. I'm a new mom as well and I still think of my film as my other baby.

Other Worlds Austin presents Speed of Life, Wed. Aug. 28, 7:30pm, Galaxy Highland. Writer/director Liz Manashil will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. Tickets and info at

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Other Worlds, Liz Manashil, Speed of Life, Ann Dowd, Allison Tolman, David Bowie

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