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Somewhere in Time
Remind Me

Somewhere in Time

Never underestimate the power of cable television. This is, perhaps, the greatest lesson the film Somewhere in Time (1980) taught the film industry. The story of a man in the 1980s traveling back in time to be with his true love in the 1910s was not one that generated much interest among critics or audiences during its release in 1980, and it promptly flopped. But the film was fated to have a second life, as the cast and crew would come to find out over the next twenty years.

Christopher Reeve was riding high off the success of Superman (1978) in the late 70s and had his pick of countless film roles for his sophomore effort. Among the flicks he declined were Body Heat (1981), The World According to Garp (1982), and The Bounty (1984) - William Hurt, John Lithgow, and Mel Gibson, respectively, got his leftovers. Reeve, however, was looking for a more sensitive and romantic leading man angle, a role he would find in the character of struggling playwright Richard Collier in Somewhere in Time. He signed on to the project, declaring the story to be "an absolutely honest attempt to create an old-fashioned romance. It's not based on sex or X-rated bedroom scenes." Piety may have been on his mind; at the time, Reeve was receiving some harassment from the press for living with his girlfriend in London and having a child out of wedlock. He would soon travel to Mackinac Island, Michigan, to begin the shooting of the film.

The story of Somewhere in Time is based on Bid Time Return, a novel by Richard Matheson. Matheson, best known as a horror and fantasy writer, also authored The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), I am Legend (1954), which became the basis for two films (The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man, 1971), and, more recently, the screenplay for What Dreams May Come (1998). Matheson was inspired by a chance stop at the opera house in Virginia City, Nevada, during a family trip. A photo of the early 20th century stage actress Maude Adams stirred him to write about a man similarly moved by an old photograph. Despite this story, there are some discrepancies about the movie's true origins as noted by the striking parallels between Bid Time Return and another novel, Time and Again, written five years earlier by Jack Finney. The author of the second book even receives a homage in the film; the professor Collier consults about time travel is named Finney.

In the novel Somewhere in Time, Matheson set the action at the Coronado Hotel in San Diego; due to such obstructions as television antennas, the film's producers looked for an alternate location. They found it on Mackinac Island at the Grand Hotel; the hotel was built in 1887, and the owners reportedly offered the use of the hotel and surrounding grounds for free to the production in exchange for a favorable treatment in the film. Mackinac Island itself fit in very well with the themes of the film; no automobiles are permitted, and the island relies instead on horses or bicycles. The cast and crew of Somewhere in Time each had their own numbered bike, although the use of one vehicle was negotiated successfully for the purposes of transporting equipment only. As Reeve explains in his 1998 biography, Still Me, "We began filming in late May 1979, and the location quickly cast a spell on our entire company. The real world fell away as the story and the setting took hold of us. I've rarely worked on a production that was so relaxed and harmonious. Even the hard-boiled Teamsters and grips from Chicago succumbed to the charms of the island and the mellow atmosphere on the set." What the producers didn't know was that Reeve, an avid pilot, had a small plane hidden on another part of the island; on days off, he, Jane Seymour, and other members of the cast would jet off for secret day trips.

Although Reeve found himself mobbed on the island by Superman-crazed fans (who eventually left him alone after he struck a deal to meet and greet them after the shoot), the rest of the cast quietly went about their business uninterrupted. Jane Seymour, best known up to this point as a Bond girl (from Live and Let Die , 1973), was cast as Elise McKenna, the enchanting young beauty who provides the motivation for Collier's time traveling. When she first met Reeve, she discovered he had been training for the part with a Method acting coach who recommended that Reeve practice writing daily since he was playing an author. Seymour was amused but pointed out to the actor that his character has writer's block, recalling that Reeve "got this funny look on his face; kind of startled, you know? 'You're absolutely right,' he said. 'Let's go have dinner.' And that was the end of the writing." Needless to say, Reeve and Seymour got along famously and generated an undeniable onscreen chemistry together, but their ballroom dancing was another matter; guess who was dubbed "Superfoot" after stepping on his co-star's toes one too many times?

As for the supporting players, Christopher Plummer was featured as McKenna's ambitious and overly protective manager; the Canadian actor was immortalized as the Baron Von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965), while recently appearing in such fare as The Insider (1999), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Nicholas Nickleby (2002). Teresa Wright appears as a previous caretaker for the aging version of McKenna. Wright scored a hat trick with her first three film appearances - The Little Foxes (1941), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and Mrs. Miniver (1942) all earned her Oscar nominations, the last being a Best Supporting Actress win for her. Susan French, who played the elderly version of Elise, is the originator of the funniest moment in production. In the beginning of the film, the old McKenna finds Collier backstage after a 1972 college play. She presses an old pocket watch into his hand, and the script calls for her to say cryptically, "Come back to me." During a take, French reportedly put the watch in Reeve's hand and said, "Have it fixed." That scene, incidentally, features bit parts by two then-unknown actors; George Wendt (Norm) of the television show Cheers fame, and William H. Macy, rising star of such flicks as Fargo (1996) and Magnolia (1999).

Upon the film's descent into post-production, the need to have a moving and effective soundtrack to accompany the action became obvious but due to the modest budget, director Jeannot Szwarc worried about the caliber of talent the film would be able to afford. It was Seymour who would save the day; her friendship with composer John Barry paved the way for his work on the film. Barry agreed to a percentage of the soundtrack sales in lieu of an up-front payment, a wise move: due in large part to its use of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", the score became one the most successfully selling movie soundtracks of all time.

With the release of Somewhere in Time, however, the bubble burst: critics were brutal, with one stating that "Christopher Reeve looks like a helium-filled canary." (Well, the suit was a little tight.) Audiences rejected its uber-romantic premise and gauzy overlay - the movie was actually shot with two different film stocks, one with crisper tones for present day action, the other with softer, sepia tones to reflect the antiquated feel of the 1910's scenes. Universal, its distributor, was thus delighted when a Los Angeles-based cable company purchased the rights to air it. After repeated showings, video rentals began to increase steadily and the film became an underground cult classic, thanks to television. Ironically, ten years after its release, a dedicated fan club sprang up, that continues to hold annual conferences at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac. Both Seymour and Reeve eventually received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, due in part to pressures applied by the Somewhere in Time fan club, called INSITE (International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts!). The film recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary, and continues to grow in popularity worldwide.

Producer: Stephen Deutsch
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Screenplay: Richard Matheson
Art Direction: Mary Ann BiddleCinematography: Isidore Mankofsky
Editing: Jeff Gourson
Music: John Barry
Cast: Christopher Reeve (Richard Collier), Jane Seymour (Elise McKenna), Christopher Plummer (William Fawcett Robinson), Teresa Wright (Laura Roberts), Bill Erwin (Arthur).
C-103m. Letterboxed.

by Eleanor Quin



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