Time is a flat circle in André Chocron’s Chronos. Marking his first narrative short after a career playing around with different aspects of time in music videos for London Grammar and Michael Paskalev, Chronos is a new and ambitious departure for the Norwegian director. We talked to him about the film’s one-take structure, the rules of time travel and the added benefit of shooting on film!
How did the concept for the film come about?
This is my first narrative short since I went to film school ten years ago. Since then I’ve been working mostly in promos. But while I was doing commercials and music videos I embraced this idea of beginning with the conceptual aspect — how the camera moves and the technical set up — before I figure out what’s in the actual video…
So the camera work came first here?
Yes, but it changed a lot. First of all, I had the concept of doing a one-shot. I used to do a lot of one-shots for music videos. I made one video with London Grammar with motion control years ago — I wanted to do the same thing but with a narrative story around it. When I tried to find a story that would fit around these kind of visuals, the time idea came easily as motion control is really useful when you want to repeat the same move many times. It expanded really fast from there with the time travel concept. But then we abandoned the motional control idea so the narrative led the camera and not the other way around.
How many cuts were involved in the final edit?
There are three cuts. We had three days of shooting and each day is one round going from the door to the door. Then the story repeats itself with different outcomes, so each of the repetitions is a new day. It was really challenging because we didn’t have a lot of time to prep this. We had sixteen actors and a really big crew and one week to do everything. Monday and Tuesday were rehearsals and technical stuff; we shot on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
How hard was it to get everyone to hit their marks? Was it difficult trying to get things to sync up?
This part sort of worked by itself. On Monday we did a lot of rehearsals working through the script. We didn’t change anything after that. The day after everything fell into place in terms of the script and blocking. Once that was set they pretty much did the exact same thing on every take. They were only in this for a week but every single one of them came on set and knew the thing by heart; so it was really easy to shape their scenes and performances.
What was it like shooting the film on 16mm especially knowing that if you screw up a take it could be costly?
With 16mm you get 11 minutes out of a reel, so we knew we had 10.5 minutes for each of the scenes. Working on film is quite economical when it comes to shooting one-shots because you can’t use a lot of film anyway. It’s not like a conventional film with several set ups and different angles where you constantly worry about shooting too much. I think we had ten reels for each day, but we only used five because that’s what we had the time to do. So I think shooting on film for something like this is not as irresponsible as it may seem. It also helps because for the whole team, “turning over” means something. It’s not like digital where you shoot every rehearsal. Once you’re starting to shoot, this is a take. It makes things more serious. Everyone is much more focused and dedicated.
Working on film is quite economical when it comes to shooting one-shots because you can’t use a lot of film anyway.
Was there any stress about messing up a take given the time constraints for shooting?
Strangely enough, we weren’t ever too worried about that. The grip was so good. We shot on a technocrane which could manoeuvre around these impossible corners. The grip came on the first day and set up his dolly, and when we started shooting we knew he was going to manage. This was good because I could focus on everything else.
Additionally, when you shoot these long takes, the worst case is that it can be more about making the shot work than actually achieving the best possible take you can get. When you shoot a shot-reverse scene, you can just repeat parts of the dialogue over and over until you’re happy with it, but when you shoot a long take you have to get everything in that one take. A lot of the time you’re just happy with the whole even though there are parts where you are not happy. Obviously, that happened here as well, but not as much as I feared.
The style of the movie really suits the theme of time-travel and recurrence but with different variations. But whether it’s Back to the Future or Avengers: Endgame, the time travel genre is fraught with paradoxes. Only Primer really goes deep into the physics side, but even that film doesn’t really make any sense. How did you tackle these paradoxes?
One of the first things you have to do when you work with time travel is decide how it works in your universe. There are different routes you can go and almost all of them have different paradoxes or problems that appear. For example in Back to The Future, you can go back in time and change the outcome, but it’s not on a quantum mechanical level. They go back in time and they change stuff and his parents still meet and conceive him which is physically impossible when you think about it. Then you have the third Harry Potter film where they go back in time but it turns out they were always there, so it’s more like a single universe theory where everything that happened will always happen no matter what will happen in the past. So you have those and then you have Avengers, which I only saw once, but interpreted as them just trying to seem really smart and that time travel is impossible and you can’t change the past — but then you can, you just have to reset everything after you change the past, which doesn’t really make sense. But it’s fun to watch.
One of the first things you have to do when you work with time travel is decide how it works in your universe.
I think every time you make a time travel piece of fiction you have to show the audience that you considered this and that; and, because everyone knows it’s not possible anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I did see Primer too but I felt like they got too much into the physics part of it so I didn’t follow the narrative of it in the end.
It went totally over my heard.
And I was ashamed because it was kind of a cool premise for a film. But to answer your question a bit more specifically, I just decided very early on a theory which is: every time you go back, you go back to an instant in time and the second you do that, the timeline sort of splits and you’re now working in an alternative version of the original timeline. So you never actually change the original timeline; it’s like when you’re writing in a word document and you make changes and you Save As… then go back and edit stuff. The original document is not changed. So the Grandfather Paradox won’t happen, because you can go back to kill your grandfather and you won’t be born in that timeline, but you were born in the original timeline which you didn’t change. So there’s no return ticket: you can’t go back to the original timeline once you do this.
The pub in this film looks amazing! Tell me about the location.
We were supposed to build it in a studio and shoot it in Oslo. But I happened to mention the film to my Executive Producer in the UK and he said: “We have loads of empty pubs everywhere.” So we found one in the Isle of Dogs that had been empty for two or three years. The building was supposed to be torn down so we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. We just treated it like a studio. It’s gone now unfortunately.
We’ve talked a lot about time, but the look of the film feels semi-timeless — like it could be anything between the 30s and 60s. Did you want to create a midcentury feel?
The idea is that it takes place in a kind of timeless universe, that it’s up to each viewer to decide when it’s taking place. But there are no cues within the film itself as to when it’s actually happening. So this can happen in the future, where headscarves are back in fashion and everyone left their iPhones at home. But it’s definitely 60s and 70s inspired: we wanted to find both the set design and wardrobe looking back around fifty years while also seeing what we could still wear today in order to create this sense of timelessness.
Are you looking to explore these themes further in your future work?
I definitely want to take it further! I’m working on a web series right now which has ten minute episodes, also taking place in a pub — as that’s apparently the only place I make films — in Oslo, where each episode is named after a different character. Here each episode is a one-shot and you sort of see the same thing from different perspectives. It all leads up to this incident taking place. But without time travel and science-fiction! Now I just need to figure out what the stories are.