Though it doesn’t happen until “Sam Klemke’s Time Machine” is almost over, it is a fitting introduction to Matthew Bate and Sam Klemke to see that when they meet each other for the first time in person, they’re both aiming cameras at each other. However, in this scenario, it is the director of the film who has spent far less time behind the camera — or in front of it, for that matter.
After the Australian filmmaker Bate redefined the position with his first feature “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure” that used recordings of a pair of San Franciscans whose drunken arguments became the stuff of legend to build a different kind of biography, he found a worthy encore in the story of Klemke, an American who regularly filed “personal status reports” starting in 1977 that detailed the small-scale happenings in his life, making ends meet as a caricature artist. Klemke’s life would seem unexceptional except for his willingness to share it with the world, collecting footage of himself through various highs and lows, not thinking to turn the camera off when he begins soliciting prostitutes or becomes addicted to prozac or leaving it on as he finds love (again and again) on the road.
In 2011, Klemke compiled his footage into a six-minute clip that became a viral sensation on YouTube, yet other than capturing the fluctuations in his weight and facial hair, this would hardly do justice to the hundred of hours of self-documentation. Thankfully, Bate is able to give the gregarious Klemke the film he deserves, spending the four years after Klemke found internet fame to show even that a life that seems mundane on the surface can be transcendent when experienced in whole. But Bate goes even further than just putting Klemke’s personal history in the proper human context, paralleling his travels to that of the Voyager space mission that was launched the same year as Klemke began to film himself. The result is unexpectedly moving and as the film becomes available for the world to see online, Bate spoke about how he first came across Klemke’s video, how the experience of making the film has been one of opposites attracting and how the story grew to intergalactic proportions with the inclusion of the Voyager mission.
You actually show how you met Sam Klemke in the film, but how did you first stumble across the YouTube clip that led to your meeting?
This friend of mine on Facebook posted Sam’s original video [“35 Years Backward Through Time”] and when I saw this guy’s life flash before me, I saw my own life flash before me as well and reflected through him. It just said something to me about life in the universe. I actually thought it was going to be a short film, but my producer Bec [Summerton] pushed and pushed that it was a feature film, and of course, she was right. I reached out to Sam and once he’d seen this other film I’d made, “Shut Up Little Man,” which he really liked, he trusted me to make this film with him, and he’d just send me hundreds of hours of his life on these hard drives. We would just get them in the [mail], open them up and just go through this guy’s recorded existence. There was something about it that was so epic, so raw and real. I tend to make a lot of films with archival footage with other people’s archives, so this just felt like a complete treasure trove to me.
Like “Shut Up Little Man,” this takes previously recorded personal history and turns it into something different – was that actually something you wanted to repeat?
It’s funny because I look back at the three last features that we’ve made at Closer [Productions] and for some reason, they’ve all been about recording. “Shut Up Little Man” was, obviously, and “52 Tuesdays” had this recording element, and actually, a time element as well, but no, it wasn’t like that at all. I’m just attracted to pop culture and the excavation of these kind of [stories] where if you dig and dig and dig deeper, they reveal a lot more. My ears are always attuned to just … I don’t know how to even describe it. It’s like hearing music, you either love it or you hate it.
Even though you had seen the short, what was it like to meet Sam in person and then really get to know him through these hundreds of hours of footage?
It was interesting. As you saw in the film, I see him and I’m like, “God, you just walked off a VHS tape.” I’d seen these incredibly raw and real moments [on the video] — like reading someone’s [diary], but it was much more than that because the visual side of it is a completely other dimension, so to see this guy walking around in three dimensions was quite interesting. He and I are also very, very different people. I’m a bit of an anal clean freak and Sam, as you saw in the film, is a total slob, so after three weeks on the road, we were rubbing each other up the wrong way. He’s just spent five weeks in Australia and it’s funny how different we are. We’re out to dinner and I’m trying to teach him how to use a knife and fork and being sort of parental, yet the great irony, of course, is that I made this film about him where I celebrate his character and his foibles and so on.
How did the Voyager mission come about as a parallel to Sam’s story?
All my films have to prove themselves to me in some way that they are worthy of a feature film because you work for years on these things. I had this separate idea about the Voyager on the Golden Record [a series of albums that were carried on the spacecraft to reflect life on Earth]. I’m a record collector in real life and Voyager has always obsessed me because [the Golden Record] is the ultimate [album] you can never collect. I was juggling it with the Sam Klemke idea at the same time, and they just coalesced in my mind. Both launched in 1977 and in a sense, they were traveling through time together. As I thought about it more, both were portraits in a way —the Voyager obviously is a portrait of humanity and Sam Klemke has created a portrait of what it means to be human. There were things about time and memory [in Sam’s story] and I didn’t want to be a 2014 filmmaker who’s like, “Oh, I discovered a guy on YouTube and now I’m going to make a film about him.” I thought that was going to be really awful, so I invented this character called Laveria, a slightly pretentious French philosophical filmmaker who allowed me to time travel in my own film. I could go back to 1977 in the guise of this retro filmmaker and talk about Voyager, but also talk about Sam and contextualize and frame his life.
The film plays out chronologically, but you’re able to flip back and forth in bursts that liven it up. How did you find that editing rhythm?
The whole film was quite tough because we have this enormous iceberg of footage. The original bio-video is five minutes long, then of course, I ended up playing with over 200 hours of footage, so it literally started by assembling these decade-long timelines and just trying to find rhythms, ideas and repetition and culling things unnecessary. The beauty of the French filmmaker and the Voyager was that we were able to write the Voyager around Sam’s life and say whatever we wanted to say at whatever point we wanted to say it, so if Sam’s at his lowest ebb, we knew we could have some of the music from Voyager play — [it has the] track, “Dark Was the Night,” [where] you jump from the motel room into deep space with this melancholic blues music — at that very moment. In fact, every single piece of music in the whole film is actually however many billions of light years or kilometers away from Earth, so every single piece in the film is from the Golden Record. It gave us this beautiful framework.
The film also seems to coalesce around the loves in Sam’s life. Did those relationships become a natural entry point to build around?
The loves were a great one because it did allow you in at certain points. We do this montage where we see like eight girlfriends in a row, so you see an entire love life. If you look back at your own love life, it sums up time really well. I can mark my own life by my girlfriends — I know that particular period — so they’re very convenient time markers, but also for Sam, whose life was not filled with great achievements, let’s say, these are significant moments in his life. When he meets Esther in particular, this very Jewish looking woman with her glasses [who is the opposite of who he’s dated before], that’s almost a monolithic moment. His whole life turned around at that point and she changed him completely.
Would you actually have to go back and permission from these people who were in the videos? Some of those relationships don’t seem like they turned out so well and there’s some compromising footage.
Yeah, [Esther] was a big one. I pleaded with her because it was such a turning point. As we have with our former lovers, I think they weren’t getting along as much. There wasn’t a great amount of bad blood, but there were some leftover issues of some kind, so I definitely had to work very hard to convince [some of them] to be in a film. He’s still in contact with all these people, so it was either yes or no. Will you be in the film? Yes? Good, sign the [release] form.
It may have been just my impression, but did Sam actually shoot less footage as time went on? It seemed like the years got shorter.
Quite the contrary, actually. If you think about it, [with] Super 8, you get a three-minute reel, and when video appears, he’s really shooting a lot more footage, so we actually sped up time there because there wasn’t a lot going on in his life, so we just raced through. In the 2000s or post 9-11, things also tend to ramp up and life is moving a bit quicker because technology is making our lives speedier, so It worked filmically. Also, we wanted to push you towards that ending. By that stage, we felt we need to get on with breaking the film open and getting towards us, the filmmakers, appearing in the film.
Was that an easy decision for you to make, to include yourselves?
No. The more you talk about a film or you make a film, the more it reveals itself. We realized that actually this is a film in a way about truths. What we love about Sam’s footage is its honesty. In the age of the selfie and the edited social media profile, he was a guy that was willing to bear his all, literally. Then of course, you have the themes of truth in the Voyager [mission]. Why do we send this edited version of ourselves on the Golden Record, which in a way is the ultimate selfie — like who curated the Golden Record? It’s their version of humanity — their version of you and I — that was sent, not our version, NASA’s version. So we felt we had to reveal the film you’ve been watching all along is curated by these Australian filmmakers, and we had to show our hand.
What’s it been like to spend the last few months with Sam, watching as he has an audience for his life?
I like punk rock and I don’t mean necessarily like the mohawk, safety pin punk, although I do love that particular iteration, but punk in a do-it-yourself, outside the mainstream kind of punk, and I think that’s Sam. What he did was incredibly punk. He’s said that he wanted to be Orson Welles because he’s a great hero and he’s failed as a filmmaker, but actually what I saw [in] this homemade video diary is this portrait of humanity, so I just recognized beauty in it and to be able to travel around with him and take him to Sundance — and I’ve sent him to London and New York and all sorts of places — I think has been really amazing for him. He trusted us to use his material to tell a story and maybe the payback has been that we may have changed or enriched his life in some way, so it’s been fun to raise this extraordinary nobody literally into the cosmos.