About Time: How a Movie About Love Actually Gets Time-Travel Right

In a roundabout sort of way, the British comedy achieves a cinematic first

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Murray Close / Universal Pictures

[ WARNING: This post contains plot details about the new movie About Time, but only details that are already clear if you watch the trailer closely. ]

Movies about time travel don’t generally strive for scientific accuracy, and About Time (opening in limited release Nov. 1) is, for the most part, no exception. The film, about a young man who uses his temporal gifts to help him find love, doesn’t even bother to worry about how or why this particular family happens to have this particular trait.

But that doesn’t mean that writer-director Richard Curtis — the man behind Four Weddings and a FuneralNotting Hill and Love Actually — didn’t put a lot of thought into the mechanisms and consequences of such fantastical abilities. The filmmaker has actually written about time travel before (for the TV shows Blackadder and Dr. Who) and has been thinking about the story of About Time since 2005.

(READ: Richard Corliss’ review of ‘About Time’)

“I gave a lot of thought to it. Whether I gave the right thought to it I’m not sure,” Curtis tells TIME. “It’s a long journey when you start to think about time travel.”

The actual “how” of About Time‘s vision of time travel was, for Curtis, just a matter of instinct: of course, if you had that ability (achieved by closing your eyes and clenching your fists) you would want to do it by going somewhere nobody could see you. And, as with most time-travel stories, About Time worries about Back to the Future‘s “ripple effect,” whereby fixing a small thing in the past leads to great changes in the future. But Curtis also knew that, despite the movie’s title, it wouldn’t be your typical time-travel film. About Time would be a movie about how to be happy.

(MORE: Helen Fielding Returns with Bridget Jones)

And, in making a movie in which time-travel is just secondary to happiness, Curtis just happened to stumble on what may well be a scientifically accurate cinematic vision of time manipulation — a rarity in film history.

To be fair, that’s because Curtis’ vision, in the end, ends up involving time perception rather than time travel. As Tim, the protagonist, says in the narration of the trailer, what really matters is to live every day fully, even if you have the ability to live them multiple times. “I was trying to make a movie about how to be happy, and I know the answer to how to be happy is not traveling through time,” Curtis explains. “It’s actually relishing our time.”

The movie was largely inspired by a philosophical conversation Curtis had with a friend, about how they were spending their lives. They realized, Curtis said, that their younger selves would have thought that gambling in Monte Carlo and dating a supermodel would have been the ultimate happiness, but that their current selves wanted a more everyday sort of happiness. “Actually, we were living about as happy lives as we could and we weren’t as happy as we should be,” he recalls. “I remember walking home that day and thinking how beautiful it is where I live. I’d never paid attention. I always thought, ‘Oh God, I’m late,’ or, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow?’ I started that day taking this film seriously.”

While the neurological functions that help us measure time are not entirely understood by scientists, current leading theories match up with Curtis’ instinct. In her book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (published in May), science writer Claudia Hammond discusses the possibility that our brains measure time against their own activity. The very simplified version of the theory is this: when children learn to determine how much time has passed — not learning to read a clock, but learning to know what it feels like when about a minute has passed — they may do so by comparing our artificial units, like minutes and seconds, to the amount of brain energy expended during those periods. So if your brain “fires” just so many times in what you learn to call a minute, the next time your brain fires that many times it feels like a minute has passed.

(MORE: Helen Fielding Returns with Bridget Jones)

Things get interesting, however, because that unit of measure isn’t always accurate. The brain is more active when it’s working harder: for example, when confronted with something new or exciting. That means that, even if you think that a minute equals “x” bits of brain activity, those “x” brainwaves happen in a shorter period of time if the brain is very active and a longer period of time if the brain is inactive — which means that an active minute feels like it has many minute’s worth of brainpower, whereas a boring minute feels like it has only a fraction of a minute’s worth.

Thus, the active minute feels longer and the inactive minute feels shorter, when you look back at what happened. (Yes, this seems to contradict “time flies when you’re having fun,” but that has to do with the difference between perceiving time as it passes and perceiving time in retrospect; Hammond’s book spends lots of time explaining what she calls the “holiday paradox” and is worth a read for those curious about the psychology.)

What does all of that mean for About Time and Richard Curtis? It means that “relishing our time” actually does make every day seem to expand. Mindfulness — paying attention to life, to things like the beauty of the place where you live, in Curtis’ case — is, according to this particular time theory, one of the ways to make the brain more active, thus slowing time. Life, the theory goes, really does seem longer if you pay more attention to it. Though Curtis was unaware of the scientific ideas he was agreeing with, About Time directly addresses what it takes to pay that attention. And, though the rest of us can’t be like Tim, squeezing our eyes shut to return to the moment before we said an embarrassing thing, we can all make our days seem to encompass more than a measly 24 hours.

That includes Richard Curtis. “I’m not going to direct another film,” he says, “and the reason for that is in order to have more nice days.” Curtis says he plans to continue writing, something he can do more flexibly, and maybe learn how to speak French or cook. If he can make his life feel richer and thus longer, there won’t be a need to worry about traveling through time — not that there aren’t a few things he wouldn’t mind changing.

“When I was little, the Beatles came to Sweden where I was living and I didn’t buy any tickets. I ended up standing in the snow outside a hotel for a whole day waiting for them to come out on the balcony,” he says. “I’d get my Beatles tickets. I don’t think that would mess up the rest of my life.”

(MORE: Curtis and four of his stars discuss love with TIME)

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