Starting in 1977, a 17 year old Sam Klemke decided to record and narrate his entire life. Using Klemke’s footage and director Matthew Bate’s ability to turn over 120 hours of footage into a beautiful and honest feature film, the two have collaborated to create Sam Klemke’s Time Machine. Matthew Bate’s (Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure) second feature is an archive of a fascinating time in history connected through Klemke’s video diary entries. Fresh from its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Sam Klemke’s Time Machine is a bizarre, free-wheeling and unclassifiable non-fiction portrait of an extra-ordinary nobody.
ROOFTOP FILMS: What about Klemke’s work drew you to this project?
MATTHEW BATE: When I look back at the films I have made I realize that I am unconsciously drawn to people who are making art outside of the mainstream. These people are often struggling or unrecognized artists or people who don’t consider themselves artists at all. For whatever reason – I feel like championing them – raising them up by shining a light into these strange corners of pop culture. I found Sam on Facebook – which seems entirely appropriate for a man who has been status updating his life for over 40 years. A friend of mine posted his viral video 35 Years Back Through Time – which shows him growing from this schlubby 50-something back to a lithe, good looking teenager. Something struck me about the profound nature of the video – what it said to me about my own life and mortality. And of course he seemed like a pioneer social media narcissist long before the Internet and ‘selfies’ ever existed. I immediately wrote to Sam via his Youtube site and we struck up a friendship online – and it just went from there.
You managed to edit 120 hours worth of footage down to a 90-minute film. What was your process in selecting what to include in the final product? Was there any notable footage that wasn’t included?
We started by creating these epic decade long timelines, starting in the early 60’s and going through to now. Of course when you get through the film formats into video you start to get a LOT more footage. We also created Sam Klemke’s life timeline on paper, colour-coded by life events – and this paper stretched across our entire studio wall. From there it was a matter of whittling it down – finding great moments that spoke to us and often trying to find themes and patterns across his life that we could revisit through time. There is always that moment in a film where you end up killing off one of your favourite scenes – and for me there was this one moment where Sam is at his lowest ebb. He’s in this shitty motel, the TV programming finishes and cuts to static and he just heavy sighs at the camera and goes into this monologue about how fucked up he is. His voice has lost all its timbre, he’s got a clicky knee, he’s just slept with a prostitute and eaten too much food and he’s stuck in some little town and is desperately lonely – and he talks about it in such a raw and honest way that its heartbreaking. But we cut it because it worked better without it, and it killed me. But there’s a bunch of great stuff. Watch out for it as a DVD extra!
At one point towards the beginning of the film Klemke asks, “if you don’t produce creativity, are you truly creative?” Do you see his filming as something creative in itself despite it being just a full archive of his life before the editing?
Sam wanted to be a great filmmaker like his heroes Orson Welles or Woody Allen. And my take on his filmed life is that he succeeded in becoming a great filmmaker. What he did is completely unique – and I think of his filmed life like a punk Citizen Kane – a life portrait made literally in his bedroom across 50 odd years. I use the word punk a lot – for me its not about safety pins and mohawks more about a raw, DIY aesthetic where things are created outside of a mainstream or an industry. I love music and art made like this – you might call it outsider art. I wanted to celebrate his achievement by making this epic home movie with him.
Klemke speaks about a focus on “truth.” Do you think The Documentary is the most “truthful” form of filmmaking. Can a Fictional Narrative ever be “truthful?”
Thats a tough one. Its a slippery idea, truth. I’m personally drawn to real stories – ‘truth’ is always stranger than fiction. When I was making Shut Up Little Man! I remember thinking that the audio those guys recorded could never have been written, even if you had an army of Hollywood scriptwriters. How could you write the line ‘If you wanna talk to me then shut your fucking mouth’….Of course fictional narratives find truths about life and the human experience, but when you see it happening for real there is an immediacy and empathy that transcends acting and make up.
The parallel between the NASA archive videos and Klemke’s footage worked really beautifully! What initially gave you the idea for that?
I struggled for a long time with this film – specifically about how to say all of the things I wanted to explore without actually saying it. I hated the idea of making a film where some doc-maker stumbles across this guys archive and narrates the film. I am a record collector and I had always been interested in the “Voyager Golden Record” – NASA’s great mixed tape that was sent to an alien disco in a galaxy far far away. So they were separate film ideas. It occurred to me that Sam and Voyager both ‘launched’ in 1977 – (Sam began his project to do a yearly status report that year) and both were portraits of the human experience. I wanted to make a film about self portraiture – which in the age of the selfie and the Facebook timeline seemed very relevant. So through the telling of the Voyager story I could explore ideas about recording, documentation, time, portraiture and so on and have these ideas echo across to Sam’s parallel storyline.