Jack the Ripper, H.G. Wells and, Nearly, Mick Jagger: 'Time After Time' Stars on a Curious Film, 40 Years Later

Time After Time Collage - H - 2019

Mary Steenburgen, Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and director Nicholas Meyer recall the winding journey to the big screen in 1979: "I thought, 'My career's done.'"

Mary Steenburgen likes to say the 1980 Jonathan Demme comedy Melvin and Howard gave her an Oscar, but the romantic fantasy thriller Time After Time was "even better. It’s definitely been the most generous of my movies. It gave me two children, so it’s definitely number one."

The Nicholas Meyer film starred Malcolm McDowell as famed science fiction writer H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, who travels to the future to capture his good friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), who uses an actual time machine, built by Wells, to escape when it’s discovered he’s Jack the Ripper. Wells finds himself a fish out of water when he arrives in 1979 San Francisco tracking down his old friend. Steenburgen plays Amy, a bank employee who helps and falls in love with Wells.

Reel-life turned into real-life: Steenburgen and McDowell fell in love during the production, married in 1980 and had two children, Lily and film director Charlie, before they divorced in 1990. Both actors remarried — Steenburgen to Ted Danson — and remain close, with the actress describing McDowell as one of her great friends. "I love Malcolm."

Ahead of Time After Time's 40th anniversary on Sept. 28, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with stars Steenburgen, McDowell and Warner as well as director Meyer about the film's winding journey to the big screen — from optioning the book, to casting against type and deciding against having one notable Rolling Stone play the Ripper — and its underwhelming reception, at first. 

McDowell wasn’t Meyer’s first choice for Time After Time. He originally envisioning British actor Derek Jacobi — who was then enjoying acclaim for the British series I, Claudius — as the charming, bespectacled Wells. "I was looking for a non-muscle-bound, spandex-clad hero," says Meyer, who made his feature directorial debut with Time After Time. "I was looking for somebody who was cerebrally endowed," Meyer adds. "I wasn’t looking for a macho guy. I was willing to cast against type if I could. We now think of I, Claudius as a classic. But when I brought it up to Warner Bros., nobody had seen it. Nobody knew who he was." It was one of his 3 a.m. brainstorms that led him to McDowell. "I remember sitting bolt upright [and thinking,] 'Now, that’s a weird notion.'"

McDowell had come to fame a decade earlier in Lindsay Anderson’s X-rated if... as the teenage rebel Mick Travis and then solidified his career in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 X-rated A Clockwork Orange as the anti-social Alex, the leader of the brutal gang called “the Droogs.” One of the classic’s most disturbing scenes depicts Alex raping a woman to Gene Kelly’s cheery version of “Singin’ in the Rain.” 

“When I raised the idea of him with Warner Bros., they said they knew who he was, but he always played the villain. I said, ‘Well, that’s what’s going to be so interesting. This is called acting. This time, he’ll play the hero.”’

Warner Bros. also was pushing for Mick Jagger to play Jack the Ripper. "I thought no one would lose themselves in the movie [if Jagger were cast]," says Meyer. "We’d be watching Mick Jagger, not the Ripper."

Time After Time came at the exact right time for McDowell, who had been working for over a year on Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione’s production of the atrocious, sexually explicit Caligula.

"Caligula was a traumatic experience," McDowell recalls. "It was really horrible. I was cast by [screenwriter] Gore Vidal, and then, of course, Gore removed himself. I said to him, ‘Thanks very much. You’ve taken your name off of it. Now I’m stuck with it.’ I was looking for a change of pace."

McDowell mused that he was relieved that Meyer didn’t ask him to play Jack the Ripper. “My old friend from my Stratford days, David Warner, played the Ripper and I thought was absolutely brilliant.”

The filmmaker recalls that initially McDowell was worried about his character wearing glasses because he acted with his eyes. "I said, 'Your eyes will be on full display, trust me. If anything, [they'll be] magnified.' So, he rolled the dice."

Meyer first came to fame in 1974 for his best-selling Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Two years later, he adapted his book for the Herbert Ross-directed film and earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.

When the book was published, Meyer heard from a lot of people including Karl Alexander, whom he knew from his days at the University of Iowa. Alexander had started a book inspired by The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and wanted Meyer to read the 65 pages he had written revolving around Wells and Jack the Ripper time traveling.

Meyer loved the idea of H.G. Wells creating a real time machine and having Jack the Ripper and Wells using it. "That was back in the days when I had time to read other people’s stuff," Meyer recalls. "I was fascinated by it. I had some thoughts. I gave him some notes about it. I thought I was putting it out of my mind and then realized as days and then weeks were going by, that it was an idea I really couldn’t let go."

And he had one of this middle of the night brainstorms telling himself, "You’re an idiot! Why don’t you just option what he wrote?" Meyer gave Alexander the completed script and the novelist utilized the script to complete his novel Time After Time, which was published in April 1979. 

Meyer hooked up with producer Herb Jaffe. "When Universal had optioned The Seven-Per-Cent Solution book, they optioned it on condition that I write the screenplay," Meyer says. "I just took the same idea and stepped it up one and said, 'Yes, you can have the screenplay, but I have to direct the movie. Orion and Warner Bros. said yes more or less on the same day. They teamed up and split it, with Warner Bros. getting to distribute.”

Steenburgen had only made one film, Jack Nicholson’s yet-to-be-released 1978 Western comedy Goin’ South when Meyer cast her in the film. “When I auditioned her, I hadn’t seen any of her work in the other film,” he says, describing the actress as a brunette “Jean Arthur.”

“He hadn’t cast the part until quite later on,” recalls McDowell. “I think I’d already ensconced myself somewhere in Beverly Hills in a rented house. I finally met her; she was a hot young actress whose film hadn’t opened yet. She was the next breakout star to come along kind of thing. We got along very well, and the rest is history, as they say. She was wonderful in the movie.”

The cast all gave high marks to Meyer as a director. “I remember him saying — he did it in front of the whole crew — 'Listen, you all know I haven’t directed a movie before,'" recalls Warner. "'So you know more about making movies than I do. I love movies. If there’s any suggestions or anything you see me doing that you think isn’t quite right, please tell me. Don’t be afraid to tell me.' I really liked him for that. I really respected him. He didn’t pretend he knew everything, which is a very good quality, I think."

McDowell and Steenburgen ooze chemistry as Wells and Amy, but the scenes between Warner and McDowell are brilliantly horrifying, especially the sequence in Warner’s hotel room. Wells had believed that by 1979 the world would be a utopian paradise, but the Ripper shows him on his hotel television the overabundance of violence, war and destruction. Wells is horrified. "He’s mocking me for being such an innocent," says McDowell. "It’s such a great scene."

The Ripper is in his element. "I said, 'Then I was a freak and today I’m an amateur' because all of these horrible, horrendous things going on,'" adds Warner.

Meyer got the legendary three-time Oscar winner (Ben-Hur, A Double Life, Spellbound) Miklos Rozsa to compose the lush, evocative score and dusted off the classic Max Steiner-penned “Fanfare” to play over the Warner Bros. logo.

"I thought to myself, 'This movie should have a musical accompaniment that reflects the personality of the protagonist,'" recalls Meyer. "The protagonist is a 19th century person. So, I was thinking, obviously, not of a rock and roll score. When I started to think about composers who would fill the bill, I was also looking for someone who had a gift for the fantastic. I loved the Rozsa score for The Thief of Bagdad and thought, 'Yeah, this might be a winning combination.'"

But his glorious score was almost scrapped. "By the time it came toward preview time and mixing the movie, we had heard that Warner Bros. didn’t like the film. They didn’t believe in the film. And one other thing we kept hearing was that they wanted Bill Conti (Rocky, The Right Stuff) to write another score for it.”

Meyer told Jaffe that they should take an ad out in the Hollywood trade papers to announce how much they loved Rosza’s score. "Why don’t we write Mickey a letter telling him how great his score is and then publish the letter? Herb Jaffe’s comment was 'You’re learning.' We published the letter and then they really couldn’t take [the score] away."

Still, when it came time to preview the film in Woodland Hills, Meyer felt like he was going to his execution. "They couldn’t be bothered to go out of town for a preview," he remembers. "A lot of executives didn’t bother to show up. I really felt very fatalistic about the whole undertaking. I thought, 'My career’s done.'"

Meyer sat behind McDowell and Steenburgen. And when the Warner Bros. logo popped up onscreen with the venerable "Fanfare," the audience went nuts. "It played like I was having a disembodied experience," Meyer recalled. "They just loved it. My executive, who is no longer alive, had been brandishing a long sheaf of notes in front of me before the screening. At the end, he looked at me across the theater and threw up his notes in the air like confetti."

Despite the preview response and generally getting positive reviews — THR critic and columnist Robert Osborne wrote at the time that "such a scrambling of fact, fiction and imagination in itself deserves back-patting and, for the most part, the rendering is as delightful as the basic idea" — audiences didn’t storm the theaters. The film made only $13 million at the box office (about $45 million today).

"If they were an underconfident before the screening, they became overconfident after the screening," says Meyer. "They suddenly decided to open the movie really, really wide. They didn’t have the stars that would support that, and they weren’t giving it time for word of mouth to build. It was a success, it just wasn’t a huge success."

McDowell believes the box office suffered at the time because advertising played up the Jack the Ripper storyline and not the love story. Earlier that year the grisly Holmes and Watson mystery thriller Murder by Decree had a Ripper plotline. "Our movie came out on the tail end of that, and nobody went to see that," he speculates. 

Murder by Decree was largely forgotten, but not Time After Time, which has steadily built a following. "Through the years, the film has become a fan favorite simply because, thank goodness, of DVD," says McDowell. (In 2017, ABC tried to reboot the concept with a series featuring the same name, but it was canceled after just five episodes and low ratings.)

McDowell says fans are now always talking to him about the movie. "They love this film," he notes. "They just love this film. I am so grateful for that."