Geoff Marslett found cinema through science. During the 1990s he worked as a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory before turning his hand to filmmaking. Over the last 22 years, Marslett has made a number of short and feature films while also teaching, first at The University of Texas at Austin, and currently at the University of Colorado Boulder.
With Quantum Cowboys, Marslett’s latest film, he was able to combine both of these interests. A love letter to quantum physics, animation and music, the Colorado-filmed feature is an old-fashioned Western about two hapless but charming drifters, Frank (Kiowa Gordon) and Bruno (John Way), who team up with Linde (Lily Gladstone), as they travel across southern Arizona in the 1870s.
That’s only one aspect of the film, though. Marslett uses a variety of different animation techniques to tell the story, while also combining Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Theory, Erwin Schrödinger’s Paradox of Quantum Superposition and Richard Feynman’s Posterior and Anterior Time Wave Theory to suggest that human memory is only comprehensible through art.
“I wanted to make a film that found some way to try and illustrate how intoxicating knowledge that’s contrary to your senses can be,” Marslett says. “My hope is someone gets to the end of this film and realizes that two opposing ideas are true at the same time, depending on who’s looking at something. That’s the way science works and how we make breakthroughs. That’s the way arguments between people work, that’s the way history works. I hope people will rethink how they look at history, especially the West.”
Turning his pages of handwritten notes and ideas into the script for Quantum Cowboys proved to be quite a challenge for Marslett. “What I really leaned on with the film was anchoring [my thoughts] on the three really charismatic leads,” he says. “The big ideas are there, but I wanted to focus on Frank and Bruno’s friendship and how Linde fit into the story.”
Marslett, who moved to Boulder at the end of 2015 when he became the faculty director for CU Boulder’s narrative film production program, took great joy in shooting Quantum Cowboys in the city. Since he knew most of the film was going to be animated, he was able to film in a large barn using a giant green screen with the help of his students.
At the same time, Marslett quickly learned during Quantum Cowboys’ 18-day shoot why Colorado has failed to blossom into a destination for independent filmmakers.
“The weather’s not very cooperative,” he says. “We shot in October 2019, when the average temperature was supposed to be 62 degrees. For the first two and half weeks of shooting, it didn’t even break freezing once. Plus, we had no heat or cooling in the barn.”
Marslett regularly had to wake up before sunrise to sweep away snow that had fallen overnight. Luckily, Quantum Cowboys’ elite cast, which also includes David Arquette, Gary Farmer, Anna Karina, Alex Cox and Frank Mosley, were amenable to these conditions.
The editing process was similarly exhausting for Marslett. Extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was able to use CU’s equipment and support to complete the film, as he collaborated with his animation team of roughly 65 artists located across the globe. This meant he was working until 4:30 a.m. and then waking up to teach classes for two and a half years straight.
“The downside is there’s really not enough time in the day. The upside is that it makes you better in the classroom,” he says. “If you’re making things, you’re encountering the same challenges that the students hope to face. So you can bring real world experience.”
Unsurprisingly, Marslett is already planning ahead to his next movie, which will be a sequel to Quantum Cowboys that focuses on Arquette’s Colfax. In fact, he actually sees the film as the first part of a trilogy, with the final installment telling Linde’s full story.
“We’ve had a really good response to the film so far. I’m hoping to get some decent distribution,” he says. “If we do that, my next project will be the sequels. I have written outlines for part two and part three, and that’s what I would really like to do next. They’d turn this story on its head as you see it from another perspective.”
Whatever happens, though, Marslett is delighted to have directed some of his cinematic heroes in Quantum Cowboys. Gary Farmer’s Powwow Highway and Dead Man, Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell, and Anna Karina’s Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou each inspired Marslett to become a director.
“We do this because we want to make something new and because we want to make something that’s really personal to us,” he says. “But getting to have my own cinematic heroes act in my film was just — I mean, who gets to do that? It was all a dream come true.”
ON SCREEN: Quantum Cowboys screening with director Geoff Marslett. 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, Muenzinger Auditorium (CU-Boulder), 1905 Colorado Ave.