Steampunk is a fascinating literary sub-genre, aesthetic, and movement that imagines an alternate future from our Victorian past – one filled with fantastic contraptions, gears, goggles, and the refinement of a bygone era. It’s difficult to define because it encompasses so much, from fun fashion to amazing inventions to intriguing fiction, but one thing is certain: steampunk is growing, and it’s here to stay. It has even made its way into mainstream media – Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series and Teen Wolf‘s new Dread Doctors come to mind.
But what is steampunk, really? Where did it come from? And what does it tell us about not only our past, but our world today? VINTAGE TOMORROWS, a new documentary debuting at San Diego Comic-Con this week, aims to answer these and more questions through interviews with writers, artists, and creators integral to the movement. VINTAGE TOMORROWS originated when director Byrd McDonald went to film a dinner gathering of the steampunk elite as research for the 2013 book of the same name, written by futurist author Brian David Johnson and cultural historian James Carrott. After filming this initial book research, McDonald came on-board to film the feature-length documentary, diving further into the steampunk subculture and exploring its origins in Victorian sci-fi, its ties to the Maker Movement, the adoption of the aesthetic by mainstream culture, and more.
Fangirlish had the chance to view the film and chat with director Byrd McDonald about the complexities of steampunk, the creativity it inspires, and what he hopes viewers – both the initiated and those new to steampunk – will take away from VINTAGE TOMORROWS.
But first, here’s what VINTAGE TOMORROWS is all about:
Steampunk started as a sub-genre of science fiction typified by a fascination with steam-powered machinery and alternative histories, with stories frequently set in Victorian England.
VINTAGE TOMORROWS examines the Steampunk movement’s explosive growth, origins, and cultural significance, from its sci-fi beginnings into an aesthetic and DIY movement that influences art, fashion, design and music globally. Through in-depth interviews with the writers and artists credited with galvanizing the movement and the cultural historians and social scientists investigating the phenomenon, VINTAGE TOMORROWS poses the fundamental question: What does Steampunk tell us about history, community and our complicated relationship with technology?
The movie includes a laundry list of steampunk’s pioneering voices, including writers William Gibson, Sterling, China Miéville, Cherie Priest, Gail Carriger; graphic novelists Paul Guignon and Anina Bennett, musicians Abney Park and Erica “Unwoman” Mulkey, artist/maker Shannon O’Hare and the Neverwas Haul gang, and over 20 other denizens of the subculture.
Interview with Byrd McDonald, Director of ‘Vintage Tomorrows’
Steampunk is seen as an aesthetic, a subculture, and a movement of almost infinite variety. How would you personally define steampunk?
Byrd: It’s so hard to do! Do you have 20 minutes? When I have to get really granular and cellular with the answer, I say steampunk is a literary subgenre – a science fiction subgenre – that is a celebration of Victorian times, retro-futurism. It starts with stories that are set in that time period, and it grows above that based on the aesthetics of that time period. It can be expressed in almost any way that humans communicate or express – it can be clothing, it can be comics… Any variety of storytelling can be steampunk by virtue of playing with that time period. In terms of objects, the Maker Movement – things that people make… Like I said, there’s really no end to it. There’s music, there’s film, there’s comics, there’s video games inspired by it… It’s endless.
It sounds like you first heard of steampunk when you went to film that dinner with the ‘steampunk elite’ for the book version of VINTAGE TOMORROWS. What was your initial reaction to learning of it?
Byrd: I scratched my head, and then after I got off the phone, I googled it and was very intrigued by what I was reading. And then I kept thinking to myself, come on, I must have heard this word before, because I know what cyberpunk is. But I really had not engaged with it. I had not thought of it. I’d seen the aesthetic before – I’d certainly seen movies like ‘Wild Wild West’ and ‘City of Lost Children’ – but I just didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until we were in the dinner and people started walking into that room, and they were dressed up and they were just such an impressive group… I still had maybe my doubts about how interesting what they would have to say might be, because anyone can dress up, I guess. And then they started talking, and I was hooked.
I couldn’t believe the layers to the conversation that happened in that room, and the fact that I was basically at that point hired to come document it as research for a book… I got really lucky because I had an instinct that it would just be kind of cool, and I brought a lot more stuff to film it than I really should have, based on any budget. I brought a guy who had 15 individual microphones, and I was so grateful for that because that is the spine of the film. I mean, everything that we were doing for the next two years of filming – that idea had started at that dinner table. So it was just a really great beginning. It was like, “Wow, I can see an entire film based on what we just did.” When we were cutting it, that dinner party was the spine of the film. It was really great.
Fashion, music, art, writing, and technology are just a few of the essential components of the steampunk subculture. With so much falling under that steampunk banner, was there any element that you wanted to explore for the film but were unable to?
Byrd: I think if I had to pick one… I mean, again, it would be probably impossible -unless it was a miniseries – to cover everything. But being a filmmaker and a film nerd, I wish I could have got film into it. But that would’ve required a lot more access to Hollywood, because you don’t really see a lot of independent steampunk films. It would have been great to interview the filmmakers of ‘City of Lost Children’; it would have been great to interview Scorsese about ‘Hugo,’ which is a beautiful example of steampunk… But [we] didn’t really have the access to that, and I guess that’s my only regret that I have. I wish we could have traveled around the world and seen steampunk as it’s expressed in Europe and Asia, different places like that, because there are movements on almost every continent. But yes, film felt like an, “Aww, next time!”
Where did you travel for the film? It sounds like you went to Seattle and San Francisco for sure.
Byrd: Yeah, we went there. We went to New York a couple of times and shot there. I went to Victoria, Canada. I’m probably forgetting a half dozen places that I’ve been, but it was primarily East and West Coast. We didn’t really do anything in the flyover states.
The Maker Movement is perhaps the most fascinating elements of steampunk, and you highlight a wide variety of inventions and contraptions in the movie. Do you have a favorite among the featured works?
Byrd: Yeah, for sure: the Neverwas Hall. It’s just insanely cool. It’s a house on wheels, and it’s – you, know, it’s a house! There’s a library on it. The guys who made that are just the coolest people. They live to make cool shit, and they do it by dumpster diving and finding things that they can reclaim and repurpose, and what they do is astounding to me. They make sculpture art cars, and I think that stuff is the coolest stuff. They are Burning Man people, and when they initially had built this object, they had no idea that steampunk was a thing. They were cool to become a part of the community, but they’re doing it just because they need to do something. They choose not to be passive; they want to make stuff all the time.
There’s a guy who’s based in Portland who makes the most beautiful goggles – Mac McGowan – I think his work is really stunning. It’s easy to think of goggles as being almost a played-out trope of steampunk, but what he does with them is just beautiful. Those are the objects that come to mind.
The film is not only a profile of what makes steampunk so great, but also some of the criticisms against it, which is something we hadn’t really considered before – things like whether it’s problematic to gloss over the ugly realities of a very real era in the name of a fantastical reimagining of that time. Were you surprised by some of the criticisms that emerged, and where do you stand with those?
Byrd: I was; I had not thought about that very much. I honestly didn’t pay as much attention in history class, if I’m being honest, as I should have, so the great thing about this film is that it was just like going back to school on my turn of the century history. I certainly knew about Imperialism, but had not thought about how that would be factored into steampunk – if it was even being factored into it. When people started saying that, I was like, “Wow, that’s thorny. That’s tricky.”
At the end of the day, after I did an interview with a couple people that brought that up, I started laying down a few of the questions for other people. If somebody was a member of steampunk and they had not thought about that before, nobody was defensive. Everybody was like, “We should talk about that. Let’s have a discourse about that.” Everybody was really interested in grappling with it, you know? And it’s tricky. How do you wear a pith helmet without that being a symbol of oppression? Some people – and it’s in the film, too – when they started thinking that way, they really let go of some of the more painful symbols and let go of their pith helmets.
But I was impressed by everybody in this film – and it’s a bright, liberal, progressive group of people. Nobody wants to be offensive, and if they had not thought about it before, they absolutely seemed as if they were thinking about it after being questioned. I guess the evidence that I have that people were really beginning to wrestle with that, I mean, the first cons we went to, you didn’t hear people talk about that very much. By the end of shooting the film, we went to cons that actually had panels about it. The community is really trying to figure that out and learn from it and figure out a way that they can be more inclusive to all people.
Another thing that you touch on in the film is that steampunk is not only a really fun aesthetic, but it’s also really a movement and a lifestyle that has caused people to learn about history and to learn new skills to create and inspire. What do you think it is about steampunk that is inspiring all of that creative output?
Byrd: I think it all comes back to history. I think people like history and I think people like learning, and we never stop learning. This community – above and beyond dressing up and above and beyond just reading science fiction stories – there’s a lot of evidence that these people just want to do new things that they have not done before. They want to constantly play different personas that they’ve never been before. They want to learn new skills and teach and share, and that’s what community is.
I think that’s what keeps steampunk together as a subculture; it’s that there’s a real opportunity to come together and share. It’s a melting pot of ideas and thoughts and theories, and it’s just a great big opportunity to get your hands dirty. I think as we all become more and more… I don’t want to say sedentary – not everybody is – but we look at our screens a lot of the day. In 2015 more than ever, we have a real need to get off our butts and go out into the yard and make something.
Going off of that, what do you hope viewers will take away from the film – both people who are already in the steampunk movement and casual viewers who have never heard of it before?
Byrd: If you haven’t heard of steampunk before, I hope that what the film does is make people imagine a little bit more broadly what they could be doing with their own coffee time – their own extracurricular time: that there’s an opportunity to do something with that time that you might not have been doing before. As far as people that make and create stuff and create what was not there before, that would be my dream for the general audience member.
If you’re in steampunk and you see the film, I hope people would walk away informed about the complexity of some aspects of it, and I also hope that they would watch the film and figure out a way that we can keep steampunk alive. I’m not a part of the subculture, but I’d love to see it be around for a long, long time, and I think to do that people are gonna have to figure out new ways to use the aesthetic and use the ideas of steampunk in different kinds of settings, in different kinds of stories, and evolve it so it’s not always top hat and goggles.
Whether you’re new to steampunk or an avid member of the subculture, don’t miss the world premiere of VINTAGE TOMORROWS this Saturday, July 11, at San Diego Comic-Con. Join producer and director Byrd McDonald, editor and co-producer Alan Winston, and co-producer Sean Hutchinson, along with other special guests, as they present the final version of the film for the first time. View full screening details and add the premiere to your Comic-Con schedule here.
About Byrd McDonald
Byrd McDonald has written, lensed, directed and edited unique media stories for a range of clients. A graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts by way of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, McDonald worked for Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme from 1994 to 1999, working in development and shepherding features from script to screen. McDonald produced and directed the feature length documentary HAUNTERS, and in 2006, produced the award-winning feature FILM GEEK. McDonald also produced and co-edited the 2008 feature THE AUTEUR, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, and he directed the 2009 award winning short film LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY.