Don't do the crime if you can't do the time travel could be the motto of Mega Time Squad's cheerfully inept hero, Johnny. He's a small-time crook living in Thames, who chances upon a time-travel device and decides to bumble his way through a badly thought-out crime and the dimension of time.

With its idiosyncratic humour and quirky take on time travel, this no-budget indie movie is destined to become a Kiwi cult favourite. It's a lot of fun and very funny as Johnny repeatedly jumps back in time to help himself get out of the trouble he can't help getting himself into.

The origins of the movie, however, were a lot more ... X-rated.

"At first Mega Time Squad was about a guy who had just been through a very bad break up and then found a time travel thing and went back in time to help himself get through the breakup," Tim van Dammen, the movie's writer/director, says.

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This sounds innocent enough. He continues.

"But then he jacked himself off. Then he got real embarrassed about it. So he went back in time again to stop himself from jacking his other self off. And then there becomes this love triangle so he goes back in time to stop them from getting into fights. It kept going from there. He kept multiplying himself."

Even now, van Dammen is laughing so hard he can barely get through his sentence.

"I was like, 'this is super funny but nobody's going to want to watch this f***ing big wank movie."

He was probably right. Realising some changes were needed, van Dammen ripped it up and started again. And again. And again.

In a process that reminds of Bill Murray's time-travel classic Groundhog Day, van Dammen moved to Thames to live with his parents and spent two years endlessly exploring his time-travel premise - a guy goes back in time to help himself do something - shifting it into various genres and tones with each rewrite.

"I kept working on it until I thought it was good enough to go and make."

He estimates Mega Time Squad went through 30-40 rewrites, with a good two-thirds of those being full, ground-up rewrites. During this process the movie evolved from its beginnings as a 90-minute joke, to a tense crime thriller to the winking comedy it is now.

"I had ended up with this thriller and the idea is so stupid that it needed to be a comedy. I couldn't expect people to be invested at that thriller level. It needed to be knowing about what it is. That's when I started rewriting drafts as comedies and that's when it really started to come together."

Time travel is a notoriously tricky concept to get right. There have to be consistent rules - don't step on a butterfly, don't interact with your past self for example - that van Dammen both adheres too and gleefully subverts as countless Johnnys, the titular squad, conspire together to get the cash, get the girl and get away. And if you get a bit lost as to which Johnny is which, well, that's kind of the point.

"I did that on purpose," van Dammen admits. "We travel with him the first couple of times and then he f***s up the time travelling and we don't quite know who we're with anymore. I know who we're with and I had a whole plot around that, but I just got rid of it. It wasn't funny and just felt like explaining. We all know how time travel works.

"I didn't want to make a movie where you follow the same guy over and over. I see it less as a movie about time travel than a movie about a guy who's trying and just f***s it all up. It's more about him then it is about time travel."

It may be low-budget - "I'm getting a poster design now which is going to cost about a quarter of the budget of the movie. To give you an idea of how little we had to work with," he says - but it looks a million dollars. The special effects of countless Johnnys interacting together are seamless and its choice of Thames as its setting was inspired and, for van Dammen - who spent his formative years there - inspiring.

"Some crazy shit used to go down," he laughs. "But I wrote it when I was spending a lot of time with my dad and his mates and it's how we all talked to each other.

"It was so poetically vulgar. I was like, 'I'm writing all this shit down'."


LOWDOWN:
Who: Writer/director Tim van Dammen
What: The time travel, crime-caper Mega Time Squad
When: Screening Sunday as part of the Film Festival