God forbid you call Time Traveler's Wife a sci-fi film

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Jul 4, 2015, 2:21 PM EDT

The movie's about a guy who travels through time.

But director Robert Schwentke wants to make one thing perfectly clear: His upcoming big-screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel The Time Traveler's Wife is not a sci-fi movie. Rather, it's an "epic love story" with "no butterfly effect," and the time-travel aspect is just "a very good metaphor."

Let's ignore the fact that time travel is ALWAYS a metaphor in sci-fi stories. Schwentke's argument is like saying Pirates of the Caribbean isn't really a pirate movie, but whatever.

Set for release on Aug. 14, The Time Traveler's Wife follows the heartbreaking relationship between Clare (Rachel McAdams) and Henry (Eric Bana). The two truly love each other, and they marry and have children, but the catch is this: He's a time traveler who appears and disappears involuntarily.

"At the heart of every time-travel narrative there is a paradox, and at some point you just have to roll with it," Schwentke (Flightplan) said in a group interview on Saturday in New York. "Since [Henry] doesn't really change anything in the past that significantly affects anything but personal choices and personal outcome, we kind of tried to run the other way [from the sci-fi] as fast as we could."

That said, Schwentke, screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and the production team did chart a timeline in order to keep track of Henry's travels and have them make some sense. Schwentke chose not to be a slave to that timeline.

"We had a master document, [but] we committed pretty early on to make a movie where the storyline was independent of the timeline," the director said. "And we actually narrowed it down to dates and sometimes even times of day. We had the master document that we could consult, but even then sometimes there would be things in the frame that didn't belong there."

Some moviegoers, despite how Schwentke feels, will view The Time Traveler's Wife as a sci-fi movie. Regardless of whether the film is a romance with sci-fi or sci-fi with romance, Schwentke realized that the visual effects—specifically the shots of Henry turning up and vanishing—had to be up to snuff in order to sell the story both ways. Creating such effects was an "ever-evolving, ever-mutating, ever-growing organic" process.

"When we edited the movie, we had to do mock-ups for these effects, because we had to decide how long the shots would be, and we had to edit the scenes," Schwentke said. "We didn't have the luxury of having finished visual effects to put in, so we did these really primitive wipes. That's really what they were. [He makes a whooshing sound and makes a wipe-edit gesture with his hand.] And then it was gone."

Schwentke added, "We watched the movie with those effects and realized how very little hinged on these effects being fantastically, wonderfully done. Not that they're not wonderfully done, but we became very aware that we needed to downplay them, that they shouldn't get in the way of anything, so it didn't feel at any turn like you're watching a different movie. I think that's the difficulty with this kind of thing, that you have to somehow figure out how to stay within a very specific tonality, so that people don't sit there and go, 'OK, I have not suspended my disbelief to the degree where I now believe this.' [If that occurs], then you're done, you're cooked, and the movie doesn't work."