Watch a clip from "Conversations with God"
Stephen Simon had a promising career as a Hollywood producer--whose credits included "What Dreams May Come"--before walking away from it all and moving to Oregon in 2001. Fed up with the direction Hollywood was going and the difficulties making spiritually focused films, Simon instead founded the DVD club Spiritual Cinema Circle in 2004. Now Spiritual Cinema Circle has produced its first original film, which is opening this weekend in theaters: an adaptation of Neale Donald Walsch's bestselling "Conversations with God," which Simon directed and produced. Simon spoke to Beliefnet about the project, his unorthodox career choices, and the state of filmmaking in Hollywood.
What attracted you to this project?
I've always been fascinated by spiritual material, obviously, going back to "Somewhere in Time," the first film that I ever produced, and then, "What Dreams May Come." Movies that have a spiritual content have always been the things that have fascinated me. It's why we founded the Spiritual Cinema Circle.
So, certainly, these are all aspects of things that have been a part of my life forever. I grew up loving movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Lost Horizons" and things like that.
So the fact that this ["Conversations with God"] is a wonderful new way of looking at our relationship with God and our very definition of God was fascinating to me. But if you read any of the books, they obviously do not lend themselves to being cinematic in and of themselves, because they are dialogues between Neale and God. As a matter of fact, a couple of friends of mine asked me, when they found out I was doing this, "What is the film going to be, 'My Dinner with God?'"
And, the answer is no. Once I started to get to know Neale [Donald Walsch, author of "Conversations with God"], it became very clear to me that if there was ever going to be a film out of this material, using the grid of Neale's life--his life as a homeless person--would be a wonderful way to put the film together from a structure standpoint.
The Spiritual Cinema Circle launched in the spring of 2004. And it became so successful so quickly that by November of 2004 we decided that we wanted to get into film production. That's when we went to Neale and made a deal for the rights and started to develop the project.
Neale's experiences as a homeless man, living in a park, in a tent, collecting cans with a broken neck, and how he transcended that and transformed his life into being one of success and joy, that's a metaphor for everyone who has gone through a dark night, everyone who has looked into the abyss and found a way to transcend that.
"Conversations with God" was such a huge bestseller as a book. Why wasn't this made as a big Hollywood movie?
What Neale usually says is that he did get inquiries from Hollywood, and he did have discussions with people. But Neale was always very concerned that the film based on the book not be Hollywoodized. And no one really had ever come to him saying "we can actually finance this movie and this is the way we want to do it" in a way that he would trust, until such time as I sat down with him in November of 2004 and said, "Look, the Spiritual Cinema Circle has become successful, we can make a deal with you and we can make the film."
And I gave Neale a lot of assurances that because the Spiritual Cinema Circle was going to be financing it, we would not have any outside influences trying to water down the project or to, as Neale puts it, to Hollywoodize it.
What would a Hollywood treatment of a story like this be?
Good question. I don't know because I've divorced myself from that process over the last five years since I left Hollywood. I can make some guesses that they would have had a lot of problems dealing with the way he talks to God and God talks back. I think they would have tried to make that in a way in which it doesn't look so direct.
I know we would have not been able to cast Henry Czerny as the lead. And Henry did such a brilliant job of being in the film. I think if we had been in Hollywood, it would have been, no, you need to get somebody with marquis value, you need to get somebody who sells a lot of video units in Germany and, by the way, you need to have a big supporting cast of recognizable people so we can put it on a marquis. I know the casting would have been a very different process.
And I don’t think we would have been able to make the film as deeply spiritual as it is. Having made films like that in Hollywood, let me just tell you, I had a six-week argument with Polygram, which was the company that financed "What Dreams May Come," about the word "consciousness," because they thought consciousness was too difficult a word and they wanted us to use the word awareness.
That's the way Hollywood looks at spiritual material. And by the way, that is not to make them bad and wrong. It really isn't. Hollywood is not in the business of making spiritual films. I don't think they particularly understand or care about that audience. They have a different business model.