2016-06-30
Conversations With God
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. 
I just think, when you try to put this [spiritual material] into that process, it winds up getting ground up pretty good. And it's one of the reasons that I left five years ago. I left Los Angeles and I left the traditional film business and I moved to Oregon. And I frankly, at that point, wasn't sure if I'd ever make another film. But I knew that I couldn’t stay in L.A. and do things the traditional way. I just couldn't do it any more.

Could you talk a little bit more about that decision?

I couldn't get anything done that I wanted to get done. Nobody really wanted to hear about story-based spiritual films. I shepherded "What Dreams May Come" for 20 years. And the only way that film ever got made finally was because a wonderful man named Ted Field, who had a company at that time called Interscope, championed the film and got Polygram to put up the money for it. But the only way Polygram agreed to do it is if we got a major movie star like Robin Williams, who we wound up getting, and the film wound up being wildly expensive.

That is the way Hollywood looks at this kind of material. And I don't see it that way. I see spiritual cinema as the 21st century version of Shamanic storytelling--a shaman standing around a campfire, passing down the myths of a culture from one generation to another. And today, that shaman can very well be a filmmaker and the light of the fire can actually be the light of a projector on a screen.

That, to me, is what storytelling is all about. It's what Hollywood used to be about. It's about telling stories. It's about a director not getting in the way of the story.

I don't want to make movies with big movie stars and have them take over the screen. I don't want to do movies with huge special effects budgets any more. I just want to tell stories.

And there's so many wonderful stories to be told. So that's why I don't think Hollywood gets this. And it's okay because that puts it in the hands of independent filmmakers and independent film distributors around the world to get these films out there. This is very much the wave of the future, I think.

You mentioned that it used to be different in Hollywood. What changed?

I think the corporate takeover of Hollywood has been horrendous for creativity and for risk taking. It used to be that the people who ran the studios were people who had moviemaking in their souls, in their guts. They had a passion for making film. And that's what they did. And they loved it. And they took chances. They took risks. And if they wanted to make a risky movie, they would say to their marketing department, "Guys, you figure out a way to sell this, we're making this movie."

What's happened with the corporate takeover of Hollywood is that international corporations now are running the process. In most cases, they bought the studios for an enormous amount of money. Corporate managers are making many more of the decisions today than people on the creative side. And because there has been such an emphasis on movie stars and huge budgets, it now costs about $100 million on average to produce and market a typical studio film.

Because of that, they're in the business of doing huge blockbusters. And they want movies that they can merchandise at Burger King and movies that'll have sequels. And they have totally focused on a young demographic. There's nothing wrong with those films. We live in a capitalistic society. And if the studios want to make those movies and people want to pay to go see them, they should. However, what's happened is a lot of people have been disenfranchised by the studios. And that's where we find ourselves today. 

And do you think it's changing at all?

No.

But we hear about Fox Faith and the huge success of "The Passion"...

I don't think the major Hollywood studios are going to be successful at doing this unless they have people running the show who really get it. And the people at Fox Faith very well may get it. I know a couple of the people there and they're very, very smart people. And they may very well be able to do that.

But that's a very traditionally Christian religious type of filmmaking. And I respect that. But, when it comes to movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Field of Dreams" or "Whale Rider" or the films that I was involved with, "Somewhere in Time" and "What Dreams May Come," are they going to make those on a consistent basis? No.

And that's fine. It really is fine. It's one of the reasons that we're so hopeful that "Conversations with God" will be successful financially in theaters, because then it will say to future financiers and future distributors that there is an audience for films like this and people will come out and see them.

Neale and I were in Chicago, and there was a story in one of the local newspapers that a theater owner near Chicago closed the theater for two weeks because he didn't think there were any good movies. And he said to the reporter, "I'm sorry, I'm not playing 'Jackass 3.' When Hollywood starts giving us better movies, I'll reopen my theater." And I thought that was wonderful. There are a lot of people who feel that very passionately. So people have stopped going to movies on a regular basis because Hollywood has abandoned them.

We're trying to appeal to that audience to show Hollywood and the media that people will come out and support a movie about hope and compassion, and that a lot of people reject the traditional Hollywood formula of fear and violence.

When we talk about supporting a movie about hope and compassion and rejecting fear and violence, people are incredibly enthusiastic about that because there's a whole audience that feels completely disenfranchised by Hollywood. And we want to try to bring them back into movie theaters.

I want "Conversations with God" for all kinds of reasons to be successful, because I think it's a powerful movie. To me, the most beautiful part of "Conversations with God" is that I think it helps you feel better about being a human being, which sounds very simplistic, but is for me very real--to just feel better about being human when you walk out of the theater.

But I also want to do something for future filmmakers, which is: I want this movie to be successful financially in theaters, so that filmmakers next year and the year after and the year after can go to financiers and say, "Look, 'Conversations with God' is a success, there is an audience for this film, people will go to theaters to see it."

I don't want those filmmakers to go to those financiers and have the financiers say, "Look, it didn't work with 'Conversations with God,' I don't believe it'll happen with your film." And I'll be very transparent with you: I don't know if we can. We won't know that until the opening weekend.
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