Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Evolution of "Creation"

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The Evolution of "Creation"

(from brinkzine.com, 1/19/10)

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The first theatrical movie ever about Charles Darwin, Creation, breaks new ground by revealing his personal relationships with his religious wife, Emma, and his beloved daughter, Annie, whose death at the age of ten almost destroyed the couple and prevented him from completing "The Origin of the Species." But I hope it isn't lost on viewers and critics how daring this picture is in regard to how Darwin's science trumps Christianity's views on man and beast. Not once does this film, which had difficulty finding distribution, throw a bone to the religious right in hopes of avoiding controversy and losing revenue. (No matter that the filmmakers contend it's not a polemic.) Darwin would have been proud. In anticipation of this Friday's release, I enjoyed participating in the following back-to-back-to back roundtables with the three men who are chiefly responsible for what is up on the screen--British cowriter-director Jon Amiel; Darwin's great, great-grandson Randal Keynes, who wrote the revelatory source book Annie's Box; and Paul Bettany, who stars opposite his wife Jennifer Connolly. I note my questions.
Roundtable with Jon Amiel
Danny Peary: Why is the film called Creation rather than Evolution?
Jon Amiel: I always like titles that have more than one meaning. For me Creation has two meanings. Obviously, the title goes to the heart of the Genesis issue. Also, it's the title of a movie about the creative process--what that process takes and takes out of a person who produces a work of magnitude. I think the film is about both of those things in equal measure.
DP: Very few films are about artistic process.
JA: Yes, because creative process is incredibly difficult to film. You can make a movie about Jackson Pollock and watch the process of paint being splattered and it's entirely visual, but when you're trying to dramatize somebody's thought process, especially when it is as far-reaching and as intricate as Darwin's was, it's a real challenge.
Q: You seem to have made your challenge even harder by deciding not to go to the Galapagos Islands or do a lot with the Beagle. You really kept it inward.
JA: Well, yes, if you make it easy, it's not a challenge, is it? Darwin's life is so unruly in terms of the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action. It's very hard to make a compelling drama about a guy who goes off in his early twenties on a famous voyage and then instead of doing anything with his new-found celebrity retires to a small country home, leads the life of a conservative gentleman, breeds ten children, writes a couple of learned treatises about earthworms and barnacles, and then twenty years later, suddenly produces the book that changes the world. It's a very ungainly piece of architecture to put on film. We made several choices that I'd make again in an instant. We said, Let's restrict our time frame. Let's take one year in his life and tell the necessary pieces of the rest of his life in flashback. We decided to tell a single compelling narrative, which was really about the struggle Darwin had with himself and his wife Emma to bring this great work into the world.
Q: Did you experience anything on this film where there were a lot of naysayers saying you couldnt do something and you had to stick to your guns and fight an uphill battle for something you really believed in?
JA: In a sense there were a lot of naysayers from the beginning of this project, in terms of making a film that is highly unfashionable by today's standards. I was blessed in that I stumbled upon Jeremy Thomas, who is himself an endangered species of producer. He is a passionate maverick who makes films that he loves. He makes these films because he believes in what they're saying and because he believes in the filmmakers. He's almost unique in that he trusts filmmakers and lets them follow their instincts. We pushed this Sisyphean stone up a tremendous hill of skepticism about making a period film, that is about something, and that is the most dreaded word in the halls of power in Hollywood--a drama. These days drama is the world that must not be uttered. If you use that word in a pitch in Hollywood, you are instantly dead in the water. It's quite astonishing. So in a sense, the whole adventure was a struggle against naysayers. It was not a struggle against only against a strong creationist lobby that would have you believe that anything that makes Darwin into a human being rather than demonizing him was in some way heretical. To a lesser degree it was a struggle against the Darwin industry, with everyone claiming a certain kind of Darwin to themselves. Some of them have gotten their knickers in a twist, as we say in England.
DP: Because?
JA: Because we depict this great pillar and paragon of rational thought as somebody who went through some intensely irrational moments in order to become that. Some people have taken offense that we have shown Darwin becoming, in a sense, unhinged to the point of what we'd now call a nervous breakdown. I dont believe that is in any way adrift from the truth. It's absolutely known and clear that the process of writing this book made Darwin violently ill. What we sought to look at is something that has never been addressed by biographers or historians. What were those feelings that made him so ill? What must have it felt like to know that every idea that you're working on is anathema to the wife you love? What must it be like to be a naturalist who is so inured seeing the deaths of the young of all species to now look at nature through the prism of having lost his own child? How must that affect him? What must his dreams be now? Why was it that Darwin couldnt sleep and his hands shook and he threw up when he started writing this stuff? So we tried to get to the heart of that, and if we ruffled a few feathers in the Darwin industry, so be it. More important to me is that Darwin's great, great-grandson, Randal Keynes, who wrote the book we adapted, Annie's Box, and is very much the guardian of Darwins legacy, totally supported the view we took in the film.
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DP: Can you talk more about the creationist-lobby because I think that's where you really had to get over some big hurdles and, possibly, fears. I think it's a very brave movie considering the climate, although I'm not sure if you were thinking of it in that way.
JA: No, I made the movie I truly wanted to make. John Collee and I worked like brothers on the screenplay. It was very much our movie. We didn't want to make a campaigning polemic, saying "Go Darwin! Down with creationism!" That wasn't our intention and I think it would have been a lesser film if we'd gone that route. It was very important, for example, for us to give the Church its due respect and weight. When the casting director brought Toby Jones and Jeremy Northam to me, she wanted Toby to play Reverend Innis and Jeremy to play the cynical, excoriating Thomas Huxley. That casting would have been perfectly valid, but I asked Jeremy to play Innis because I felt that was a much more unexpected way to go. Since Innis personifies the Church in this film, to see him as a handsome, intelligent, powerful man gives much more substance to Emma Darwin's belief in the Church and her friendship with him. Also this didn't set up Innis and the Church in such a way that we could easily tear them down. Choices like that were made to give a mature and balanced view that was consistent with Darwin's view of the world. He didn't despise the Church, he simply found himself in possession of a bunch of ideas that he knew would be deeply destructive to the ideas expressed by the Church. It was a very interesting journey to express Darwin's ideas with clarity and honesty and to also, oddly, balance that with his dislike of controversy and confrontation, making a film that reflected his character. Does that make sense?
DP: Talk about having a married couple, Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly, playing a married couple, Charles and Emma Darwin. What did you tell them so they'd get it right?
JA: Normally its axiomatic: you don't cast married couples to star in romantic movies. But I think that's primarily true of boy-meets-girl movies, where chemistry is absent if the couple has already consummated the romance. Let me say what interested me about casting them. Firstly, a lot of time I'd normally have to spend with two actors creating the sense of a marriage through improv and much detail work in rehearsal was unnecessary. What we needed to do with Paul and Jennifer was to carefully create our world. Jennifer was playing English, a woman of a period and a distinct class. It was a huge challenge for her to incarnate that woman in that time. So a lot of our work went into that. The most important part of working with them was to create an environment where they trusted me and the setting enough to allow parts of their real intimacy to leak through into the work. They are such consummate film actors; between the two of them, they've chalked up more than fifty years in front of a camera. So a lot of what I did was create an environment, and let them loose.
DP: Being sentimental, I love the scene in which Emma, who isnt even looking at Charles, tells him that if she had known what she'd go through with him as a husband, she'd do it all again. Did you do that scene many times?
JA: I knew when I was writing draft after draft with John Collee--and before we ever set foot on a soundstage--that the movie would stand or fall on that scene. If it worked, we had a movie; if it failed, we would just lose it. Both the actors knew it, too. I always knew I wanted the scene to start with a great distance between them--Emma at the piano and Charles on the other side of a large room. So there was tremendous separation. I wanted this dynamic movement through the house and up the stairs and I wanted it to conclude with them in close proximity in her most intimate of sanctuaries, her dressing room. What terrified me was that we'd find a perfect location to shoot the downstairs scene but we'd then have to go to a set for when we were upstairs. In an almost unheard of stroke of good luck we found a location where I was able to shoot downstairs to upstairs. That was enormously important. We spent a weekend on blocking and rehearsing the scene, mapping it emotionally and cutting away all excess verbiage. Once we were ready to film it, it went very quickly. There was no shot I had to do more than three or four takes on. Everything they did in that scene is exceptional. Part of the challenge for me was to keep the camera close to them but also keep it out of their way.
Q: Talk about Martha West, the young girl who played Darwin's daughter Annie, whose death he cant deal with.
JA: When I was casting the part, I wanted to find someone who had never acted before because most girls who are nine or ten have already been spoiled by drama school. I searched schools for the right girl. I didn't want her to be too pretty, going on the one existing picture of Annie that showed this rather robust girl who didn't have movie-star beauty--although Darwin said she changed after the picture was taken and got more slender and more beautiful. I knew that most of all she had to have this transparent, keen intelligence. This had to be a girl who was worthy of Darwin's trust whereas he made her almost an adult repository of his ideas. When I met Martha my first response was that I wouldn't cast her because she was just too pretty. But the more I talked to her and other girls I auditioned, the surer I felt that she had Annie's personality. She had this wonderful, radiant intelligence that was effortlessly expressible. She spoke English the way Darwin's daughter would have, not with some heavy London accent--and that was important because I didnt want to be dealing with accent as well as dialogue. I suppose most of all, Martha had the courage to do things that absolutely scared the crap out of her. She had to do some very difficult things in this film. Some were physically difficult, like dancing semi-naked on a freezing beach in Cornwall with forty-miles-an-hour winds. Other things were emotionally difficult. This girl I discovered very quickly had the courage to fly at things that terrified her. That in itself was not only a good quality for an actress but a wonderful quality of Annie's, so that made her so right in the part.
Q: Talk about interspersing the flashbacks of Annie dying and the orangutan Jenny dying. It's very powerful.
JA: I think it was one of our more audacious choices to intercut those scenes. In addition to it being very effective dramatically, it was also at the heart of Darwin's thinking. His meeting with Jenny reminded him more than ever of how close animals were to humans. At that crucial moment, I think we feel that more than we do at any other time in the movie.
Roundtable with Randal Keynes
Danny Peary: Your book's title has been changed now to Creation. How did it come about?
Randal Keynes: It started as Annie's Box in the English edition and that was the starting point and focus of the story I found to tell about Darwin's private life. Then when it was published in America the publishers said that any book about Darwin had to start with his name in the title, so it was called here "Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution." But if you're reissued at the same time as a film, you need to use the name of the film. It's slightly difficult for me calling the book Creation because the film of that title isn't a filmed version of my book but uses the book as a very important element in the plot of another story--the complications surrounding the writing of "The Origin of the Species." My focus is on the child and Darwin's view of human nature. I think the way they used my story in order to give them a story about the writing of "The Origin" is absolutely fine but the title of the film doesn't fit directly and easily.
DP: I asked Jon Amiel why he picked the title Creation rather than Evolution. Did you wonder about that?
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RK: I can find meanings in Creation that have to do with the creation of Darwin's theory and the creation of his ideas, and the role of imagination in his thinking. So I'm happy with that.
DP: As far as I can tell, there hasn't been a Charles Darwin movie before. Why do you think that is?
RK: There hasnt been a movie but there have been some good, successful television treatments. I don't think it has ever been felt that he was strong enough a character in the wider public view for a film to be made. I was very lucky because when Jon Amiel and John Collee read the book they thought there were the makings of a movie in the elements of the plot. That story hadn't been told before. Others hadn't known about Darwin's relationship with his daughter, Annie, or about the difficulties Darwin had with Emma over his daughter's illness and death.
Q: Were you allowed to visit the set and talk to the actors?
RK: I had a couple of very important conversations with the executive producer Jeremy Thomas and scriptwriter John Collee and I later met Jon Amiel. Those early conversations were valuable to them and very important to me because I was given the assurance that they would treat the story well. I wasn't given the script to comment on in detail and I'm very glad because I would have felt I needed to point to anachronisms and errors of that kind. It's much better that they didn't take my advice on precise historical accuracy in the writing of the film. I was present for two days of filming and was fascinated to watch. I didn't deal with the actors. I had gone to the set when they were filming a version of Annie's Box that was televised in the U.K. I saw that when actors are on the set, they are preoccupied with the performances they have to deliver and it's not fair to ask them to talk to someone with his own clear view on the subject. Any of the actors might have wanted to talk to me before filming if they felt there were parts to their characters that they werent certain about, but not on the set. A remarkable thing about this film is how extraordinarily far both Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly got to a really penetrating understanding of their two characters though their reading of my book and other books about Darwin. I found that on a number of points they got things right just through their own efforts. I'm not concerned that I didnt speak to them myself because they got what they needed by their own inquiry.
DP: There was a lot of concern this film wouldnt get distribution. As a caretaker of the Darwin legacy, you must have a reaction to the fact that only 39 percent of Americans believe evolution is fact; and even those who are presented with the facts say, "Well, then evolution is part of God's plan." Are you being vocal about what's going on with the creationists?
RK: No, I'm not being vocal because the ideas are being discussed. That's what Darwin wanted. He wanted this view of natural life and human nature to be considered along with other views. As long as it's an important part of the discourse--it is the main scientific view--that's fine.
DP: But aren't you surprised that after all these years, so many people are still blind to the science in evolution?
RK: Yes, I am. Actually, I'm very surprised in one way and not surprised in another. What Darwin was writing about is really very shocking and seriously undermines our views about our nature. I'm not sure many people worry about God's purpose. But human and animal? Darwin's ideas there reflect directly on our own nature and people are unwilling to face up to our cousinhood with animals.
DP: Are we a finished product?
RK: Oh, no. The imperfections of human nature were very important to Darwin. Freud and other great thinkers took from him, among many things, this point about how humans are as imperfect as all other natural organisms in the very strange way that they come into being.
Q: When you meet people who come from a religious background, do they challenge you?
RK: I dont think I've ever been challenged by somebody with a religious point of view. People are pleased to meet me because they can see a real person who has a relationship they can understand with Darwin. Then they can see that Darwin was a real person. I can see that is valuable to them.
DP: Are all of his descendents of one voice?
RK: Oh, no, no.
DP: So are there super-religious Darwins?
RK: There are a number who are Christian, there are a number who are agnostic, and there are a number who are atheists. There is a range of opinion. We dont really hang together as a family. Only a small number of his descendents have taken an interest and exhibit family pride--almost only one person in each generation. The others are mildly interested in what we produce.
Q: Do you ever have get-togethers? He did have ten children, although a few died, so it's probably a large family.
RK: I think there are over three hundred descendents of Darwin living now. We had a wonderful lunch in June in London. We were like any other family gathering.
Q: Are there any projects youre working on now?
RK: At the moment Im working hard at helping get the Darwins' Down House and the countryside around recognized as a World Heritage Site. I feel very strongly that it has outstanding universal value, which is the phrase that is essential to be a site. This is where you can see how great science was done and understand it. That's quite a complicated business and you have to go through committee after committee, producing document after document. If you want to understand Darwin or see Darwin things and get an understanding of them, the best place to go is Down House, which is a short way out of London. The house, the garden, and the countryside around are almost exactly as they were when Darwins family lived there.
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Q: Is there still room for another film about Darwin?
RK: There is room for other films about Darwin. I think there's room for a wonderful film that looks at his youth and the voyage of the Beagle. That voyage was an extraordinary, exciting adventure and he lived through a great deal and came out of it with an extraordinary idea. I think someone could do a very good film about the drama that leads up not to the writing of The Origin but to the forming of the key idea in his theory, which happens very quickly after he returns. In this period, he's sitting in London, fireworks going off in his mind, and putting ideas together and making sense.
DP: What is the first question you'd ask Darwin?
RK: I would want to ask him about how and when he came to recognize that species might change. That was the key. I have some good ideas that were working on, having to do with a particular bird that he spotted on one of the islands of Galapagos.
DP: The mockingbird?
RK: Yes! I want to ask him about it!
Roundtable with Paul Bettany
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Q: Coincidentally, Creation is opening the same say as Legion.
Paul Bettany: I think it's a real bummer that they're opening the same weekend. You don't want to compete with yourself, but probably it doesn't matter because they're such different types of movies. One's about the archangel Michael coming down to earth and saves the earth from an apocalypse brought on by God and the other is about a man [laughing because he recognizes the similarity]--oh, "killing" God.
Q: Do you think Creation contributes to the agenda that has become popular nowadays, when you get a new book every year by some atheist intellectual claiming we don't need God in the world and it's time he goes?
PB: I'll say two things. One is that it isn't an actual fact that Darwin and religion are mutually exclusive. Darwin always called himself an agnostic. Also, there's a slight sort of vehemence with which you said some atheist comes along and tells us we don't need God. There is a message in our film about tolerance. Emma Darwin was a fervent Christian and Charles Darwin was clearly not, but they managed to live together well into their eighties by circumnavigating their separate belief systems and loving and supporting each other. It's a message of hope and tolerance. I don't feel the need to shout down anyone who believes in God and I hope they don't feel a need to shout me down because I don't. I believe in a sort of creative force in the universe but I don't believe in a conscious God who is aware of or is in any way interested in whether I swear a lot.
DP: While making the movie were you thinking, considering the rise of the religious right, that this is a brave film?
PB: It's peculiar that people have been saying that to me because if I'm brave to face a potentially hostile press and potentially hostile creationists, how fucking brave was Charles Darwin? There's your answer. Why did it take him twenty years to write The Origin of the Species? Because he was scared! Actually, I'm sure the reasons were myriad. I'm sure the death of his child and the solace that gave his wife was part of that, but at heart he was socially conservative and I don't think his revolutionary idea sat very well with him. On some levels, it made him sick.
Q: As you know, even after Darwin published his book he was not the major spokesman for evolution. He always remained behind the scenes and it was up to people like Thomas Huxley and Asa Gray to popularize it.
PB: Darwin was an incredibly quiet human being who I think was finally kicked into action by Alfred Russel Wallace. The story of Wallace is incredible. In the Spice Islands at relatively the same time as Darwin drew his conclusions, Wallace came up with exactly the same ideas as Darwin, having also been looking at nature and having read Thomas Malthus. That's what happened with Darwin so it makes you think great ideas are waiting in the ether to be found by one person or another.
Q: The last thing Darwin wanted was controversy. So how would he think of today's world?
PB: I'm not sure. I do believe that sitting in a room like this would make him sick. He absolutely would not know how to cope with everyone gathered around and asking him questions about his work. The man went away once and came back with enough material to last him a lifetime, and stayed in Kent. He had an incredible amount of focus! There's such a beauty to his power of observation and his ability to look at something without any preconceptions and really talk to the person he was talking to without a value judgment on who they were, whether a professor or farmer. That is the reason he was so successful. You'd be hard-pressed to find a bad thing written about his personality, even by people who didn't like his ideas. All of his children wrote memoirs of their childhoods and they're all incredibly loving toward their father. He was so doting. How many great men in history were great fathers? Very few, I'm sure. The only thing you'd hear is that on occasion he'd treat them like a scientific experiment. But making them part of science was the greatest act of love he could conceive of.
DP: Why do you think there haven't been movies about Darwin?
PB: It is hard thing to write about somebody who is unable to write. That's a hard thing to make a film about. I like the script because Jon Amiel and John Collee chose to write about the time Darwin couldn't write.
DP: The way you describe him, being passive and a loving father,
is of someone it would be nearly impossible to make a film about. Is that what you were thinking while making a movie about him?
PB: Yes! The drama within his life was within him and the crisis was within his marriage after the death of Annie. It's incredibly well documented--and I make take this up in my own life-- because they wrote letters to each other in their house, all day.
Q: So you and Jennifer are going to start writing notes to each other?
PB (joking): Well, Jennifer and I have a perfect relationship so there's no need for that...
Q: What about playing backgammon?
PB: Jennifer and I really wanted to play. Charles and Emma played backgammon all the time and he was hugely competitive with her. They'd have their differences but they'd play a game of backgammon every day. Just before his death, he wanted to check the scores.
Q: How did the two of you decide to make this movie together?
PB: That's something that got lost in time. I read it first while I was making Legion in New Mexico. She wasn't with me. Jon Amiel came to see me. Very soon after that, she had read the script and we decided to do it together. It's the sort of movie that your relationship off-camera can invest, rather than take away from. I don't think this is a vehicle for Jennifer or me. When a film doesn't work it's bizarre to blame it on their being a couple. It's such an abstract thing to pick. What about bad actors who happen to be in a relationship? Or the dreadful script they picked? Nobody said that about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor when they worked together, nor should they have. Listen: My belief is that the idea of chemistry between two actors on film is bull. I could prove it by taking you onto a set. I've been told by producers, "We've been looking at the rushes and there's amazing chemistry between you and the actress," and the truth was the actress had to go home and I was playing to an X on the side of the camera. Any actor or any film technician will tell you that chemistry is nonsense. Often what they're talking about is actors looking at each other in a longing, loving way and often it's so overplayed. Jennifer and I have been together seven or eight years and you get to know a person in that time and how to ignore them. I'm sort of joking, but that's real.
DP: What would be the first question you asked Darwin?
PB: Oh, my God, that is an evil question! Oh, my God! In a completely selfish way, I'd love to hear the story of him and Jenny from his lips. His meeting with the orangutan. I had so many references on film and prior knowledge, but that was my first time meeting an orangutan. I was so moved by the two days I got to spend with that animal. I would love to know of Darwin's connection to the real Jenny. I'd also love to take a creationist to meet an orangutan because it's impossible to deny a human connection to this creature. I'd love to hear from Darwin's lips his feelings about it and I'd also like to play him the Beatles--because I think that's probably the only thing he missed out on.

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