The director of this new Charles Darwin biopic discusses this new period film, his new film Undying and much more.
Director Jon Amiel is certainly a director who likes to try something different with each film he undertakes. His films such as the period piece Sommersby, the real-time thriller Copycat, the comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little, the summer action film Entrapment and the bio-disaster The Core are about as different as they come, from one film to the next. After spending some time directing for the small screen, Amiel returned to the big screen with Creation, the biopic of famed the evolution revolutionary Charles Darwin, which just hit the shelves on DVD today, June 29. I had the chance to speak with this diverse director over the phone about his latest film, and here's what he had to say.
Obviously, I'm a writer, so I've never been a big science guy and yet this film was really quite fascinating.
Jon Amiel: Oh, good. I'm thrilled. One of the big surprises, for me, about planning a movie about Charles Darwin, which I was extremely reluctant to do initially, was, not only how fascinated I became but how personal the movie ended up being for me.
Can you talk a bit about your reluctance to make this film?
Jon Amiel: Yeah. When John Collee, who is a very dear friend of mine and, as you probably know, the writer of Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World amongst other things, sent me Randall Keynes' book, and asked if I thought there was a movie in this, I didn't even want to read the book (Laughs). I said, 'John, A) I don't want to do a period movie, B) I don't really like biographical pictures because an interesting life doth not an interesting movie make. Chronology is not plot. Most lives are made up of chronology, really. They're not made up of plot. I didn't want to do a documentary-style thing, I didn't want to make a movie about an old fart with a big beard going mad. None of that interested me at all. But, because it was John, I sort of read the book and, what's interesting about the book is Randall Keynes was Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson and he had access to all the family's letters, journals, belongings, the little box that (Darwin's wife) Emma put together after Annie's death that contained some of Annie's favorite things. The little piece of paper that had Darwin's unmistakable scrawl on it, documenting all of Annie's treatments. The fact is that Emma and Charles wrote to each other and the letter that Charles wrote about Annie after she died, it wasn't a letter but it was sort of a four-page in memoriam, if you will, about her. The more I read, the more emotionally engaged I was by these people and the more present they felt, the more contemporary. I haven't romanticized or sentimentalized or modernized Darwin in this film. Astonishingly, the way he is with his kids and his daughter was very very documented as authentic. He was a very modern dad who let his children, basically, run wild, didn't care how they dressed, was thrilled every time they would come into his study and involved them in a lot of his experiments, following bees and finding out how bees entered their territory. This was a really modern kind of father, a very accessible father, not so much a Victorian patriarch and, as I started to get into the marriage of Charles and Emma, I started to see more and more resonance and, in a sense, an inspiring lesson in tolerance and understanding.
Absolutely. What I thought was really great is that you have this real-life married couple in Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly and they don't play this lovey-dovey couple. They're kind of at odds with each other. Was that part of the appeal for them to come on, to be at odds with each other in the film?
Jon Amiel: It was a well-calculated risk, I'd say, to cast a real-life couple to play husband and wife. Certainly, one of the risks is will they gang up on me? The challenge, I think, was would the chemistry that certainly existed between them in real life be translated onto the screen, and could you make it Charles and Emma's chemistry and not just theirs? It paid off so well, most of all, because these are two extraordinary and experienced and gifted actors. I mean, between the two of them, they've got 50 years in front of the camera. So, they not only know they're craft incredibly well, but they, and you can see this from the choices they make, are incredibly courageous actors and won't step away from pretty dark material when they need to. They were willing, and bless them, to go wherever the roles required them to go.
I was also really impressed by Martha West as Annie and even more so when I discovered that this was her first film credit. Can you talk about discovering her and how you enjoyed working with her?
Jon Amiel: Yes, when I first met Martha West, I sort of thought that she wasn't right for this because she was too pretty. I didn't want Annie to be gorgeous, I wanted her to be robust and beautiful because of her spirit, not beautiful because you couldn't take your eyes off of her face. In that, I was affected, initially, by the lone picture of Annie, which was taken at the beginning of the film. That showed a fairly plain, round-faced little girl. However, once I started to talk to Martha, her spirit was absolutely Annie's. Like Annie, she is incredibly courageous. She was afraid of a lot of the things that she had to do, but still displayed this incredible courage. When Annie smiles, it lights up the screen, doesn't it? That's totally Martha.
Oh yes. I would definitely agree.
Jon Amiel: She is a radiant spirit, incredibly bright and the more I got to know Martha, the more I knew she was my Annie. The final discovery that clinched it was Darwin's notes saying that in the two years since the picture had been taken, which was when she was eight, Annie had grown much more beautiful. I thought, 'Well, that's it.' I worked with Martha for weeks in rehearsal with all the other kids and with Paul and Jennifer. We weren't really working on the script, we were, essentially improving and building a sense of relationship and family so that by the time the kids got in front of cameras, they knew each other very well and felt very comfortable sitting on Paul's lap as their dad or whatever they needed to do. Part of the reason all of those kids gave those beautiful and real performances was that we created that freedom and intimacy in the rehearsal room before we ever got in front of a camera.
I read that selling this film to America was actually one of the hardest sells. Can you talk a bit about that process as well, finding Newmarket for this film after its successful festival run?
Jon Amiel: I would like to say that this is entirely about the religious right and about censorship but, actually, I think there is a real fear in movie marketing that a movie might offend. I think that the enshrined right for a movie to offend has all but vanished, but it's also about the new realities about movies for grown-ups. The fact is that it's becoming increasingly hard to find anybody to distribute movies for grown-ups, movies that are about something. They're a shrinking market and the fact that more than half of movie distribution outfits have evaporated, the fact that half of the studios have folded up their independent arms, is indicative of the problem. So, yes, I think adult movie-goers who like movies that are thought-provoking and unusual, kind of need to wake up and recognize that these movies themselves are themselves endangered species and that they need to do something to protect them.
You have a number of projects in development right now. I was curious if Undying was going to be your next film? The Kurt Russell movie?
Jon Amiel: Yes, I think it is.
Is there anything else you can say about it? It seems like quite an interesting film.
Jon Amiel: It's as different from Creation as Creation was from The Core as The Core was from anything else I've done, for reasons best understood probably by my psychotherapist. I like to continue to scare myself. I think a scared director is an honest director and I try to keep myself scared by taking on new challenges each time I do a movie. I'm very excited to be doing this movie, which is, although I've done a thriller with Copycat, this is a new departure, something that should be visually as distinctive as the graphic novel and yet have this wonderful noir element to it that I think will be really terrific.
Is casting still going on? Is anyone else attached to the movie that you can tell us about?
Jon Amiel: Not yet I can't, no. It is going on and we're into it now. We'll be seeing who will be playing - we've got two very strong roles for women in the movie and this is going to be the fun part.
Do you have a production start-date locked now or is it still up in the air?
Jon Amiel: I think we'll start shooting in late September and we'll be shooting in London and Detroit.
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who hadn't seen Creation in theaters and might be curious about the film, about why they should pick it up on DVD?
Jon Amiel: I think I'd say don't be afraid. This is not a dusty, preachy movie. This is a very real, very raw emotional experience that I guarantee not only will teach you something, but will move you and entertain you at the same time.
Excellent. I would definitely agree with that.
Jon Amiel: Good.
Well, that's all I have for you, Jon. Thanks so much for your time and good luck with Undying and whatever comes next.
Jon Amiel: Thanks so much, Brian. It was nice talking to you, man.