A Peek into the Life of Darwin with Jon Amiel, Director of Creation [q&a]

Director Jon Amiel's film, Creation, uncovers the story behind Charles Darwin, the man, and why it took him nearly 25 years to share his discovery.

We all know the text-book version of Charles Darwin: A man who had a soft-spot for beetles and sported an unkempt white beard (see the reverse side of a £10 note); a man who, 150 years ago, after a four-year voyage on the HMS Beagle wrote his discoveries on evolution and natural selection in The Origin of Species. But many of us might not realize that Darwin sat on his discovery for almost 25 years, perhaps because of conflict with the Anglican Church, the love for his religious wife and the unresolved death of his 10-year old daughter.

In light of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth, Jon Amiel, director of the movie Creation (staring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly and set to release in Fall 2009) talks to us briefly about the book that inspired him to direct this film, Amiel’s discovery of a younger, family-oriented Darwin, as well as his insights on the evolving film industry (needless to say, a contortion of Darwinism, but I had to ask).

Creation

FC: What inspired you to direct this film?

What first led me into it was a book by Randal [Hume] Keynes (Darwin’s great-great-grandson [and also production consultant for the film]). This book is built of family memoirs (diaries, letters and objects) rather than out of a big ideological or theoretical base. Suddenly, when you start reading his letters and you start hearing the story of his relationship with his 10-year-old daughter who died, you find yourself drawn into an intense, emotional journey with an actually incredibly emotional man; Darwin was shy, reclusive, and probably the most reluctant revolutionary that ever lived. He absolutely adored his children – he was actually a modern kind of father, very un-Victorian. [He] allowed his kids to free-run, didn’t give a damn about what they wore, and was generally an absolutely delightful parent and human being. So I became fascinated by the drama and appearance and what happens to a man in a society that is dominated by the church. [The movie is about] what happens to a man who is married to a devoutly Christian woman—who he adores—and how he manages to reconcile his scientific beliefs with his love for his wife [and what happens] when his daughter dies and shatters his belief in a benign deity. Also there is the mystery of Darwin’s sickness. As most people know, [he] suffered all of his adult life with a range of very alarming symptoms and there has been a lot of speculation of what caused that. I got very interested in exploring why—I believe—he made himself ill.

What do you want viewers to learn about Darwin that they didn’t already know?

Firstly Darwin has been demonized by the conservative Christian right as sort of anti-Christ. I would hope that anybody who had that image of Darwin would have those ideas dispelled by the portrait of a man in enormous conflict, basically a socially conservative man who found himself drawn to seemingly deeply subversive conclusions. Secondly I hope that most people coming away from the film will be enormously entertained and deeply moved. I don’t know anyone who’s yet seen the rough cut that hasn’t been moved to tears. And finally, I hope that by connecting to the man viewers will want to be more deeply connected to his ideas. We weren’t interested in making a historical documentary; we were interested in making a very passionate portrait of an extraordinary mind in a state of extraordinary conflict. My hope is audiences come away inspired to think about Darwin’s ideas and carry them forward.

Initially doing research for the film, what did you discover about Darwin that you didn’t know before, that came to you as a surprise?

Just about everything. I was shocked how little I knew about Darwin other than his basic ideas; I knew nothing of him as a human being. And I think I was shocked at how close I felt to him. [Before, he was as remote to me] as Shakespeare or Aristotle in some ways. I’ve come to feel that I know [him] very well.

Why cast Paul Bettany as the younger, beardless family-oriented Darwin?

People always say that Paul Bettany was the only one I ever wanted, but the fact is that it is true. Paul Bettany is an absolute lock for this role. Firstly he is English. Secondly he’s very much Darwin’s physique—Darwin was incredibly tall, slightly gawking and gangly (Paul is 6’4”, Darwin was 6’3”). He also has the high forehead that Darwin had and the sandy complexion, which made him perfect [for the role]. Most important of all, he has a kind of luminous intelligence, which is the hardest thing of all to fake in an actor. Paul possesses the ability to actually make you believe that he’s capable of thinking the thoughts that he expresses. It’s a long way from the Hollywood cliché of putting a pair of glasses on an actor and actually making them believe that they are a nuclear physicist. [Bettany] really has unfakable intelligence.

Creation

What was the biggest challenge during filming?

Never work with children and animals [laughs]. I had a total of nine children in this film with important roles and more animals than I’ve actually managed to count.

With all of the religious and scientific implications incorporated in this film, are you concerned that there will be any backlash?

No. I would be concerned if there was no backlash. Darwin’s ideas are not a theory or a hypothesis [but are] essentially a fact. They’re no more subject to question in my mind than the ideas Galileo or Newton or any of those other theories that are essentially beyond question. Those who would tell us that the world is only six thousand years old would still probably want to tell us the sun revolves around the earth. I hope this film provokes some lively backlash; it will be a sign at least that we did something right.

Many industries today are changing and evolving [or in some cases companies are going extinct]; companies are adapting to meet the needs of their changing environment and company goals. How do you think adaptation and change has affected your line of business, and what have you done to adapt?

Our industry blows great bellowing smokescreens about art, but essentially it’s about money, and as the revenue sources change, so does our business. And as our business changes, so does the art inserted in the common cinema. The domination of foreign markets over domestic markets has changed the entire way movies are conceptualized and structured. Plus, there is a growing change in demographics: only younger people are willing to brave long lines at the multiplexes, whereas as the older people tend to wait until the DVD comes out. Those two things have really changed and are continuing to change our entire industry. The fact is, the giant [blockbuster] movies are increasingly prevailing at the box office and on the studio’s production slates, where as the smaller, nimbler creatures in our business are finding it harder and harder to find a home.

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3 Comments

  • Sara D. Anderson

    Ben - yes, this is very true. Creationism and Darwinism are many times addressed in a black and white context, but the interesting fact is that (according to the Pew Research article I linked in the article: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/11... most Americans do not view both explanations as incompatible, but more as a concept that incorporates both faith and science. They call it "intelligent design." Although most Americans believe in this concept, they are unfamiliar with the term.

  • Ben Murphy

    The biggest problem with the whole religious argument with Darwin, is that so many in the Christian Right refuse to acknowledge the possibility that evolution doesn't have to deny Creation and vice-versa. The Bible is a story (or more accurately, a collection of stories). Genesis was never intended to present a scientific account of man's beginnings - it is filled with metahor and symbolism. To me, evolution, and other sciences like astronomy, reveal more about God, not refute everything he says.

    Dan Mason, www.thefatherlife.com