I had a ton of fun talking with Matthew Chapman, the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin and writer-director of The Ledge. Though he’s written two books grappling with faith versus reason, this is his first feature film; the thriller sympathizes with atheist Charlie Hunnam, who steals fundamentalist Patrick Wilson‘s wife Liv Tyler. A UK native who’s lived both in Los Angeles and New York, Chapman might be considered someone who lives on the fringes of Hollywood, but he’s had enough experience to judge Tinseltown’s relationship to religion.
It’s always exciting when an interview turns into an actual intellectual discussion, as when Chapman and I talked about the labels of “atheist” versus “agnostic,” the concept of original sin, and unforgivable acts. He was also just really funny. But then again, I’m biased since I’m agnostic.
Did any of the stars’ personal beliefs butt up against the script?
Chapman: Maybe… I think of them all, my guess is that Terrence [Howard] is the more religiously-inclined of them. I think they just saw it as being a really good thriller with really good characters, and they just loved the idea of playing in this particular little garden for a while. Actors are a very generous group, in my view. They thought, I’m happy to give myself to this viewpoint for as long as it takes to get this film made, and engross myself in it. And they did—they did a great job. But no, I had no problems with any of them.
I did have problems casting it, and sometimes I had the feeling that I was being rejected by actors because of their religious views. I have a feeling I’m going to get some bad reviews that will be written by people who have very strong religious beliefs, and they won’t cop to it upfront when writing the review. Not that they don’t have a perfect right to [hate] the movie. But I think that’s the kind of thing that will happen.
Have you had experiences in Hollywood with Scientology, where celebrities have tried to push it on you?
Chapman: I have met some of them, and I confess I am the atheist in the closet when I’m faced with a Scientologist, because what they believe is even more absurd than what Mormons believe. You just don’t know how to talk to someone who’s very nice and very friendly and is saying nice things about your work, and they believe this stuff which is absolutely lunatic. It’s like looking at a mountain and saying, “I just can’t climb over that mountain—it’s too damn big.” I leave it alone.
They definitely have some power in Hollywood. Judaism has some power in Hollywood. But the thing that has the most power in Hollywood is money. So when you have Mel Gibson making Passion of the Christ—no one was particularly overjoyed by that because it seemed to be leading to the anti-Semitism. But once it started making a lot of money and the religious community came out and supported it, suddenly you saw the studios asking around for people to write more faith-based movies.
I’m sort of hoping that the atheists come out to support The Ledge—whether you like it or not, it is the first pro-atheist movie that’s out there. If people go out and see it, it’ll open doors for people to make other movies that question the value of faith. That would be a great thing.