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Jon Amiel’s Act of Creation

Jon Amiel’s Act of Creation

Articles - Directing

Revolutionary 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin is widely regarded as the “Father of Evolution” for his groundbreaking discoveries regarding natural selection. What has managed to escape our history books, however, is how Darwin was also a father in a more literal sense. A real father—a father of 10 in fact, and a father who spent much of his adult life in debilitating despair over the untimely loss of his eldest daughter, Annie.

When Jon Amiel, director of The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997) and Entrapment (1999), signed on to direct his latest film, Creation, he knew that he had both the obligation and the privilege of telling this heartbreaking, little-known story of one of history’s most well-known figures. This was a responsibility that he and screenwriter John Collee did not take lightly, and together they adapted Randal Keynes’ Darwin biography Annie’s Box for the silver screen.

In speaking with Amiel, who took the time to tell MovieMaker how his film came to be, his admiration for Darwin—along with his cast and crew—is clear; we need to look no further than Creation itself as evidence of this sentiment.

Michael Walsh (MM): It’s evident that Creation’s premise focuses more so on Darwin’s personal life and his relationship with his family than it does on his scientific achievements and the publishing of his book The Origin of Species. What was it about this particular period in Darwin’s life that appealed to you as a storyteller?

Jon Amiel (JA): Well, we all know the product of Darwin’s labors, most particularly The Origin of Species. We also know the effect it’s had on the world and the fact that it’s arguably more controversial now than it was 150 years ago. What we don’t know is the process that went into the making of that book, nor do we have any insight or understanding of the man behind the great, bushy beard. So it seemed to me that the most exciting and interesting thing we could do in this film is bring that human being into form.

MM: What led you and screenwriter Jon Collee to the decision of telling the story in a non-linear fashion as opposed to a traditional beginning-to-end type of story?

JA: A couple of things, really. One was the dislike I have of biopics and drama-documentaries about worthy lives. The fact that a person led an interesting life doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting movie, and the chronology of a life is rarely plot-driven—and movies need plots. So when you look at the chronology of Darwin’s life, you realize how incredibly resistant it is to the sake of a good drama. You know, in his early 20s he goes off and writes The Voyage of the Beagle—becomes quite famous—but promptly retreats to a quiet country house, breeds 10 children and over the next 20 years putzes around dissecting barnacles and writes about earth worms. Not a highly interesting or dramatic life, really, nor the shape of good drama. So what Jon Collee and I saw was that there was this deeply turbulent and interesting period in the year during which he was gutting his lines to write Origin and dealing, very evidently, with the tremendous emotional impact of losing his child.

We saw in that year a chance to tell the troubling nuclear reactor of our story. Telling the story in non-linear way… freed us up. It freed us from the tyranny of chronology. It allowed us to organize the story in an emotionally coherent way and a narratively coherent way—in a way that telling it chronologically wouldn’t have done. It also freed us from some of the tyrannies of the conventional biopic. It allowed us to focus more on the man and his emotional and intellectual life, as opposed to simply on the outward events that sort of marched on with the tyranny of each day.

MM: You said that when you first signed on to direct Creation you knew you wanted Paul Bettany to play Charles Darwin. Knowing of his marriage with Jennifer Connelly and how they’ve worked together on other films such as A Beautiful Mind and Inkheart, did you feel that same initial draw toward her for the character of Emma Darwin, or was that aspect of casting a little more difficult?

JA: It was more difficult, not because I questioned Jennifer’s ability to do the role, but because I didn’t know what their attitude toward playing a married couple on the screen would be. To be fair, in Inkheart she makes one fleeting appearance, and in A Beautiful Mind she has no scenes with her [Bettany, her off-screen] husband.

MM: That’s a good point. Bettany’s role in A Beautiful Mind was merely Russell Crowe’s character’s illusion.

JA: Exactly. So this would be the first time that they’re on screen together and, far more challengingly, playing a husband and wife on the screen. I think it’s an incredible testament to the courage of these two, as well as to their skill, that they were willing to grasp the nettle of playing these two people. You know, we all knew going in that this would require a lot of rawness and a lot of honesty, and sometimes it’s far easier for an actor to play with a funny accent and the wig and a box of props than it is to play anything that’s really close to home; I think the audience is the main beneficiary of this choice. What you see on screen, particularly in some of those climatic scenes at the end of the movie, is a really extraordinary and a rare glimpse into a relationship.

MM: To stay on the topic of casting, Annie was obviously one of the most important characters in the film, and Martha West’s performance was brilliant. But going into filming, she was a completely unknown child actress who had never had a feature film performance before. Did you feel any trepidation going into filming with such an unknown in such an important role?

JA: No. On the contrary, I almost knew before we started casting that, for the role of Annie, the most likely successful candidate would be an unknown actor—one who never acted before. The sad fact is, many of kids that have been through the drama school mill have been irreparably spoiled by the process. I’ve worked with kids a lot. I completely defy the old adage that you should never work with kids and animals because I actually love working with both. I think a kid who is well chosen and well directed will usually turn out to be one of the best technical actors you’ll ever work with. When I cast Martha, the fact that she never acted before didn’t worry me at all. On the contrary, it was exhilarating.

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MM: Was it difficult for you to tell Darwin’s story in a way that you knew would thoroughly entertain your audience, while simultaneously staying true to the specifics and the facts of his life?

JA: Yes.

MM: Any particular instance where you found that balance to be something you were struggling with?

JA: Well, we made some very difficult choices in the film. The primary one was that we tried to, in a sense, get inside Darwin’s head, and tried to understand what it’s like being an actualist. We’re so used to seeing the young of species perish in the daily, brutal march of nature. Then, what it must be like [for Darwin] to watch your own child die, and how you then deal with your dispassionate observations of nature. So, I think we also, as you know from seeing the film, chose to dramatize Annie both in her life, but also in Darwin’s memory. And again, that was a choice that’s not born out by the biographers or the historians. That was a choice we made as filmmakers—based on a number of known facts about Darwin, yes, but nonetheless an imaginative leap. I think some of those choices were difficult to make because we risked offending all Creationists by portraying Darwin as a real human being—and a lovable, fully dimensional one at that. We also risked offending a lot of the Darwinists by depicting their great bastion of rational thought as a man who was also very vulnerable and who brought himself to the point of a nervous breakdown in the process of writing this great work.

MM: That’s very true. Darwin’s always had that perception of being this fearless ambassador of truth and reality, whereas you told his story in an entirely different sense and tone. Do you feel that Creation can change that perception of Darwin, and people will relate to his genius in a new way, considering how vulnerable he appears to be to his ailments, the people around him and himself in your film?

JA: Yes, I very much hope so. I hope it changes the way they think about Charles Darwin. I hope it changes the way they think abut his ideas and I hope it changes the way they think about science in general. So many people want to believe, and I think the scientific community has conspired in this, that science is somehow the product of cool, rational, experimental thought, and they forget that science is in itself an act of creation—an imaginative act undertaken by people of tremendous courage and often great frailty who are willing to go to the very edge to, in a sense, wrestle these great ideas to the ground. To all of those who are offended that we showed Darwin, our great rationalist, going through some extremely irrational moments, I would ask, ‘Why is the adjective we most frequently associate with scientists “mad?”‘ Why is it that we accept that John Nash from A Beautiful Mind could go through all he went through? That Einstein had all his frailties, especially with women? Galileo went through terrible periods of despair and discomfort with the church. Why must we therefore believe that science is somehow still born in some perfect, sterile environment? That’s a fallacy that does an injustice to the men themselves.

Creation, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, is now on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate. For more information visit http://creationthemovie.com.

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