Sundance – Interview with Matthew Chapman director of The Ledge
In the wake of having his film picked up by IFC, Matthew Chapman, the director of The Ledge chatted with me for a while about religion and politics, his film, and a bit about his great, great grandfather, Charles Darwin.
BFR: Thanks for talking to us, Matthew. And congratulations on your film and having it screened here at Sundance.
Matthew Chapman: It’s an honor, indeed.
I read that you’re the great great grandson of Charles Darwin, is that really the case?
The film was picked up by IFC, right? What plans do they have for The Ledge?
They’re planning, apparently, for a spring/summer release.
Will it be a wide release immediately?
It’s going to open and we’ll see how it does with the reviews, and then hopefully it’ll go wider.
Is it true you haven’t directed anything since 1988?
You know, I don’t know it’s that long ago, but I guess that sounds about right?
What made you decide to come back to directing?
Well, I stopped because my daughter was born. If I was a director, I wouldn’t see the first few year’s of her life if I was directing. Directing is so all-consuming. So I wrote a film for Alan Pakula called Consenting Adults, with Kevin Kline, and Kevin Spacey. And from there, I just kept getting one screen writing gig after another. After that I wrote two books. Produced a couple a things. And I just kind of felt like coming back now, you know? I felt the time was right.
Can you briefly explain what The Ledge is about?
It’s about an atheist standing on a ledge, about to commit suicide. And a cop who is trying to talk him down. And you learn quite quickly that he has to jump by noon or somebody else is going to die. What it really is, is a philosophical thriller, a battle of opposing philosophies that leads to a lethal situation.
Where did the idea for the script come from?
My books are all about religion, they’re both non-fiction books, there sort of about the power of religion to affect the way people behave, and the sort of delusional aspect of religion, I guess you could say.. I’m an atheist. And I actually just decided to write this thing, no one would ever want to see it, it’s full of philosophical debates. But in the context of a thriller. It’s a sort of religious war, sort of. But between to men. Between Patrick Wilson’s character, and Charlie Hunnam’s.
I was interested in something you mentioned during the Q&A of the screening I attended. You said that you wrote the script because because it wasn’t something you wanted to write, but you were sure it would never get made. Can you explain that?
I’m a very… I write very fast. So it’s not like I had really intended to commit a lot of time to it. But I just thought that you write so many scripts to make money, or to please studios, or maybe, you know, to get something to direct. And I thought, fuck it, I’m going to write something because it’s the right thing to do. And I thought it was a possibility, I mean I hoped it would get made, as it was relatively cheap to make. But, it was, I can honestly it’s a pure reflection of who I am.
That’s actually my next question. You mention the battle between a fundamentalist Christian, and an atheist. Without giving away too much of the end, do the events in the film reflect your own feelings towards religion?
There’s a lot going on beyond the actual ledge in the film. Terrance Howard’s character finds out in one of the first scenes that he may not be the father of his two children. It seems like all of the characters in the film were going through some sort of pain, and you were very interested in exploring pain as a commonality of all people.
To go back to my own great great grandfather, Charles Darwin, he lost a daughter. His daughter died, I think when she was nine years old of a disease. And his reaction to it was to say, now I definitely cannot believe in God because how could a good god take such a beautiful child away from him. His wife, she was pretty religious already, she went even more towards God as a comfort for what had happened. And in my movie you have a similar split. You have two men that have suffered tremendously. And one has sort of reached the emotional conclusion that God could not do this. And the other one has reached the emotional conclusion: I have to have God to be able to survive. And that is the emotional underpining of the movie. But there is also the intelluctal debate about whether or not believing in God leads to more good or more harm. If one imagines, and this is a line almost from the movie, if one imagines the possibility of an Islamic extremist leader of a country, getting an atomic bomb and being able to smuggle it into American, and being able to annihilate all the infidels who live here. Then you really have to examine for yourself all of the good that has happened as a result of religion. And it may not be worth it when that thing happens.
The film is dedicated to Dick Chapman. Who is that, and why is it dedicated to him?
That’s my uncle, and as I was growing up, he was a gay man living in England in the fifties and sixties. And up till now he still has the same boyfriend, who the film is also dedicated to. And as I grew up, I saw a lot of cruelty towards these two men. Who were actually the most civilized, affectionate, respectful couple that I knew. And I kind of was baffled by it. Who cared what these two guys did, you know? But it seemed to me that it came directly from the Bible, where homosexuality is described as an abomination. And the suggestion is, you should stone them to death, something that still goes on in this world. And so I began to think, I began to question the Bible. Where I was raised, in English schools, there’s no separation of church and state, so you get a lot of Bible teaching at the schools. And I just started to kind of question the whole thing.
Is there anything else you’d want people to know about The Ledge?
I’d want them to know that it’s a thriller. People never walk out of it because it grips you. It works as an entertainment. But as an entertainment that is based on some fairly heavy conflict. But it totally exists as a thriller. It’s very entertaining and thrilling, and emotional.
The audience has been reacting quite emotionally during the Q&As at the festival so far.
Yes, they have. Were you at the screening last night?
No, I saw the film on Wednesday.
You should have been at the screening last night. It was an amazing Q&A. At one point, a woman stood up at the very end crying quite heavily and said, I’m so sorry for everything my faith has done. The whole theatre went silent. It was really quite powerful. And very emotional.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I have two. One is an almost comic version of The Ledge. It kind of deals with the same issues, but a bit more contemporary. It involves four interlocking characters who have different beliefs. It’s slightly more political than The Ledge, it’s religious, but also more political. It’s called Scam. And then I have a project that I want to do that is set in 16th century Italy. Which is a romantic comedy set up against the renaissance, and the religious insanity of Florence at the end of the 16th century.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Matthew. And good luck with The Ledge.