A Correspondence on God
My friend Peter was trying to decide how to direct a short film called Force Majeure, written by Neil Dax (who also wrote Cycle Path). In the script, rock star Johnny Yen is warned by his lawyer that he’s about to hit hard times. To boost his popularity, the lawyer tells Johnny to pretend to find God. Johnny holes up in a cabin with a groupie, takes a lot of drugs, and experiences a vision which might actually represent God.
This is Peter’s latest excuse to order rewrites, followed by a petition from myself to just make the goddamn film—
I’ve been getting obsessed with Faust lately. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to realise it but Force Majeure is basically a retelling of the Faust story. Yen clearly wants to renege on the deal as he doesn’t like what he’s been given, and the devil, in the shape of a female lawyer, comes to cancel the deal with the caveat that if she can’t have his soul anymore she’s going to punish him. So she makes him a fervent believer in God, the last thing he thought he’d be. Clearly the script only hints at that stuff, and Neil probably didn’t mean half of it, but it’s there and too important to miss. There’s even the tragic female lover who ends up dead through Faust’s actions (missing in Marlowe’s version, but Goethe has her in his poem).
I have never read Faust and neither have most of the people who will see Force Majeure. Goethe, Mozart, David Mamet, Frank Zappa, Stan Lee and Neil Dax all draw from the same creative soup of primordial psychology. But I think to compare one to the other overcomplicates things. Sooner or later you’re going to have to accept that the movie is a character study of Neil, by Neil, for Neil. The script is our good friend Neil figuring out some shit, whether he knows it or not. Any analysis of the text is useless if not spewed forth from this fact. If you want to unlock its mysteries, you only have to figure out why he wrote it the way he did.
The woman in the cabin is not Johnny’s lover. Johnny is lustful but displays no love, except for himself. Why is she there? She’s a witness. She is a receptacle for Johnny’s vitriol, drug advice and chlamydia-soaked penis. Like the audience, she sees what’s going on. Also like the audience, she has no influence in what happens.
She is there because Neil wanted someone else in the room who was not the lawyer. To prove that what’s going on is really going on.
The lawyer does not represent the law or the devil, and only incidentally represents The Man. Her dramatic function is to set up the whole plot—there is no problem until she describes it, and she already has the only solution that is ever considered. Neil has given her a corporate guise. One could argue that the western world’s two opposing symbols of power are God and Corporations. One could also argue that corporations represent total corruption while God represents total incorruptibility. Neil could have made the lawyer character a talent agent, a manager, someone creative. He went with a bitch in a suit whose name I can’t remember.
Then you have the other character in the movie, and the paradox caused by His/Her/Its presence. Folks, meet God.
God means something different to everyone. Fuck knows what effect the word has on atheists; one would imagine none but instead it seems to make them angry. Anyone who has, or has ever had, any conception of God as an entity, visible or hidden, cognitive or uncognitive, imaginable or unimaginable, knows that the only way to truly describe God is… “God.”
By the very definition of the word, God is nothing more and nothing less. Merciful? Vengeful? There are stories of such behaviour but it’s sort of like characterising the postal service as blue. Conceptually, God is not a person, therefore impossible to characterise, therefore impossible to dramatise. God has no arc. There are no adjectives for God. A white light in the sky is about as accurate a portrayal as Charlton Heston in a toga, and no less ridiculous.
There cannot even be a fictitious God because God is believed in rather than evidenced. Therefore a fictitious God is the same as a real God. Some people argue that the existence of a fictitious God proves the existence of a real God. Those people don’t understand fiction.
Why do we have movies with Morgan Freeman in a white suit and time-travelling dudes in rabbit costumes?
In drama God is never, and can never be, God. Any representation of God is reductive. If God appears to operate according to Judeo-Christian morality, then this is no longer God but someone’s idea of God. Whose? A hypothetical westerner with no imagination? At what point in this hypothetical person’s continually-evolving life?
If, say, Robert De Niro gets pushed to his physical and psychological limits and then it occurs to him to recite a prayer before going to murder the bad guy, that’s universal. Everybody understands that use of “God” because it’s not literal, it’s whatever it means to De Niro’s character at that moment.
If Willem Dafoe were to suddenly appear in white robes and console De Niro in his time of moral turpitude, then we instinctively understand that Dafoe is only De Niro’s vision. [Note to self: pretty good idea for a movie?] Not a beatific cameo like Sean Connery’s King Richard at the end of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves—more like Val Kilmer’s Elvis in True Romance.
God makes no appearance in Neil’s script. There is only what “God” means to Johnny Yen. It’s not something religious. It’s got nothing to do with the Bible, the Qu'ran, the Buddha, Morgan Freeman or Faust. It should not raise questions about why this divine entity is wasting time on a rock star when there are real problems in Syria. God does not come down from Heaven and tell Johnny Yen to behave himself. Johnny Yen simply has a revelation. It’s not supernatural, even if you give it pretty lights and flares.
Neil’s script could do with trimming, but in structural and dramatic terms it’s all there. It wants for nothing. If you try to change it, you’ll lose what makes it work. What makes it work is that you’re in Johnny’s (Neil’s) mindset throughout. Everything you see is some grubby part of Mr Yen’s (Mr Dax’s) soul.
I believe all this to be true, but the reason I’m actually writing it is that I see Neil’s side of this as well as yours. His intervention may seem creatively stifling right now, but when you’re on set you’ll be grateful for his help. I don’t know how many times he cycled or hoofed up and down that fucking tunnel carrying a massive pack of kit, clothes and water and dressed like an unholy fool, but when I consult my conscience the answer is “You lucky, lucky bastard.”
Admittedly, in some ways I had an easier job adapting Cycle Path because the script was bare-bones and, as noted on its own second page, “useless at conveying suspense”. I didn’t like the ending and neither did Neil. We ended up changing a lot (I think the last time I looked at the screenplay was two months before filming) and it even deviated from the storyboards that formed the production’s day-to-day blueprint. I made some decisions that Neil didn’t agree with. But then, that movie isn’t about Neil. It’s about a foreigner who wanders into the tunnel and encounters a representation of her own fear. That never changed. I’m sure another director would have done different things with the concept, maybe more interesting, maybe less, but that’s exactly what was so appealing about the idea in the first place.
If you’ve had this thing for two years and the best version of the script is still the first one, and you know there has to be less dialogue but you can’t decide which lines to cut, doesn’t that mean it’s pretty filmable? We all know the screenplay is messy but good. What’s wrong with a film that’s messy but good? The Lady from Shanghai is messy but good. The Lord of the Rings is messy but good. [Peter’s previous short film] Better than De Niro is messy but good. “Messy but good” is not a terrible category for a film. It’s infinitely preferable to “flawless but without soul.”
The subject of Force Majeure is Neil. If you want to figure out how to do the movie, you’ve got to start there. If you can’t figure it out, jettison the fucker and move on to something else.
This exchange took place in 2009, and Force Majeure was never produced