Matthew Chapman – The Ledge

July 04, 2011

It’s not often that Hollywood takes up the subject of atheism directly—much less sympathetically.

Even rarer is finding this in a film starring major names like Liv Tyler and Terence Howard.

But that’s what Matthew Chapman has achieved in The Ledge—which also stars Patrick Wilson and Charlie Hunnan.

Besides being a screenwriter and author, Chapman himself is an atheist, freethinker, science advocate, and great-great grandson of Charles Darwin.

Without giving away the plot of The Ledge—which opens on July 8 in New York and Los Angeles—suffice it to say that it is a gutsy defense of freethinking and unbelief, framed as a star-studded romantic thriller. And perhaps even more than any work of nonfiction, it may have a unique potential to drive a national conversation about atheism.

So recently, Chris Mooney caught up with Matthew Chapman for lunch in New York City to interview him about the film, what inspired it, and what he hopes its impact will be.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, July 4th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. 

Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

Have a look around in the world, just seems empty to you. 

Oh, yeah. It ever occurred to you that maybe it’s because you don’t have God in your life? 

Well, you just heard is an exchange between the Christian character played by Patrick Wilson and the atheist character played by Charlie Henein in the new film The Ledge. It also stars Liv Tyler and Terrence Howard. The film was written and directed by Matthew Chatmon, an atheist, a science advocate, and as it happens, the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin. Now, without giving away the plot of this one, it opens July 8th in New York and Los Angeles. Let me just say that it’s a very, very gutsy defensive Athie ism, albeit framed as a star studded romantic thriller. But that’s just the point. Perhaps even more than a work of nonfiction, this Hollywood vessel, this act of storytelling may have a unique potential to drive a national conversation about science, religion, Athie ism and its place in our society. So recently, I caught up with Matthew Chapman for lunch in New York City. I wanted to interview him about the film, find out what inspired it, and learn what he hopes its impact will be. Matthew Chapman, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Great to be here. 

So a few years back, I interviewed you, don’t you remember, for an online print item? And I called you Darwin’s Dangerous Descendants. 

Herman Miller. And I had no idea then how dangerous you actually are until I saw your new film allege things just kind of as controversy written all over it. Wouldn’t you say? 

Well, I hope it does. Yeah, I’m looking forward to going to that. 

It’s up. It’s labeled the first film to feature an openly atheist hero in a Hollywood production. How did the cast feel about doing a movie that dramatized ageism in this way and basically told the story of science, religion, conflict? 

Well, I think they were I think actors really, they look at a role and they sink into it. They don’t need to be philosophically in agreement with it. And the script, as you may have seen, reading from from seeing the movie, you know, it’s a very detailed script that has a lot of dialog in it. So they look at the dialog and they say there’s a lot of it. And they think this is an interesting challenge because in most Hollywood movies, there’s very little dialog and a lot of action. 

Well, we don’t want to give too much away. We want people to see the film. Give us the teaser version of what happens just to get listeners draw them out of it. 

Well, the movie starts with a man basically standing on a ledge about to commit suicide. And a cop is the sent trying to talk him down. Who has, it turns out, his own issues. And after a while, sort of within about 20 minutes, you realize that the man on the ledge doesn’t want to jump. He’s being forced to jump. It’s a test of his faith or lack of it, because, in fact, he’s an atheist and he’s come in conflict with a religious person. And that’s really the basis. Yeah. 

And then it goes on from there. And I got to ask you, is it meant to be set in New Orleans? I mean, I know you shot in Louisiana as a hometown boy. I feel like I recognize some scenes. I know, but ageism. But there’s plenty of hedonism, at least in the tourist industry, which this is also set in the tourist. 

Yeah, well, it was actually I was going to shoot in New Orleans and then I ended up shooting it in Baton Rouge. 

Yeah. And which has a sort of similar feel to New Orleans, like New Orleans without the fun sagana, because I like those scenes by the water. 

I thought I was seeing the what? 

Well, yeah, it’s very like the most. It’s the same. The Mississippi, the mists. Yeah. And I’m done with Salino. We shot in Baton Rouge, which is less fun. 

Do you think Hollywood is more ready for this sort of thing than it used to be? I mean, could you have always done a movie like this? 

It seems to me that the time was when atheist or at least skeptics, they were not sordidness are the bad guy. 

And maybe sometimes but they were always proved wrong by the movie because, you know, the monster they said didn’t exist was standing behind them. And like something like the X Files seemed like. 

Yeah, well, I mean, I’d love to say that I think things have changed for the better, but I actually think that almost every movie you see that comes out of Hollywood has an underlying message that you have to have faith. I mean, when did you ever hear an action hero say you’ve got to have reasons? You know, they always say, oh, you’re gonna have made a in your film. I’m not sure the Hatchard here. Yeah. So I think I actually think that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. I mean, that gave birth to a lot of faith based films. And to one degree or another, sort of. And I think that’s this is this I hope is the antidote to that. 

It’s a it’s a good comparison, actually. I want to say more in complete inverse comparison. Right. But let me first start let listeners know. Matthew Chapman’s new film, The Ledge, is premiering on July eight at the IFC Center in New York and Sunset five in Los Angeles. And you can learn more about the film at Ledge movie dot com. The film seems like sort of the culmination of a path you’ve been on for some time. You wrote about the Believer evolution trial. You wrote about your family Herridge. 

You organize the science debate group in the 2000 election. I worked with you on that. So you were a science literacy activist, but you’ve also explored science, religion tensions for a while. When did you realize that the place for Athie ism was in a major film like this? 

Well, that’s that’s a really interesting question. And. I think it kind of evolved out of the two books that I wrote. You know, one of which was about the Scopes trial in Tennessee, at least on the face of it. And the other one was in in rural Pennsylvania, where I met a lot of religious people. And I know that it’s very easy if, you know, if you live in New York or Los Angeles or Washington should be unaware of the fact that there is a huge number of people in the middle who are very religious and make life very difficult for people who are not religious. And the government education, all of these things are kind of in some way driven by religion. And I also, you know, I being an atheist, I had been to a lot of atheist conferences and read the ledger and talked to people. And I just thought that the the way in which the argument was being made for Athie ism was in a way missing the point of the psychology of the religious believer. Because if you look if you go to a religious service, the appeal is not to your intellect, it’s to your emotions. 

And nothing can do a better job than film or bad music. But I think film more than anything to make an argument that need not be irrational and can in fact be intellectual, but which also has the weight of emotion behind it. 

And I actually have two stories of of having shown the film to people in large groups. One one in Sundance and in the Sundance screening, I was showing the film and afterwards it’s over. An argument broke out because there are a group of people from Fuller Seminary who’d come to look at sort of a religious films in Sundance. And at the end of the screening, a little argument broke out and then suddenly one of these women from the Fuller Seminary stood up with tears streaming down her face and said, I just want to apologize on behalf of my religion for all the harm we’ve done to people like you. I couldn’t believe it. And I mean, the whole theater went completely silent, but she had been emotionally moved by seeing the painful consequences of a kind of religious persecution. 

The other story I have is something I heard yesterday, actually, from someone who’s working on on the film who had sent a copy of the alleged to her mother, who is a flat out Pentecostal believer, as speaking in tongues and the whole thing. 

I mean, really kind of dyed in the wool Pentecostal, Pentecostal. She said the movie grandmother with some trepidation. The mother hadn’t had had not spoken to one of her nephews who she had previously been very fond of for five years because he was gay. She watched the movie as the end credits were rolling. She picked up the phone. She called the nephew and said, I want to be friends with you again. 

I’m so sorry about this rift that has grown up between us. So I think that in this way, the Ledger’s obviously is not intellectual, like the kind of big atheist books are, but is not lacking in intellectual content. And it has this emotionally persuasive power which might actually get to the hearts of people who we actually want to convert and that ones we’d be talking to them rather than talking to ourselves. And that’s my big hope for the movie. 

Well, I hope you keep telling those stories because made people want to want to see the film. There is an electoral concern and one of the most important scenes is this big debate between the believer and the unbeliever. I mean, and it gets heavy. This is not one of those late night two hits from the Bong College conversations where you try to figure out the meaning of it all. I mean, they they don’t come closer. They come. They go further. 

Yeah. No, they’re very serious conversations. And I mean, Turtur to atheists who’ve been atheist for a long time, they’ll obviously be familiar arguments. But again, someone else after screening a young guy came up to me and said, this movie is an atheist manifesto for young people. So, you know these. That’s a wonderful thing to hear. And, you know, I think a lot of people in America, particularly young people, are doubting their faith, but they haven’t even got to the point of looking at the basic arguments you can use to defend yourself. And in that conversation, you have both sides represented, I think, fairly well. 

I mean, I got the arguments of the fundamentalists from fundamentalists I know and from books I’ve read by people who write on that kind of thing. And from all the arguments that we all know, that persuasive the earth, those arguments before. 

Yeah, I’ve heard that. 

I’ve had some some aspects of that conversation. I think this point about story in drama and making people feel is so important. You and I have had a conversation for I remember what it was, but we talked about why you like to write about trials. I mean, you wrote about Dover and you wrote about, you know, Scopes in retrospect, because the trial is a natural, dramatic structure, you know, beginning tension, you know, some kind of conclusion and a lot at stake. Certainly that’s your too. But it’s certainly a different genre now. And what would you characterize this as well? 

I would certainly love it if people saw it as a thriller and that my feeling about the thriller is that it’s actually a form that you can you can load a lot of stuff into a thriller. That people don’t feel it’s broccoli that’s being fed to them. If you hook people in a dramatic way, is he going to jump off the ledge? How do we get there? What’s going to happen then along the way, while they still have that question sort of in their being? Then you can feed them a lot of other stuff that is, you know, relevant to the story, but also has a lot of weight to it. 

I got you. Let me let listeners know again that Matthew Chapman’s new film, The Largest, premiering July 8th at the IFC Center in New York and at sunset fired in L.A.. And you can learn more at ledge movie dot com. Let’s talk about some responses or expected responses. We have at least two communities here who are going to respond to this movie with strong opinions. 

We have atheists and the others. Let’s take the atheist first. What are what do they think? What do they say so far? 

Well, on the whole, it’s been very positive. The story, which stars Liv Tyler as the wife of a fundamentalist who’s played by Patrick Wilson, both of whom have had a very difficult dopp life and have found solace in the church and support. A really sort of, if you like, addicted to the church as a way of making their way through life. 

You have those two characters. You have The Atheist played by Charlie Hunnam, and you have the cop played by Terrence Howard, who was trying to talk Charlie’s character down off the ledge. And each of them have their own complicated issues. I mean, Terrence has found out something about his marriage that requires an almost superhuman kind of forgiveness. Charlie has suffered a lot in the past. Liv Tyler has suffered a lot and been rescued, if you like, by this man. And this man has had a very dark past and has found a way to survive through the church. 

The negative comments I have had are from people saying that they wished Liv Tyler’s character was stronger. Well, I mean, the whole point of her is, is that she’s not strong. She’s suffered, been beaten up. She’s an ex prostitute. And in the end, what she does is she does reject submission in all its forms. I won’t go any further than that. 

But again, this is one of the moments that is as pure film moment. And the reaction to it is purely emotional. I’ve had a lot of women come up to me and say I lived in an abusive relationship like Liv Tyler did with Patrick Wilson. 

And it was so inspiring to see the moment where she made up her mind what she was going to do. And what that turns out to be when you talk to them is a five second close up where Lives says nothing, but raises her head and walks away. And that’s the power of movies. You just these little things that you never even think about, even as a filmmaker, can have an enormous emotional impact and affect the way people think and live. 

When we talked about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a movie that obviously on the completely opposite side of the spectrum, but it did, one thing you can say for is that it brought out a huge community of like minded supporters. Right. I mean, they were telling everybody at church, go see passion and price, and they made it into the big hit. Can you organize atheists to do something like that? 

Well, that that that that is really the that’s the number one question that I I’m really hoping that he will come out of his movie. I mean, most atheists who have shown to show that the American Atheists conference in Iowa and their response would lying largely, I mean, enormously positive. I’m hoping people will come over Emmonak particularly. It’s available on it’s being released in an unusual way of being released. Video on demand first for a month and then I go, Yeah. And then it goes theatrical. But really, what I what I wanted for this film was not that it would open in Los Angeles, in New York, where in a sense is the least important cities in America for the film to open. 

I wanted to open in the smaller towns in America where religion is oppressive and where life can be difficult. 

And the film can give support to those who are kind of trying to come out of the closet as atheists or want support for their arguments or just as or get the Bago, because unless the movie opens in a theater in a small town, it can exist sort of underground once it’s in the theater. The newspaper has to announce that people start talking about a TV, covers it and it comes out. So it’s very important, particularly for the first weekend of this film, that atheists in New York and Los Angeles. The surrounding areas come to every possible screening because if it does well during that first weekend, then it will open wide and then it’ll reach the people. But I think we all can see things like this and you use the phrase coming out. 

I mean, without you’d like to see that, you know, that this strengthens people who want to do that. You have actually, you know, of an atheist character’s roommate is a as a gay character. 

Well, I mean, I think there is a I think there is a connection. I just wrote a piece in the Huffington Post called The Atheist in the Closet. And I made the case that there was a parallel between being atheist and being gay and trying to come out of the closet in those kinds of places. And of course, there’s a numerical similarity between the two. 

It’s thought this four percent of Americans gay and four percent are atheists by various polls. But it’s actually wow, as an atheist, one doesn’t get beaten up so much because a lot of us are still in the closet. It is actually atheists are more unpopular than gay people. I mean, there is that poll that says that. Fifty five percent would consider voting for a presidential candidate who is gay, but only 45 percent would consider voting for an atheist. So in a way, the prejudice against atheists is more is what is more pervasive. 

So, yeah, I would I would say that it’s important for atheists to come out anything that is thought of as suspicious. And after I wrote this article, I got 500 comments from people who had read the article on Huffington Post and who were speaking about what it was like to be atheist in smaller communities in America. 

What it was like when they came out or the fact they just felt they couldn’t come out because they’d get such grief from their families, from the community, from their employers. So, I mean, I it’s clearly a real issue. 

Yeah, but they’ve all experienced some version of that arguments also. 

You know, you have to figure that’s the case. Would you characterize the atheist characters? Yeah. Is fiction fictional name. 

Do you characterize him as a new age? Is the middle of road eight. Is there any particular genre? There is. 

I would characterize it as a Matthew Chapman idea. I mean, he’s ready. Well, I mean, I wrote the thing. Never really expected he would get made because of the you know, there’s a sort of general sort of spiritual kind of feel to Hollywood. Believe it or not, you know, I believe that there’s a lot of Judaism all this year, but there’s also a tremendous amount of new age stuff and crystals and all that stuff. So I didn’t think I’d sort of break through that. Now she get it made. So I just wrote the character kind of based on a younger, better looking guy than me. But cut with my views with my and with my sort of slightly sinful past is not here. No, he’s not. Neither he nor the fundamentalist are perfect characters. And so many he’s just a he’s just one kind of an atheist that only belongs to any movement. I think he believes very strongly in what he believes in. Yeah. So I couldn’t really say on what. 

Well, I was gonna ask you about the potential response from from the Christian community. But first, you raised the point that I just can’t let go. You said you didn’t think it was any of made then it did somehow is a story there. 

Well, I. I like to think the script was very good. I mean, it was a tough somehow I worked on very hard. And I think sometimes that even in Hollywood, if you write something that is really truthful and authentic and is a real reflection of you as an artist, if I may use that expression in a Hollywood context, then it affects people. It does actually get to them. It reaches some part of them that recognizes authenticity no matter what. And then I got a producer called Michael Mailer, who is Norman Mailer’s son. And then it reached through Michael Mark Damon, who produced the film Monster with Charlize Theron, who is actually kind of moral as an atheist himself. And so, you know, it was a mixture of luck and skill. 

Well, congratulations on that point. And then so let’s talk about Christian community. I don’t know if you’ve gotten any response. I can’t imagine they’re going to be happy with their representative. 

And what happens in what are they saying? 

Anything? Well, yeah. I mean, they they say what I knew they would say, which is while most Christians on like this. Because this is a fundamentalist. Yeah. This is an evangelical fundamentalist Christian who is really held together by his faith. I remember writing once. I think him one of my books that sometimes you meet people for whom faith is not a choice. It’s an absolute necessity. And he is one of those characters. He just wouldn’t be able to survive without it or. Therapies he wouldn’t be able to afford. But I mean, you have to say that also the atheist is not your typical atheist, your typical atheist, right. Doesn’t speak about being an atheist, isn’t liable to get into fights about it. 

So I could have written a story about a very mild mannered atheist and a Quaker sitting in a room, and it would have been very boring. 

So I totally stood then, that’s for sure. But neither of them are that extreme. 

I mean, we know lots of atheists like Gavin who are very outspoken about it. And I certainly know many fundamentalists like the Patrick Wilson character, Joe. And in fact, he’s based on a character I met in Tennessee. But I do think that what I’m going to suffer from most is people who are people of faith writing reviews and not admitting what their bias is. At least I’m honest in my mind. And that’s what I dread because I have had it happen once already from a guy who it turned out, who wrote a tiny review in some little place. And I had his I looked at the name and then I found out that his real his moniker, if you like, was the culturally savvy Christian. And he had written something about this character of Joe being kind of overblown and not really like that, etc.. But then he got in a battle with not a battle, but an argument with some of the people from the Fuller Seminary who had also seen the film. And they were likewise deriding this fundamentalist character. And he thought they were deriding it too much because after all, he was culturally savvy Chris Mooney. So he wrote them quite by chance. I saw this saying, well, actually, you know, there are people like that. And, um, I as a divorced man, I dated a Christian woman. 

And when she went home and told her father that she was dating a divorced man, he pulled a gun on it. 

So it’s a little bit more common than everybody knows, but probably still not pretty common. I mean, you have to have a drama. I mean, where we ended, we ended. We understand. Yeah. Let me again inform our listeners of Matthew Chapman’s new film. The Ledge is premiering on July eight at the IFC Center in New York and Sunset five in L.A. And you can figure out more alleged movie dot com. I mean, you’ve made me realize something in thinking about all this. And that is. 

I don’t think and I’ve written and said that the science, religion conflict story is always true. I don’t think it’s always true. 

But it’s a really good story. Yeah, it’s because what do you want in a story more than conflict? And, you know, too good and evil, what have you. Science and religion. I mean, it’s pretty elemental drama. And I’m much more surprised isn’t taxed more. I am, too. 

And I hope that after this film of this film does well, I hope other people will come forward with more stories like this. And I think that Inherit the Wind was actually a wonderful play and a wonderful movie that dealt with all kinds of serious stuff. That issue was the fate of a teacher who really didn’t have much to do with the whole thing. But it was a terrific piece of work and there hasn’t really been anything that I can think of like that since. 

You think we’re afraid of that. I mean, it’s maybe just gets too close. 

I think that I mean, it’s it’s it goes to a much more wider question about what’s happened to Hollywood and the studios now owned by corporations who want to sell as many cars, trucks, fume whiskey movies as they can do as many people as possible. 

And so you no longer have those individuals running the studios who had the power to say, well, it’s kind of an interesting story. I’m going to go for it no matter what. The whole thing is very corporate. So this was an independent movie. And I don’t think would have been considered by a studio. 

We just had a movie about your great guy. We did have a Darwin movie make its way through. 

Yeah. And a very nice, tasteful piece of work it was, too. Yeah. Not a bad film at all, but it doesn’t have the aggressive potential. This film has of actually getting people to think about God and no God. 

So if somebody calls you up and they say they want the script for the Galileo story, will you take that side of it? 

You know, I might. That would be that’d be interesting. I am writing a movie. 

Well, I’m actually getting ready to I’m casting trying to get cast a film set in 15th century Florence in the Zone and the Renaissance. But at a time when the church was very dominant and it’s a sort of it has a sort of similar kind of Trojan horse structure as the ledge, that it’s a sort of a love story that. But it’s set against a very oppressive religious background and it’s all about belief in No. 

Well, I guess, you know, let me just if I could ask you some closing thoughts. I mean, what is your what is your ideal scenario for this movie? What happens? 

You know, my ideal scenario for this movie is it does well in its opening weekend in New York and Los Angeles on the 8th, 10th of July. And then it goes out to theaters across the country and people get an opportunity to see it and talk about it. It becomes visible so long as it just stays on video, on demand. In a sense, it’s the movie in the closet. And I would like I think it deserves a theatrical distribution where it’s out there in the public. People can see it. People can talk about it. They walk past the theater. They see this. They’ve heard something about it. They said, you heard about this thing. We let’s go and see it. And then they talk about it. Got to be my I don’t know. It’s done. It’s doing very well internationally. It opened in Russia and it came in third. It beat Thor. 

Believe it or not. So it’s not an uncommercial cultural difference. You say, you know, Russia is not the same as America, but I thought I’d throw that in there. It does have a genuine commercial appeal. 

I’m gonna sit and enjoy a good thriller and a love story and look at the most beautiful Liv Tyler and the very handsome Charlie Harmon, the brilliant Patrick Wilson and Terrence Howard, and really just enjoy as a movie. 

It just does remind me of one more analogy of a film. I don’t know how you would like in years do it. You know, Religulous, Religulous got moments because it’s Domar is very, very funny. 

Well, I’m a huge fan of Billman. In fact, I would love to go on Bill Maher’s show and talk about this, because that’s the way you get everything. You start moving out into the mainstream. 

And, um, yeah, no religion and religious was very funny. And he’s a he’s a great character. I love my mom. 

Okay. Well, you know, as a man who made the film featuring the first atheist protagonist center of the story, your closing thoughts as an atheist auteur? 

I think it’s our time. It’s as simple as that, I think. You know, you have Obama recognized this in his acceptance speech. The Book of Mormon, clearly an atheist play musical, won nine Tonys and is forever the most successful musical in Broadway history. And they have the ledge. And if you want to be a good atheist and push out and support atheist efforts, you couldn’t support anything better than this because this can reach an audience that we very, very, very rarely reach. And that’s enormously important. 

Well, Matthew Chapman, it’s great to be here with you in New York City. And it’s interview in person. And I wish you best of luck with the film. Thank you. Chris. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Matthew Chapman’s new film, The Ledge. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg. 

One of inquiry is produced by Atomize Atomizing and AMR’s New York. Our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. The show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney