“If God is speaking to humanity through my books, and I believe God is, then surely God is speaking to humanity through this movie,” author Neale Donald Walsch said of “Conversations with God” during a recent Dallas interview in which he was accompanied by the picture’s producer-director Stephen Simon. Simon is also the co-founder and spokesman for The Spiritual Cinema Circle, a monthly DVD service that provides four films on spiritual subjects to subscribers each month. “Conversations” is the Circle’s first production, and is being distributed to theaters by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.
“When the Spiritual Cinema Circle launched in spring 2004,” Simon explained, “we became so successful so quickly, with subscribers in seventy countries, that by the fall of that year we decided that we wanted to make an original film. And we went to Neil in November, 2004, made a deal for the rights, and then started o develop the project.”
Walsch, who wrote the book on which the film is based–literally a conversation he had with God at a time when, having lost a radio job after a bout of homelessness, he was personally at a very low ebb–had met Simon some years ago, when he attended a preview screening of “What Dreams May Come” (which Simon produced), and got to know him better more recently, when he took a part in Simon’s first directorial project, “Indigo.”
“They were looking for some irascible, cranky old guy to play the grandfather in that movie, and this crazy guy asked me if I wanted to play the role,” Walsch said. “And I thought it would be fun. And we became fast friends.”
It was that existing relationship that led Walsch to offer the rights to “Conversations With God” to Simon, although he had turned down previous feelers from others. “I never really got any offers,” he explained, “but I did have many casual conversations and informal overtures from television and movie producers. But I was never really happy with what I was hearing–I never really had the sense that the material that I’d brought into the space through my books would be placed on film in a way that I could agree with. I didn’t hear any mention of a high level of collaborative input. I didn’t hear anything about a larger purpose in doing it. They just thought it would be marketable. So I really pushed back from the table a few times, and a few pushed back from me, too, I might add. When Stephen came to me, just the way he was talking made it clear to me very quickly that he understood the material [and] had a wonderful vision of how to bring it to the end, how to take material that frankly doesn’t lend itself to film and put it into motion pictures in a way that would make sense to my soul. There was a similarity of values that told me to say ‘yes’ to Stephen.
“And he also promised me a high level of collaborative input. I didn’t have creative control in the legal sense, but I didn’t need it, because Stephen’s word was good enough. He allowed me to be involved in the moviemaking process from the very beginning, even when the screenwriter was selected. Stephen didn’t want to make the decision without me. And that went on, right to the last part of the filmmaking process.”
The adaptation by Eric Delabarre casts the narrative in the form of a biographical portrait of Walsch (played by Henry Czerny) as he suffers a series of misfortunes before turning to God and writing “Conversations.” But both men insisted that the biographical element was secondary to the film’s central message, and that Czerny’s almost uncanny resemblance to Walsch in his manner wasn’t why he was cast.
“[Henry] wasn’t trying to, nor were we on the production team trying to find someone who could, duplicate or mimic me. That was never the intent,” Walsch said. “We never intended for this picture to be made as a biographical story of my life. It only covers five years of my life anyway. But more importantly, we did not access from the content that the focus should be ‘This is what happened to this guy.’ Rather the point of the film is, ‘This is what happens to all of us.’ We’ve all had our dark night of the soul. This is the shape that it took in my life, but everyone has their own story of that dark night of the soul. [Our interest was], would the illustration of that [in my case] be hopeful to people who see the film, so it could bring some new thought to humanity about itself and about the process of life? It’s really a story about James Thurber’s everyman, It’s a story about all of us who have surmounted challenges in life.”
“It’s a metaphor,” Simon said. And he saw the project as just the beginning. “Hopefully there will be hundreds of movies that deal with incredibly important topics to our humanity and show us paths through the darkness,” he added. “The purpose is to feel better about being human–that’s what spiritual entertainment is all about. The films [distributed by the Spiritual Cinema Center] are about spirituality, they’re not about the dogma or the rules of any particular religion. It’s just about being spiritual beings. There’s obviously a very deep hunger for that kind of entertainment, and we’re fulfilling that hunger. This is not about proselytizing, or converting people, or changing people’s minds. It’s really about people who are looking of this kind of entertainment, and when they find us they find it.”