You loved the trailer, now see the movie!

Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

In related news, people like Anne Thompson have been hearing very good things about Iron Man, now that it has screened for exhibitors; meanwhile, Nikki Finke spells out various reasons why some people should keep their box-office expectations low-ish.

Yep, that’s me in Heeb magazine.

A few months ago, I spoke for about an hour to Eric Kohn, a writer for Heeb magazine, about Christian films and Christian perceptions of Hollywood (including the perception some have that it is “controlled by secular Jews”, to quote one particularly outspoken activist). About four sentences from our chat are quoted in the article, which is now online — and that seems about par for the course — but I recognize much of our conservation in the various other topics that Kohn touches on, too.

Expelled — the interview’s up!

My interview with Ben Stein, the star and co-writer of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, is now up at CT Movies. I may post a longer version here in a few days. My interview with Expelled co-writer Kevin Miller has also been up at In The World, a sister publication to BC Christian News, for the past month or two or three.

APR 18 UPDATE: Here it is, the full unexpurgated interview!

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By Peter T. Chattaway

“Darwin? Darwin?” Ben Stein never asks that question in his newest movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, but he could have.

Stein got his start as a lawyer and a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford, and in more recent years he has written books, offered investment advice, and hosted both a game show (Win Ben Stein’s Money) and a reality TV show (America’s Most Smartest Model) — but he is probably still best-known for playing the boring high-school economics teacher who took attendance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Now Stein is tackling education of a different kind, as the star of a documentary about the Intelligent Design movement — and the academic establishment’s efforts to stifle the debate over the limitations of evolutionary theory that many ID advocates have been calling for. The film comes out in April, but Stein spoke to CT Movies by phone in November, when the film was still in the rough-cut stage.

Doing this kind of publicity for a film before it’s finished — is that common in your experience?

Ben Stein: I don’t know if it’s common or uncommon. I have never been the star of a movie before, so this is a first for me. I’m not an expert in this area. I’ve been in a great, great many movies, but I’ve never been the star of a movie before.

How did you get involved in this particular movie?

Stein: Walt Ruloff [co-writer and co-producer of the film through Premise Media] called me and asked me if I would talk to him when I was up in Seattle doing a speech, and he showed me a whole bunch of very interesting slides and moving pictures about the cell, and we talked a lot about the historical effects of Darwinism and Social Darwinism, and he asked me if I would like to host a discussion about where Darwinism had gaps and where there were some unanswered questions about evolution and where organic life came from, and he said he would be eager to have me involved, and I could have a teeny little bit of input into the storyline, so to speak, and I told him I was especially horrified by what Darwinism’s social and historical impact had been on Jews, and that that would motivate me to try to get some involvement in the project. And so that was pretty much how I got going.

Do you know why Walt approached you for this?

Stein: I think he wanted a conservative in Hollywood, and there was a small list. A “short list,” I guess you might say.

How far along was the film when you got involved?

Stein: I don’t think any of it had been done, because we had meeting after meeting to discuss it. I was meeting with Walt and also with another fellow, Steve Meyer, a very smart fellow. We discussed it many, many times.

Do you conduct the interviews yourself?

Stein: I conduct some of them, but there are an awful lot that I don’t conduct. There’s another fellow named Mark Mathis, a very nice fellow, he does a lot of them too.

How long was the film in development before you began shooting anything?

Stein: Probably six, eight months. Yeah, we were talking about it a long time.

How familiar were you with the subject of Intelligent Design prior to this?

Stein: Not at all. I’m still not that familiar with it. I’m more familiar with it than most people, but nowhere near as familiar with it as a genuine expert in the subject would be. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, I’m no scientist, I don’t pretend to be, I’m sort of the person who moderates the discussion between and among the scientists.

What were those six to eight months like, in terms of becoming exposed to the subject?

Stein: Well for me, they were pretty much like any other six to eight months, because these meetings would only happen occasionally, and we’d sit around a big table and talk, and I’ve been in many meetings where we’ve sat around big tables and talked.

Were you doing a lot of reading?

Stein: Well I had some books. They sent me some books, some of which I read, some of which I did not read, and one of which I read cover to cover — From Darwin to Hitler — and that was a very, very interesting book, although I thought frankly it could have been even longer. It was one of these rare books I wish had been even longer.

Why did that book stand out for you?

Stein: Because it’s such an interesting subject. It’s about how Darwin’s theory — supposedly concocted by this mild-mannered saintly man with the flowing white beard like Santa Claus — led to the murder of millions of innocent people, maybe tens of millions.

Inevitably, this subject gets into the overlap between science and religion, and I’m curious as to what your own perspective is on this, or where you’re coming from. Do you have any sort of religious inclination yourself?

Stein: Well, I’m Jewish, and I believe in God, and I have always believed that there is a God who was the prime mover in the universe, so that it’s not hard for me to think of him as the Intelligent Designer.

And has your research into Intelligent Design and the debate around that affected your beliefs at all?

Stein: Yes, it has made my belief in that much stronger. It has pointed out something which haunted me as soon as I ever learned about Darwinism, which is where did it all start? How did life start? Okay, suppose we have some good idea about how it evolved. How did it start? And Darwinism has nothing to say about that — nothing useful, anyway — but I think Intelligent Design has a great deal to say about it.

I’ve only done limited reading on the subject myself, but just yesterday, I read an interview with [ID advocate] Phillip Johnson, who said that, as a scientific theory, Intelligent Design doesn’t necessarily lead to God, it could lead to an alien, or something like that.

Stein: I know, and that part has always struck me as– That’s not part of my view of it, let’s put it that way. Because then where did those people come from? If there are people from another planet, where did they come from?

Right. My understanding is that Intelligent Design advocates have tried to remain officially agnostic on that sort of question —

Stein: Well, they can be as officially agnostic as they want. I think the Designer is God.

Right. Because the trailer for your film is very up-front about the God aspect.

Stein: Right. Well I think that’s perfectly sensible, because I feel very strongly that there is a God and he’s the guy who did it.

Do you feel that, at the risk of sounding sensationalistic, by putting God so front-and-centre, you are blowing the ID scientists’ cover?

Stein: No, because I’m not speaking for them. I’m not speaking for them, I’m just speaking for me. And just for me, it’s pretty clear-cut, at least to me, that until we learn some better explanation for how life began, there was a God and is a God who always existed and created the heavens and the earth. And until somebody gives me a better explanation, I’ll go for it. And if scientists say, “Oh, it’s a supernatural explanation,” well fine, it’s a supernatural explanation. I think that’s the only explanation that we have at this point. So until we get a better explanation, I’ll go with the supernatural one.

And by the way, it doesn’t scare me at all when scientists say, “Oh, but that can’t be proved,” because neither can any of the Darwinian hypotheses about how life began be proved. And anyway I don’t believe that everything requires scientific proof.

And let me just tell you something else: I couldn’t give a Goddamn whether a person calls himself a scientist. It doesn’t earn any extra respect from me, because I don’t feel at all — at all — as if science has covered itself with glory, morally, in my time. Scientists were the people in Germany telling Hitler that it was a good idea to kill all the Jews. Scientists were the people in Russia telling Stalin it was a good idea to wipe out the middle-class peasants. Scientists were the people in China telling Mao Tse-Tung it was fine to kill 50,000,000 people in order to further the revolution.

What if someone said evolution is true and it doesn’t matter how it has been used?

Stein: But I don’t believe it is true. And aside from modification within species, I don’t think anyone has ever been able to prove one species that evolved by Darwinian means. And again, it’s incomprehensible to me how Darwinism could explain something as complex as the organic cell, and it’s incomprehensible to me how Darwinism could explain how life began, and they don’t even try.

Right. But if they said you were choosing the theory you prefer based on something other than whether the theory is true, what would you say to that?

Stein: I’m choosing a theory that seems to fit the evidence as well as my intuitive feeling of awe in the face of God, and if they can present me with evidence about how the world began and how the cell got so complex, I’ll be glad to re-examine my beliefs.

Some people — including some Christians who do accept Darwinian science — have said that Intelligent Design is just a new version of the “God of the gaps” theory, which was criticized many years ago because as the gaps in our knowledge grew smaller, God would grow smaller, too.

Stein: Well, that may be what Intelligent Design is, but I think if the God we’re talking about created the heavens and the earth, that’s a pretty big God. You can call God the “God of the gaps,” but if the God of the gaps is the God who created the heavens and the earth, and created all the living things within that, then that’s an awfully big God.

So you don’t think the gaps in our knowledge would ever get so small that God would get too small?

Stein: No, not in my lifetime.

One thing that is emphasized on the movie’s website is the openness of debate, freedom of expression, things like that.

Stein: Yes, we like freedom of debate.

What if somebody says, “Well, what do you do then with somebody who espouses flat earth theory?” What sort of limits are there on what sort of debate should be ongoing within a scientific context?

Stein: Well I’d like to have every kind of debate. The first kind of debate I’d like to be ongoing is, “Could you show us some evidence of species that have actually evolved? Second, could you show us how the cell got so complex? Third, could you explain to us how life began? And could you show us some examples of how individual species evolved — not how they modified within a species, but how they evolved?”

Some of the scientists who were interviewed for this film have alleged that they were deceived. Richard Dawkins and others have said they thought they were being interviewed for some other sort of film, and then they read about this film or saw the trailer for it. Any comment on that?

Stein: Well with all due respect to those nice people, I have no idea what they’re talking about. I didn’t book anything, I didn’t arrange any of the scheduling, and I never met any of them until the days that I did the interview.

But I do know that your friend and mine, Mr. Dawkins, was extremely well-paid on an hourly basis for his time, and when the interview was done, he didn’t ask, “What’s it about?” or “What’s it for?” or anything. All he wanted to know was, “Do you have my cheque?” — I remember that for sure — and I think he also said, “Have you made it reflect the absolutely most-up-to-date changes in the dollar versus the pound,” because we were paying him in dollars and the dollar is very weak versus the pound. And other than that, he didn’t ask any other questions.

Spielberg and the Star Trek connection

We all know that Steven Spielberg and the Star Wars franchise go back a long ways. A tiny R2-D2 model was even affixed to the alien mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which came to theatres only six or seven months after the original Star Wars itself. (See below for more details.) And after the kids in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) played with Greedo action figures and dressed up as Yoda for Halloween, George Lucas returned the favour by giving E.T. and his buddies a seat in the Galactic Senate in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).

But is Spielberg interested in Star Trek, too? I ask for two reasons.

One, I recently watched Close Encounters for the first time in decades — more on that later — and I noticed that the Richard Dreyfuss character has a toy Enterprise and a toy Klingon warship dangling from the ceiling above his train set. (You can see the toy Enterprise on the right-hand side of the screen capture above.) This, remember, would have been at a time when there were no Star Trek movies and no “next generation” spin-offs — just the original series and its short-lived animated follow-up.

Two, SlashFilm reports that it was Spielberg who persuaded J.J. Abrams to direct the new Star Trek film coming out next year — and Spielberg may have even helped Abrams direct a scene.

Are there any other clues I may have missed over the years?

Side note: I get a kick out of the way that SlashFilm report feels obliged to mention that “The USS Enterprise will be assembled in space, although parts of it will be assembled on Earth.” Believe it or not, there was a bit of a controversy over the location of the Enterprise‘s construction when the first teaser for the new film appeared three months ago and seemed to situate it on Earth.

Finally, re: that R2-D2 cameo in Close Encounters. You can see him here in the film, upside-down and lit from behind:

And apparently he’s still affixed to the original model, which is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Virginia:

Newsbites: Tree! Antichrist! Ollie! Pompeii!

Another week, another batch of news items.

1. The Screengrab links to a couple of items on Terrence Malick’s typically secretive film-in-progress Tree of Life. First, there is a casting call for “expectant moms” and “Infants one day to ten days old, as well as one-month olds, one-year-olds, and two year olds with brown hair and pale complexions.” Second, movie blogger Michael Corcoran happens to live three blocks from where the film is currently shooting, and he writes:

Smithville is standing in for 1950s Waco, where Malick grew up. We know this because the film has asked the Waco Tribune to make some mock 1950s front pages. Could this be Malick’s first personal memoir film?

Brad Pitt plays the father and Jessica Chastain is the mother of three boys, ages 7- 12. One scene filmed Tuesday was at a barbecue pit on Lee Street and one witness told me that Pitt was driving three boys in a vintage 1950’s car. The day before filming started, the three kids were hanging out at the house on Burleson Street where the title tree is planted. The temporary schoolhouse where all the kids are being tutored is across the street. I asked the teacher, the only adult around, if I could take a picture of the “Tree of Life” and one of the young co-stars, in a colorful Texas drawl, asked me if I knew which tree it was. I think we’ve found the film’s narrator.

A couple days before filming started, there was a casting call for newborn babies, which makes me think the film will follow those three boys from creation to old age or maybe even death. Isn’t the Tree of Life from the book of Genesis?

2. Variety says Lars von Trier will start shooting Antichrist in Germany this summer. In the past, this film has been described as “based on the theory that it was Satan, not God, who created the world” and a “psychological thriller that evolves into a horror film” about “cruelty between the sexes” — but now, Variety adds the detail that it will concern “a couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods to recover from the death of their child.” Sounds like fun.

3. Jerry Beck and Jim Hill report that Ollie Johnston, the legendary animator and last surviving member of Walt Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men‘, has passed away. He was 95 years old.

4. Newsweek says an Italian government official “plans to talk to Pixar and Warner Bros.” about using the ruins of Pompeii as a movie set. The Pixar Blog speculates that the Italians might be pitching the ruins as a possible set for John Carter of Mars, or perhaps for an entirely different project that has not yet been announced. At any rate, the locals are apparently concerned that the ruins might be “Disneyfied” by these sorts of plans.

Bill C-10 — another round of facts and opinions

At last, some interesting perspectives on the controversy over Bill C-10, the proposed law that would deny tax credits to Canadian films after they have been produced, if the government deems them to be offensive or contrary to the so-called public interest.

Alex Strachan, TV critic for the Canwest News Service, writes:

The group of high-profile filmmakers, writers, directors and producers gathering in Ottawa Thursday to protest the bill claim it’s an issue of freedom of speech.

The bill’s supporters, and there are a lot of them, claim it’s an issue of public funding.

They’re both wrong. Bill C-10 is a piece of tax legislation, pure and simple. And not a particularly well- thought-out one.

Public funding of film and TV projects is decided by agencies like Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fund long before a TV or film makes it on to the screen. Proposed projects have to jump through a dizzying number of hoops to get made, and can be derailed — or stopped outright — at any stage of the process. Any proposal featuring a gratuitous amount of sex, violence or other offensive material — whatever “offensive” means — is already at a distinct disadvantage when a fund manager at, say, the CTF has to decide between a degrading exploitation flick and a feel-good family comedy.

Public funding is not the same as a tax credit, though. There’s a difference between public funding, as represented by Telefilm, and tax credits, which are waivers on taxes due.

Economic decisions are just that — economic. As a general industry rule, one dollar spent on TV and film production generates four dollars in economic activity.

The only issue, then, facing a government banking committee should be to figure out how to generate more economic activity, not less.

Bill C-10 is an unnecessary, misguided, wrongheaded and shortsighted piece of legislation. Not because it’s censorship disguised as tax policy, which it may well be and which cultural critics insist it is, but because it’s bad economic policy. . . .

Meanwhile, the Canadian Press reports that large corporations have “scooped up the lion’s share of almost $1 billion in federal tax credits designed to stimulate Canadian film and video productions”, according to an internal study commissioned by the Finance Department:

Over a six-year period ending in 2005, corporate groups received 83 per cent of the $984 million in credits doled out, says the study. Independents, who do not need to use subsidiaries, got the rest.

The beneficiaries were also concentrated in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, with 90 per cent of the credits.

Lester found that almost 3,400 individual productions could be traced back to just 500 corporate groups, with one corporation having created 139 subsidiaries over the period. The top five per cent of corporations snagged 37 per cent of the credits.

Another 2,000 productions were by small independents.

The study, however, was not able to determine how the credit may have helped corporate groups churn out profits because the accounting trail is lost when the subsidiary is reabsorbed into the parent.

For the independents, however, the credit tended to tip the scales, with seven of 10 money-losing productions using the credit to make a profit in the end. . . .

Elsewhere, Marni Soupcoff of the National Post wonders why the feds should be subsidizing filmmakers in the first place, and suggests the anti-C-10 crowd may be guilty of a double standard:

I agree with Bill C-10’s critics that the idea of having the heritage minister start deeming certain movies and shows officially off-message is creepy and ill-advised. But it’s troubling to me that Mallick and others who have come down against Bill C-10 can’t even fathom that a possible solution to the problem is to stop doling out tax credits for films and television shows. Mallick describes Canada’s film industry as having “the size and strength of a doily.” Well, don’t expect it to get much stronger or more vibrant while it remains hobbled by a crippling dependence on government money.

It’s also interesting that Mallick and other Bill C-10 critics are so outraged by the potential of government censorship in the realm of television and movie tax credits, but don’t seem bothered by the fact that such “censorship” occurs indirectly all the time when decisions are made about which artists, dancers, poets, sculptors, authors, etc. get government grants. If it offends C-10 haters that a movie or television show might not get funded because of a subjective decision that it’s too out-there (or too intelligent or too funny or too offensive or too daring), then it should offend them equally that a visual arts project might not get funded because of the subjective decision of the Canada Council for the Arts that it’s too patriarchal (or too Anglocentric, or too bland, or too traditional). But C-10 haters are not equally offended. I suspect the reason is that they trust that the tastes and standards of the Canada Council and other grant-givers will reflect their own (refined, progressive, expansive), whereas they’re worried that the tastes and standards of a Conservative government will be parochial, narrow and reactionary. (Or in other words, different from their own.) . . .

Finally, George Jonas questions many of the arguments that typically come up during debates of this kind, but he ultimately comes down in favour of arts subsidies for his own set of reasons:

This isn’t an argument against subsidies. It’s just an acknowledgment that philistines are right when they intuit that “low” and “high” art cannot be separated by profitability alone. Whether or not a genre is popular doesn’t automatically determine its standing on some eternal scale of values, and how well books or paintings sell doesn’t speak to their quality one way or the other. Artists who rely on subsidies throughout their careers aren’t necessarily “high” artists; often they’re just substandard for the market. Ditto for entire industries that require grants to keep them afloat, from “small” publishers to makers of “art” movies.

However, while people who agree with these propositions usually consider them adequate arguments against subsidies, I don’t. For me, the case for subsidizing the arts isn’t dependent on some demonstrated ability of public funding to put Canadian movies on the cutting edge or set up an assembly-line for masterpieces.

Think of the mining industry. Most explorations don’t strike gold — but this would hardly be an argument against subsidizing explorations. We assist prospectors through direct grants or tax concessions, fully expecting them to shift tons of dirt for each ounce of precious metal.

It’s in the nation’s interest to keep explorations going, if only for the civilizing influence quests have on society, whether in mining or in art. The soil of culture needs to be constantly nourished for an occasional orchid to grow from it. Ultimately, having supported a thousand books, paintings or movies is amply justified by having supported one.

I guess the obvious follow-up question would be how we define “striking gold” or “growing an occasional orchid” within this context. Have we achieved success if someone makes a Canadian film that is excellent but ignored? Have we achieved it if a Canadian film is a hit at the box office? Etc., etc.

But that’s another question, or set of questions, for another time.