Mark Joffe – The Man Who Sued God
After the success of Spotswood and Cosi, Mark Joffe tried the Hollywood route with the misfire The Matchmaker. He returned to Australia with The Man Who Sued God, starring Billy Connolly and Judy Davis. FILMINK's Angie Fox reports.
At a time when insurance companies worldwide were panicking over the possibility of massive payouts, the new Australian movie The Man Who Sued God not only puts managers of Sydney's insurance companies in the witness box, but the heads of various religious institutions also come under scrutiny. However, it's not all politics and hypocrisy; The Man Who Sued God is ultimately a comedy, based on a terrific idea that Mark Joffe has been carrying around with him for about fifteen years.
As the title suggests, the film tells the story of a man who decides to sue God when his fishing boat is destroyed by lightning and his insurance company refuses to pay, deeming it an 'act of god'. What follows is an at times hilarious and sometimes trite adventure through the Federal Court, in the public eye and amid various other unfolding conflicts.
“I thought it was a great idea, subversive and commercial. It was just something a bit left of centre and unusual, not the typical hokum that is out there. People have found the film unpredictable, which is nice, because if you feel you have to do a certain thing to be unpredictable you don't often end up with the kind of film you want,” says Joffe.
After working with various writers over the years, Joffe teamed up with producer Ben Gannon in the early '90s and ultimately sought out the collaboration of writer Don Watson. “We had worked with many different writers, all good ones, but all having very different takes on the concept. It wasn't until Don put it together with us that we felt it might finally get done,” says Joffe.
Joffe asserts that his involvement in the collaboration during the early stages was “quite total. I am a director not a writer, but I'm not bad at editing and working with writers, throwing up ideas. There were a lot of early ideas that we came back to that were mine but most of the ideas that originated from the writer. We just sort of moulded it in to a film that we thought would work.”
For Joffe, the opportunity to bring his own take, taste and instincts to the film was a challenge he relished. “What is reflected in the film is the great joy of working on something that you really like rather than just taking a job for money or playing 'the director'.”
Through work on a project that potentially had infinite plot lines and themes, Joffe has learnt the value of trusting his instincts. “There are no specifics about what a director should bring to a film. All that really matters in the working of it is what ends up on the screen and that is instinctive. I've been doing it for so long I just had to back my own taste.”
Joffe talks about the pleasure of the creative process, especially the collaborative aspect. Despite his fairly strong ideas about the concept, his lengthy involvement with the project saw him encounter a plethora of ideas about the direction he could take. Recalls Joffe, “In 1992, Miramax were interested and Harvey Weinstein was like 'oh it's a great idea. We'll get George Burns to play God and Paul Newman will be in it…' and I was like 'hey, God is not a character. He is in it but he can't be played by anyone'. And maybe that would have been right too, there were just different takes on it all the time.”
From an early stage the stars, Billy Connolly and Judy Davis, contributed greatly to the final product. They were both involved in developing their characters and tweaking dialogue. According to Joffe, he and Gannon were single-minded in their pursuit of Connolly once they had latched on to the idea of him. “I thought he was perfect for the part; irreverent, a smart actor. We needed someone that had lived a bit of a life, not a commercially viable 28-year-old. What is gratifying is that a lot of people think the part was written for him.”
An old friend of Joffe's, Davis had expressed interest in the script in the early '90s. “Although she varied her performance, Judy got in to her character very easily. In fact both of them were on top of their form from the beginning.”
Joffe is very happy to finally “give birth” to this project so long in the making. The welcome completion of The Man Who Sued God prompts Joffe to impart an insight into the fleeting nature of the business. “The film was very close to not being made, really close to not being made. We decided that it had to be made for a certain budget otherwise it wasn't going to be what we wanted it to be and you can only compromise so much. But somehow we got it together through the generosity of a lot of people whose effort and money will hopefully be repaid.”