METAPHYSICS GOES TO THE MOVIES:
An Interview with Stephen Simon
by Randy Peyser
Stephen Simon is a movie executive, producer and director with a string of hits, including, "The Goodbye Girl" starring Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss, as well as the metaphysical classic, "Somewhere In Time" starring Christopher Reeves. In the late '90's, he co-produced, "What Dreams May Come," an afterlife love story, starring Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Annabella Sciorra, and Max Von Sydow.
Stephen has now permanently left the mainstream Hollywood movie scene in order to create the "Spiritual Cinema Circle," a worldwide distribution entity that brings spiritual cinema to people's homes. He is also making more films, like the newly released movie, "Indigo," and a film version of the "Conversation with God" series of books by Neale Donald Walsch, to help establish spiritual cinema as a recognized genre unto itself.
Randy Peyser: You've had a very successful career in Hollywood. Why did you choose to permanently leave it?
Stephen Simon: I am committed to living my life as a "conscious metaphysician." To become conscious and to open others to the possibly unexplored aspects of their inner terrain through the medium of film has been my priority. I believe that the public is being under-served by not getting a steady diet of films which deliver conscious content and I wanted to help change that.
The movie industry is the only major entertainment industry that is behind the times in recognizing metaphysics and the exploration of consciousness as a genre. The publishing and music industries have recognized this for quite some time, with a plethora of publishing and music companies rapidly pumping out personal growth books, and audio tapes, and CDs to an eager audience. Most of the people in the movie industry do not have a recognizably conscious metaphysical nature. Therefore, they've tended to look upon metaphysically-based films as risky investments.
RP: Is that true? Is it riskier to make a metaphysical film?
SS: Metaphysical films are really not more risky than other types of films. They're actually safer and tout a higher success rate than any other genre, but are rarely copied by other filmmakers, or are rarely made to begin with. For example, the original "Die Hard" movie led to dozens of "Die Hard" rip-offs over the next couple of years, but when movies like "Ghost" or "Forrest Gump" or "Field of Dreams" were made, they were "stand alones."
"Metaphysically-based movies have been looked upon as anomalies. A lot of this is due to the corporatization of Hollywood. Every major studio is now owned by a major international company. The studio process used to be thirty-one flavors. Now there's no more rocky road fudge or strawberry cheesecake, it's basically all vanilla.
The days of the entrepreneur, the guys who went from their guts and their hearts and their souls, has for the most part, ended. The courage to go out and push the envelope has somewhat receded in favor of 'let's be safe, and copy what's worked before'.
Metaphysically motivated movies, which really began with, "It's A Wonderful Life," give people hope. They allow you to see yourself as something really extraordinary, and as a human being witnessing the potential of humanity. Everyone wants to see these kinds of films, yet the industry doesn't want to make them.
The main purpose of any movie, spiritual or otherwise, is to entertain. People do not like to be taught anything or be preached to when they go see a movie. Teaching has become the province of television, because it is a much less intimate and vulnerable experience. Going into a movie theater with a group of strangers and sitting in the dark under a fifty- foot screen, is an act of intimacy and vulnerability."
On the level of storytelling, after a hundred years of film making, the audience has developed an ability to enter into the particular world of a story, identify it, and abide by it in terms of its own rules and its own physics. The audience is able to suspend their understanding of their world, at least for the duration of that presentation, and is able to enter into the film completely. People want to be entertained, they want to be moved.
It is my passionate belief that the experience that people want when they see a movie is not to have a gun pointed at their heads so that they can see the bullet coming; it is to go inside and experience the wonders of what we feel in our meditations and in our dreams. That's what I see that I can help create in the world.
I want to help bring this new model of metaphysical storytelling forward, where viewers will become partners in witnessing the creation of a new kind of mythology, which focuses on bringing greater awareness to the inner realms through the medium of film.
RP: Did you get the results you were after when you premiered "What Dreams May Come?"
SS: Yes. Most people consider that film to be one of the classics in the Spiritual Cinema genre. It was everything and more that I wanted it to be and certainly my proudest professional moment as a film producer. The film received two Academy Award nominations and won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. It had a profound effect on my life because of an incident that happened a week after it opened in October 1998.
I got a phone call from a theater owner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who said that he had been contacted by a man who had a terminally ill daughter who wanted to see the movie, but was too ill to go to a theater. She had seen the television ads for the movie, particularly the painted world sequence, and she really wanted to see the film, but she was too ill to get out of the house.
He was inquiring if a video cassette could be sent to her. I spoke to the people at Polygram. Studios are not thrilled about making video cassettes of expensive movies that have just opened that week, but I convinced them to do it. The video cassette was delivered by courier.
I found out about everything that transpired a few weeks later when the girl's father called me, and it was a totally life changing conversation. The girl's father was a contractor in Milwaukee. His daughter was seventeen and she was dying of a very rare form of cancer.
Unbeknownst to me, when the courier delivered the film, he had been told by Polygram to stay there while they watched the film and then take the film back. However, when the courier saw the terminally ill seventeen year old lying in a hospital bed in the middle of her living room, he was very gracious and said he'd come back the next day.
The father told me that his daughter had been very brave through her whole ordeal, but she had gotten very frightened toward the end because she didn't have a frame of reference as to what would happen to her after her death. He told me that he didn't watch the film, but he watched his daughter watch the film.
When it got to the painted world sequence, he literally saw all the fear disappear from her face. She became completely peaceful. Afterwards, she asked to be taken briefly to a park. It was October and she saw all the Fall colors. She said to her father, "Dad, when I go, that's where I'll be. You'll know where I'll be."
He said to me, "Stephen, the next day, that Sunday, she died very peacefully." He also said, "I have to tell you, I don't know if I'm ever going to have the courage to watch this movie, but what you need to know is that it totally changed the last two days of my daughter's life. For that I will always be grateful to you and that is the only success that you should ever wish for. Parenthetically, it took him about three years after that to be able to watch the film himself.
That man and I had an instant connection. He was a single dad, and I've been a single dad for many years. My daughters have all of his daughter's clothes and other things. This experience solidified everything for me and I realized that I had to get out of Hollywood.
The whole Hollywood lifestyle was not conducive to making spiritual films and I did not want to be a part of the Hollywood establishment or the way things worked in that town. I wanted to make a complete break with it and start something new. It took me a couple more years, but I finally left Los Angeles behind.
I left my business partnership with Barnet Bain who had co-created "What Dreams…" with me because he wanted to stay and work in the Hollywood system. I moved to Oregon and got my book published.
RP: What is the book?
SS: The book was called, The Force is With You: Mystical Movie Messages that Inspire Our Lives. It was published in the Fall of 2002 by Hampton Roads. It was in that book that I coined the phrase, "spiritual cinema," which had not really been used before. Many people told me not to use the word "spiritual" because it would confuse people or make people think that 'spiritual' was synonymous with religion. I said, "That's what this genre is. It's called Spiritual Cinema." I started touring the country and things started taking off.
A year ago, I shot a wonderful film called, "Indigo," written by James Twyman, that I produced and directed. The budget was $500,000 and James' organization funded it. Neale Donald Walsch, who wrote the "Conversation with God" series of books, was the dramatic star of it.
"Indigo" won the Audience Choice Award at the Santa Fe Film Festival where it premiered along with over 200 films. We put the tickets on sale early and 70% of the available tickets sold out two months in advance of the film's opening. It sold out in 36 out of the 100 AMC theaters where it was scheduled. It's also going to be shown in 250 churches and organizations around the country.
My next step was to form the "Spiritual Cinema Circle," (spiritualcinemacircle.com) with Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, who are the extraordinary authors and therapists who wrote "Conscious Loving" and many other books. We have been friends for quite some time. We decided to form a DVD distribution service that would put three to five films featuring spiritual cinema in people's homes every month. People would own them, not rent them. These would be films that we gathered from film festivals all over the world.
We launched it with no advertising whatsoever in April 2004, and by Dec. 2004, we had almost 12,000 subscribers in 60 different countries. It's become a huge phenomenon already because of people's desires for spiritual material.
In the Fall of 2005, I'm going to direct and produce the film version of Conversations with God. Neale Donald Walsch's best selling series of books have sold 9,000,000 copies around the world. We have a worldwide audience that is ready and waiting for this kind of material.
It is my strong feeling that Spiritual Cinema is what I call "a return to shamanic storytelling." Spiritual Cinema is the 21st Century version of a shaman sitting around a campfire passing down the myths of a culture from one generation to another.
These are movies who ask "who are we?" and "why are we here?" These are the kind of movies that are not homogenized; the edges are not rounded off. These are movies that are not about movie stars or big visual effects, but are really about story. Hopefully, you will feel at least a little bit better about being a human being when they've finished than when they started.
RP: I believe that the underground hit movie, "What the Bleep Do We Know" is a good example of what you are talking about. Apparently, the Hollywood industry would not support it, saying it did not have an audience. According to the film's director, Will Arntz, 1,300,000 people have seen the movie, and the film grossed over $10M at the box office in its first six months.
SS: The director of "What the Bleep…" Mark Vicente, has been a protégé of mine for almost ten years. When I first started leading seminars about spiritual cinema and metaphysics in the movies in Sept. 1995 at UCLA Extension, Mark was a student in my class. He's somebody that I have been nurturing and following for a long time.
It's an extraordinary thing that they did with "What the Bleep," and a perfect example of a film that was made completely outside of the system. It was funded entirely by one really brave individual who put up over 6 million dollars of his own money when theater owners and distributors said there was no audience for this movie. They went out and proved them completely wrong.
RP: What are your future plans?
SS: Our distribution service is the only service of its kind in the world that is completely devoted to bringing spiritual entertainment into people's homes every month. We want to see our service grow and expand. It's a wonderful business for us, it's great for our filmmakers because they finally have a distribution entity that will put their films out into the world, and needless to say, it's a wonderful thing for our subscribers.
We're going to see it grow. The "Cinema Circle" is the parent organization of the "Spiritual Cinema Circle." We are going to have a "Children's Cinema Circle" that will launch in Spring 2005 and a "Transformational Book Circle" down the road. Ultimately, there will also be a theatrical distribution entity that will be a part of this. We will be doing more original productions. The fact is that the Spiritual Cinema Circle itself is financing the "Conversations with God" film, and the film will premiere exclusively on the Spiritual Cinema Circle in 2006.
It is an extraordinary leap for a company to take on this kind of film project and then say that it is going to be available exclusively to Spiritual Cinema Circle subscribers. HBO differentiated itself from the other entities in their space many years ago when they started doing original productions.
It is a great passion of mine to make "Conversations with God" into a film. I've had a vision of that for a long time. I'll continue to produce and direct films myself, but again, completely outside of the Hollywood system. I won't take Hollywood distribution and we won't take Hollywood money.
RP: Ever since I interviewed you when "What Dreams May Come" first came out, I've had inquiries from readers who want to get a hold of you because they have a great idea for a movie or screenplay. What do you want me to tell people who want to contact you?
SS: The truth is that I do not accept outside material. We hope that a structure may be put into place some months down the road where we may be able to read other people's material, but that is not happening at this point. I encourage people to go to www.spiritualcinemacircle.com if they want to email me.
RP: Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
SS: To make films about consciousness requires people that are committed to being conscious. If you're going to make a film about waking up, you should be awake. Consciousness should be your life priority. If you have that, you can really create magic.
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