THE MAN FROM EARTH (2007):
INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD SCHENKMAN AND ERIC D. WILKINSON
Richard Schenkman and Eric D. Wilkinson are the director and producer, respectively, of the 2007 science fiction film The Man from Earth. They were interviewed on January 5, 2010 by James Fieser of Philosophical Films (www.philfilms.utm.edu).
JOHN OLDMAN AS JESUS
Q: When casting David Lee Smith as John Oldman, were you looking for a particular physical type, such as a rugged or ethnically homogenous leading man?
Richard: Very simply, as they say, when you’re casting Superman, you’re casting Clark Kent. I was casting Jesus. You had to believe that this guy could have been historically Jesus. So he couldn’t be blue eyed with blonde hair, unless you were casting a very specific kind of ridiculous Jesus—“Thor of Nazareth” as one comedian once said. He couldn’t be Asian, he couldn’t be a lot of things. Whether you ultimately choose to believe his story or not, he had to look like he could have been acceptable in any of the time periods he describes. So it eliminated a lot of actors physically.
Q: The centerpiece of John’s story is his claim that he was Jesus. Is the film conveying a particular religious message?
Eric: When I first read the script, I don’t want to say I was offended by it, but I was worried that other people might be offended by the whole concept of the challenging of religion. I was raised Methodist, and have my own personal beliefs. But I feel that any movie or piece of art that provokes discussion about religion is a good thing. If it makes people sit down and talk about it afterwards, and promotes communication and dialogue, that’s good. I thought that a little bit of controversy might be good business too. If people see it, love it and want to share it, that’s good. Then I knew that we’d have people who see this thing and say it’s blasphemous, and this and that. But, at the end of the day, they’re going to watch the movie and they’re going to talk about it. It’s something different. That part of the movie I was drawn to. It’s not like Bixby made his version of Jesus a bad thing, it’s just his different interpretation of who that person might be.
Richard: To me the logic of it is fantastic. Look at it this way. John Oldman is 14,000 years old. That means he’d been alive for 12,000 years before he said, “you know what, I think I’ve learned enough things now that I can start teaching people some of the better ideas that I’ve picked up along the way.” 12,000 years! He sticks his head up and says “Hey people, have you thought about love, have you thought about kindness, have you thought about not killing each other?” But when he sticks his head up, it gets chopped off, in a sense. He then goes back into hiding. It’s like “well I tried that once and it didn’t work out so well, and now I’m going to keep my head down.” I love that idea.
Q: Have you received any criticisms from religious conservatives about the religious components of the film?
Eric: I’ve read quotes from people online who’ve said that it’s an attack on Christianity. But not in the interviews I’ve done about the movie. I don’t talk about my personal religion and beliefs, but I can say with complete honesty that my intention in making the movie was never to attack religion at all. Something I like about the movie popped into my head after the sixth or seventh time I saw it. If in fact John Oldman is telling the truth, then his mere existence is a miracle in and of itself and an act of God. That’s one way to believe.
Richard: It’s like evolution, when people say evolution is an attack on God. It makes no sense. To me, God would have kick-started evolution. Similarly, if God was going to send a representative to earth, wouldn’t this be a way that he might do it? Yes, it conflicts with your beliefs if you’re a Christian bible literalist. But if you are that, you are irrational anyway. It’s so evident that all the religions are based on religions that come before them. They adapt myths, legends and holidays from religions and cultures that preceded them. There’s a reason that all the holidays have been at the same time, whether you’re Jewish, Christian or some other religion. It’s not an accident. That’s one of my favorite things about the film: the extraordinarily articulate and concise way that that particular observation is expressed. The Hercules parallel is such a great example: he basically shoots down the mythology of Jesus by comparing it in an anomalous and offhanded way to Hercules. I love that about the script. But at the same time I love that it accommodates your beliefs as long as you are willing to be a little open minded about it, and understand that the Bible is a storybook that’s filled with metaphor, poetry and philosophy. But it’s not a history text, and shouldn’t be viewed as one.
Eric: What drives me nuts is when I read posts on line that say it attacks Christianity. It’s a science fiction movie. It’s fantasy, a “what if.” No one says that the Exorcist attacks Christianity, and in that film Satan even wins at the end. Richard and I weren’t rubbing our hands together saying “How can we tear down the system?” We were thinking “Let’s make a cool science fiction movie.”
JOHN OLDMAN’S IMMORTALITY
Q: A large portion of the film consisted of John trying to prove that he was really 14,000 years old. Did you personally feel that John made a compelling case, or are there other questions you would have asked him if you were there?
Richard: It’s important to remember—and this is a crucial caveat in the film—that John is not trying to prove his case. He says that I don’t care if you believe me or not. He’s not trying to convince anybody of anything. He’s answering their questions. So when you say that there is this onus of proof on him, there isn’t one because he refuses to accept it. That, of course, may be a writer’s trick from Jerome Bixby to take the pressure off John of truly proving his case one way or another. It is, though, in my opinion, believable and effective. Having said that, if you were developing a script like this and shooting a movie like this, you’d try to put yourself in their shoes, and try to make sure that everything that anyone would reasonably ask was asked. Indeed that’s one of my favorite parts about the original script, that by the end, everything that I could think of asking had been asked by somebody. Every point that I could have possibly thought of raising and, of course many more, were raised. And I’ve seen a lot of people react in the same way too in Web posts. There’s that fun feeling that at the end of the movie you don’t think “Oh shoot, how come you never asked him blah, blah, blah.”
Eric: No, I would have asked “Is your birthday really December 25th.”
Q: One of the reviewers on the Philosophical Films website made the following critique of your movie. “The film’s plot content could have been lifted directly from the film and television versions of The Highlander, such as the difficulties and heartbreak of establishing new identities, early people’s views on the creepiness of immortality, and the difficulties of adapting to new technology.” What did The Man from Earth bring to the table that was new?
Richard: In my opinion all that we brought to it was the artistry and intelligence of Jerome Bixby’s writing. Obviously there were stories of immortals long before Highlander came along, and there will be stories of immortals a century from now. It’s one of the most compelling notions that there is. What do we want to do? We want to fly. We want to live forever. There a few things that are just primal, unattainable goals of ours.
Eric: In defense of the movie, Bixby started writing it in the 60s. If you look at the episode “Requiem for Methuselah” from Season 3 of Star Trek the original series, that was written long before Highlander.
Richard: If the movie is a rip off of anything, it’s a rip off of Bixby’s own previous work. He got the idea in the 1940s, and made notes on it for a long time. He clearly explored these same themes, and literally these same ideas, in “Requiem for Methuselah.” Finally, on his death bed in the 90s he wrote The Man from Earth. It was something that he always wanted to do, and why he never did earlier I don’t know. If you remember in “Requiem for Methuselah” the character was all of these great artists and philosophers in human history, but he wasn’t Jesus. I think one key reason he wasn’t Jesus is that they would never have gone for that on network TV in 1967. But I don’t think that your reviewer is saying that the movie ripped off Highlander. I read that review. I think he’s saying what’s the point of making a movie that does nothing more than explore the same kinds of themes of isolation and loneliness of immortality when it’s been done in the context of an action movie and action TV series. I would only say that I personally thought that Bixby found a new way in with this Jesus thing. I thought it was very compelling, and felt that it put it on a whole new level. MacLeod is immortal sort of by some mystical act, and I’m not sure what the greater purpose of it is. At the end of the day, why is MacLeod immortal, and what is he meant to achieve with this immortality? He’s sort of like a knight in armor helping people in distress. But I think that John Oldman is a much more realistic representation of what would happen to any one of us if we woke up one day and found that we couldn’t die. I think that’s a much more realistic and philosophical approach to the same idea. Now, if your reviewer wants to step outside, I will see him at 3:00 by the bike rack.
Q: I’ll tell him you said that.
Q: What are your favorite scenes in the film?
Eric: I think my favorite moment in the film is when Edith’s character is standing, she’s out of frame and in the foreground, she’s so angry that he’s challenging her beliefs that her fists are clenched, and she’s almost shaking. I thought she did an amazing job acting with her body. Another scene that I really like is when John and Sandy go outside for a moment, they’re sitting talking, and she said “I love you, you know.” They have a great rapport with one another, there’s really good chemistry, it felt really natural, the lighting is nice, there are rocks in the background. Those were my two favorite moments in the movie.
Richard: I’m really happy with many, many scenes in the movie. But there’s something that I particularly love about that quiet scene on the porch with Oldman and Gruber, when Gruber is asking him some really hard questions about all the people that he’s left behind. How do you measure the time passing, what does it feel like emotionally to see that years go by, go by, go by?
Q: What do you hope that viewers might take away from the film?
Richard: With film, unfortunately, you don’t necessarily get to place your hand gently on the audience’s shoulder and say “If you remember one thing from your experience in watching this film, please remember this.” You haven’t been hired to do that with their $7 or $11. You’ve been hired to entertain them for 90 to 120 minutes, and, so, that’s the job you have to do. Obviously, when you’re making a film, you’re hoping to convey certain themes, certain ideas. There are a lot of common themes that modern movies tell us all the time, such as “we should spend a little more time thinking about such and such important thing,” or “we should all take a moment to tell the people we love that we love them because we might not see them tomorrow.” They’re wonderful thoughts and things that we should remember. With this movie, it’s a little bit different. It’s more about opening your mind, not being afraid to explore new ideas, and thinking outside your comfort zone. Perhaps take a second look at some of the beliefs that you take for granted, because maybe you’re not informed. A little more thinking and reading might change your mind and open you up to some new ideas.
Q: How much modifying did you do to Jerome Bixby’s original screenplay?
Richard: I would say that most of it was original. I did do an uncredited rewrite, but the biggest single thing was removing and reassigning things. There was a character that Bixby had introduced who showed up, said a few things and left. There was no real reason for that. It didn’t add a lot to have this other person there, and in fact it was confusing because you’re wondering where they went and you’re waiting for them to come back. So what I did was eliminate that character and took his most interesting comments and divided them up among the other characters who seemed most appropriate to say those things. And then there was a story thread that he introduced, raising the possibility that John was being invited to join a cult. It was an interesting idea, but it wasn’t really developed. It was briefly raised and then abandoned. I thought it’s such a provocative idea, if you’re going to do that, you need to really do it, investigate it and raise some stakes.
Eric: And be a sequel.
Richard: Exactly. But it was going to be such a big thing that it seemed inappropriate to make such a large rewrite. So it was simpler again to just excise it. Something it did raise was the notion that there were a lack of stakes, and one thing that we thought was needed was some more conflict.
Eric: We didn’t just say “oh, we’ll stick this here.” I remember that Bixby’s original notes on the script were written on a computer that didn’t exist anymore, and Richard had to run around L.A. trying to find a computer store to put them in a format that a PC could open up and read. The few small things that Richard may have added were based on Bixby’s intentions, not necessarily “this needs to be here, and this there.”
Richard: The best and most specific example would be the idea of one of the characters threatening John with a gun. It wasn’t in the script originally, but it was in Bixby’s notes. And we thought, “Gosh, why didn’t he do that?” It’s a great moment and a great idea.
Eric: And the producer-marketing side of me said we need a trailer moment. I said to Richard, “it’s in his notes, and it would be great if that were in the movie.” At one point Richard was having some concerns because before that he pretends he has a gun to gauge his reaction, and then he actually does have one. Richard was concerned that he had already done that beat the first time. Before he takes his pipe out of his pocket, he gestures as if it was a gun, but then it turns out that he actually did have one. But once we looked at Bixby’s notes, Richard felt comfortable putting that scene in there. I think it really works in this film too.
Q: Along the same lines of the adaptations to the screenplay, did the actors improvise any lines?
Richard: No. What we did do was an extensive rehearsal period, extensive for a movie of this size. We rehearsed five days. We only shot for eight days. In the rehearsal period, a lot of the actors were initially saying, “no this line doesn’t work for me, and this line doesn’t work right, and I have a problem with that line, and this character wouldn’t say this.” I stayed open minded about moving things around. We did actually shift a couple of lines from one character to another. But what was pretty funny was that at the end of the day, having gone through the rehearsal period, people found ways to make those lines make sense. Tony Todd, interestingly, was insisting from the start that we not change anything in the script, that the script was fantastic, and that was why he signed on, and he didn’t think that we had the right to make changes in the rehearsal process. I was very grateful for that, and I for the most part agreed with him, but at the same time you want to let actors feel like their input is important. But it was funny, I thought, that we ended up back around to the original script in almost every case. But with a script this wordy, and the shooting this tight, there simply isn’t time for on set improvisation.
Q: In the opening scene Art and Linda ride up on a motorcycle and Art says, “So, do I get an A for awesome?” It was a nice line, but I couldn’t imagine that being part of Bixby’s original script.
Richard: You’re right. In a shot like that, there wasn’t any dialogue at all. It was just that Art pulls up on a motorcycle, and what happened was that the actors improvised. Probably what it should have been was a P.O.V. shot from inside the cabin of them pulling up on the motorcycle, in which case you wouldn’t have heard what they had to say. But for whatever set of production reasons we had to shoot it as an exterior, and then if you’re just looking at two people pulling up and getting off a bike and they don’t say anything it’s kind of awkward. I probably didn’t think at the time that you’d hear that dialogue, and then you did, and so I’m sorry.
Q: Did you have any history consultants fact check the screenplay?
Richard: I had my now ex-wife fact check the screenplay.
Eric: She saved the budget.
Richard: Yes, she saved the budget. She is just a brilliant and highly educated person. Reference by reference, and name by name, she went through the script researching, and we created a little, I don’t want to say Bible. . . .
Eric: No pun intended.
Richard: Really. . . but a little reference manual for everybody: for actors mainly, for production design, so that everybody would know the correct pronunciation of all the names and places, and would know what they were. These people of course are professors, and so they are meant to be intimately familiar with all of this material. They really had to say it convincingly. So we all needed to know exactly what we were all talking about.
STAGING AND EDITING
Q: Any movie that’s all dialogue risks becoming tedious to sit through. I think My Dinner with Andre is an example of one that tests your patience, in spite of its brilliance. Did you do anything to intentionally break the monotony? Was there a particular dialogue-driven film that gave you some direction, such as Mindwalk or Before Sunrise.
Richard: Before Sunrise doesn’t work as a paradigm because they get to go all over the place. The absolute Bible for me in terms of visual reference was 12 Angry Men. That was in real time, just like our movie, in one room, and nothing but dialogue. That was the movie that I watched three times to try to see what I could steal.
Eric: When I described the movie to people when we were raising money, that’s the way I always depicted it: 12 Angry Men meets the Twilight Zone.
Richard: That’s funny, Sci-Fi 12 Angry Men. I wish I had done it as effectively as he did in that movie. But, first of all, he’s Sidney Lumet, a brilliant, talented ground-breaking film maker. But also, he had a set where he could control the lighting very easily, and he could pull walls whenever he wanted to, and put the camera any place he wanted. He also did something that I tried to do and was unable to do. That is, he had a two week rehearsal period, where they basically rehearsed it like a play, so the actors were completely off book by the time they shot the film. This meant that he could just say “I’m going to put the camera here, and we’re going to shoot everything in the whole movie where the camera is in this direction. The actors were able to just instantly put themselves wherever they needed to be for those lines, whether it was 10 minutes, an hour, or 85 minutes into the film. I didn’t have that.
Q: Reaction shots played an important role in the film, particularly since it was so dialogue-driven. In editing the film did you intentionally seek out character reactions, more so than when editing other films?
Richard: No. It’s the same in every film, really. Your reaction is as important as action.
Eric: One thing that I loved is that Richard had two cameras running at all times. So even if you were setting up a shot on David Lee Smith (a.k.a. John Oldman), you had another camera going around to other actors, getting actual reactions to the dialogue he was speaking at that particular moment. Everyone had to be on their game, because even though the camera wasn’t on you at that moment, the other camera could be on you at any given time. I really liked that he did that.
Richard: It’s true. Very often when you have two cameras, you have both cameras trained on the same person, and you’re getting two shots—a medium and a close up, or a wide and a medium, or something like that. Of course we did a lot of that. But sometimes it wasn’t possible or even necessary, and so the second camera was getting other people. And, yes, sometimes it was roving. For the most part, we really did run the scenes as long scenes, with everybody there, and everybody acting. So, I guess if we did do one thing differently than you might do in another film, we did do that.
Q: So you had a lot of reaction shots to choose from since everyone was on stage the whole time?
Richard: Yes, but never enough.
Q: What were you looking for in the musical score to the film?
Richard: It was very important to me to get a world music indigenous sound. Because we weren’t using flashbacks, it was pretty much the only additional way to create a sense of place or time—besides the mind’s eye and the images that you create in your head while listening to the dialogue. So it was crucial to use the music to create historical atmosphere.
Q: Are you satisfied with how The Man from Earth has been received?
Richard: As I said, the first assignment of a film maker is to entertain people and reach an audience. If there’s one thing that this movie has done is it’s reached an audience. I feel pretty confident that it’s been seen by well over a million people—more people than all of my other movies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that that’s because of illegal downloading and file sharing on the internet.
Eric: To put it in perspective, we’re ranked in the top 35 science fiction films of all time on the IMDB with 27,000 votes. That’s comparable to a national theatrical release. Ours was a limited theatrical release and basically direct to video. There was another movie that came out on DVD the same day as ours, also science fiction, called The Last Sentinel, starring Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica. It was a much bigger budget, a typical sci-fi movie, with lasers and planets. That movie got a couple hundred votes. That’s the kind of reception I’d initially anticipated. We’d get a couple hundred or couple thousand votes, make a few bucks and go off to the sunset. Now, two plus years after the DVD release of the movie, and we’re talking to you about it. It’s coming out on Blu-Ray in February.
Richard: Just this week were invited to another film festival in Brazil, and this will be our third in Brazil alone. So, in the real world of people who watch and love movies, the film has had more impact and more response than we could have ever hoped for. However, inside the motion picture industry, where I hope to continue to work, it’s been more subdued. I don’t really understand it myself.
Q: Do you have any other film projects planned?
Eric: Richard and I have thrown around ideas for a prequel or sequel. The movie has garnered enough attention that we’ve been able to discuss the idea with a few people that were willing to entertain the concept just based on its success. I still think that not long in the future somebody’s going to see this movie and think, “Wow, who made this and how did they get it done?” So keep your eye on it, because I think you’re going to see more of John Oldman, and you’re definitely going to see more from Richard Schenkman.
Richard: What’s standing between us and a sequel at this point is a pile of money about yea high.
Eric: Not a big pile.
Richard: No, only about yea high. I’m hoping that we can get it, given the success of the first film, which has more than performed for the distributor. For what they invested in it they’ve made a lot of money.
Q: Would the sequel be conversational like the first film?
Richard: Yes. The whole idea is to not sell out the first film. We don’t want a sequel where John Oldman has left the university, goes on the road and Art tells his friend in the CIA that he met a guy that’s 14,000 years old and they should get a sample of his blood. And then John’s on the run from the CIA. The Russian mob finds out, so there’s a Russian mobster who wants a transfusion of his blood so he can live forever and become the crime boss of the world. It’s an action-packed adventure as John races across the landscape of North America. This is what we wouldn’t do. It seems like it would be disrespectful treat it in this way. There are those who think that touching the material at all would be disrespectful, and they might not be wrong.