Out today on UK DVD and Blu-ray is The Ledge, the first film directed by Matthew Chapman in thirteen or fourteen years. I genuinely wondered, every now and then, if he’d ever come back and make more.
Chapman’s last two features, Stranger’s Kiss and Heart of Midnight, were very much influenced by Stanley Kubrick. The Ledge, less so – this time, the film harmonises more obviously with the legacy of Chapman’s great grandfather, Charles Darwin. It’s a film that runs, headlong, into the struggle between atheism and faith.
Chapman and I spoke about the film recently, and here’s some of what he told me. We started with my interest in the apparent influence of Kubrick on his previous films.
Stranger’s Kiss, definitely. Kubrick made this bad film called Killer’s Kiss, and the making of that was the basis for Stranger’s Kiss. Apparently Kubrick liked that film. I never met him but I know people who knew him very well and he thought it was very funny.
But Heart of Midnight, I don’t know. You get people saying things to you like this after you make a film. They both had this really intellectual attitude to film making that I liked. I was definitely a big admirer of Stanley Kubrick and I was a big admirer of Hitchcock. Hitchcock was the first director I really watched. There was a festival of his films at the National Film Theatre when I was about eighteen and they showed every single Hitchcock movie that was available.
On turning a debate about atheism into a thriller.
The Ledge was very much to do with battles between faith and reason. I wanted to put a very human face on that discussion in an American context.
I was worried about having so much dialogue but I thought that if I put the whole thing in a really suspenseful situation, a man about to jump to his death, and you then told the story within that, then people would be able to take it. The film was selected for Sundance, one of twelve films in competition so it was screened six times, and I’ve seen it screened a lot of other places, and I’ve only seen one person walk out of the film once it’s gotten started. And this surprised me because there’s a lot in the film that people find offensive. I guess it’s sufficiently gripping as a thriller to keep people in their seats.
This was when I mentioned the film “targetting Christians”…
I would say that the Christians targeted me, and they target all of my gay friends, and they targeted all of the women I know who have had or might need abortions, or people who are made to feel bad about contraception. The religious extremists in America, of which there are many, and I think that 50% of Americans don’t believe in evolution and think the world is only ten thousand years old. That statistic is true and is terrifying. If you live along the coast, like Los Angeles and New York, you can forget about these people. I’ve met these people, and they are a hundred years behind Great Britain, I would say.
On identifying with the lead character.
I’m almost identical to the lead character, Gavin. Slightly more tolerant and circumspect, but I am older. I think you get older and you get more sympathy for people even when you don’t agree with them. But Gavin is younger and he’s pissed off and he expresses himself more stridently than I do, but our core beliefs are identical.
I was always a very rebellious kid. I got kicked out of a lot of schools and I resisted education with everything I had. I resisted my intellectual heritage. I started work in a factory when I was sixteen. My inclinations were to go that way, and I really wasn’t interested in being connected to Darwin until I came to America and I saw these education battles where school districts were trying to ban the teaching of evolution, which is clearly an essential part of a good science education, then I became interested, and it was a battle that I wanted to take on. But that was also in a rebellious context. I was rebelling against the prevailing philosophical idiocy of the times.
On other Ledge stories.
I only heard about Stephen King’s The Ledge after I finished cutting the film which is odd because I’m usually quite aware of that stuff. I still haven’t read that story. And then there was this other thing out, Man on a Ledge…
It was a very hard sell, but in it’s own way, it’s been very successful. I think that, as a writer and director, I did a lot of things that were unconscious but had I become too conscious of them while I was doing them, then I might have fucked them up.
On turning a debate about atheism into a chick flick.
I think, in a way, I wanted to make a chick flick that would appeal to men who like thrillers. The chick flick part of it is that it’s always kind of amazes me how many women are so religious when religion treats women so badly. I once said, and it became a quote that people use, “a feminist who still believes in god is like a freed slave who still lives on the plantation.” It’s amazing to me that women allow themselves to be brutalised and demeaned by religion and keep going to church and keep on supporting the very thing that denigrates them.
I wanted to make a movie that would show a woman in this situation and to have an emotional quality to it that would appeal to women to be less inclined to allow this shit to happen. On that level, it’s been very successful. I’ve had women come up to me after screenings, in tears, talking about experiences they’ve had with very religious men. They felt empowered by the movie.
The female character isn’t the protagonist because in this religious world, women aren’t the protagonist. They are submissive to religious forces. I wanted to show that. A lot of women have remarked about a five second close-up of Liv Tyler near the end, where she raises her head as a dismissal. That close-up has had a powerful effect on a lot of women who have been in these kinds of relationship.
At this point, I said “stylistically, the climax looks a little bit different to the rest of the film… were you making ends meet here, or was it deliberate?” and Chapman knew exactly what I was driving at.
Very perceptive of you. It was a very, very low budget film and the climax features my only green screen shot. They simply couldn’t afford to give me the right green screen to make the shot really work. It was shot very quickly, and it’s a very shocking moment, and I think most people just go with the emotion of it. It wasn’t a very easy thing for me to shoot and I didn’t have a lot of time or money.
I certainly would have liked a lot more time and money. Everything that happens on the ledge was shot in two days. This is the nature of low budget filmmaking. It’s very hard to get enough money to make a film that has interesting themes in it.
I have no idea how many set-ups we did on the ledge, but it was a lot. I had a big fight with the producers about this. They wanted to build a replica ledge on a soundstage, and I said I wanted to film it on location. The actors would be more frightened and everybody would feel the fear. They insisted on building this other set that I never used, except for one corner of it, for the climax.
I had cranes up there on the real ledge. If I had more money I would have picked a taller building, I would have spent more time up there, just for the acting.
You have to judge a film, to some extent, for the amount of time and money that a filmmaker had to make it. You can’t hold this to the same standards as a Spielberg film. He would have spent as much time on the ledge as I did on the whole movie. People are used to seeing things shot in a certain way, and you can’t always do that on a low budget.
On his next project.
I’m working on a teen romance set in 15th Century Florence against a religious war that took place between the Medicis and a mad Friar called Savonarola. I’ve written it and I want to direct it and I’m trying to cast it and get the money. I would do this, probably, out of England, but shooting in Italy. It’s another step down the same path, but it’s what I’m interested in.
There’s no denying that The Ledge is an ambitious and genuinely interesting film, unafraid to wander off the beaten path and tackle the debates that mean a lot to Chapman. As a result, it’s a really compelling picture, for the most part, and I certainly recommend checking out the Blu-ray.