With The Ledge available exclusively on SundanceNOW for one more week, we sat down with writer/director Matthew Chapman to find out more about his controversial new thriller.
SundanceNOW: I’d like to hear a little bit about how you arrived at the film’s flashback structure. Was this at all a conscious nod to classic noirs that often begin at the “end,” so to speak?
Matthew Chapman: I chose a flashback structure because I thought it would enable me to set up a tense situation from the start, and that having established this tension, I could digress into issues that I care about without losing the audience’s visceral connection to the movie. I do love film noirs which when they were most popular often dealt subversively with social issues that were considered taboo.
SN: Along the same lines, can you talk about why it was important for you to frame the story, which, on its face, is the kind of doomed romantic triangle you could find in any number of classic noirs, as a battle between opposing religious belief systems?
MC: I liked the idea of combining a doomed romantic love triangle with religion because while everyone is outraged by religious violence when it’s epic, such as 9/11, there is a more personal cruelty in religion that is either overlooked or accepted. This cruelty is not confined to Islam, though there are elements in The Ledge that are clearly inspired by certain aspects of Islam. But the truth is that almost all forms of religion, including Judaism and Christianity, denigrate women and homosexuals. It’s in the texts and it seeps down into all of us. So while you can look at religion in an intellectual way, in the end the effect is personal and emotional and I wanted to capture this in the relationship between Liv Tyler’s character and Patrick Wilson’s.
After one screening I had a women come up to me and say she resented the depiction of Liv Tyler’s character, seeing it as being objectionably submissive. Of course that’s the point of the character. Far more frequently women have come up to me to say they’ve been married to men like Joe (Patrick Wilson) and related very strongly to the atmosphere of oppression that pervades his home. They too became submissive to religiously fortified domestic menace or outright violence. These women heard the intellectual arguments in the film, but what they were inspired by was a single five second close up of Liv toward the end of the movie. All Liv does – at the conclusion of a magnificent performance, by the way – is to simply tip her head back as she looks at her husband, clearly rejecting him and, by inference, rejecting submission in a wider sense. I did not expect this often very emotional reaction from abused women, but was immensely gratified by it.
SN: Is there something in the genre you chose that allows you to slip in these kinds of “added value” meanings and readings? As opposed to making just a straightforward issue drama, it would seem a thriller is great engine for attacking a number of weightier topics.
MC: I believe that the thriller and the comedy are the best forms for exploring important themes while delivering entertainment. If you’re on the edge of your seat, or laughing your pants off, you don’t feel you’re being lectured to. My film pushes the limits of this principle, but having watched it with many audiences, I think I just about get away with it!
SN: Even though Hunnam and Wilson’s characters occupy opposing positions in terms of belief, they feel somehow similar. Is there something to the idea (I think it might have been Freud’s) that opposites share more in common with each other than they do with other points on the spectrum?
MC: Both Patrick Wilson’s character and Charlie Hunnam’s have suffered great losses. They have reacted in opposite ways. One has become an evangelical fundamentalist while the other has become an atheist. What unites them is that they have both been stimulated by pain to find or construct a philosophy. They take life and death seriously. In a way, the central question of the movie is, “What would you die for and why?” As an atheist with no belief in an afterlife, will Charlie Hunnam’s character have the courage to sacrifice himself for another? I hope this question and the conflict around it will make people who might not ordinarily think about belief and non-belief give it some thought.
SN: The film ends with a pretty strong statement regarding faith. Without giving too much away, could you speak a little bit about your experiences with faith (particularly American evangelical strands) that informed the making of The Ledge?
MC: I originally got involved in religion in America through the evolution versus creationism debate. I wrote two books on the subject and met a large number of fundamentalists. In spite of overwhelming evidence for evolution, many insisted the world was only a few thousand years old and that man was put on earth in his present form. Over 40% of Americans support a creationist view. Religion forces this enormous number of people to reject evidence – reality – in favor of books written thousands of years ago by people who thought the earth was flat. This seems like a fairly harmless albeit widespread kind of eccentricity, but it’s not. When we are facing problems like climate change, only action based on evidence will save us. That and compassion. This was the second element of fundamentalism that disturbed me, the lack of compassion. To believe in a God who tosses almost all his creations into a lake of fire for eternity is to
approve of a kind of cruelty that is unimaginable to me. Compared to this, how small it must seem to be prejudiced against homosexuals, say, and wish to condemn them to lesser lives than those lived by straight people. I’ve been accused by believers of making the fundamentalist in my movie “cartoonish,” but he is not. I have met him many times. He lives between Los Angeles and New York and has a hundred million faces. He believes that faith will solve all his and our problems. When it fails to do so, he starts blaming other people for their lack of faith, or their different kind of faith. And that’s when things get nasty. The Ledge is a microcosm of this moment.