It’s a fact of life that some people find themselves unable to support themselves. There are homeless people in cities and towns across the nation, and even more worldwide. Those who have homes rarely look homeless people in the eyes. When they do give some spare change, it’s usually out of pity, rather than compassion. In their minds, they see the homeless as lazy and unwilling to work like the rest of us. In reality, they have no clue how the homeless came to be that way, or what it takes to rise from the depths.
Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversation with God books that have sold 7 million copies and have been translated into 34 languages, has been there. He picked scraps of food out of trash cans. He slept alone in a park, with only a tent and sleeping bag to his name. He panhandled for quarters and dimes on the street for nearly a year.
"After a car accident, in which I broke my neck, the bottom dropped out," he said in a recent interview with Spiritual Cinema Circle. "I was separated and divorced from my wife and supporting my children as best I could. When I found out I had a broken neck, they gave me a Philadelphia collar which I wore for about 20 months. I was not allowed to do any kind of exertion at all, and I was suddenly out of work. I couldn’t even get a job as a bag boy at Safeway. What little benefits the government gives a single man ran out very quickly and before I knew it, I was a homeless.
"If you want to have an interesting Sunday afternoon, just scruff yourself up some Sunday afternoon and walk the streets of your town and ask for loose change from people. People walk right past you. You do, after a while, really feel like beyond an outcast. At least an outcast is sometimes looked at. You feel disappeared."
Neale’s story of how he went from feeling "disappeared" to feeling joyful in conversation with the spirit that connects us all became the setting for one of the most popular books in our time, Conversations with God. And this month, that story will come to the big screen, starring Henry Czerny as Neale, and actors Ingrid Boulting and Michael A. Goorjian. A Spiritual Cinema Circle production, directed by Neale’s longtime friend Stephen Simon (producer of What Dreams May Come), Conversations with God the film will leave you with hope, and with more compassion for your fellow man.
"Don’t pass anybody on the street," Neale says. "We’ve all got a quarter or a dime or a dollar or a fiver, that we can let go of. And you can make somebody’s whole day with 50 cents or a dollar. So try never, ever, ever to pass anybody in need. When you see them holding up the sign, ‘Will Work for Food’ or when they walk up and ask for a little bit, share. Share. If you see somebody on the street who’s got his hand out, try to get off your judgment and be generous."
Both Neale Donald Walsch and Stephen Simon sat down with Edge Life earlier this year, following post-production of the film, to speak about the making of this film, about God and about friendship.
Did you always have a sense that the book could be translated onto the big screen?
Neale Donald Walsch: Yes, I did always feel that way. It felt like the message really could be translated into almost any medium, a play, a film.
With the overwhelming success in book form, are you seeking a different audience?
What audience are you looking for for the film.
NDW: The rest of the world. The non-reading public.
Those who didn’t read the book.
NDW: Yes, just as many people as we can reach.
What are the essential messages from the book that you wanted to maintain in the film?
NDW: Everyone is having a conversation with God all the time. We probably have God all wrong. Our ideas about God are probably in the largest measure inaccurate and incomplete, and if we changed our conceptualizations around God, we would probably change most of our conceptualizations around life and about the world at large as it is. And that would, in fact, change the world itself.
The message that I hope we get across through this movie is the same message as God’s message: "You’ve got me all wrong. I’m speaking to you all the time, and if you really understood who I am, who you are, and what’s going on, everything could be a whole lot different." And I also want people to get the message from the movie that they’re never alone, that God is always with us, and that our fear that somehow we’re alone or separated from God, or having to go alone, is unfounded fear, but very real, nevertheless, in the lives of the largest number of people.
That probably contributes to suicide.
NDW: Absolutely! Not just suicide, but self-destruction in many other ways.
What was it like seeing yourself on screen (portrayed by Henry Czerny).
NDW: It was surrealistic, because I could have lived my whole life and never imagined that I’d see myself portrayed. Maybe in the wildest imagining at the end of my life or whatever, but to have such an experience just past the mid-point of my life, when I’m still very much alive and functioning on the planet and not 89 and looking at my past, it was unnerving, unsettling, surreal and remarkable, and I found it a most engaging process.
How did you feel at the end of the film, during your first screening of it?
NDW: Going back to that experience, I felt strange. I felt almost like I wasn’t there. I felt removed. It was the first time I had seen the film from beginning to end. I had seen clips here and there. Somewhere in the middle of watching it, I had to actually emotionally detach from the story in order to endure the story, because it was my story, and I found myself weeping at some of the difficult moments.
At about half way through, I turned to someone around me and I said, "I either have to detach from this and sit back and watch it just totally removed, or get out of the theater, because I’m not going to make it through to the end – and I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself here at the screening." So, I just took that one step back like we are capable of doing, defense mechanisms, and I watched the last part of the film like I was watching "Meet the Press" on television. "Oh, that’s interesting. Look how they did that scene."
There was way too much emotional content for me to have to deal with. The people in the theater were having a problem. They were weeping and crying, because the movie is very emotional. There was audible weeping in the theater, and I was the guy in the back going, "My God, you think that’s tough! You ought to be over here!" So, yeah, it was a very unusual experience. I’m not sure I recommend it to anybody.
Our emotions are one part of our experience in our bodies that we really don’t understand. We don’t all understand how powerful they are and what purpose they have. What are your thoughts on emotion?
NDW: I do understand both how powerful emotions are and what purpose they have. Emotion is energy in motion. E = motion, e motion. Emotion is what we do with the feelings that we have. First we have a feeling and then we have an emotion, that is, we emote or send that feeling out in some way. The purpose of emotion is to give us a tool in physical reality with which to express, to push out, like a mother who expresses milk from her breast. Emotions are tools that have been given to us by the universe to express or push out the feeling that arises within us in any given moment so that we may experience ourselves authentically.
That goes to the question of the feeling itself. Are feelings things that arise within us spontaneously or things that we choose to experience? The Master does not have suddenly arising feelings over which he has no control. Rather, he decides ahead of time how he’s going to feel in advance of any particular circumstance, situation or event. The student is the person who gives no thought to that whatsoever and, therefore, encounters whatever feelings erupt in any particular moment spontaneously and then has to try to figure out how to deal with that.
The result is that you find very few Masters who get very flustered or have so-called uncontrollable emotions. It’s not that they don’t have anger, but their anger is usually a very controlled, directed, focused and purposeful anger. I can recall being with a Master in my life who had a very purposeful anger once with me. He looked at me directly and simply said, in anger but very controlled, non-threatening anger, "I’m sorry you made that choice. I’m disappointed that you made that choice." The anger in the room was palpable, but not damaging. And that’s how it is with all Masters. Their emotions are palpable, that is, they fill the space, but they’re never damaging or destructive.
The only question remaining is: Will those feelings be created ahead of time or as a reaction to the events of one’s day? It’s always a choice between reaction and creation. There’s a paper-thin difference between a reaction and a creation. Creation is the intention of a person who’s clear about who he is and how he chooses to experience and express his life under all predictable circumstances. A reaction is a response that the student hopes will be more or less in alignment with who he is, but often is not.
So it’s a difference between conscious and unconscious living.
NDW: Hello! Precisely. You put it in seven words and I’m very angry about that. It took me 20 minutes to say that and you said it in one sentence. No fair!
How did the experience of Conversations with God change your life?
NDW: It’s in 21 books. Oh my God. Completely. How the experience of Conversations with God changed my life is almost like asking someone how did the experience of being in love changed your life. Anybody who’s been in love would say, "My life has changed completely. I’m a different person."
Try to put that into words. I feel bigger. I feel more expanded. I feel more full of joy, more enriched, more observant about life. I see things I didn’t see before in life, and all those things and more. If a person really wants to have an answer to that question, I would say this to them, "Look to see how you felt in the moment of your greatest love. What did that feel like, to be so in love that you were walking on air and couldn’t wait, just that wonderful walking-on-air feeling of "Oh my God, she loves me. I love her and she loves me back.’ It’s that wonderful feeling that most people have had at least once in their life. That’s the feeling every day.
What was the difference between the day that you didn’t have a conversation with God and the moment that you did?
NDW: I no longer felt alone.
You were ready to listen?
NDW: Yes. Life forced me to listen. Just as in the movie. He says, "Are you ready yet? Are you ready yet? Have you had enough?"
And that’s what it was like for me. I was ready. If only I could have reached the state of readiness before I was down in the dregs in the bottom, but most people have to be awakened by circumstances. A species of evolved beings does not await circumstances to be awakened, but rather creates circumstances because they are awakened, and that’s the difference between the human race and more evolved species.
What cultural changes have you noticed between the audience that first picked up Book One of Conversations with God and the audience that will view this film?
NDW: I think the culture is spiritually sophisticated and has actually sophisticated itself, if I could use the word sophisticated as a verb. I think that the audience has sophisticated itself during the past 12 to 15 years. We’ve caused ourself to grow spiritually out of our deep intention to shift our consciousness and to change the collective experience of humanity on the planet – and I think we are very close to reaching critical mass in that process. More and more people are moving through the process I have just described, and the result of that is a general upliftment of the consciousness of humanity collectively.
I experience that wherever I go. How do I experience it, one might ask? The nature of the questions, for instance, that I get at lectures are entirely different now than they were 10 years ago. They are far more sophisticated now, asking me to explore much more deeply conceptualizations and spiritual constructions that appear in the literature that no one would have asked before. The questions I was getting 10 years ago at lectures and in my audiences were frankly rather shallow and simplistic. I rarely get simplistic questions today. The same is true of the mail and e-mail that I get. It has shifted in character over the past 10 years to a far richer, fuller, deeper kind of inquiry.
That must bring a smile to your face.
NDW: It brings a smile to my face and hope to my heart, because I see that there is an opportunity for humanity to lift itself up by it’s own bootstraps, and that we can shift the prevailing notion about things, which is something that I wondered about 10 years ago.
Whether it would happen?
NDW: Yes, whether it was possible. By the way, I don’t hold in any way that I am responsible for that. I do think that the collective called humanity is responsible for itself. It has, in fact, produced the wonderful spiritual spokespersons – and I want to even say spiritual geniuses of our time, Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, Jean Houston – and people of that sort around the periphery of which someone like me might dance and hope maybe to catch a bit of the flame of that kind of genius. I wouldn’t even begin to put myself in categories like that, but I’m happy to be able to know those people personally and understand that these are people with deep wisdom. But they have emerged out of the collective determination of humanity to uplift itself. We’ve given birth to them out of our deep desire to move in a different direction, to alter the course of humanity’s future.
What is your favorite word?
How do you define God?
NDW: I don’t. Every attempt to define God is a limitation. Definitions are, by nature, limitations. God is the indefinable. I don’t attempt to define God, but I experience God and my experience of God is present in every moment of my life if I will open myself to it.
What is your least favorite word?
NDW: Evil. It doesn’t exist except in the mind of humanity. Or, as Shakespeare said, "Nothing is evil, lest thinking make it so." He nailed it!
Tell me something about Stephen Simon that attracts you to him as a friend.
NDW: Integrity. Stephen Simon has absolute integrity and complete transparency. He’s utterly authentic. He is a person whose word I can take to the bank. I could go trust him with my life. He is remarkably creative, extraordinarily compassionate, deeply aware, and fundamentally honest, and so he makes a great friend to have. He models for me every day what it’s like to live from fearless honesty.
Why are you interested in film as a medium, and what future plans do you have with the medium?
NDW: I’m interested in film as a medium, because it puts pictures into motion. There is no more graphic means of communication. From caveman days when shadows were made on the wall by the fire to illustrate, we have been putting pictures into motion, and the process of putting pictures into motion allows us to do something we can’t do in any other way, which is to see ourselves as we are and as we can be. In my mind, it is probably the single-most powerful communication device we have ever conceived. My future plans are to stay in this medium. I hope to direct a movie one day. I hope to direct many movies. I hope to do a little bit more acting, if the space opens up for that. I hope to be involved in Spiritual Cinema on the production end, and I do see myself directing and writing motion pictures with spiritual content.
Stephen, how do you look back upon your directorial debut with the film Indigo? What did you learn from that?
Stephen Simon: It was an amazing process of learning. It isn’t something that I would highly recommend to people, the way I came into that project. I came into that project as the director 12 days before it started shooting. That really doesn’t give you time to develop the script in the way you want, to prepare to shoot a movie that you would want. On Conversations with God, I had 10 months to get ready for that process, compared to 12 days.
Indigo was an interesting experience, because even though I have produced or supervised the production of 20-25 movies in my life, as a director I was only 19 years old. I was a kid out of film school, and there were a lot of things that I learned about working with actors, about camera movement, about pacing yourself, about how I wanted to do things. I really considered Indigo to be, in a way, my school project that got me ready for Conversations with God, which is certainly on a completely different level of filmmaking than Indigo was. Indigo was a wonderful experience, being able to work with a lot of people who I really love on a micro-budget film, $500,000, and to do things that we really hoped that we would be able to do. We did and it had the effect that we wanted it to have, and then it led to James Twyman doing the Indigo Evolution documentary, which I was involved with as the executive producer, but not really in any other way than to be supportive to Jimmy. The best way for me to put it is this: I never would have had the courage to take on Conversations with God if I hadn’t been able to do Indigo.
With the overwhelming success of Conversations with God in book form, why make a movie about it"
SS: There is a human story, Neale’s story. I felt was a powerful emotional pathway for people to relate to this new vision of God, one that has come about consciously really during the last 20 or 30 years, of God being a more loving, gentle, non-judgmental God, one in which we don’t need a go-between for any of us to be able to communicate with.
In the film, Neale is asked at one point, "If God had one message to the world, what would it be?"
"Well, you’ve got me all wrong."
I found this film to be really challenging and wonderful to do. I think what people are going to find with Conversations with God, from the first three or four minutes of the film, is that the music and the feeling of the film will open people’s hearts. If you come to the film with the possibility of an open heart, I think it will have and can have a deep and profound emotional effect upon people. For me, that was one of the guiding principles of the film, which is let it be an open-hearted, emotional experience.
Was it hard to translate the book into film?
SS: In concept, yes.
Because upon reading it most people would say, "Well, how are you doing to do that?"
SS: Oh, yeah. Everybody said to me, "What’s it going to be, My Dinner With God?" You know? Are you remaking My Dinner With Andre and it’s just going to be God sitting there talking to Neale?
In concept, it was interesting as a challenge, but when we actually sat down in January of 2005 to start developing the screen play, it came out fairly easily. Without giving anything away, the image of the homeless version of Neale and what we would call the Book Neale having an encounter was one of the first images that came to me. As we talked through the story, we went down a lot of different pathways. It took two months for us to figure it out, and that’s not a long period of time. I think people will be very surprised.
You talked about some synchronous experiences you had during the filming of Conversations with God. Will you share some of them?
SS: We had many different mantras on the film, but one of them was "Casting by God, Weather by Goddess." We had every single kind of weather that I hope to have, when we needed it. That’s why I shot it in November in Oregon. We had fog when we wanted it, and then it disappeared when we didn’t want it. We had one day at a homeless camp that we were shooting at that I needed a beautiful, bright blue sky for a sunrise shot. The one morning we were shooting at the homeless park, we got the sunrise shot that we needed. When we needed rain, we had rain.
When we wanted snow – and this was really the most bizarre experience, and we all knew we weren’t in Kansas any more – we got snow. We actually wrote snow in the script, never truly believing that we would get it. When you’re making a modest, budgeted film, you don’t wait for snow. That only happens on big, Hollywood movies. But for us, it snowed, and it snowed just the amount of time that we needed it to in a place where it snows maybe three or four days a year. This wasn’t just little snow. This was big coming-down-in-sheets snow. And it lasted just as long as we needed it to. The minute I said "cut" on the last take, the snow stopped. We all just smiled and laughed at that point.
There is a sequence at a cemetery very near the end of the film. I wanted fog for that scene. We shot it in pre-dawn light and, at least in my estimation, it’s the most beautiful shot in the film. The fog was just exactly where we needed it, when we needed it. So we were incredibly blessed. For those of you who understand this energy, nearly the entire movie was shot during a Mercury retrograde period, as well, and we had no delays and no problems, so I realize how much we were blessed. This was something that the universe wanted to see made.
Tell me something about Neal Donald Walsh that attracts you to him as a friend.
SS: Oh, my! Neale is an incredibly loving, kind, and more than anything, generous man. Generous in every stretch of the imagination. I was struggling deeply and painfully in Hollywood, where I had lived my whole life and had worked my whole life. I very deeply wanted to make spiritual films within the Hollywood system. I thought that was my mission, and I met brick wall after brick wall after brick wall after brick wall. It was not the system’s fault. It was my responsibility. The universe was saying to me, "Stephen, it’s not here. This isn’t where you’re supposed to be." And I couldn’t listen. I was afraid to listen.
It was Neale who finally said to me, "Stephen, you’re not going to get this done within the belly of the beast in Hollywood. You’re going to have to leave. Write a book about spiritual cinema. I’ll get it published. I’ll write the forward." He did. He wrote the forward. He got it published through his imprint at Hampton Roads. He said, "Leave L.A. and come to Oregon. I’ll find you a place to live." He did. He brought me to Oregon. He gave me the breather. He gave me the pathway out, and he gave me his friendship and his love and his support.
He also put me out on the road for the first time, when I came to Minneapolis on my first book tour, for the Edge Life Expo in 2002. That was something Neale was responsible for. And when I wanted to make the film of Conversations with God, Neale was always very open with me about it.
He said, "Stephen, when you find the money that you think will make the movie, then come to me and we’ll make a deal." I always knew that Neale would be open to making a deal on Conversations with God if we could raise the funds for it, and we did raise the funds for it at the end of 2004. And he was there and we made a deal with him and went off on this journey. He’s been such a loving, kind, wonderful man. He’s also a brilliant man. His mind is goes in so many different places. And he and I are almost exactly the same age. We grew up with the same television shows, we have the same frames of reference, and we feel like we’re brothers from a different mother.
What is your favorite word?
What’s your least favorite word?
When you’re finished with this experience on Earth, what would you want people to remember about you?
SS: Who I loved and who loved me.