An interview with Neale Donald Walsch and the filmâ€™s director, Stephen Simon
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 homeless.
“If you want to have an interesting Sunday afternoon, just scruff yourself up some Sunday afternoon and just 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.
Neale Donald Walsch and Stephen 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.
What are the essential messages from the book that you wanted to maintain in, the film?
NDW: That everyone is having a conversation with God all the time. 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.
What it was 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 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 â€” 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.â€
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?â€™
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 has actually sophisticated itself during the past 12 to 15 years, if I could use the word sophisticated as a verb. 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 â€” 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.
The nature of the questions, for instance, that I get at lectures are entirely different now than they were 10 years ago. They are asking me to explore much more deeply conceptualizations and spiritual constructions that appear in the literature that no one would have asked before. It has shifted in character to a far richer, fuller, deeper kind of inquiry.
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.
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 really considered Indigo to be my school project that got me ready for Conversations with God, which is certainly on a completely different level of filmmaking than Indigo was. 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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.