THE MAN WHO SUED GOD
Movie Interview by Toby White
After a widely-appreciated screening of THE MAN WHO SUED GOD, London's press up-camped to the curious but somehow appropriate location of St Anne's Church in Marylebone, London for a press conference with the star of the film, Billy Connolly. Waiting in the wings, with microphone, were the film's director, Mark Joffe, and producer, Ben Gannon.
Billy, in the production notes you're quoted as saying that initially, when you read the script, you liked the premise but found it a little cutesy-pie...
BILLY CONNOLLY: Aye...
...so what persuaded you it could be made less "comfy"?
BILLY CONNOLLY: I found that with a lot of scripts and especially comedies that they tend to lead to comfortable situations and happy endings and everybody's quite nice and everybody gets a funny line whereas I think that when it comes to politics and religion, whether it's comedy or not, the situation should carry the comedy, not the writing of comedy lines. There should be a funny situation that carries the comedy along and when you let it become more absurd and abstract real stuff happens. I mean people are funny when they're angry and people are funny when they fight and I much prefer that than the old way of doing comedy, the comedy you now see on television where it's obvious that people have argued for a funnier line. I think discomfort creates funny. Like when I do my act, if I've got no trousers on and everyone else has...or sex is funny if people are watching. I read something last night...it was about morality in a book about Scottish history. What was it [thinks]...it was David Hume, the philosopher, quoting Adam Smith and he said that morality is the feeling that somebody's watching you do whatever you're doing. And I think that's where the fun lies, being an observer of a situation rather than them perform it for you. I hope I haven't gone on too long.
What do you think of comedy writing these days?
BILLY CONNOLLY: It's getting better all the time. Some people can survive ordinary stuff that isn't that good, like Eddie Murphy. For what's it worth, I think he's the best comedy actor in the world, you can go and see a pretty ordinary film and he'll be brilliant in it. But more European the writing gets, the better it gets, allowing the situation. And it's lovely to see American film going that way. What was that one about Mary? THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. I thought I would need an ambulance in that film. When he got caught in the zipper I thought I was going to have to be carried out of there. It happened to me once, in an aeroplane, for Christ's sake, I mean what can you do? You can't send for a stewardess [laughter]. But yes, I'm sorry, comedy writing is getting better.
It's been suggested that the film's appeal is Capra-esque about the little man roaring against the establishment, in this case he's pricking the pomposity of the Church.
BILLY CONNOLLY: Well, it's not so much that, it's pricking the fraudulence of the insurance situation. I had never read anything like this until I was doing the film but Mark and people showed me stuff where in a flood, where you're flooded from above or below; if you're flooded from above you get the money but not if you're flooded from below. In both cases you're flooded...it smacks of fraudulence. Is there anything as absurd and abstract as an act of God? It's not so much the little guy against God - that just happens to be the situation.
Have you ever had a situation where you've had dealings with an insurance company for a claim?
BILLY CONNOLLY: On many occasions but they've all been really small. There was a time when a bit of coal jumped out my fire onto the carpet, it only ever happened once in my life but they thought that was absolutely normal [laughter].
How did you feel playing a romantic lead at sixty?
BILLY CONNOLLY: I was much younger when I did it [laughter]. I had no problem with it at all. I mean Judy's a very attractive woman, it's easy peasy - but, well...sixty's weird. It affects everybody round you. People start saying "at your age" when you do things but you still feel 35. I still feel sexy, not as a sexy man, like Sean Connery, but I still feel sex-driven.
Did you have a big sixtieth birthday party?
BILLY CONNOLLY: Oh, monstrous. Squandered the children's inheritance. [Laughter] I was doing some commercials for the National Lottery and in one of them I was at the Forth Bridge, you know the rail bridge; the big thing, Scotland's Eiffel Tower and they had a big statue of me, granite-looking with a big spanner and it said Sir William Connolly and, of course, it was made of polystyrene but after we shot the commercial and I asked the guy, "What are you going to do with this thing?", he said, "Would you like it?" and I said, "Yeah", so he says, "Well, if you pay for the truck, it's yours." So I took it up to my house in Scotland and I had it in the garden for my party and one of the bagpipers who was there met a friend of mine and he says, "I was at Billy's party, it was very enjoyable, but he's a bit of a big-headed wretch, isn't he? He's got this massive statue of himself in his garden..." [Laughter]. So I've got it in a much more prominent position this year to irritate everybody.
You're obviously comfortable being in Australia, did you notice any differences working there?
BILLY CONNOLLY: I think if you're not comfortable in Australia, you're not comfortable on the planet. It's impossible to be uncomfortable in Australia. Apart from the climate being delightful, like America there's an optimism about the people that I am completely hooked on. The film industry in Australia, which is older than the film industry in Hollywood actually, is in great shape. For some reason it keeps taking people by surprise but the success has taken a long time; there's a wonderful line of films that came out from the '60s, '70s and '80s but it goes way, way back. And although they don't really have big sound studios, most of the great stuff has been made without that. But people talk about Australian film as if they started making films last Wednesday. And Australians are very easy to work with, you don't get that snobbish, "Well, normally I'm at the Royal Shakespeare..." kind of people, the actors there will do anything.
You've been working in New Zealand too, on the Tom Cruise film...
BILLY CONNOLLY: Oh, aye, the Samurai one, that low-budget thing, 140 million...
that's the biggest film you've made yet, did it feel any different from this?
BILLY CONNOLLY: No, no. More helicopters perhaps. More trucks. It's like an army on the move, it's big that way but when it comes to working it feels exactly the same. They have more time to get things right and they get what they want but sometimes that isn't such a good idea, you can get deeply involved in self-indulgence when you have too much money and when you do 27 takes instead of 3, it's harder to find the good one. You get confused as to which one you like best. But for people like me, it's a doddle, you just turn up and do it.
Compere: We've got the film's director, Mark Joffe, in the wings there. I was just going to ask, the "act of God" scene in the film, was it tricky to shoot?
MARK JOFFE: It just required, dare I say it, a lot of God's will, the water being calm, for example. But we tried to do a lot of that stuff in camera before we did the rest in post-production. But really it's done in the way it was photographed. And we were lucky with the weather...
BILLY CONNOLLY: We were very lucky with the cockatoo as well.
Billy, you seemed pretty adept on the boat, are you a natural sailor?
BILLY CONNOLLY: I always wanted to be but it was one of those things I never got round to. I'd always wanted a boat and I got one last year from my manager for my birthday. But the first time I was on it, I hurt my back and I've never been on it since. I could never understand how you sail against the wind, I would lie in bed at night trying to work it out and a man showed me in about five minutes. But I sincerely now want to sail a lot. I had an operation on my back so I'm okay now and I want to go back to sailing...I find those sailing books very funny though, I can't understand them, as you put the gozzle pin through the rectal shaft and all that, it's all very weird.
What did you call your boat?
BILLY CONNOLLY: Big Jessie.
What does your wife think about you indulging in a dangerous pastime?
BILLY CONNOLLY: Well, there's no more dangerous pastime than comedy. And sailing's just another one of those things. I parachuted when I was younger, I've always been attracted to that more exciting end of things. But sailing's a doddle. I mean I'm not going anywhere dangerous, I'm not doing the Bay of Biscay and all that. The boat's only the size of this table, for God's sake...