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One simple idea gave birth – 10 years later – to a comedy that plays with the notion of Acts of God, starring Billy Connolly and Judy Davis. Director Mark Joffe tells Andrew L. Urban why it was an irresistible idea.

Mark Joffe is hawing into a rather good tandoori lamb cutlet and sipping a yummie Western Australian merlot (so am I) at a Glebe Indian restaurant as we discuss his latest film, The Man Who Sued God. After dinner, we are scheduled to conduct a conversation on the stage at the Valhalla down the road, as part of the Popcorn Taxi series of independent filmmaker forums, where the film is screening while we dine. We’ve both seen the film – Joffe about 17 times.

"it’s so grounded in reality"

Which is about 50 fewer than the number of drafts that preceded the shoot over a 10 year period since the original idea was first floated. "It was a great idea," says Joffe. "But I never thought of it as ‘high concept’ because it’s so grounded in reality: the Act of God clause in insurance contracts. (The original idea was Patrick McCarville’s.)

The final storyline runs thus: Divorced lawyer turned fisherman-dropout Steve Myers (Billy Connolly) turns to the courts when his fishing boat-cum-home is destroyed by lightning – but it’s not the insurance company he sues, who blame the act on God, but God him/herself. Steve’s novel case is met with derision by his ex wife Jules (Wendy Hughes) and her new partner Les (Blair Venn), who actually guaranteed the loan for the boat.The churches aren’t going to take this lying down, and wheel in gun lawyer Gerry Ryan (Bille Brown). It also attracts the attention of the media. But at least here he has an ally – other than his dog and daughter Rebecca (Emily Browning) - in the shape of disgruntled journalist Anna Redmond (Judy Davis).

The film also re-unites off-screen couple Judy Davis with her husband Colin Friels, who plays Steve’s brother. John Howard plays the insurance company boss.

At first, Joffe got John Clarke to work at a script, but after several years of on/off development, they parted company (amicably) and producer Ben Gannon brought in Don Watson. "Don’s a great writer," says Joffe, "and he pinpointed the mood and direction. . . . this was after several different writers had explored many different options."

"irony and ambiguity"

The final ‘option’ was comedic, but not farcical. "What interested me conceptually was where we could go with the basic idea. Or, without sounding pretentious or pseudo intellectual, which I hate, we wanted to touch on the bigger questions. So to me what it’s about is irony and ambiguity and in a technical sense it has to rest on its reality."

Part of that reality is Billy Connolly’s character, Steve Myers. "I can see so many people in Billy – he’s really flawed but he’s also charming. The character we always talked about was a flawed one. And once Billy Connolly’s name came up, we never thought of anyone else. He’s been around and experienced life’s frustrations and we knew his sense of comedy would help the film."

As for Judy Davis – who was already interested when John Clarke was writing it – Joffe "can’t admire her enough for bringing her character to lifr. In fact most of the best ideas in the film came from her – like the scene where she falls in the water trying to get into the boat. She remembered a real life incident of hers and suggested we use it as a basis …. " Davis also shines in an extended scene at a restaurant where Anna first meets Steve.

The film has played strongly to test and preview audiences in Australia - and in the US, where both Connolly and Davis have a modest but loyal following. Joffe himself has a good record there, too: each of his feature films has had a US release, "even though none were blockbusters," he adds.

One might have been: Joffe declined an invitation to direct a studio picture back in 1992 when he though financing was imminent for The Man Who Sued God. "I really believed in the idea so much…" The film he declined was made and became a giant hit worldwide. Joffe doesn’t claim it would have been the same – but he likes to tell the story to prove how strong his faith was in ‘God’.

"You do put a lot of yourself into it"

To him, film is a special medium because "it has an immediate emotional reaction – despite being demeaned in recent time," he adds. "You do put a lot of yourself into it and it’s terribly exciting and terribly frustrating all at once. It’s a gratifying thing to. And I’m really not qualified to do anything else."

After such a long gestation, Joffe is relieved that The Man Who Sued God is finally on the screen. It was a great collaboration between writer Don watson, producer ben Gannon, director Joffe and the entire cast, he say.s "And I’m really pleased to say that the writer – Don – really likes the movie. I’m very pleased about that!"

Published October 25, 2001

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Mark Joffe

Mark Joffe with Billy Connolly


Mark Joffe filmography:

The Man Who Sued God (2001) - Reviews Trailer

The Matchmaker (1997)

Cosi (1996)

Spotswood (1991)

Grievous Bodily Harm (1988)

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