“The Gospel According to Stephenson”: Seven Questions for John Schuermann
October 1, 2015
An upcoming film titled The Gospel According to Stephenson "concerns the appearance of what appears to be a supernatural being in our modern society-a ‘vampire,' named Stephenson-and how the worldview of the people he comes in contact with colors their perception of him. Those with a supernatural worldview (‘The Believers') see him as an evil being needing to be stopped in the name of God and morality. Those with a naturalistic world view (‘The Skeptics') see vampirism as a disease that needs to be understood, and if necessary, cured. The Believers call in armies of Christians armed with crosses, wooden stakes and holy water. The Skeptics call in reason and science in the form of the CDC."
Intrigued? Here's a few questions I had for writer/director/composer John Schuermann:
BR: You wrote in your film proposal that the movie approaches vampires from a skeptical perspective; one of my favorite vampire films, George Romero's Martin, has a sort of similar theme, in which it's not really clear whether or not the protagonist is really a vampire. What films or books inspired the script? What are your influences as a filmmaker?
JS: Romero's Martin is indeed an excellent film, and I love Romero's technique of using fantastical subject matter like vampires or zombies as a launching point for social commentary. I liken it to how "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry used spaceships, aliens and ray guns as a way to lure in mass numbers of viewers, then used it as a platform as a means of slipping in more subversive (read: secular) subtext while the audience and censors weren't looking.
That said, I wasn't specifically inspired by Martin when I created The Gospel According to Stephenson. The original concept was sparked by viewing Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time, way back in 1978. I loved the whole concept of Jack the Ripper being transported into modern times, and the commentary his character made about our modern society.
That was the genesis of the Stephenson concept -- a fish out of water tale where a person / being from another time could see our culture through fresh yet ancient eyes. This thought process led me to another thread that runs through the Stephenson script -- how Stephenson would learn all about how his kind is perceived in our culture by watching every vampire movie ever made and devouring all the literature on the subject. As a being who possesses vampire-like characteristics, it would be easy for him to figure out from the popular culture how he could manipulate the masses into thinking that he might possess supernatural powers.
Ultimately, it was "Star Trek" that later influenced me to add the secular undertones to the original concept, as Star Trek was a clear proponent of a secular worldview that explicitly rejected the supernatural in its storylines. Roddenberry had one clear edict for his writers- - there would be no supernatural mumbo jumbo is his television series. Everything would ultimately have a scientific / naturalistic explanation, and no appeals to a deity would ever be made. Think about the typical "Star Trek" plot -- the Enterprise meets God, and God turns out to be a child, or a computer, or both.
Another influence along these lines was the Scientology book and documentary Going Clear, which tells the astonishing story of how even in modern times a religion can be invented out of whole cloth and essentially function as a tax dodge for a very clever, yet sick individual.
In Stephenson's case, he isn't necessarily looking for a tax dodge - he's looking to expand his numbers. His first concern is survival, and the religion he creates is initially a way of ensuring that. His promise is "eternal life, guaranteed" -- which, as pointed out in the trailer, is the promise of almost all religions. He can prey upon people's pre-conceptions of what "powers" a vampire supposedly possesses, and then use that to his advantage. His "eternal life guarantee" is no more ridiculous than the claims of most other religions, except in his case he has some evidence to back it up.
After all, he is (apparently) actually hundreds of years old and possesses superior strength and intellect compared to normal humans. Yet, as a skeptic, I would say is that that is all we know about Stephenson -- that he is hundreds of years old, and that he is super smart and super strong. That's the extent of our knowledge. There is zero evidence that he is truly immortal. After all, if you cut his head off, he is just as dead as you or I.
My thought is that if people in reality were confronted with a vampire-esque being like Stephenson, many of them would make the leap to believing that he truly can offer immortality. The human need to believe in some kind of eternal life is rather strong, I think.
BR: No offense--and this is not news to you--but vampires have pretty well been done to death. From Stoker to Rice to King to Meyer, they're everywhere, but it seems that with The Gospel According to Stephenson you're trying to bring something new to the character. How much of a struggle was it to find a fresh angle (or new blood, if you prefer) to a venerable genre?
JS: During the late 80s and early 90s we suffered through an absolute glut of teen slasher movies, and the genre was truly running out of steam. Then in 1996 Scream came along and made the rather brilliant move of being a teen slasher movie about teen slasher movies. It also also happened to be a good teen slasher movie in its own right. That's the type of pop culture "fresh blood" I hope to bring to the vampire genre. Stephenson literally learns about our culture by watching vampire movies and reading Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and Stephen King.
The other original element, in my view, is the whole "Skeptic vs. Believer" angle. In almost all horror films, you have a character who starts out as a skeptic and by the end of the film is either proved wrong or becomes a believer. I wanted to turn all of that right on its head. In our case, the skeptic -- in our case, police officer Sam Bowden -- is correct. The supposed supernatural being is not supernatural, as in fact there are natural explanations for all of his abilities. However, that does not mean that Stephenson does not represent a genuine threat to humanity, and doesn't mean he doesn't need to be stopped or contained in some way. That way I can make a straight ahead fun and entertaining vampire movie while still making my pro-skeptical points. I can have my non-supernatural cake and eat it too.
The other thing I don't think has ever been explored is this whole idea of creating a fully realized religious movement around vampirism. The religious subtext has always been an implicit part of the vampire genre, but to my knowledge no one has ever made it explicit - vampire proselytizers and evangelists handing out religious tracts, vampire street preachers pounding a street corner pulpit, the whole idea of avoiding any need for repentance by simply becoming a vampire and living forever, etc. In my view, this approach makes the ridiculous claims of almost all religions seem equally ridiculous. After all, how much more ridiculous are the claims of Stephenson's "vampire religion" in comparison to claims of talking snakes and Xenu exploding souls with atom bombs in others?
BR: Mutating prions: What can you tell me about them? What are they and what role do they play in The Gospel According to Stephenson? What would you imagine they taste like?
JS: In order to make the "science vs. superstition" motif work, I needed to make sure that we had some kind of scientific / naturalistic basis for how "vampires" could exist. To that end I spent many hours with the head of medicine at a local hospital plus a very good neuroscientist friend of mine. Together we came up with the idea of a mutating prion, which we thought ideal for several reasons.
First, prions are still somewhat of a mystery - we don't currently understand exactly how they function or how they are transmitted. Secondly, they work very much like a virus in that they are capable of essentially rewriting living cells with their own instructions. The "virus" idea has already been overdone in zombie and vampire fiction, so we thought using prions as the culprit would be new, different and scary (scary because we still don't really even know how to prevent the spread of prion based diseases, as they literally resist almost all methods of sterilization). For the un-initiated, prions are misfolded proteins, proteins with a bad instruction. They are the cause of such diseases as Creutzfeld-Jacob Syndrome and, more familiarly, Mad Cow Disease. I imagine they taste like wild hickory nuts...
BR: You note that "Christian fundamentalists have done an extremely good job of mobilizing their community to help produce such films as Fireproof and the overtly anti-atheist God Is Not Dead. They accomplish this by reaching out to fundamentalist churches around the country and building grassroots support--support that is converted into the funding necessary to get these films made and distributed. Right now, however, there is no corresponding filmmaking movement within the secular community." To this we could of course add the Left Behind films and their clones. But given that organizing skeptics (and humanists) has often charitably been described as like herding cats, how do you refine your approach or hone your pitch to such a famously difficult-and many would say fragmented-group? Have you found a way to channel or organize around a lack of dogma? Also, how do you as a filmmaker find the balance between being preachy and being entertaining?
JS: It's true -- it is like herding cats. None of us skeptics want to be tied down to any strict ideology or belief system, so I did my best to explain that my film is all about following the evidence, rather than leading the evidence. Speaking as someone who primarily identifies as a skeptic, that was an idea that I knew I personally would be able to get behind. Most atheists, skeptics and humanists can rally around that kind of statement. Most of them are distinctly pro-science as well, so the pro-science themes have definitely resonated with the people I've reached out to. My whole argument for the creation of a pro-secular filmmaking movement that can compete with the Christian fundamentalist filmmaking machine can be found at this link.
Speaking of secular support, I am happy to report that David Smalley of the Dogma Debate and Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience have not only signed on as supporters, but as associate producers of the film as well. I've also had the support of such personalities as yourself and Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist). All of this is sincerely appreciated!
While I often jokingly refer to The Gospel According to Stephenson as the first horror film about confirmation bias, my primary goal is to entertain. To that end I've picked a popular genre (horror) and sub-genre (vampires), and built plenty of character conflict into the story. Despite all this esoteric discussion of the film and its subtext, the film at its core is a story about very human (and super-human) characters colliding and conflicting, loving and learning. Again, I use "Star Trek" as my model of how to tell explicitly secular stories while entertaining a general audience. Ultimately, it's all about the people and how they relate. Hopefully that is clear from our story synopsis:
BR: I've recently written a book on clowns and I couldn't help but notice that the trailer features a clown--Droppo, I think it was. I know Stephenson is the star of the show, but what can you tell me about Droppo and the inspiration for the character?
JS: Finally I can give you a short and simple answer: Droppo was inspired by an event described to me by one of my best friends a few years back. He told me that on his way over to my house, some clown cut him off on the freeway. I thought, of course, that he was just saying "clown" in the colloquial sense, as in "jerk," or "moron." Instead, he emphasized that it was an actual clown that cut him off. I found the story hilarious, so I incorporated the idea of a down on his luck child's entertainer who gets recruited by Stephenson the old fashioned way early on in the story. Droppo ends up becoming a Stephenson side-kick, more of a sadly comic character than a frightening one....
BR: Let's say the film is not only funded but is a success... What about a sequel? Obviously you don't want to give anything away about the end of the film, but just theoretically where might you go with it? Are there other themes you'd like to explore with this character?
JS: Absolutely! There are so many ways to explore the "Stephenson world" in a trilogy of films or even a television / streaming series. Topics ripe for exploration: schisms within the "vampire" church, vampire missionaries going to other countries, Stephenson claiming that vampirism is a religion of peace, Stephenson claiming religious persecution, the list goes on and on. With all the current debate about religious freedom vs. civil rights, we have a tremendous opportunity to explore these themes within the wonderfully flexible framework the SF / Horror genre provides!
BR: Do you have any favorite films about filmmaking, either fiction (such as Wag the Dog or And God Spoke) or documentary (such as Lost in La Mancha or Burden of Dreams)? What are three or four of your favorites, and why?
JS: Over the last few years I've seen three amazingly good documentaries about the making of films that started out looking very promising and ended up going extremely wrong: Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's The Island of Dr. Moreau, American Movie, and Overnight. The appeal of these movies is watching the various personality clashes or ego-driven battles that can doom even the most promising of projects.
The other thing that fascinates me about these kinds of films is that you can see that for many actors and film crews, each film is just another day's work for which they just want to get paid. A film set, after all, is just another work environment, more glamorous than some perhaps, but generally not nearly as glamorous as the outside world perceives. Now it's time for me to admit to a guilty pleasure: Capricorn One. It's the notorious Peter Hyams film about the fictional faking of a Mars landing, set sometime in the not-too-distant future. Not a great movie by any means, but I saw it at an impressionable age back in 1977. Although I now find the conspiracy theory plot absolutely laughable, it still holds a special place in my heart as a favorite fictional film about the making of a film. And speaking as a film composer, the Jerry Goldsmith score still rocks!
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