There’s something Paul Feig wants the world to know. He didn’t steal Mel Gibson’s cast. He gave Mel Gibson his cast.
If the point requires some explanation, it’s because the casting similarities between Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and Feig’s inspirational, family-oriented escape / road movie I Am David are too striking to be ignored. And, with Gibson’s Passion now making its mark on the DVD market while I Am David is just hitting theaters, it’s easy to forget that I Am David debuted at Cannes almost a year before Gibson’s film opened.
It isn’t only Jim Caviezel, the Christ of The Passion, here another nobly self-sacrificial prisoner who freely allows himself to be wrongly condemned in order to save another. It’s also the actor who plays the complex, conflicted official who suspects his prisoner is innocent but must pass judgment anyway — Pontius Pilate in The Passion, "The Man" in I Am David. In both films, the role went to Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov.
"From now on," deadpans Feig (TV’s "Freaks and Geeks"), "whenever you see Jim and Hristo in a film together, you’ll know Jim’s going to get killed by Hristo." Like Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, I suggest, alluding to Bogey’s habit of getting killed onscreen by Cagney. "Exactly," laughs Feig. "I’ve created a team."
Feig can take credit for the pairing because he’s the one who discovered Shopov and cast him opposite Caviezel in I Am David. "We made this film in 2002," he explains. "We cast everyone out of Rome, same as Mel. And so when Mel came to Rome, he got one of the actresses from my film — Shaila Ruben — as his casting director. So he ended up getting a lot of the same actors we had worked with.
"Besides Jim and Hristo," Feig notes, "there are something like five or six other actors from my film who wound up in The Passion." These include Gibson’s St. Peter (Francesco De Vito), who in I Am David played a sailor-cum-trucker, and a centurion credited as "Whipping Guard" (Paco Reconti), here the father of a young girl whose life David saves. "So, I sort of cast Mel Gibson’s movie." He laughs again. "I just want to take a little credit for that. I didn’t reunite Mel’s cast, he reunited my cast."
Casting overlaps notwithstanding, the PG-rated I Am David is in other ways very different from Gibson’s R-rated Passion. Based on the popular 1963 novel North to Freedom by Anne Holm, I Am David may deal with some heavy subject matter — a young boy who has spent most of his life in a Soviet labor camp — but Feig’s uplifting film is hardly oppressive or grueling. In fact, critics on both sides of the fence on the film consider it sweetly old-fashioned, saved from mawkish sentimentality largely by Feig’s low-key emotional restraint.
"Hollywood does not respond well to films like this," Feig says. "It’s convinced no one will go to see them. And Hollywood is like the auto industry — it’s here to make money. And this is not the kind of family film Hollywood thinks makes money. It isn’t dumbed down. It isn’t corny or just for kids but a travail for adults to sit through. It’s not a big, animated comedy with crazy stuff happening." I appreciate his comments, not least because he used the word "travail" in ordinary conversation.
Feig admits that the film’s setting might be a hard sell — especially to families that may not be familiar with the acclaimed novel, which he says is standard reading in some European schools. "When you tell people your movie is a family film about a boy who’s grown up in a concentration camp," he acknowledges, "they roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh, a comedy.’ Well, actually, yes, there are light moments, funny moments. Really, we took great pains to make the film as a whole uplifting. We didn’t want to make Night and Fog" — a reference to Alain Resnais’ devastating 1955 Holocaust documentary — "or even Schindler’s List. It’s not medicine that’s supposed to be good for you but tastes terrible."
In fact, Feig says that his experience in festivals and other settings is that audiences who do give the film a chance find it moving and inspiring. "I have people come up to me and thank me at festivals," he says. "We just have to get people in to see it. Maybe they won’t come. At the end of the day, Hollywood might be right. But a lot of times these are the movies that don’t get pushed the way they should — it’s a vicious circle. My goal is to prove them wrong. I love movies like this."
He hesitates. "I hate to tie it into something like this, but everyone’s been talking about the election, when everything came down to moral values — which I absolutely believe it should. I get so frustrated with Hollywood… but at the end of the day the question comes, what are you doing for the world? You have to try to do something that’s going to add something positive to the world."
Why has young David (Ben Tibber) spent most of his short life in a Bulgarian labor camp? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. As the title suggests, I Am David wants us to experience David’s story through the eyes of a young boy who has never known anything but this camp, except for a few flashbulb memories of a fair-haired woman he knew in another life.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.