Stan Freeman, writer and producer of The God Question, has spent a lifetime writing and researching science for news stories. But when Canon produced an affordable camera, he saw an opportunity to tell a science fiction story with a Christian backbone. Could a computer ever determine equivocably that there was or was not a God of the universe? To coincide with the digital release of his film, he sat down to discuss the film and its ideas with ChristianCinema.com.
You were a newspaper writer on science prior to scripting The God Question. Is your background in journalism or science, or both?
Both. I graduated in engineering from Cornell but I knew that I was actually more interested in writing by the time I got the degree. However, my first ambition was fiction writing.
I was in the graduate writing program at University of Massachusetts for a couple of years and had a few short stories published in small literary magazines. However, I knew by age thirty that I wasn’t going to make a career as a fiction writer, so I went into newspaper and managed to earn a steady paycheck doing that for several decades.
How did you go from taking the idea of the story to turning it into a feature-length presentation?
I got interested in screenwriting in graduate school and would always think of stories in that form, too. However, in the old days, if you were a writer, you knew that if you wrote a screenplay and someone actually got interested in making it into a film, you’d lose control of the script. Traditionally, screenwriters have been low in the pecking order in filmmaking. They did not have the money to drive a film. So anyone, from a producer to a studio executive to the director, could rewrite the script as they saw fit.
However, in 2009, Canon came out with a $2,500 camera that shot high-definition video. They gave it to a photographer and told him to go out over a weekend and shoot a film with it. That short film, Reverie, caused a sensation when it was posted online. It looked as good as any Hollywood film.
I knew immediately this had changed things for writers. You could make films so cheaply now that a writer could be the driving force behind a film and keep control of the script. I had a short story version of The God Question in a drawer and I began, at that point, to think about it as a film.
You assembled a cast and crew to make the film for $50,000. What was it like putting the film together on such a small budget?
It was challenging. The key was to find good professional actors and good locations locally so we didn’t have to pay for travel and hotels and meals on the road. I was able to find eight Screen Actors Guild actors within about twenty miles of Amherst, in Western Massachusetts where I live, so that was very lucky.
We also got permission to shoot much of the film on the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst for free. Without that permission, we could not have made the film so inexpensively. As it was, we shot the entire film within a twenty-mile radius of Amherst.
What are some of your favorite films? I know you referenced Primer and Blair Witch Project for their simplicity, but what were you aiming for when you set out to deliver the story?
Primer and Blair Witch Project were science fiction films that I’d liked, but more importantly, they were made on a budget comparable to what I knew we would have. So I paid a lot of attention to them, especially to Primer. However, my favorite films are pretty predictable; they’re generally the ones at the top of the AFI best American films list.
As for what my intentions were with this film, I just hoped to make a movie that would be interesting to an audience, that they would forget was a micro-budget movie as they were watching it, and that they would think of it only as a movie.
In The God Question, scientists design a supercomputer, feeding it massive data from documents and the Internet. For those who aren’t up on the latest science and technology, are we there?
No. But we will arrive there at some point and someone will ask their super-intelligent computer the very thing the scientists in our movie ask theirs, expecting it might have something new to say. Is there evidence for God, for a spiritual framework to life?
We all know how fast computer intelligence is increasing. People take it for granted that they can talk to their smart phones, ask it to make calls, Google something, find directions. Think Siri. But a decade ago such a thing was nearly pure science fiction.
The singularity – the name given to the moment when computer intelligence surpasses human intelligence – could occur as early at twenty years from now, according to the predictions of many scientists. When that happens, computers are expected to take the lead in many kinds of research, such as medical research to find cures for illnesses.
But I remember reading an essay in the late 1990s about how such a computer will also be able to sift through vast amounts of written material in a very short amount of time, holding all those facts and concepts in its mind at one time, and it’s likely such a computer will be able to see social patterns in all that material that no human could ever see. And if it does, it may able to say new things about the social sciences – economics, sociology, psychology and even philosophy. That’s actually when I thought of this story – when I read that essay.
What are some of the pros and cons of such a computer?
There are both, for sure.
The pros – the potential to cure diseases that all human effort has failed to cure; to make dramatic and significant breakthroughs in any and all of the sciences, to produce discoveries and inventions that enrich our lives, etc., etc.
The cons - these machines, which will likely be able to think independently, will have abilities that we can’t even anticipate. It may also have opinions and attitudes we can’t anticipate. How will they think of humans? What if they turn against us? Many leading scientists have warned over the last year that such machines could be a catastrophe for the human race. Stephen Hawking, the great theoretical physicist, has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence:
"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
I suppose the challenge is to get the good out of such machines and avoid the bad.
Is God quantifiable? Could we prove one way or another that God exists?
There is a difference between proving something and proving it to the satisfaction of someone who doesn’t want that outcome. Perhaps a computer could make a very good case for God existing or not existing, but there are many people who would ignore the argument, no matter how compelling it is. And that’s not a bad thing. As one character in the movie says, the mystery allows each of us to personalize God to meet our own spiritual needs.
In the end, we can all find a way to live with the mystery. But many could not live with the definitive answer, whatever it may be, if it should come.
What do you hope that audiences take away from the film?
I hope it makes them think. That’s about all.
I hope it provokes them to think about the coming age of super-intelligent machines or about whether the question posed in this movie could be definitively answered at all, by a man or a machine, or about any other number of things. But it’s basically a movie of ideas. I hope we did it well enough that it stimulates them intellectually.
Do you have any plans for a next film? What might that look like?
To make a film is incredibly time-consuming. Editing, alone, took more than a year, working three or four hours a day. And there was never any guarantee that we would make our money back.
I have another script, a science fiction story, but unless this film makes back its costs and makes a reasonable profit, I would never take the risk again. We were lucky to be picked up by a distributor, the Bridgestone Multimedia Group. But so many films are being made these days, in just the way that we made ours, that we could just as easily have been passed over and that would have been the end of us.