Commentary: 'Gods' casts heroes in new light

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In these troubled times there may be solace in seeing heroes on the big screen -- that is, if you can find any. Increasingly, movie protagonists are being written as complicated characters more likely to be anti-heroes, flawed superheroes or even villains rather than old-fashioned figures we used to enjoy looking up to.

In the past, Hollywood had no shortage of onscreen heroes and it helped that it had actors who seemed born to play them -- think Henry Fonda, John Wayne and James Stewart. Today heroes aren't the easiest roles to cast, but that's not to say it can't be done.

Case in point: Justin Golding's drama "The Gods of Circumstance" from Catapult Pictures, which had its world premiere May 3 as the opening film for the British Film Festival in Los Angeles. "Gods" will have its European premiere May 31 at the Swansea Bay Film Festival, whose patrons include Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Sheen, who, like Golding, are Welsh. From there "Gods" will play June 12 at a second U.K. festival, the Heartland of England Festival.

Directed by Golding, "Gods" was written by Michael Thacker and produced by Daniel Sollinger, Michael Fischler and Thacker. John Schneider, Cate Cohn and Brian Krause topline.

It's Schneider who plays the film's classic movie hero. His character, Mick Jeremiah, is a blue-collar guy who is a single father and a bankrupt homebuilder. He's heading to Colorado from California to get a fresh start building homes on spec if he can manage to raise some money.

The role fits Schneider like a glove. Although he's been performing for 30 years -- in series like "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Nip/Tuck," miniseries like "Shark Swarm" and features like "Rebound," opposite Zeta Jones -- Schneider's not an actor you instantly recognize. In other words, what you see on screen is the character, not a movie star.

In the film's very timely opening, written and shot long before today's recession, Mick is turned down by his banker for a desperately needed construction loan. That sends him to try his luck in Colorado and on the way he stops to look up Toni, an old girlfriend (Cohn). She surprises him by saying yes when he asks her to pick up right then and there and go with him. Unfortunately, there's an ex-husband in Toni's past (Krause) and, without giving anything away, we all know what follows isn't going to be pretty.

Having had an early look at "Gods," I talked about the making of the film with Golding, who started his career as an actor with Britain's National Youth Theatre before turning to directing ("God's Forgotten House," "The Pondhoppers").

The unusual title? "It's one of those mythological concepts," Golding said, "where a man gets up to plow the fields, gives homage to the gods to not destroy the crops, but then wakes up the next day and a storm has come in. It's that ode to the hard-working man who realizes the world is not in their control, but they get up each day and try to do the best they can."

Pointing to the character Mick, Golding said the movie is an homage to "people who get up, take responsibility for their life and the people around them." Whether, he went on, "it's the fire that comes and takes your crops or the downturn in the economy, for most people it's not their fault, but they have to deal with the consequences even though they had nothing to do with it."

This was the first feature Golding didn't write. "I was involved with something else, so initially I really loved the script but I couldn't get involved. I guess the director they had on board just wasn't capturing what they wanted so then they flew me out and asked me to do it. I was overjoyed to actually get to do it because this is the type of film that I grew up watching. Growing up in Britain, this is very distinctly American. And it was appealing to be able to go out to shoot the great landscapes that I knew would be needed, which you can't do in small countries."

The landscape, Golding pointed out, is so important in "Gods" that he calls it "the fourth character."

"It's so distinctly American when you see it in the films of John Wayne and John Ford, and even quite recently with the Coen Brothers' 'No Country for Old Men.' It was an homage to that old frontier style of hurt and the psyche of America -- you know, 'I'm going to get up and go to where I need to to make my fortune. I'm not going to quit.' "

Although "Gods" seems very timely, "We were," Golding explained, "in the boom times when we were making it." In fact, the producer-writer Mike Thacker was actually talking about the 1987 crash of the real estate market, Golding said. Shooting began in November 2007 and continued into February 2008.

When I observed that casting was probably more important with "Gods" than it usually is because he really needed to put a face on the script's "everyman" blue-collar, hard-working guy, Golding replied: "You are correct. I knew of Schneider's work. He has what I call that grass-roots connection to the working class."

When they were shooting at different locations, police officers and firefighters and the local guy in the store would come up and say hi to the actor, and he had time for all of them, Golding recalled.

"I go back to John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart. They're not superheroes. They're you and me. Whatever difficulty they encounter, they keep going even if they get knocked on their butt. And John has that. You put him in denims and a jacket and workman's boots and you believe he can go build a house," Golding said.

As for how he worked with his actors, Golding told me, "I was lucky with John, Cate and Brian as they embraced the process. We did get to rehearse and we'd always get together and have long chats before they'd go on set.You know, you have those wonderful conversations that go off sometimes on tangents about different aspects of life but they all get incorporated into that moment when they deliver their performances."

Shooting took place, he explained, in many different locations around L.A., in Lancaster, on the road to Vegas, Barstow and on the Arizona border. It even included a casino called Eureka just outside of Vegas. "Our production budget didn't stretch to being able to get one of the big casinos. They were very kind to let us shoot there. We were shooting at three or four in the morning, but amazingly there were still people there trying to make their fortune."

Looking back at production, Golding recalled, "I had one of those epiphany moments while driving in the middle of nowhere between Barstow and Vegas. We had this convoy of vehicles -- the wardrobe and makeup trailer, the actors' buses and all these things. I'm in one of the vehicles sitting there. You know, I'm a lad from a small town in Wales. And I'm like, 'Wow! How the heck did I get here shooting this American film?' It was one of those great moments where you go, 'Hey, life hasn't turned out too bad, has it?' "

Actually, life could be getting even better for Golding as he's putting new projects together.

"I'm now living in L.A. and I'm very lucky to be in a situation where I'm in talks with a bunch of executives about my next feature film and a pilot," he said. 

What's his next feature about? "It's a comedy called 'The Devil's Bride' in which a guy ends up in an insane asylum for 15 years because the devil kills all his friends, but everybody believes he killed them. So he spends the 15 years getting ready to go back out and get even with the devil."
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