In New York native Austin Stark’s latest film, he tackles an incredibly timely, age-old question: “Is it justifiable to sacrifice individual lives for the greater good?” The God Committee, which stars Kelsey Grammer, Julia Stiles, Janeane Garofalo, with Dan Hedaya and Colman Domingo, debuted at the Tribecca Film Festival and will be released theatrically by Vertical Entertainment this July.
We chatted with the writer, director, and producer of the NY-based production company Paper Street Films, about the film’s inspiration, star-studded cast, what he hopes people take away from The God Committee, and more.
The film had two inspirations, Mark St. Germain’s play and a story you had heard about. Could you speak to those?
AS: How this film came about was two of the film’s producers, Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Rubenstein, from Crystal City Entertainment, they saw Mark’s play off Broadway a bunch of years back, and they fell in love with it. They called me and asked me if I wanted to direct it. I read it and it blew me away, too. But in order to turn it into a film, I wanted to make it my own and put my own stamp on the material. So, what you see in the finished film is inspired by Mark’s play, certainly the spirit of it lives on, but I’ve definitely made it my own.
You wrote the screenplay and directed. Which aspect was more challenging?
AS: I think they’re equally challenging. I mean, you make three different films, you make one film when you’re writing, another film when you direct, when you’re on set, and then a third film when you edit. They all bring their challenges and there’s things that I also love about each as well. What I will say is that I like to write the films that I direct, because sitting with a script and creating that gives you a deeper insight into the material as a director. So, I’ve already envisioned it entirely before I even get on set.
The film has quite the talented group of actors. Were they people that you had in mind?
AS: Yeah, they’re fantastic. Kelsey Grammer was the first actor to sign on. And we actually offered him the role of Father Dunbar, which Colman Domingo plays in the film. Kelsey read the script and he called me and he was like, “This is amazing. I want to be a part of it. And I would gladly play Father Dunbar. But I feel like I’ve done that before. What I think would be really interesting is if I played Boxer, because nobody would be expecting that.” I thought about it, and I was like, “You know what? You’re right, Kelsey. Let’s do it.” That’s how he came on. What’s interesting is that now having made the film and having sat with it for a couple of years, it’s really hard to imagine anybody else playing Boxer.
From there, I just thought Julia [Stiles] is such a great actress. I thought she was perfect for Dr. Taylor. Dr. Taylor’s an idealist and she has a warmth, she’s probably the purest character in the film. I thought Julia would bring a nice balance to that character without overdoing it. I like that she feels very authentic to Dr. Taylor. And then from there, I called Colman Domingo, he’s just the guy, I think he should just be a big star. And he is breaking out. I knew that he would absolutely kill Father Dunbar. He created a character that I didn’t even envision fully on the page.
And you have a home in Bridgehampton, and the film even has a connection to the area. Can we expect any Hamptons screenings?
AS: That’s a good question. The film is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival and then it is coming out in the US on July 2. I haven’t seen their theater list yet, so I don’t know if it’s playing in the Hamptons, but it would be great if it did.
I do have a home in Bridgehampton and when I was growing up, my family had a place in Westhampton. So, I’ve been coming to the Hamptons my entire life. Also, my first short film actually premiered at the Hamptons Film Festival. I have a connection to the Hamptons both on the film side and just on the personal side as well.
What does an ideal day in the Hamptons look like for you?
AS: It depends whether it’s the summer or the winter, I love it out there in the winter, when it’s just totally quiet. I go and play tennis and you can take walks on the beach in the winter. In the summertime, I love going to the beach, it’s really hard to beat. I try to go to the beach as much as I can. Other than that, I do yoga, hang out with friends, and go to the occasional party. But I love going out to nice dinners and there are so many great restaurants in the Hamptons.
Could you speak a little bit about the imagery at the beginning and end of the film?
AS: Those are photographs of doctors throughout time, from probably the early 1900s through the 1980s. One of those photos was actually the first photo of the doctors that performed the first organ transplantation in history. The reason why I included them is because I see this film as a love letter to doctors who toil away in a well-intentioned but imperfect system.
The film is incredibly timely, especially with the pandemic.
AS: One hundred percent. I mean, truly, the film is about a team of doctors who have to make a life and death decision under extraordinary circumstances. And it’s relevant to COVID in many ways because it speaks to who gets the ventilator for hospital beds, who gets the vaccine first. So, it really does relate in many ways. It also speaks to the healthcare system, and the red tape that sometimes we find within the US healthcare system.
What are you working on next?
AS: I just finished a screenplay. It’s called Plague! It’s set during the Spanish Flu in 1917. It takes place on an island called East Egg. Sort of a shout out to the Great Gatsby. It’s about a cook and he’s kind of a bum. He gets a job working for an affluent family on East Egg who’s sheltering there. He uses that situation, he leverages that to create an uprising with his fellow staff members, and they take over the home. So, it’s kind of dark and funny, and also has a bit of thriller in it as well. And it’s also socially relevant because it’s about classes.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
AS: I guess what I’d like to add is what I want people to take away from the film. One of the main reasons why I made The God Committee was to shed light on how serious the organ shortage is. So, I would love for people to walk away from it and if they’re not a donor, I would love for them to sign up – because really it is a well-intentioned but imperfect system. It’s imperfect because there simply aren’t enough organs and the film does offer a hopeful message about the future through xenotransplantation, but until they find a solution, we all need to donate organs. We all need to sign up. That’s a very, very important thing.