The British Filmmaker, a Descendent of Charles Darwin, Gets Settled in Nyack
by Christopher Stanton
Matthew Chapman has often drawn artistic inspiration from small American towns, but until recently, he had never actually lived in one. In the midst of moving from Manhattan to Nyack, the British filmmaker took the time to sit down with Nyack News and Views, cutting straight to the point on politics, Hollywood, the significance of his earring and everything in between.
A writer, director and climate change activist, Chapman has developed a unique authorial voice over the years, which lends him equal credibility across every facet of his diversified career. After debuting with the British film Hussy in 1980, Chapman made his way to Hollywood, where he worked steadily throughout the subsequent decades, both directing his own films and writing for studio productions. In recent years, he has committed much of his time to Science Debate, a non-profit that promotes open discourse on issues of science. Following the November election, Chapman sees the organization as more important than ever.
“Pulling out of the Paris Accord was a protest against objective truth,” he says. “You don’t go to the doctor and debate with the doctor when he says that you’ve got a cold, or arthritis. It’s beyond economics–it’s a sort of loathing for objective truth.”
Chapman may have fled to Nyack a few times over the years to escape the busy-ness of Manhattan, but he’s still finding his way around town. “Where is that?” he asks, after I suggest that we meet at Art Café. When he arrives, though–coasting in on his folding Brompton bike–he immediately looks right at home. After decades of living in New York, it seems that the political activist only needed the right catalyst to inspire his move to Rockland County.
“I’m not wild about living in the same city as Trump,” he jokes. “The whole of 5th Avenue is screwed up now—not that I lived on 5th Avenue.”
Since moving to the United States in 1981, Chapman has found an artistic muse in the form of America’s small towns. His two books—Trials of the Monkey – An Accidental Memoir and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania—take place in rural parts of the country. “Within walking distance, you can witness the entire power structure of an American entity,” he explains. “In both places, I found a kind of eccentricity and sweetness that I didn’t expect. Wherever you go, there are interesting people.”
Through Science Debate, too, Chapman has had the opportunity to work with people across the country. The non-profit helped to orchestrate the recent March for Science, and works to get political candidates to answer questions on topics such as climate change and evolution. Through its website, it aims to establish a searchable database of local representatives’ stances on issues of science. While Chapman sees plenty of work left to do, the group has successfully campaigned during the last three presidential cycles for candidates to respond to more science-based questions.
“Science is a massive part of life, and a massive part of the economy,” Chapman says. “To not talk about it during a presidential debate is sort of freaky.”
A direct descendant of Charles Darwin, Chapman seems to have taken up the family business by founding Science Debate. When asked if this ancestry inspires his work, Chapman laughs off the question and points to his monkey-shaped earring. “It’s a kind of reminder that you’re really just an ape with a certain kind of brain,” he says.
This blend of self-awareness and political outrage serves as a thematic bridge between Chapman’s advocacy work and his films. An outspoken atheist, the writer-director has faced his share of criticism from religious groups. His 2011 film The Ledge, starring Charlie Hunnam as an atheist wrapped up in a conflict with Christian fundamentalists, provoked the public fury of Catholic League president Bill Donohue. Citing his belief in the importance of public discourse, Chapman responded with a sharply worded invitation to debate Donohue any time, any place (a discussion that has not occurred as of this writing).
“I find it very hard, now, to write anything that doesn’t have any sort of social benefit to it,” Chapman says, “And my agents keep saying, ‘You’re going to kill yourself, no one is interested in this.’ But how can you not be interested in this stuff? It’s the stuff of life.”
If Chapman comes across as overtly political, then he holds that in common with many of his past collaborators. A self-described writer above all else, Chapman has scripted films for fellow firebrands like Alan Pakula and Tony Kaye. On the record, he declines to share some of his favorite Hollywood anecdotes. “The ones that are really fun are sort of un-publishable,” he laughs.
In recent years, Chapman has developed a productive partnership with Brazilian director Bruno Barreto. Instant friends, the pair collaborated on 2013’s Reaching for the Moon and have already made plans for future projects. “He’s very thorough,” Chapman says, “But I think he makes the world better. I enjoy the limitations and the challenges of just writing, and leaving the rest to someone else.”
As he continues to set up shop in Nyack, Chapman’s work seems increasingly focused on hot-button political topics. A forthcoming miniseries, for example, surrounds the American healthcare debate. Meanwhile, Chapman hopes to put on a six-person, two-act play at the Penguin Rep Theater in Stony Point, NY. Described as a comedy about a Republican candidate running on a “law and order ticket,” the project seems an appropriate introduction of Chapman’s voice to a new audience.
Chris Stanton is a Nyack News and Views intern. He recently graduated from Cornell University.