Those who deal in the healthcare system face a constant uphill battle as a for-profit system, and that's a message director Austin Stark wants to make in his latest film, The God Committee, which follows a gut-wrenching decision to place among five doctors when a donor heart unexpectedly arrives at a New York hospital, and an organ transplant committee must convene within one hour to decide which of three other patients deserves the life-saving heart. I spoke with Stark about how the play by Mark St. Germain resonated with him, the casting process, and what he hopes audiences gain from his film.
"I heard a story about a wealthy man in the Northeast who was very sick, and he essentially bribed a hospital for a new organ. I couldn't believe that was possible in the United States," Stark recalled. "Years later, a couple producers, Jonathan Rubenstein and Ari Pinchot, had optioned Mark St. Germain's 'The God Committee.' They took it to me to direct, and that story came rushing back. I was blown away by the play. The film ended up being quite different, but the heart of Mark's work beats on."
With only one other film under his belt in 2015's The Runner, Stark took his learned experiences into the medical drama. "It certainly motivated me to write on The God Committee and do the adaptation myself," he said. "I feel like when you write a script that you direct, and you live with it in this case, it took me about nine months to write. It becomes ingrained in you. You see it in every shot, every moment. It gives you the time to meditate on it. It helped me tremendously. Also, on The Runner, I worked with Nicolas Cage, Sarah Paulson, Peter Fonda, and some other fantastic actors. They taught me a lot about working with actors because that was my first feature as a director. I certainly brought that experience to The God Committee and working with Kelsey Grammer, Julia [Stiles], Coleman [Domingo], Janeane [Garofalo], and the rest of our inxredible cast."
It was an easy sell for Grammer not just because of the subject matter, but it also provided a challenge in a type of role he's never played. "It was interesting, because Kelsey was the first actor to sign on. We sent him the script just to read it and let us know what we think, because one of the producers, Molly Connors, had worked with him before and felt he would appreciate it," Stark recalled. "So Kelsey read it, he called me, and he really responded to it. He thought it was very powerful, and he said to me, 'There are a couple roles that I would certainly love to play, but I think it would be really interesting if I were Boxer simply because in all my years,. I've never played this [kind of] character. I think it will surprise audiences. I hadn't really thought about him for Boxer. I was imagining him for Father Dunbar. But hearing the passion in Kelsey's voice convince me. I was like, 'You know what? Let's do it.' He got the ball rolling. Julia was next to sign on. I just think she's a wonderful underrated actress. We sent her the script. She read it, loved it, and we had a great meeting."
While The God Committee was filmed prior to the pandemic, Stark drew some eerie similarities from his film to the current ongoing crisis. "What's interesting is that there are many thematic parallels to the pandemic because this is a film about doctors making life-and-death decisions under extraordinary circumstances," he said. "At the heart of the film is the question, is it justifiable to sacrifice one life for the greater good? Obviously, that's reminiscent of COVID from ventilators to hospital beds to who gets the vaccine first, etc. I think the film is even more relevant than when we shot it."
Stark admitted having to make dramatic changes from the play to adapt for the screen. "What happens in the play is very different," he said. "Without giving away spoilers, the ending is completely different. What's so compelling about Mark's play is the exploration of ethics used as the backbone of the film. Mark's play mostly takes place in the boardroom; I think 90 percent of it is in the boardroom; in my film, it's probably more like 40 percent. I developed other storylines working off Mark's play."
If there was one thing Stark hopes people get from The God Committee is to be more proactive. "I'm hoping more than anything else, this film will motivate more people to donate organs so we can save lives," he said. "This film is a love letter to doctors who toil away in an imperfect system. It's imperfect because we need more people to donate." The God Committee from Vertical Entertainment, which also stars Dan Hedaya, comes to select theaters and on-demand on July 2nd.