What struck me most about this project was the challenge of envisaging an afterlife so that it was not just cotton wool clouds or a white space filled with smoke. I also wanted it to be relevant and have a contemporary conceptual spin in an age where many people no longer believe in an afterlife.
To make it work I needed to find a way to see it. The key here was choosing to make the afterlife a subjective world. Each paradise could be different so each paradise and hell could actually vary from person to person.
When Chris (Robin Williams) dies he finds himself in an afterlife that emulates his wife Annie’s work: She restored nineteenth century paintings, and in her spare time painted pictures which reflect elements of their life together. Now Chris finds himself walking within her living paintings.
In the specific, deciding to make Annie a painter and fine art restorer answered the question of how I would show the afterlife. By borrowing from painting in former periods I could invoke a time when people more commonly believed in such things, as well as make use of the visual language these artists employed.
We assembled teams of artists and technicians who helped me to build this world.
We looked back through many eras of paintings that depicted the afterlife, wondering how could they be relevant now – what shape was there that was true for us?
Given it is a love story, the choice to make Annie a painter also meant there was more of a connection between the world of the dead and that of the living. It also provided a solution to the fact that Chris and Annie are not together for most of the film and allowed me to better visualize ways they could “speak” to each other between these worlds without using words. A paint stroke on her painting could affect the paint in the painted world where he now resided. The fact that subconsciously he chose her painted world to live in showed the strong connection and the passion between the two of them.
As much as a painted paradise was a subjective echo of things Chris loved from the life he had shared with his wife, hell too was a closed subjective realm.
This time the world envisioned would be one of his wife’s self reproach and the delusion that had caused her to take her own life. However it was not my intention to pass judgment on this act. I feel a lot of empathy for someone who is driven to this extreme. Instead what interested me here was Chris and Annie’s struggle to continue to support and love one another through the normal day to day strains of a relationship; the breakups, and the various comings together, the frictions and joys, as they endeavor to find a way to simply coexist. Flashing back to these darker moments in their life together allowed a more intimate narrative to be woven into the larger story of a mythic Orpheus-like journey to save the person you love.
The screenwriter Ron Bass put it simply “We each have an infinite capacity to screw up in the way we communicate and live with those we love.”
– Written by Vincent Ward, dated 30 March 2009