How much is a day of life worth? In a business as lucrative as medicine, money is always the most considerable deciding factor.
Writer-director-producer Austin Stark, best known for his work on the 2014 Golden Globe-nominated film Infinitely Polar Bear, shines a light into the lucrative business of medicine in his sophomore feature debut The God Committee. Led by an ensemble cast including Julia Stiles, Kelsey Grammer, Colman Domingo, and Janeane Garofalo, the film centers on the transplant committee of a failing New York City hospital as they decide the fate of several transplant recipients as they compete for one available heart. As the film progresses, we untangle cobwebs of personal and professional conflicts that complicate the selection process. Years later, the group must grapple with the consequences of their decision. The film finds its balance between cinematic storytelling and reality, possessing enough plot twists to be dramatic but never hiding the frustrating parallels to real life. The film delves deep into issues of empathy, bureaucracy, and medical ethics overshadowing medicine.
The Knockturnal: How did you manage to write such a nuanced and impactful script about such a heavy topic?
Austin Stark: I heard a story about an affluent man in the Northeast who was very sick, and he bribed a hospital with a million dollars to receive a liver transplant. I couldn’t believe it. That story stuck with me. Years passed, and Ari Pinchot and Jonathan Rubenstein from Crystal City Entertainment had optioned a play by Mark St. Germain, ‘The God Committee,’ which they wanted to turn into a film. They sent me the play to write and direct, and that story immediately came rushing back. I knew I had to do this. The film ended up being inspired by Mark’s play. It’s very different, but its heart (no pun intended) is definitely in the same place.
To answer your question, to write I had to do a lot of research. I didn’t know that much about organ transplantation before I got started. I worked with a couple of medical consultants, which really got me to a place where I felt comfortable portraying it honestly.
The characters grew organically. I think Boxer is such an interesting character. He’s this brilliant but emotionally damaged heart surgeon who’s incapable of being loved. At the same time, he’s trying to change the world. It’s that contradiction that I think is really interesting. He’s not or all good or all bad. It’s not black or white. I tried to do that with all the characters, even with Granger. Most people would look at him and say that he’s a villain, but I didn’t want there to be a villain. Granger loves his son. His son is dying. That’s why he bribed the committee. It’s coming from an authentic place. There are all these grey areas that I really tried to explore in the script.
The Knockturnal: There’s certainly a lot of greyness and nuance to contemplate. I did notice the contrast between Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor. Dr. Boxer being more numbers-oriented, while Taylor is more holistic and naïve.
Austin Stark: She grows over the course of the film. She’s certainly the purest character, and I think people connect the most with her. She’s the most “likable,” although I didn’t write her to be that way. I think she’s the easiest to connect with. She’s our guide in a lot of ways.
The Knockturnal: What is the lesson or conflict you need people to grapple with when watching your film?
Austin Stark: I intentionally made it a difficult decision. I wanted the audience to feel like it was a difficult decision. When people watch the film, I want them to understand how serious the organ shortage is. On average in the U.S., 17 people die each day waiting for an organ. Another person is added every nine minutes. If there’s anything people should take away from this, the system is very well-intentioned, but it’s imperfect. Part of this film is about the quest to solve the worldwide shortage through xenotransplantation. I think people should take away a hopeful message about what the future may hold. At the same time, these decisions are tough, and I wanted to present both sides.
The Knockturnal: What was it like working with Julia Stiles?
Austin Stark: She prepares for her roles. She’s very passionate about the material, and it’s the same for me. We did this not because we wanted to make a big Hollywood movie but because we were passionate about the subject. When you come at it from that place, it makes the entire process so enjoyable. Having her play this idealistic up-and-comer who becomes jaded, I thought, was a fascinating character for her. There’s a warmth to Taylor that’s ingrained in that character that I thought she portrayed authentically. I saw before offering her the role that she would be able to hit the notes on that.
The film premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.