Back in my student days, one of our writing tutors cautioned us against using our characters as mouthpieces for our own opinions and attitudes… a caution I’ve since chosen to ignore, for the sake of satire. Life is short, and I’d prefer to spend it speaking my personal truth, rather than wasting air-time/page-space on opposing views that I don’t agree with. My scripts also tend to be quite “talky”, with little of the show-don’t-tell action that might make them easier to sell, so I’ve always felt a certain kinship for Kevin Smith, a film-maker with similar strengths and weaknesses to me (not to mention the hair, beard, and glasses!). That said, I still find Dogma (1999) a bit of a slog in places… especially when the story grinds to a halt just so someone can deliver a non sequitur lecture, as if Smith were simply working through a checklist of comments he wanted to make about Religion, without any regard to the natural flow of the conversation that’s supposedly taking place. Of course, I admire his courage and ambition, and agree with a great deal of what he’s saying here… I just think it’s a shame that so much of the (scripted and story-boarded) action had to happen off-screen, when it could have really helped to break up all the speechifying. Apparently Smith was trying to coax Robert Rodriguez into directing the script at one point, and I’ve no doubt that he would have taken a far more kinetic approach to the material… though there’s no way of knowing if it would have been a better movie, as such.
When Smith first started pitching the flick, shortly after Chasing Amy was completed, he had his then-girlfriend Joey Lauren Adams in mind for the lead role of ‘Bethany Sloane’ – a sceptical abortion clinic worker who’s tasked with preventing two fallen angels from exploiting a dogmatic loophole which could erase the universe from existence – but the Suits shot that idea down, and instead he ended up casting Linda Fiorentino… an actress with whom, I think it’s fair to say, he had a rather less chummy working relationship. According to an interview he gave to the BBC website in 2004: “The cast was working in a favoured nations type of affair where everyone was getting paid the same – scale, which is the minimum wage for the movie business. And we were all trapped out in Pittsburgh shooting this movie, which is the middle of nowhere, so whenever people had a few days off they would ask if they could go to New York, or back to Los Angeles, or elsewhere. I always said “sure”, because why would I want to make anybody sit in Pittsburgh if they’ve got something else to do? Linda, on the other hand, had to work every day on the movie because she was in every scene, so she really never got to leave and she got irritated when cast members would go elsewhere. She got really angry about that and asked me to do something about it. And I said, “What am I supposed to do? I mean, they want to go away and they’re not working, so that’s fine.” And one day she stopped talking to me for a whole day, because she was so irritated by the fact that other people got to leave the set.” Crikey!
Despite this intermittent friction, Smith does praise her performance on the DVD commentary track, and co-star/scene-partner Ben Affleck has nothing but nice things to say about working with her… and, to be fair to Fiorentino, Bethany would be a pretty frustrating role for any actress to play. Although she’s technically the main character, for the majority of the movie’s running time she’s largely employed as a MacGuffin, or a straight-woman sounding-board who exists solely to react to a series of scene-stealing men. She does save the day (and the universe!) in the end, so yay for her… but that doesn’t alter the fact that she’s a wet-blanket cipher for the preceding hundred minutes or so. Smith has said that, in retrospect, he would have liked to cast Janeane Garofalo instead of Fiorentino, because he had so much fun working with her on the two short scenes in which she plays Bethany’s co-worker… but considering his long-standing veto on actors “ad-libbing”, I’m not sure what else she could have brought to the part.
Besides Bethany, the only other significant female character is ‘Serendipity’, a table-dancing Muse played by Salma Hayek, who I probably would have written out of my hypothetical redraft, so that more of the baddie-fighting brainwaves could come from the story’s heroine, rather than a come-lately side-character like her. The supporting cast also included Guinevere Turner as a Jersey-hypin’ bus station attendant, and Alanis Morissette as a playful incarnation of God… who gave a remarkably moving performance, despite the fact she’s almost totally mute!