Let's get metaphysical

The directors of "What the Bleep Do We Know?!," a film exploring the intersection of quantum physics and spirituality, explain how they've used word of mouth to turn box-office logic on its head.

Published September 9, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

The intersection of quantum physics and spirituality might seem an unlikely subject for a feature film with any chance of commercial success. But there's nothing usual about "What the Bleep Do We Know?!" The word-of-mouth sensation that kicked off in a small town in Washington state was recently scooped up by Samuel Goldwyn and Roadside Attractions, the distribution team behind "Super Size Me," who will take it to 100 screens nationwide Sept. 10, with more to follow.

"What the Bleep" mixes elements of documentary, drama and comedy -- as well as animation and live action -- and features Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin, a dozen scientists in various fields, and a slew of wacky animated characters. Its aim: to show audiences what they're made of and to introduce them to their untapped potential.

The film's unconventional structure makes it a bit difficult to describe. In a recent review, the San Diego Union-Tribune called it an "advocacy film" like "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," but explained that "instead of promoting Jesus Christ as our sadistically tormented savior, or the almost equally grim (but far funnier) crucifixion of George W. Bush by Michael Moore, it seems to advocate a complex overhaul of our lives through a sort of Taoist quantum/holistic knowledge of brain functions."

The San Francisco Examiner put it this way: "Blending science with science fiction, the film prods viewers to ponder what seems on the surface to be a simple, straightforward question -- what is real? And conversely, what is unreal? And how do we know the difference? ... But in the process of exploring 'the answer,' the film reveals the seemingly endless complexity of the question."

"What the Bleep" explores some familiar ideas: Reality is not what it seems; perception is everything; you have the power to change your life. Authors like Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Anthony Robbins have spun similar concepts into bestselling gold. It was only a matter of time before the film world caught on. The three directors at the helm of "What the Bleep," William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, financed the film themselves -- to the tune of $5 million -- and have employed a grass-roots marketing strategy that appears to be paying off with remarkably high per-screen revenue.

(Editor's note: Arntz, Chasse and Vincente are all students of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, a controversial school named after a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit a woman named JZ Knight claims to channel. Ramtha, via Knight, appears in the film. The directors insist that Ramtha had nothing to do with the funding of the film or its marketing.)

Only time will tell if "What the Bleep" can reach beyond its initial success and connect with mainstream America. I tele-conferenced with Arntz and Vicente last week to talk about the film.

You know, I've never used this conference-call system we're on, and it makes me think about the difference between an evolution of technology and a revolution of thought, which I think your film is getting at. You seem to be talking about a paradigm shift in the way things happen on a fundamental level, or the way we see ourselves in relationship to the world.

William Arntz: That's exactly what we're talking about. It is a paradigm shift. We're giving people a whole different worldview. It's as different as "The world is flat" or "The world is round." We're still coming out of the era where the earth is thought of as the center of the universe. And even though everyone kind of knows that physically that's not true, that idea is still lingering, especially in religious traditions, where if you don't do it our way, you're gonna fry in hell forever.

So what exactly is that different worldview?

Arntz: It's the idea that you create your own reality and that there is an interface between mind and matter, as quantum physics suggests. We don't quite understand it all yet, but it seems to be there. That sort of idea is very huge. We're getting away from Newton and Descartes, where the world was set up with a physical universe "out there" and our minds have no interface with it.

Basically that the universe happens to you, and you have no control over it.

Arntz: Right. We're saying exactly the opposite. We happen to the universe. We create the universe; we spin it out from what's inside of us. And that's a completely 180-degree turn. It has a lot of ramifications as to how people live their lives and how they react to so-called external events.

If we accept this idea that we create our reality by our thoughts, our intentions, what we choose to focus on, all that stuff you talk about in the film, what does this say about society as a whole? We must be creating a collective reality, right? Did we create George W. Bush as president?

Mark Vicente: Absolutely.


Vicente: American society is all about blame. We love to be victims and we don't want to take responsibility. I know this is an unpopular idea and, listen, I don't like George Bush and I don't like Republicans, and by saying this I am not saying we should just be quiet and not do anything about it. But I am saying that we should take responsibility for the idea that when you want to be a victim, when you want to have something to complain about because you become addicted to it, you'll need to find a tyrant to fulfill that need to feel victimized and feel like you have no power. That man, in my opinion, currently fills that need.

Talk about filling needs -- people are really responding to your film.

Arntz: Yeah, the response has been pretty overwhelming. Now we're even getting invited to talk at churches. A lot of bizarre things are happening. The film opened in Denver at one of these big United Artists Regal Cinemas where they even have an IMAX. And last week "What the Bleep" did more box office than the other eight films playing in that theater combined.

What do you think explains its appeal?

Vicente: People are so tired of living this old reality they've been fed. They're tired of trying all these things that haven't worked. And when they think about their problems, they feel helpless and don't think they have the power to change. What this film does is say: There is a science and there are ideas that are so wonderful that suggest that we have enormous power locked within us. What we're suggesting is that you have divinity inside you, that it's leaking out all the time and you have the power to change. People love that idea. It's much more interesting than thinking you're just a mindless speck on the face of the planet that has no say, and that there's a god outside of you keeping score and you have to supplicate yourself in front of that god before you get what you want. That's a stupid idea. This other idea -- that maybe you are that god -- is far more enticing.

So where and when did you first screen?

Arntz: We started the film off last February in a little town called Yelm, Wash., where a couple of us were living at the time. We pleaded with the local theater, on our knees, and said, "Look, we know enough people in town. We can sell it out for a couple of weeks." First they said no, no, no -- but then they said, "OK, kids, we'll give you a week, but don't count on it." And we ended up having a seven-week run there. Then the Bagdad Theater in Portland, Ore., where they'd been saying no to us all along, started saying, Oh, these box-office numbers are kind of interesting. Then they said, "OK, we'll give you a week, but you have to have 1,600 people show up. Otherwise we're going to pull it -- and don't hold your breath, kid, we're probably going to have to pull it." So instead of getting 1,600 the first week, we got 4,500. And every week it went up 500 until, at its peak, about 7,000 people a week were seeing this film. It ended up playing there for 18 weeks.

All word of mouth? Did you do any advertising at all?

Vicente: Very little. We did an NPR show in Oregon, which was great and helped a lot. What mostly happened is people saw this film and just told everyone else about it. Every time we go to screenings we ask if people heard about the film through word of mouth or the press and it's almost always 95 percent word of mouth.

Kind of like that old Clairol commercial, "I told two friends, and then she told two friends, and so on, and so on" -- and the screen breaks into more and more people.

Vicente: [Laughs.] Yeah, that's true.

Arntz: And people are seeing the film three, four, five times. Apparently, someone in Seattle has seen it 30 times. That's a little scary.

Well, you finally got the movie industry's attention. What was their initial reaction?

Arntz: The initial reaction from the industry was basically, There's no audience for the film. Get lost. And that was across the board: theater owners, bookers and, of course, distributors. We were way below their radar. But when you look at the box-office numbers, they just leap off the page. We don't hit our peak attendance until five and six weeks into the run, and then the attendance hangs for 12, 15, 18, 20 weeks. That just doesn't happen in the film business. And at a certain point, the numbers were so extreme that distributors started watching.

Enter Samuel Goldwyn and Roadside Attractions.

Arntz: They distributed "Super Size Me" and were already watching the market. They called us up and said, "We don't know what you guys are doing, but we've never seen numbers like this." We struck up a partnership with them. We told them about the grassroots marketing we'd been doing and they said, "Well, whatever you're doing, don't stop." So now we have a two-pronged marketing thing. They're taking on all the mainstream marketing that they know how to do, and we're still doing all the grassroots. We found the perfect partner.

I'm interested in how your audience extends beyond metaphysics lovers to more mainstream moviegoers who go into it not knowing what to expect and seem to leave surprised and happy they saw it.

Arntz: Yeah, preaching to the choir is great and everything, but the huge payoff with the film is the people in the mainstream. We used to tell everyone to tell all their friends they think would be into the film to go see it. And then we stopped saying that. Now we say, Tell everyone because you can never tell who's going to respond.

Any unexpected fans?

Arntz: A friend was in a Gold's Gym in L.A. and he was walking by a couple of really big weightlifter guys there -- you know, with muscles on top of muscles. They were talking about the film and how great it was. My friend just kind of stopped and thought, "Holy Moses, I would never have thought these big beef-packers would be interested in this film." But there's a lot of people my friend calls metaphysical lost souls. People who, once they get exposed to this information, immediately get it. And they go with it. But this stuff's never been presented in a way like we're doing -- accessible and kind of fun -- and it doesn't have the dogma. It's safe. It's not like attending an encounter group where everyone is going to turn and stare at you and say, "What do you think?" It's a movie.

It sounds like you made an effort not to take the movie's subject matter too seriously.

Arntz: Yeah, that was a big thing. We had to make it fun. Otherwise it just ends up being a little like Sunday school.

Vicente: I think the minute you take yourself too seriously you limit your possibilities. Life's supposed to be about joy and happiness. Laughter is way more fun.

Arntz: Also, it's interesting -- when we studied the brain and brain chemistry for the film, it turns a good laugh does amazing things for brain chemistry. After you've had a really good belly laugh, it kind of flushes all the brain chemistry and the learning rate goes up five times.

Will, you funded this film out of your own pocket. Have you ever made a movie before?

Arntz: When I was growing up, my friends and I would make 8mm and Super 8 films. Then I made a 16mm film in my late 20s with a friend. At that point I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I just couldn't: Every time I went to L.A. I got depressed. I couldn't stand being there. It was like even if you do make it there, you spend all your life kissing people's butts, and you're probably still not going to be able to make what you want. So I just said, Well, that was a nice dream, but I guess I'm never going to make films, so forget it. So 25 years ago I just blew that dream off. Then I had a couple of software companies. I wrote software, built up companies, sold them off. And about five years ago, I realized I had enough money that, if I wanted to make a movie, I could just make whatever I want and sign the check myself.

And not be beholden to anyone?

Arntz: Right. Because no one in their right mind would have financed this movie.

Now people may have a different view.

Arntz: Well, that's one of our reasons for doing this. We know that Hollywood is a copycat town. Once they realize there's a vast market for this kind of cinema, it's going to get really interesting. And one of our intents is to basically have what Steven Simon [the producer of "What Dreams May Come"] is always championing: a spiritual cinema. Every week you can go to a movie theater and there are two or three movies that are talking to this audience.

"Spiritual" has sort of a bad rap in some circles. A lot of people think New Agers are freaks. How do you talk about the film's spirituality so that it tastes OK?

Arntz: I've started using the word "metaphysical" instead of "spiritual." It really is the same thing. Because what is spiritual is everything that exists that is not physical. If I am thinking a thought and you pick it out of my mind, we might say there's no physical mechanism for that, so it must be spiritual. A psychic phenomenon is generally considered spiritual. Or the fact that you die and your soul goes someplace nonphysical and then you reincarnate. That's spiritual because it's not physical. But as soon as you say "spiritual," you're getting close to "religious" and then you're getting close to the G-word, "God." One of the reasons I insisted on having that bit in the movie where we talk about dogmatic religion is a lot of people got turned off to spiritual things -- myself included -- because the teachings of the church are way screwed up. So now I use the word "metaphysical." And I'm starting to talk about the "religious right" and the "metaphysical left."

Do you feel your film will affect the upcoming presidential election?

Arntz: You know, when I was at the Mile High Church in Denver, someone stood up and asked me that very question. And the week before I'd been in Boulder and they asked me that question. It's nothing that we set out to do, but if you create your reality, and once you're empowered and you apply it to your life, you get much better at it. So let's say the people wanted to see a change in the government. If they applied these teachings wholeheartedly to it, it would definitely affect the election. One of the things in the film that we were very careful about is we never wanted to preach to people. Part of the reason for the title "What the Fuck Do We Know" is we don't want to come across as "this is the only way there is." We don't even care if you agree with us or not, but we would like people to think for themselves. My take is, if people start thinking for themselves and take a look at the world, and don't buy into what the media and propaganda machine has put out, then that's got to affect the election because there's some really screwy stuff that's going on. You know, I often have my crystal ball sessions in the morning right after I wake up. I kind of trip out into the future a bit. One of the futures I see is where the film ends up having a fairly large impact on the election, yeah.

How do you feel about all the people who'll say all this crystal ball and "creating your own reality" stuff is just a bunch of malarkey?

Arntz: What I have found is when people say things like "That's a bunch of New Age malarkey we've been hearing for years," they're basically at the level of 8th grade name-calling. Now if you're saying the science is bad, use science to prove it's bad. But no one ever does. So the fact that you've been hearing it for years means it's wrong? Gee, I never saw that in scientific proof.

One of the key ideas in the film is that the world does not exist outside of our perception.

Arntz: Right, and then you say, Well, am I just seeing what I want to see or what I'm comfortable seeing? And when you start chewing that one over, talk about being uncomfortable. The whole notion is that you create your reality. So when something lousy happens to you, instead of blaming the world and being a victim or blaming society and getting on that whole the blame trip, you say, "Hmm, how am I creating this?" And that's a real showstopper.

And you're saying there's no easy answer.

Arntz: Right. It's like we say in the film: The world is a very big place. It's very mysterious. Negativism is not the answer. But we're not going to tell you what the answer is.

Because we're old enough to decide for ourselves.

Arntz: Yeah, bingo. And who's saying that in our culture: Decide for yourself? Culture is saying, "We'll decide for you." You have a lousy life, guys? Use this deodorant -- you'll get laid. We're saying, think for yourself. If you think for yourself and decide you disagree with our film, that's totally fine. But at least you're thinking.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Harriette Yahr

Harriette Yahr is a filmmaker and freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

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