Interview: John Collee - Creating a storm

IT'S now 150 years since Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, yet he is again at the centre of furious debate and controversy. This time it is taking place on the internet, fuelled by a new film which lifts the lid on Darwin's personal life.

Creation, which opens in British cinemas on Friday, attracted thousands of comments on internet sites before anyone had actually seen it, with creationists slugging it out with evolutionists. The debate has been particularly fierce in the US, where a Gallup poll revealed that only 39 per cent of Americans believe in evolution, and the Christian site has denounced Darwin as a racist whose "half-baked" theories influenced Hitler.

Much of the furore has been provoked by a trailer for the film in which one character says to Darwin: "Clear evidence of transformation over millions of years … The Almighty can no longer claim to have authored every species in under a week. You've killed God, sir." One person responded online: "Who else thinks this movie looks good just as a movie and not because of one's personal beliefs?" That comment brought the immediate reply: "Anyone who loves to worship Darwin and kneel at the altar of pro-Darwinism propaganda probably would."

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If very few people had seen the film when the controversy began, there are now doubts as to whether American audiences will see it at all, with distributors seemingly shying away. As one website post put it: "So let's see if I've got this straight: We can have movies about serial killers about once a month, and we can have movies that glorify violence, drug use, and debauched behaviour, and America doesn't even shrug. But a movie about Charles Darwin is just beyond the pale."

None of this bothers the film's Scottish screenwriter. "I love the notion that there's controversy about it or that it's inspiring debate," says John Collee, who, like Darwin, studied medicine at Edinburgh University and went off on a series of exotic adventures, before pursuing a career as a film writer. "Public acceptance of a scientific truth always lags behind the scientific proof itself."

Collee previously scripted Russell Crowe's 2003 seafaring adventure Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and acquired some personal expertise on the natural world when he co-wrote the 2006 Oscar-winning penguin animated film Happy Feet. "Some ideas are very difficult to get your head around," he says, when we meet after Creation's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. "One of the intentions of the film was to take these inspirational scientific ideas and give people a point of entry to the man who came up with them. I think prior to this movie we have that portrait of Darwin in his sixties and seventies, the old man with the beard."

Creation stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly – who are husband and wife in real life – as Darwin and his devoutly Christian wife Emma. Collee set the film's wheels in motion after reading the book Annie's Box by Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great-grandson. "Randal Keynes's central thesis was that his life and his work were all of a piece," he says. "To go back in time and put in people's minds the young Darwin – Darwin the family man, Darwin the father, Darwin the husband – and actually to bring to life that character, it suddenly gives you a whole new way of looking at the meaning of what he was talking about." Collee presents Darwin as a man haunted by the death at a young age of his daughter, Annie, plagued by ill health and estranged from his religious wife. "We all feel torn between our family lives and our working lives," Collee says. "Darwin actually used that energy and that tension to create his masterwork."

Collee, who is 54, was born and grew up in Edinburgh, where he attended George Watson's College before studying at Edinburgh University. He still has family in Edinburgh and the Borders, but a cosy family practice in Merchiston and Morningside was never on the cards. Driven by "a sense of adventure", he went off travelling and worked as a doctor for aid agencies and oil companies on the West Bank, in Sri Lanka, Madagascar and the former Soviet Union, where he met his wife, who presumably shared that thirst for adventure, given that she was a war correspondent.

They had children in their forties, lived for a while on the Solomon Islands and then washed up in Sydney, where they now live with their three children. Collee had already done some work as a journalist and wrote several novels in the 1980s and early 1990s, including A Paper Mask, which he adapted into a film, with Paul McGann as the hospital orderly who impersonates a doctor.

"When I came to a foreign country I would sort of reinvent myself, so I rolled up at Fox and said, 'I'm a screenwriter.'" At that point, 20th Century Fox was on the point of opening a studio in Sydney, and several top Hollywood directors continue to base themselves in Australia. Collee worked with Mad Max director George Miller on Happy Feet and Miller recommended him to Peter Weir for Master and Commander…, which features a fictionalised version of Darwin, also played by Paul Bettany.

That film raised Collee's profile significantly in Hollywood, if not in his native Scotland, where he remains virtually unknown. Directors of the calibre of Steven Spielberg came calling. They worked together developing a film about the sinking of the German Second World War battleship the Bismarck.

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"It was specifically the story of these incredibly courageous Fairey Swordfish pilots," Collee recalls. "They are two-seater bi-planes that flew off the British aircraft carriers. They were basically World War One technology, flying at night, in storms, without navigational equipment, carrying one torpedo. The Bismarck had the most advanced battle technology in the world and on the British side what they had was sheer guts. It was one of these enormously enjoyable projects that never happened, because Steven went off and did other things."

The film, he says, may still happen. Meanwhile, he is working on various projects, including a "reboot" of Bulldog Drummond, the fictional English adventurer created by Sapper in 1920 and acknowledged by Ian Fleming as an influence on the character of James Bond. He would also like to adapt his first novel, Kingsley's Touch. "It's a supernatural thriller set in the Edinburgh medical establishment. I am sort of getting to the point where I could almost make that happen."

Collee could identify with certain elements in Darwin's life and was attracted by his personal conflicts and difficulties as much as he was by his ideas – Keynes argues in his book that Darwin's work could not be divorced from his personal circumstances.

However, Collee goes further by suggesting Darwin was so unhinged by his daughter Annie's death that he started imagining she came to him as a ghost and had conversations with her – a creative decision which has prompted a whole other controversy and angered British scholars. Collee admits to some "historical liberties", but says the ghost is a reflection of Darwin's state of mind, not a literal apparition.

Creation is now in the unusual position that is about to open in the UK, has excited awards buzz, and has sold all over the world, but still does not have an American distribution deal in place. "People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up," says veteran producer Jeremy Thomas, an Oscar-winner for his work on The Last Emperor. "It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America."

But Collee dismisses the suggestion that it may prove just too controversial for the US: "That it was the opening film at Toronto positions it really well to get American distribution and the controversy can only help it." If he is very laid back about it, it's understandable. Having worked as a doctor in war zones around the world, he is not going to get too upset about a tiff about film distribution and who created Man.

• Creation is in cinemas from Friday.