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Scientology's biggest star comes to Canada to make a movie that will bring church's values and villains to a theatre near you
Members of the Church of Scientology were in Yorkville this past holiday weekend, questionnaires in hand, to collect opinions about the church from passersby.
It's been a difficult couple of years for Scientology, which is trying to polish its fringe image as it awaits word from Revenue Canada about its application for charitable status.
But positive PR may be coming to a theatre near you. Screen star John Travolta, Scientology's most famous promoter, has embarked on a film adaptation of Battlefield Earth, the doomsday sci-fi thriller penned by the church's messianic founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
Travolta's name (he's starring and producing) is sure to bring box-office success and raise the profile of Scientology, not to mention boost the sale of Hubbard's books. He's recently been voted the number-one box-office attraction in the world.
It'll be a much-needed publicity boon for a church under siege both here and abroad for the cult-like hold it's been accused of exerting on its followers and for harassing those who publicly criticize Scientology. In Germany, for example, Scientology is banned, and critics market condoms labelled "99 per cent Scientology-proof."
For his part, Travolta has downplayed the religious aspect of his latest megabucks film project. It's just a movie, he told a press conference during shooting in and around Montreal last week. He says there's no connection between Battlefield the sci-fi novel and the controversial self-improvement religion.
Not surprisingly, that's not how critics, among them longtime former members of the church who have read the book, see it.
To them, Battlefield — and indeed, every part of Scientology — is steeped in Hubbard's otherworldly notions of humans as an endangered species occupying a planet on the precipice of doom.
"It's a recurring theme telling you that only L. Ron Hubbard and the teachings of Scientology can save you," says one former disciple.
A reading of Battlefield, a 1,000-page epic written by Hubbard in 1980, uncovers the threads of Scientology's teachings.
"Giant, gas-breathing" invaders known as Psychlos (code for psychologists and psychiatrists) have taken over Earth, and Hubbard lays blame for the decay of western civilization squarely on their shoulders.
In Battlefield, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler — Hubbard's alter ego — enlists the aid of a band of tough Scots "in a final, daring challenge to the invisible Psychlo power." At stake is the future of humankind.
Hubbard's fascination with science fiction and fantasy didn't confine itself to the telling of apocalyptic tales. It extended to the roots of the church's otherworldly teaching, most unusually in Scientology's legend of Xenu, a tyrant who is supposed to have ruled the world some 75 million years ago.
It was Xenu, the legend goes, who unleashed the evil spirits that attached themselves to humans and haunt us to this day.
"Every religion has a cosmology, a creation mythology," says Al Buttnor of Scientology in Toronto. "In Christianity, you have 'God created the world in seven days.' In Scientology, it's clear where Mr. Hubbard stands. Unquestionably, there have been other societies before us and other societies in the universe. I don't think we're alone."
Amid the other hoopla surrounding Battlefield, Author Services, Inc. (ASI), the Hollywood, California-based arm of the church that owns the rights to all Hubbard's works, has just launched ASI Magazine, a tabloid-size periodical devoted to promoting Hubbard's non-fiction works. ASI sold the rights to Battlefield to Franchise Pictures.
Franchise publicist Pamela Godfrey isn't saying how much the company paid for the rights or whether any royalties from this latest Travolta venture will go to the church. "It's something that generally is not put down for public information," she says.
ASI, too, is coy about whether film royalties will go to the church.
A fax response sent to NOW from ASI director of public affairs Hugh Wilhere avoids any mention of royalties. But the fax goes on to state that ASI "is donating its share of the profits from the film to charitable organizations that direct drug education and drug rehabilitation programs around the world."
Scientology itself runs drug rehab clinics, the best known of which is Narconon.
However, ASI boasts in its magazine — which was released at about the time Travolta began shooting Battlefield — that its production divisions embrace "every function from (the) supervision of foreign publishing, fiction publishing and non-fiction publishing to audiovisual and even big-screen movies" of Hubbard's work.
The church has shown itself to be very protective of its intellectual property and copyrights, so much so that in the U.S. it has quickly launched multimillion-dollar lawsuits against those who've posted even the church's own materials on the Internet without permission.
The strong feelings that surround Scientology even extend to the Battlefield set in Montreal, where non-unionized actors are being employed as extras even though the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists' (ACTRA) collective agreement says the first 15 actors on any shoot must be union members.
Robin Chetwynd, a chief administrative officer with ACTRA in Toronto, can't understand why that would be. "The collective agreement is quite clear on the number of background performers required each day of filming," he says.
But it seems they play by a different set of rules in Montreal.
Raymond Guardia, ACTRA's rep there, says members in Montreal have been more reluctant to take on work as extras. "That has changed, I believe, and we have now reached a point where, frankly, we intend to aggressively catch up."
Don Carmody, the film's executive producer, first denies the use of non-union talent. He then explains that it's been hard to find very tall, "grotesque-looking" actors to play the evil Psychlos, or thespians who look like "malnourished" humanoids, as required by the script.
"There may not be that many ACTRA members who are interested in working as extras who are either seven feet tall, gruesome-looking or look like they're partially starved."
Publicist Godfrey, meanwhile, promises a fast-paced action adventure, a veritable screen spectacle.
"It's going to be very exciting. The director and the special effects people are producing some very new and visionary things."