In 2011, actor Martin Freeman was busy jet-setting from the United Kingdom to New Zealand and back again to film the popular television series, Sherlock, and the upcoming two-part film of The Hobbit. So how did he have time to star in The Voorman Problem, a short film in which he plays a psychiatrist who must diagnose a prisoner with a God complex?
I was fortunate enough to catch The Voorman Problem at the film’s North American debut during the Aspen Shorts Fest. It was included with seven other short films in a set titled, “Unique Worlds.”
The film is based on a short section of David Mitchell’s novel number9dream. In both the film and its source material, a psychiatrist is summoned to a prison to examine Mr. Voorman, an inmate who believes he is God. The warden fears riots and hopes that the doctor will diagnose Voorman as clinically insane so he may be parceled off to an asylum.
The skeptical doctor, played by Martin Freeman, has several questions for Mr. Voorman, played by Tom Hollander. Why would God choose to be straightjacketed in a prison? What is the evidence for the universe being only nine days old? And what does God have against Belgium?
After the film, director Mark Gill and producer Baldwin Li participated in a Q&A session with the audience. Their approach to casting was a bit unorthodox, but earned incredible results. Mark Gill revealed, “It was just a drunken conversation one night. We said, ‘Let’s send it to Kevin Spacey.’ So we did.”
“[Kevin Spacey’s] assistant rang me up and said, ‘Kevin really likes your script, but he’s quite a busy man,’” Baldwin Li explained. Kevin Spacey couldn’t do it, but he had a recommendation. “’Try to get Tom Hollander.’” Luckily, Li’s old tutor knew Hollander from a charity event. “We managed to get the script directly to his email,” Li said. “About a week later he rang me up and said he’d do it. Basically that was it. He loved the script and he’d do it. And obviously at that point I said, ‘Well, we can’t really pay you.’ And he said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”
Though Hollander was considered for the role of Bilbo in The Hobbit, he obviously felt no rivalry with Martin Freeman. He actually suggested Freeman for the role of the doctor. Gill asked if he knew him, to which he responded, “No, but I’d really like to work with him.” He was the one to contact Freeman’s agent about The Voorman Problem.
“Eighty percent of my work as a director was done,” Gill said. “I knew the script was good, and I had these great actors; my job was just not to cock it up.”
Though the premise is inherently absurd and comical, the director spoke with the actors about keeping it “very human and very real.” He said, “It was a conscious decision to play it as straight as possible.”
The film was shot over three days and according to Gill, “Practically everything I shot is onscreen. There’s very little on the cutting room floor.”
The Voorman Problem follows the original story very closely; some of the dialogue comes straight from the pages of David Mitchell. However, the original name of the doctor was Polonski, whereas in the film, he is called Dr. Williams. Gill stated, “I wanted to make him quintessentially English and uptight.” So the inspiration for the name comes from Prince William.
I personally think that for the audience, nothing could be more “quintessentially English” than Martin Freeman in a three-piece suit.
Visit The Voorman Problem online for more information and to find out when you can see it at a film festival near you!
For my video of the Q&A session, click here.