With the relaunch of Sloan Science and Film, it seemed an appropriate time to introduce (or re-introduce for some) the mission of the Sloan Foundation's Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics program, which is now in its second decade and has funded hundreds of films. Below is an interview with Doron Weber, the program’s vice president and chief steering force.
Sloan Science and Film: Can you start off by explaining a little bit about Sloan, and the philosophy behind your funding activities?
Doron Weber: The Sloan Foundation itself is a 501(c)(3) non-profit philanthropy organization founded in 1934. We make grants in science, technology and economic performance, mostly for research and education those areas. The film program is part of our Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics program. The broad idea is to give people a keener appreciation of the science and technological environment in which we live and also convey some of the challenges and rewards of the endeavors of the men and women who are involved in science. It’s about narrowing the gap between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities. Storytelling is a very powerful way of getting people comfortable with certain subject matter. For me, film is a kind of modern Esperanto—a language that everybody speaks. We’re a science foundation but the trick to what we do is to trust artists, get them comfortable with the science and then let them open up that world for audiences.
SSF: It sounds like you’re looking to create sweeping changes in perception and thinking through grantmaking.
DW: Very much so. We want it so that science doesn’t seem so other. Sixty to eighty percent of our economy is driven by science and technology. So many issues—food, water, climate—are so complicated, we now need scientists to help us really understand the world and make good decisions. Think of Leonardo DaVinci—he saw the world whole. This may sound grandiose, but I want to turn everyone into a Leonardo because the science/art distinction is really an artificial distinction. If you bring those things together, you get a fuller apprehension of reality—on both sides! When I started this program, I felt like I was a bit of a lone voice. People from Hollywood initially looked at me like I was from Mars. They didn’t immediately understand how to bring science into their work. In fifty or one hundred years, the idea of a funder having a hard time convincing artists to engage with science and technology will be funny. It’s like saying, “We want you to make films about the world.”
SSF: How do you go about choosing projects? Given that so many films don’t get made, it’s a bit of a gamble, no?
DW: Sure, sure. As part of the program, we fund six of the leading film schools in the country. Our investment there is really more about the individual than the project. So, while we love to have the Robot and Frank story—a $20,000 production grant turns into a $3.5 million dollar-grossing film with Frank Langella—we are investing in a generation of filmmakers. We expose them to the subject matter, and later they will have widened their sense of storytelling possibilities.
SSF: It’s about expanding their toolkits.
DW: Yes. One of the challenges for many filmmakers is that they’ve never even met a scientist! With one of our early grants, we made it a condition that you had to attend a seminar one day a year for a few hours where we’d bring in scientists and engineers just to talk about their work. We still do this. A lot of the benefit was merely exposing filmmakers to different kinds of people—even if it was just so they could access the grant money. I’m totally fine with the money being the main inducement.
SSF: Was it always your plan to be funding narrative films as opposed to documentaries?
DW: We are a big funder of science documentaries via our work with PBS, Nova and the like. We funded Particle Fever, and one year at Sundance we couldn’t find a great narrative film to give our award to, so we gave it to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. I think documentaries are incredibly important, I just didn’t think they needed our help since there already was a funding apparatus in place. There’s never enough money, of course, but we wanted to use our awards to show science could make for entertaining narrative films.
SSF: Is your priority good science or good films?
DW: We want good films—absolutely. The good science is the hurdle, the entry fee. Whatever science your film is about, you’ve got to get it right. After that, I think: did the film move me, did my eye open to something, did I get bored and look at my watch? There’s very little math in A Beautiful Mind, but what happened is that people got interested the character, then went out and bought the book, and that had a lot of math in it. The trick is to make the film effective enough to inspire curiosity.
SSF: Once you’ve funded a film, does Sloan then go out and help try and get it seen within the context of its science?
DW: We help foster discussions here and there, but we really want the films we fund to be seen as films. The Imitation Game, which we funded,is a really emotional film, even though it’s about Alan Turing–who was one of our greatest mathematicians, a war hero, the inventor of early computers. If you’re curious after, maybe you’ll read a biography, but the film just tells a great story. I’ve been waiting for a good Turing movie and now I don’t have to read any more Turing scripts! Other than bringing speakers to certain events, we want viewers to have their own unique experiences. Otherwise it doesn’t work.
SSF: What are the big projects coming down the pike?
DW: We have a film that’s almost finished that’s going to come out next year called Basmati Blues. It’s starring Brie Larson and Donald Sutherland and it’s a Bollywood-style musical about genetically modified rice. It was the first project we funded through Film Independent. We have Experimenter by Michael Almereyda with Peter Sarsgaard playing Stanley Milgram the psychologist. It’s a timeless story. Another one I’m really excited about that took years to get going is The Man Who Knew Infinity about the mathematician Ramanujan, who had, other than Einstein, one of the most extraordinary mathematical minds. We actually supported two scripts on that and the one that’s being made stars Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons. And then, of course, my perennial one that I tout is the Hedy Lamarr story. We now have Diane Kruger on to produce and Bathsheba Doran, one of the writers of Masters of Sex. That might be a television show for now. Those are the ones that are ready to pop, but there are many others.
SSF: Is there an area, idea or life that you’ve been wishing someone would make a film about?
DW: We’re really excited that Turing, Lamarr and Ramanujan are all hitting screens. But there is one figure that I’ve seen many scripts about that haven’t gotten made: Tesla. He was a remarkable person. The trick with Tesla is that he was so out there that he needs to be grounded, instead of treating him as the guy with lightning coming out of his head. On the whole, at Sloan, we downplay science fiction because real science is so exciting. If people only knew all of what was going on…the material is so rich and endless. Science gives filmmakers more stuff to tell stories with.