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Sloan Film Summit Recap: Part 1

The Sloan Film Summit took place this November for the first time since 2011, gathering together grantees, representatives from partner organizations and guest speakers for a three-day conference in Los Angeles organized around the theme of Science and the Art of Storytelling. Summit co-sponsor Film Independent kicked off the weekend with a (big) bang with a screening of the Sloan-funded documentary Particle Fever which follows the experimental and theoretical physicists at CERN as they combine their research to launch the Large Hadron Collider. The spirit of collaboration among the scientists on display in Particle Fever is a guiding principle of the Sloan foundation and was in full effect during the summit; in addition to the grantees and speakers who offered insight about the filmmaking process, scientists were present at every event to offer their expertise.

Particle Fever producer and theoretical physicist David Kaplan falls into both categories—he first answered questions at his own Q&A and later offerred his thoughts on the science of Stephen Hawking at the summit’s preview of James Marsh’s (Man on Wire, Project Nim) biopic about the scientist, The Theory of Everything. Stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who portray Stephen and Jane Hawking, also attended the Q&A, sharing their experience of meeting Hawking and receiving his blessing to use his instantly recognizable machine-assisted voice in the film.

Sloan Foundation Vice President of Artist Programs Doron Weber began day two of the summit by introducing his favorite part of the weekend: a session in which the over one hundred grantees in attendance each took the stage, introduced themselves, and spoke about their Sloan-supported project. Not all of the grantees intended to be filmmakers, with many discussing their former lives as scientists, researchers, or academics—even Film Independent president Josh Welsh confessed to earning a Ph.D. in philosophy. The grantees would close their presentation with an ask—many were seeking producers or distribution or general advice and the summit organizers were clearly prepared to help. After the morning’s project discussions, there was a panel of case studies where three Sloan grantees described their projects’ journey from inception to completion.

Writer/director Jenny Deller and producer Kristin Fairweather were in attendance to discuss their debut feature Future Weather, with writer/director Musa Syeed skyping in to discuss Valley of Saints. Although the main goal of the summit is celebrating the projects of Sloan filmmakers and writers, the organizers were sure not to neglect the more practical aspects of filmmaking, with the case studies panel providing valuable insight; Deller and Fairweather discussed the numerous difficulties associated with being first time filmmakers and Syeed talked about adapting to the rapidly changing political climate while shooting in Kashmir. The summit also took care to address the changing distribution landscape with a panel on digital distribution and the announcement of a new $50,000 Sloan distribution grant for completed feature films seeking release.

Saturday evening’s program was moderated by Ira Flatow, longtime host of the Science Friday radio show, and featured new works from three Sloan grantees. Given under a month to complete the projects, each grantee was paired with a scientist to create a short piece that showcased their particular area of expertise. Paired with Jessica Cail, whose research is focused on the long term effects of addiction on the body, Jenny Deller’s documentary short Containing Addiction asked two addicts to consider their former habits, comparing how they live now to their previous destructive lifestyles. Working alongside hacker Ralph Echemendia, Casey Cooper Johnson’s short film Implant traveled to an unsettling future where micro chips are implanted into the brain, closing with a chilling twist as a woman is forced to kill when her chip is hacked. Composer Matt Schatz added levity to the program, partnering with quantum mechanics professor Spiros Michalkis to create a short musical piece about a quantum physicist navigating the world of online dating called Quantum Tinder.

The final day of the summit was opened to the public, with the morning’s keynote address given by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, a Sloan grantee for his play Kasimov about a chess master competing against a supercomputer. The afternoon highlighted Sloan screenwriters, with live readings of selections from six Sloan feature screenplays: The Flight of the Wasp, The Buried Life, The Dust, Deep Sea Divers of 1930, Operator, and Newton’s Laws of Emotion. After the screenplay live reads came the screening of selected short films from five of the film schools Sloan supports (coverage on these to come), followed by the closing night program: a sneak preview of several long-gestating Sloan features set to premiere in 2015: Stanley Milgram biopic Experimenter, the story of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, The Man Who Saw Infinity, and musical romantic comedy Basmati Blues.

After a preview screening of the hit Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, Weber joked that he’ll be relieved to not see another Turing script for awhile. With that, the 2014 Sloan Summit came to a close. The next summit is scheduled for 2017, and it’s inspiring to imagine what the next three years will bring, both for the current grantees and for those still in the process of applying.