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Science and Film interviews Sloan Foundation's Doron Weber

With the massive critical and commercial success of the Academy Award-winning The Imitation Game, the last year has been a banner one for Sloan Foundation’s film program. Doron Weber’s been steering that ship for the last twenty years and is now seeing the fruits of his attempts to connect filmmakers with science pay off in a big way. Sloan Science and Film caught up with Weber in his Rockefeller Center office to find out what’s next.

Sloan Science and Film: This has been a pretty good year for the film program, no?

Doron Weber: It’s been a great year, and not just because of The Imitation Game, though that did help a lot. There are a lot of projects getting going that we’ve been waiting a long time for. A Rosalind Franklin film is starting to get traction. We’ve got two Hedy Lamarr projects: a documentary Susan Sarandon is involved in which will open theatrically in 2016 before showing on American Masters and Diane Kruger is working on a four-part series with Bathsheba Doran from Masters of Sex. There’s a Marie Curie script called A Noble Affair that’s moving. Operator is in post-production.

Plus, we’ve got Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter playing at the New York Film Festival and coming out from Magnolia soon. I’m excited it’s getting a release. That film’s like Computer Chess in that it’s set in a very specific kind of world. If somebody could champion it, kind of like Roger Ebert used to do, it could make for a very interesting discussion. Of course, the culture needs to be willing to engage.

Our Ramanujan film with Dev Patel, The Man Who Knew Infinity, just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a good year, but it makes you immediately start to wonder what you’re going to do next year.

SSF: Is there any reason why there seems to be so much activity now?

DW: I think partly it’s that the culture is catching up to us. I arrived at Sloan twenty years ago in October. My daughter was born two weeks after I started which makes it easy to track. And I’ve just seen a very dramatic change. The idea of making films about real science is no longer out there, even if it’s not totally in the mainstream. Did we start it, or did we just catch the wave? Either way, it was a smart bet. I’m not just the strange science guy when I go out anymore.

SSF: Do you think non-Sloan movies about science like Interstellar help what you do here?

DW: They do. With Interstellar, Kip Thorne was very intimately involved. And they actually made a discovery about black holes during the filming and published a paper. It’s remarkable any time you have filmmakers of that caliber working with someone like Kip Thorne. It shows talented filmmakers are interested in science and attracts others. If a filmmaker thinks science is boring, educational stuff only suited for documentaries, they’re not going to make an exciting movie about it.

There’s a new generation of filmmakers who realize science isn’t just over there. It’s us. Someone like Steve Jobs realized this about technology very intuitively.

SSF: And now we have two Steve Jobs movies, not counting that Ashton Kutcher thing from a few years back.

DW: Apparently Steve Jobs is more positive than the Alex Gibney film. I liked Gibney’s The Man in the Machine a lot. It was a very smart movie. I saw it with an Apple guy and it was clear they were scared. They were all up in arms about it. Gibney asks tough probing questions and turns it on us. At one point, there’s the shiny reflection in the iPhone and we’re seeing ourselves. And he says, “What does this say about us?” Who are we that we made this thing?

SSF: Steve Jobs didn’t do it by himself. We wanted that.

DW: He played to our narcissism and vanity. I liked Jobs because he’s connected to what I do at Sloan—everything he did was based on the premise that technology is human. It’s an expression of who we are, so aesthetics matter. Everything I do here at Sloan is to try and show that technology is not it and them, it’s you and me. What’s the word on the Boyle film?

SSF: I’ve heard it’s not quite like a typical Danny Boyle movie.

DW: I just hope it’s not reverential. That would be a shame. Jobs is fascinating and brilliant, but he was not a nice person. I dealt with him on one project and you could see it so fast. I’m a fan, but you need to take him on the way Gibney did. Jobs is a great subject and I don’t think we’ve heard the last of him. There’ll be a musical—maybe It’ll be the next Hamilton! I’d love for someone to do for science what Hamilton did for history.

SSF: Sloan does fund a lot of theater. Do you see that as an increasing area of interest?

DW: We’re big on theater. We have a play, Informed Consent, that just got a great New York Times review. There’s another one with Nicole Kidman called Photograph 51. There’ll be another one coming out in the Spring by Nick Payne who did Constellations called Incognito, which is about a guy driving around the country with Einstein’s brain. My theater program might arguably be as successful as my film program.

A grant that would be small on a film represents a big commission in theater so we can get the attention of serious playwrights. I can’t do that with screenwriting grants of that size. That said, no one gives screenwriters any money. We say we care about content, and it’s a relatively uninvested in area. The poor writer decides so much, especially now with television.

SSF: Are you interested in funding television projects?

DW: Every one of my partners has now added sections for television, and that’s completely fine. I started trying to get people interested in TV eighteen years ago. I had a subject people weren’t very familiar with and a series allows you to live with things over time. Movies are a two hour thing and you’re out of the theater. It’s like you have a great dinner and then you go to the bathroom and it’s gone. Series let you live with characters and learn about subjects. There’s a different granularity to it, a different set of skills. Episodic can flatten things, though, so it takes filmmakers who have really resilient voices to do it well.

SSF: It’s interesting that people are adapting to the idea of watching longer stories.

DW: There’s too much good stuff—people complain they can’t keep up! It almost sounds like viewers want the quality to go down!

SSF: Are you thinking about funding interactive storytelling and video games?

DW: Yes, but I’m going slowly because there hasn’t yet been one great model. I’m starting carefully with some places I know—-my film school partners like NYU and USC have two of the best gaming programs going. I want to explore with them what you can do, find out how much story can you embed in a game. I still think story drives it.

SSF: Museum of the Moving Image did a big exhibit called Sensory Stories a few months back. Some of the works were based on watching stories via Oculus Rift, but some of the pieces introduced stories with choice and playable elements.

DW: I saw that exhibit. I liked Chris Milk’s short, Evolution of Verse, with the train coming across the river. What I want to know is how to do something like that with story over time. I hear there’s stuff out there that’s going to be very impressive. I’m sufficiently intrigued and I think Sloan should put an oar in and see what we can make out of it.

SSF: Is that an easy thing to do institutionally?

DW: What I first need to do is educate myself. And then ask my partners to, instead of giving a screenwriting award, try to work with someone developing games. This way I can experiment quietly. More than anything, I need to sell me. I have to be convinced. There’s a finite amount of money, so if I want do this, I have to take it from something else. But, it seems to be the new wave and as a funder you want to go where the audience is going.

SSF: Are you seeing any trends right now in terms of subjects you’re getting lots of projects about?

DW: I’ve noticed a lot of transgender projects. The culture is very interested in this subject and filmmakers are going at it from every angle. We’re in a transition around this idea and people are trying to get a handle on it. I’m getting less sci-fi, which means people are figuring Sloan out. I’m getting more television scripts. Also, more stories from abroad, which I find refreshing.

It all shows that there’s still a desire for films. Having a punchy movie really helps people focus on a subject and grasp it. Movies are still a great way to teach history. We’re very committed to helping films get made and it’s getting easier.

SSF: And it seems like you’re getting better projects now than you once were.

DW: There’s nothing like success to breed more success. It was years before we got any through the pipeline. Now, our batting average is looking pretty good!