November 17, 2008
There aren’t a lot of musical comedies that can get away with rhyming “chick” with “Watson & Crick”—or “T ‘n’ A” with “DNA.” You don’t see many films that explore the romantic obstacles presented by prosopagnosia (face-blindness). And it’s a rare thing to witness young filmmakers getting some of the best story ideas they’ll ever hear from a Cal-Tech neuroscientist.
Of course, there aren’t that many occasions in Hollywood where What You Know actually trumps Who You Know.
The Sloan Film Summit, which ran from November 5 to 8 in Los Angeles, may have been anomalous in its surroundings; it certainly added a fascinating dimension to the recently concluded AFI Fest 2008. Bringing together funders from various Alfred P. Sloan Foundation programs, the American Film Institute Conservatory introduced grant winners to scientists, scientists to film professionals, film professionals to budding filmmakers and playwrights, in a kind of melding effort that mirrored the Sloan mission itself—the integration of an accurate and engaging portrayal of science in the popular arts.
“They can’t see it as ‘Here’s science’ and ‘Here’s fiction,’” said David Kirby, an evolutionary geneticist who lectures in science and communication at the University of Manchester. He was enlisted to moderate several Sloan Summit programs, involving present and would-be grantees. “It has to be about telling a story.”
Toward that end, Sloan award-winners presented work in several genres. Before the Moment, for instance, the musical referenced above, is by Jihan Crowther and Matt Schatz, and concerns DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin. While it takes a light-hearted approach, and the libretto and lyrics are full of smart, punny lines, it also concerns Franklin’s quite serious dilemma of having to choose between a life of joy, and a life of achievement. And whether she ought to masquerade as a man in order to circumvent the sexism of her profession.
Before the Moment, commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theater/Sloan project, was just one of many works throughout the Sloan Summit in which ethics were of major concern. During the staged screenplay readings held at the Stella Adler Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Sarah N_12, from NYU’s Sasie Sealy and Mark Heyman, explored crime via the virtual world’s Second Life. In Jay Burke‘s Whaling City, a commercial fisherman working depleted waters considers a sideline in smuggling, and Madeleine Holly-Rosing‘s Stargazer told the unlikely story of real-life Scottish immigrant Mina Fleming and her development into a world-class astronomer. As always throughout the Sloan Summit, the occasional need for poetic license was acknowledged, but so were the responsibilities of the dramatist who employs technology, biology, or psychology for the purposes of storytelling.
“My concerns are twofold: accuracy and quality,” said Dr. Paul Ekman, former professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, whose work is the inspiration for the Fox series, Lie to Me. Ekman’s forum was a panel discussion titled “From Geek to Chic: The Growing Popularity of Science in Prime-Time Television.”
“You don’t want to be misleading, dispensing information that would, for instance, sway juries,” Ekman said. “Or policemen. A lot of policemen get their version of science from TV.”
What the panelists weren’t opposed to was elevating the perception of the scientist in the minds of mass-media consumers, although as pointed out by Dr. Nicholas Warner, professor of physics, mathematics, and astronomy at USC, a big-screen presence doesn’t always enhance the romantic image of the brainiac.
“Not many people came out of A Beautiful Mind, saying ‘I want to be John Nash,’” Warner said.
But there’s an inherent attraction to the fictional scientist, said Nick Falacci, co-executive producer with wife Cheryl Heuton of the CBS series NUMB3RS—including the stereotypical “arrogant scientist.”
“He has powers,” Falacci said. “The powers of observation. The power of being right. He cuts through the clutter and provides observations no one else could make in those settings.”
“But being a scientist is a way of being; you can’t just graft him onto a script,” Warner cautioned. “Don’t eviscerate your scientists by forcing them to do things they wouldn’t do.”
How to avoid that pitfall was the subject not just of “From Geek to Chic” but of a sister panel, “We Told You So: Scientific Disasters in Film as Entertainment or Cautionary Tale,” which was moderated by Kirby, author of the upcoming Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science’s Impact on Cinema, Cinema’s Impact on Science. The panel included Flash of Genius director Mark Abraham, whose film, starring Greg Kinnear, concerns the struggles of Robert Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. Kearns battled Detroit for years to be recognized for his stolen invention. But while Kearns’ scientific gifts and the invention itself played a part in the story, character and narrative were of far greater importance to Abraham.
“We honored him as an engineer and for his ideas, but he did grapple with moral issues,” Abraham said, the point being that dramatic propulsion is the objective—but that getting the science right only helps that cause. “You want to give the actor the confidence to believe.”
Abraham has produced any number of films in which technology was either central or tangential—including Air Force One, Dawn of the Dead, End of Days, and most recently Children of Men, about a world in which humans have ceased to reproduce. Based on the P.D. James novel, it was adapted by Abraham’s Sloan Summit co-panelist, Timothy J. Sexton, offered some insights about converting science into entertainment.
Such narratives “are hardly ever about the technology. Or they’re about how the technology cannot save us,” Sexton said. “But every technological advance that solves a problem creates a new problem. So [for storytelling] there are great possibilities.”
Some of those possibilities were laid out by Moran Surf, a neuroscientist currently conducting research at the California Institute of Technology into the definition of consciousness. He more or less told the filmmakers in the audience to listen up before giving them a list of the 10 best new, unexplored, and recently researched areas that could provide the basis for a movie plot.
And he added that he hoped to see some of them on screen soon.
They included the science of consciousness; the chemical basis for love and happiness; advances on a unified field theory (“the theory of everything”); ethics and animal research; and what Surf explained were “one-off” or singular cases of neurological disorder: a patient he knew of, for instance, who couldn’t experience fear.
“I can’t publish a paper about them,” Surf said. “They’re singular cases; they don’t represent anything larger. But their stories should be made into movies.”
Not that those science movies always do so well—as the panelists pointed out, even 2001: A Space Odyssey found no safe harbor at the box office, not initially; Children of Men fared little better; likewise, Flash of Genius.
But this seems unlikely to stop filmmakers like NYU grad Dara Bratt, whose short film In Vivid Detail seemed the perfect synthesis of Sloan ideals: an engaging story hinging on—but neither subordinate to, nor eclipsed by—scientific information.
In it, Leslie (Piper Perabo), a new employee at an architecture firm sparks romantically with Justin (John Ventigmilia), who suffers from prosopagnosia—an inability to recognize or process faces. The result of frontal-lobe damage, Justin’s disorder doesn’t just affect his social skills, it rocks Leslie’s world a little bit too: if Justin doesn’t respond to her face, how is she going to be interpreted by him? What’s her identity? And, as Bratt put it, “How is beauty measured?”
Bratt said she got the idea from a friend who was studying prosopagnosia at Harvard, and she credited NYU with stressing the amalgamation of science and narrative, the idea that the neurological disorder “weave through the story and not be made into some expository paragraph. And I felt a responsibility to portray it accurately.”
She said she “wasn’t a science kid,” but has suffered from insomnia and has long been intrigued by questions like “How do we fall asleep?” She was also inspired by portrait artists who work the streets of her hometown, Montreal, which gave her the idea, incorporated into her film, about breaking a face down onto a grid—on architect’s paper, for example—thus making the mysterious whole understandable in parts, to someone like Justin.
Bratt applied for a Sloan grant through the NYU/Sloan partnership (she said she’ll seek funding for her feature through the Tribeca, Sundance, and Hamptons). She found out she’d won while working a seemingly unlikely job: assistant director on Cheaper by the Dozen 2, while it was shooting in Toronto.
“Piper Perabo appeared in the film,” Bratt said, “and I wouldn’t have dared approach her. It was a professional relationship. But a friend who had the script gave it to her.”
After some nerve-wracking weeks, Perabo agreed to do the film, which was shot largely in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. Ventigmilia came aboard thanks to Perabo.
And the Sloan Summit? “I loved it,” Bratt said, of an event that brought newcomers like herself together with grizzled veterans of the film world, some of whom have been Sloan awardees. “Werner Herzog saw my film!”