On the occasion of the Sloan Summit 2011, the Museum of the Moving Image’s Sloan Science and Film team selected three Sloan Student Liaisons: Freddy Gaitan, Dan O’Neil and Morgan von Ancken. As recipients of Alfred P. Sloan grants, the liaisons will serve as the points of contact for Sloan grantees at the partner schools and also as contributors to the Sloan Science and Film website.
The Sloan Student Liaisons will keep the word going about the Sloan Film Programs at their school; will be in touch with past or prospective grantees; and, most importantly, will make monthly posts about the progress of their screenplays and productions. They will provide the Sloan Science and Film readers with behind-the-scenes perspectives on the writing, researching, and production of their science-related films. Here is Dan O’Neil’s first entry: his impressions on the 2011 Sloan Summit!
Attending the Sloan Summit 2011 in New York City was in many ways the perfect follow-up to my graduate school experience as a screenwriter; at Carnegie Mellon, we few writers wander the corridors of the campus, vastly outnumbered by robotics majors, chemical engineers, mathematicians, and programmers galore. Our task there (as it pertains to creating a Sloan-eligible screenplay) is simple; grab any of those scientists rushing by us, wrestle them to the ground if necessary, and find out what they think would make a great movie. They are often surprised by this, but less often now since we’ve been holding a symposium to which six or seven of them are invited to speak on the particularly interesting or strange or simply dramatic scientific issues and themes they deal with on a daily basis.
From these seeds of an idea we proceed to write a script, redraft it, and workshop it. Our chosen scientist weighs in on both the first and final draft and finally it makes its way to the Sloan Foundation, after which a lucky few of us are bestowed with grant money. The question I had regarding receiving a grant such as this was: there are no scientists left to wrestle, and the rest of my colleagues are just like me, with a screenplay under arm but no camera, no production network. What are we to do next?
Enter the Sloan Film Summit of 2011! Gathering together all the winners of Sloan awards over the past three years, the Summit serves to bring the finest and brightest filmmakers together for three days and nights in either New York or L.A. (this year, New York), serve them lots of wine and appetizers (in this way it was similar to my Carnegie Mellon experience), and encourage them to encourage and inspire each other. Films are shown! Staged readings of screenplays are read! Out loud! In front of other people! For a screenwriter, the sensation is that of having fuel thrown over our small flame of a script. O.k., we say, yes! This is what can become of this thing I wrote, and here’s how other people are doing it. Many of the attendees are active filmmakers currently working on their own scripts and projects but we meet them with the hopes that we’ll all meet again, soon, on some movie set, collaborating, bringing our skill sets together, and thankful that Sloan brought us together first.
A brief synopsis of the three days must include a first-night pitch session that allowed anyone with a project in front of a microphone with about a minute or two to update the group as to where they were with their Sloan-funded project. Pitches ranged from, “I just need another three million dollars to go along with the seven we’ve already raised,” to “I don’t know what’s happening with my script but if it weren’t for the Sloan, I wouldn’t have written it at all.” Both responses were received equally, and while it manifests itself in different ways, I came to understand that the Sloan Foundation funds work to help change our mindset as to how we think of science in the first place; it’s a subject matter that’s hardly exotic (everything we touch, every story we tell contains some element of science, even if it’s as basic as day turning to night) and yet, severely underrepresented in our culture and in our stories. The Sloan Foundation simply encourages us, as storytellers, to include it.
The second day includes an industry lunch that brings impressive and influential producers, agents, and film companies together with the Sloan grantees; based on reading over the synopses, these industry people select whom they’d like to meet. In these meetings, they generally ask for a short pitch of the idea, and then request the full script. (I’m not sure what happens for filmmakers with active projects; I speak only as a screenwriter here.) I’ll report later on as to what happens after they’ve read these scripts, but hopefully, it moves them one step closer to production. At the least, it introduces them to us and us to them, which would not have happened otherwise.
Also on the second day, we watch a series of shorts, which all look incredible and all deal, in some way or another, with a scientific theme or character. It’s interesting to observe how difficult this task is, especially in short form. There is cultural tension between our archetype of the “scientist,” with his or (not very often) her crazy hair and crazy ideas, versus the honest depiction of one. We want them to have an epiphany or discover a cure, but often the most successful film treatment is to simply watch them work. They have a problem, and they try different ways of solving their problem. It’s storytelling at its most basic, which is comforting to me; the idea that screenwriters and scientists make use of the same basic methodology to solve our problems is a unifying one.
The third and final day of the Summit, it snows. We watch the huge snowflakes collect on the ground outside the amazing stretch of windows at the wonderful Museum of the Moving Image. We watch a feature-length film in a huge and impressive screening room called Whaling City that I hope makes it onto screens across the country one day. We wander the museum, replete with a short film by Jim Henson, vintage video games (they have one of the first versions of Pong!) and a whole floor devoted to an exhibition on the Muppets. Also of interest to the screenwriter are original drafts of movie scripts ranging back to the ’50s, with pencil scribbling in the margins. It’s already hard to imagine a time without computers. No wonder so many more people are trying to be writers these days; you just write it and it looks done (even though we know it’s not).
Later on, there’s a staged reading in front of our peers of seven of the screenplays that received Sloan Awards. The collected cast includes former stars of The Young and the Restless as well as a former Tony winner and member of the Broadway Hall of Fame. It’s inspiring to hear them breathe life into the screenplays just by reading them aloud in front of people, and I think, not for the first time, how beautifully simple our craft can be; just people in a room, reading a script, and yet, we all experience something at the same time.
Finally, a strong panel of collected scientists, producers, and writers discuss in depth and with great humor the benefits and pitfalls of writing scientifically engaged screenplays. Then we all get on a bus that takes us to a fancy cocktail lounge where we drink out the night. And then, already, it’s over. We go back to (in my case) our apartments or (in the out-of-towner’s case) the tiny pod-like cabins at Yotel, sleep, dream, and wake up inspired and ready to keep going, keep pushing, keep creating, keep thinking of stories that don’t ignore their science, to keep doing what we do, which is, in the end, the better gift from all this; we feel supported, and thus, we fight on.
Photographs by Marisa McGrody.