Breaking into Hollywood as a writer is hard, and for writers attracted to stories inspired by science or mathematics, it can feel downright impossible.
I spent two years researching and writing my screenplay Mütter, based on the true story of a pre-Civil War plastic surgeon who worked with the severely deformed and wound up with a vast collection of nineteenth-century medical oddities. My happiness after typing “The End” on my first draft was quickly tempered by the thought: “Now what?”
The answer—parroted by mentors, peers, and professors alike—was, “Get thee to the Sloan Foundation!”
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation encourages public understanding of science and technology. Its programs support the production of books, radio, public television, commercial television, film, theater, and the Internet to reach a broad audience, and aims to convey some of the challenges and rewards for people who devote their lives to science and technology. Since 1997, the Sloan Foundation has worked with film festivals and schools to support more than 170 screenwriters and filmmakers who are bringing dramatic and compelling science stories to the screen.
Translation for screenwriters like me: “Give us your science-loving, your math-inspired, your factually accurate screenplays yearning to be made!”
And so, I submitted Mütter to the Hamptons International Film Festival’s (HIFF) Sloan Fellowship competition. In winning, I became part of a unique and exclusive community of like-minded artists.
In October 2005, the Sloan Foundation, in association with the Tribeca Film Institute, brought together many of their award-winning writers and directors for the three-day Sloan Film Summit.
Being a part of the summit was a dream come true for me and for Mütter. Determined to make my mark, during the weeks leading up to the Summit, I created calling cards for Mütter, each featuring a Mütter oddity on the front and a script synopsis on the back. Though I was pleased with the macabre end product, I realized that my months of research had probably dulled me to the potentially nauseating effect of viewing cards that featured medical oddities. But rather than abandon using them entirely, I just promised myself not to hand them out anywhere near food.
I also joined the other attendees in submitting information about our projects and ourselves for the Summit’s project guide. The guide proved to be a facebook during the Summit; it also introduced our projects to the Hollywood community.
I devoured the book the night I received it, reading each biography and script synopsis with delight—I wasn’t alone in my scientific obsessions after all! The award-winning projects covered a broad spectrum of ideas and styles. There were dramatic biopics (“Hedy Lamarr, MGM actress and sex symbol, was also an inventor who patented frequency hopping—the cornerstone of encrypted wireless communication!”); comical animated shorts (“A modern-day folk tale about the discovery of Vitamin C in an ordinary pepper!”); challenging, fictionalized features (“In a desperate bid to save his dying son, a neurobiologist transplants his brain into a computer—only to have the computer stolen!”); and everything in between (“A boy and his family stranded in the Everglades must fight off animals crazed by illegally dumped chemicals!”). It was also fun to be able to attach a face to such enticing film descriptions as: “Obsessed with facing down the Giant Octopus that killed his wife, cryptozoologist Shaymus Kincade races his nemesis and own daughter to prove its existence.” (The writer was Paige MacDonald, the 2005 Sloan UCLA grantee—a woman I was determined to meet!) Some of the attendees (like me) were pure screenwriters wanting only to find a home for their babies, while others also wore directing caps and dreamed of filming their own finely honed scripts themselves.
The Sloan Film Summit officially opened on the evening of Wednesday, October 5, with a screening and a dinner at the Tribeca Grill. Included in this initial screening, “Theories of Relativity,” were Bird in Hand (by Janet McIntyre), Joshua Tree (Jonathan Messer), Paprika (Katalin Nivelt Anguelov), The Disappearance of Andy Waxman (Till Osterland), and Skylab (Mark Landsman).
Like a perfect social experiment, the attendees soon grouped themselves according to school. I quickly found the other HIFF/Sloan winners—S. Casper Wong (Baby Face), Adam Tobin (Edison’s Thugs), and Bill Rebeck (Mapping Swak)—and we formed a tight-knit unit throughout the Summit.
Thursday’s activities began at 10:30 a.m. with a panel discussion, “Science as Entertainment,” featuring Ryan Eslinger (director of the film Madness and Genius), Dr. Darcy Kelley (professor of biological sciences at Columbia University), David Rambo (who wrote the plays The Ice-Breaker and God’s Man in Texas, and who is now a staff writer for the hit TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), and Dr. Harold Varmus (co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for his studies in the genetic basis of cancer and current president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York). The panel, moderated by David Schwartz (chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image), showcased what makes the Sloan Foundation so wonderful—there is equal pressure put upon craft and scientific accuracy.
The afternoon continued with another panel discussion, “Good Science in Good Films,” which featured Brian Greene (physicist and author of The Elegant Universe), Ari Handel (president of Protozoa Pictures), and Dr. James Watson, the famous Nobel laureate. Jeffrey Kluger, senior writer for Time magazine, was the moderator. Then came staged readings of four screenplays: Indelible (Columbia), Signs of Life (NYU), Face Value (TFI), and The Broken Code (TFI). What made this particular reading especially interesting was the coincidence that The Broken Code featured Dr. James Watson as a character in the script, and not in an entirely positive light (the screenplay argues that scientist Rosalind Franklin deserved more credit for discovering the double helix than Dr. Watson gave her). However, by all accounts, Dr. Watson handled the situation with grace—he watched the readings with interest and was happy to applaud the screenwriters for their skill and storytelling.
To cap off the day’s activities, summit attendees attended an industry cocktail party at the Chelsea restaurant One. The gathering provided us with a chance to talk about our experiences with Sloan and with the summit so far, and it gave me an opportunity to catch up with my fellow HIFFers.
S. Casper Wong, who had earned a degree in biomedical engineering before studying filmmaking at NYU, noted that she was “appalled by the science illiteracy” in this country, especially at a time when we are growing increasingly dependent on technology. After talking to other attendees, she was surprised by the number of screenwriters who said they would not have written their scripts without the encouragement of the Sloan Foundation. Wong said, “I would be writing these stories anyway. Having an organization like the Sloan Foundation to support my work is like finding a home base, so it is enormously comforting and reassuring.” She hopes that her script Baby Face will be in production by next fall.
Meanwhile, Adam Tobin couldn’t stop talking about the panels. He was especially tickled at the scene of actor Ben Shenkman fielding movie ideas from Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. James Watson. “This is the guy who once said, ‘Wait, let’s try a double helix,’ and he’s sitting there telling us that Gattaca was pretty good,” said Tobin of Watson. “I mean, I thought Gattaca was pretty good, but now I know it!” A fellow New Yorker, Tobin also shared my thrill at getting into some of New York’s fanciest establishments, such as One, which might not have let us in if not for our Sloan passes. In fact, we both remarked that the club had probably never seen so many calculator watches in one place.
Bill Rebeck was thrilled to be at his first film-related gathering. A lifelong scientist (he is currently an associate professor of neuroscience at Georgetown), his script Mapping Swak marked his first foray into writing. The inspiration to write his first script came from a discussion he had with his fellow scientists during a laboratory session. They were trying to name one scientist who was a recurring character on a TV show, and were coming up short: “The closest we got was Homer Simpson, who, after all, did work in a nuclear power plant.” Realizing that Homer Simpson was not enough, Bill split his time between the lab and his laptop to write his winning screenplay. However, there is a big difference between writing a screenplay and interacting with the film community. Bill seemed both relieved and thrilled to be introduced into the film biz in a context that was so inviting and smart.
Friday began early with another screening of shorts, titled, “Non-Linear Equations,” with The Monster and the Peanut (by Albert Crim), 6 ft. in 7 min. (Rafael Del Toro), The Visionary**(Tesla) (Joel O. Shapiro), The Science of Love (Joyce Draganosky), and The First Vampire (Jaime Lynn Ipson). After the screening came a networking lunch for grant recipients, where attendees mingled with members of the New York film and television industry.
After a lunch and a group photo, the summit continued with Sloan alumni update presentations by Ryan Eslinger (Madness and Genius), Jason Todd Ipson (The First Vampire), Shawn Lawrence Otto (Hubble), and Jessica Sharzer (Wormhole); their success lent the tantalizing aura of possibility to our recently acquired business cards.
Later in the afternoon there was a final presentation of staged readings, produced by the
Ensemble Studio Theatre and showcasing excerpts from Engines of War (USC), Fire-Line (Columbia), Flying Lessons (UCLA), Indelible (Columbia), Larvae (NYU), Soli2d (AFI), and The Sound of Silence (Carnegie Mellon).
The closing-night reception, held at the beautiful restaurant Chanterelle in Tribeca, provided attendees with one last opportunity to connect with those members of the extended Sloan family whom they hadn’t met before. Many attendees took the opportunity to thank Sloan Program Director Doron Weber for coordinating the event, while others exchanged contact information with their newly acquired friends. For me, it meant some last-minute bonding time with my HIFFers, and my finally introducing myself to Paige MacDonald, who wrote the aforementioned giant-octopus movie. She was as awesome as I had hoped she would be.
Walking home from the closing party, Adam Tobin and I reflected on the past few days. Did the summit live up to our expectations? Did we feel that our screenplays were any closer to becoming films? The answers were yes and yes.
The Sloan Film Summit had brought us into the fold of a unique community—a wonderful makeshift family of producers, directors, and writers who are committed to telling rich scientific stories through film. Adam remarked that he was just as impressed by the scientists he met over the course of the summit as he was by the other writers. “Artists and scientists basically ask the same questions,” he commented, “namely, ‘What the hell’s going on here? Why does it happen? How does it happen?’ We just seek the answers using different tools.”
I agreed. The summit did more than just a showcase—it inspired. After handing out a hefty stack of my Mütter postcards and receiving business cards, email addresses, and script requests in return, the warm autumn air suddenly felt full of possibility. For the first time ever, my oddities were ready for their close-up.