Meet the Filmmaker: Shawn Snyder

Shawn Snyder, winner of the $100,000 Sloan First Feature Film Prize, came to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens to talk with Sloan Science & Film. The interview covered music, film, and the science of decomposition, which is the subject of his award-winning screenplay TO DUST. He also discussed his plans for using the production funding to turn the screenplay into a feature film in the next 18 months. His 9-month-old daughter Ainsley joined him for the interview.

Sloan Science & Film: Could you tell our readers a little about yourself?

Shawn Snyder: I grew up in suburban South Florida and found my way to Harvard as an undergrad, where I studied religion. I then segued that in a way that made a lot of sense to me, and not a lot of sense to other people, into a career as a singer-songwriter in my 20s, playing music and pinballing around. But film and music were always equal passions from the age of five, so either I knew my true self early or haven’t matured at all. When I turned 30 I decided to change gears back towards film and enrolled in NYU’s Graduate Film program. I’m on the other side of that now, with a nine-month-old daughter, continuing the seemingly hopeless romantic and irrational decisions that have constituted my life.

S&F: What is TO DUST about?

SS: TO DUST is about Shmuel, a Hasidic man in upstate New York, who loses his wife, and struggles and fails to find comfort in traditional Jewish mourning rituals, while growing increasingly haunted by thoughts of her decomposing body. He is driven to understand the actual physical process of her decay in hopes that it might offer some solace. Any secular pursuit, any scientific inquiry, and any obsession with death is incredibly sacrilegious within his community, so in order to do so he has to tiptoe around and sneak outside the community. He tracks down Albert, a bumbling community college biology professor, and ropes him, unwittingly, into a world of homespun forensic research as the two try to figure out how Shmuel’s wife is decaying underground. It’s a comedy–it’s a darkcomedy–but the hope is that it’s emotional and intellectual and grotesque and humorous and rollicking and poignant and spiritual and scientific all at once.

S&F: What kind of science are we going to see?

SS: Decomposition. A lot of decomposition. And, well, Albert as a biology professor, is trying his best to guide Shmuel through it all. I had, I’d say, a passive interest in science growing up. My more passionate high school teachers, even though I didn’t necessarily have a knack for it, were still able to bring out an appreciation and cultivate a curiosity. That curiosity reemerged in certain classes in college, but I’ve always leaned more towards the humanities than the sciences. Prompted with the possibility of pursuing a Sloan funded project, TO DUST started as almost an intellectual experiment. I tend to approach writing from character, story, and emotion, and in order to go down this scientific path– which was a bit foreign for me–that was a question I needed to answer. The very first germs of that answer came as I sat in the orientation session for the Sloan/NYU Grant process and as I really started to run with it, the whole thing quickly turned from an intellectual experiment into an insanely personal script.

I lost my mom seven years ago, and I come from a reform Jewish background. I’ve often waxed and waned in relation to my Judaism, but have always tried to tease out the beauty from the blemishes, and to constantly readjust and revisit where I stand in relation to it. Around the time my mom passed away, I did find certain comforts in the Jewish way of mourning - in many ways because I think that that’s how she’d have wanted to be mourned. And it’s very beautiful in its own right and posits this timeline for grief which is incredibly profound and insightful. It’s centuries old and very accurate to the way we understand grief today. Nonetheless it is very restricting—you do this for seven days, and you do this for 30 days, and you do this for a year. You focus on life, not on death, and that life-affirmingness is beautiful. But at the same time, grief is highly individual, intensely personal, based on the mourner, based on the person who has passed - and that’s beautiful too. My own personal grief definitely spilled beyond those timelines. My own grief continues today, and I’m thankful for it. Now, as concerns burial, I’ve never felt at ease visiting my mom’s grave. My mind always goes to—well, there’s a body under there. Her body. I’ll go to her grave and not actually be able to think about her or feel her presence—only the persistent awareness that her remains are six feet below, and that’s never particularly comforting. Instead, I find my mom in my life, in my child, in more profound ways, everyday.

TO DUST takes somebody who is battling with their religion and with their personal grief, and he feels like the only answer is truth. Staring that biological truth in its face is another insanely spiritual thing in its own right. That idea of a complete return, that idea of a oneness to everything, that idea of finite matter that returns to matter—we say from dust to dust in a poetic way, to brush the gruesomeness under the rug, but what does that actually mean in a physical way when you let it happen?

S&F: Are you working with a science advisor?

SS: I worked with Megan Minter, a Graduate Student in Pathology at Duke University. She also holds a Masters in Biomedical Forensic Science from Boston University, and spent some time at the Tennessee Body Farm, within the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology department. Hence, she was well versed and I’d consult with her in between autopsies. She was wonderfully helpful. I also spoke with and actually visited the folks at the University of Texas Body Farm, and consulted a bit with Mark Harris, a green burial advocate and author of the book, Grave Matters. Continued scientific advisement is going to be essential as we take TO DUST from the page and visualize it on the screen.

S&F: Tell me some of the challenges you’re anticipating bringing the film to screen?

SS: We’re currently fine-tuning the script. I’m glad that so far we have the scientific stamp of approval, but what was surprising for me to learn was that the science of decomposition is actually an incredibly new science. Answers can hinge on a maddening array of factors and there’s no predictable uniformity from one corpse to the next. Suffice it to say, we get up close and personal with a number of decaying organisms in TO DUST, and our production design, for lack of a better term, needs to be accurate enough that a scientist could look and say, “Well, given the proposed scenario, this is at least one believable outcome.” And, most importantly, those outcomes need to properly support the dramatic and emotional arc of the story. So it’s been really interesting and delicate, especially as we’re contemplating revisions. You just remove one piece, alter the dramatic timeline slightly, and then we’re starting from scratch with the visualized stages of decay. So it’s tenuous and fun and really interesting to see how essential the science is to the film, because the character’s catharsis hinges on scientific minutiae.

S&F: What are your next steps, and how have Sloan funds helped?

SS: We’re aiming to shoot in the fall of 2016. It’s an appreciated sort of fire for us that the Sloan/NYU funds come with an 18-month timeline to go into production. In the meantime we’re working on building the creative team, turning an eye towards casting, and pursuing additional funding. The Sloan grant has been huge for putting us on people’s radars and starting us off with a sizeable amount of our budget. We’re still pursuing investors, and applying for additional support through other Sloan opportunities—it’s amazing how generous they are—as well as seeking additional creative and financial support through multiple development labs. We participated in IFP Emerging Storytellers this past September. So it’s really putting the pieces together and finding the tools and kindred collaborators to make the project happen in the timeline we want to make it happen.