Sloan Grantee Gillian Weeks on the Reality of Screenwriting

In 2018 and 2019, screenwriter Gillian Weeks won two Sloan grants back-to-back for her project LET THERE BE LIFE (Formerly known as THE NEW MIRACLE, the project won the 2018 Tribeca Film Institute Screenplay Development Award and 2019 Sundance Institute Commissioning Grant, respectively.) She hasn’t lost momentum since. In 2021, it was announced she’d be adapting Jeffrey Kluger’s biography of polio vaccine creator Jonas Salk SPLENDID SOLUTION, with Jeremy Strong set to star. In 2022, she found further acclaim when her script OH, THE HUMANITY appeared on The Black List, just months after it was announced she’d be developing THE LOST LEONARDO as a limited series. We spoke with Weeks about the impact of Sloan grants on her path from production assistant to working screenwriter, writing across storytelling formats, and finding the fun and purpose in telling true stories.

Science & Film: I understand your background is in documentary filmmaking. Has that led you to writing true stories, like the one which inspired LET THERE BE LIFE?

Gillian Weeks: I always knew I wanted to write, but at a young age, I imagined it to be journalism. In college, I wrote for the newspaper and I majored in political economy. My dream was to do long form journalism, but that was an era when those jobs were disappearing, and I was struggling to get a foot in the door. I ended up getting a job as a production assistant on what, at the time, I considered the lowest brow possible: a reality show. But it ended up being an incredible adventure, working with all kinds of wonderful, colorful people.

What was amazing about the job was that it was like journalism, where you go out and you find the craziest subcultures, the most interesting people with the biggest personalities, and figure out how to stitch it together with a narrative. This is not like documentary filmmaking, these are reality shows, just to be clear. It was nice to be able to get out from behind a computer and experience the world. That honed a lot of research skills.

When I went to go work for Jigsaw Productions, I was overseeing television development. I had a broad, idiosyncratic knowledge of different stories in the world, and there's real discipline and figuring out how to sell those as ideas. Being able to talk about true stories in a compelling way, in a digestible way, in a commercial way, went on to serve me well as a writer.

Science & Film: What drew you to the story in LET THERE BE LIFE in particular?

Gillian Weeks: That specifically came from Bob Edwards’s obituary from 2013, my husband had come across it first. It described [Bob Edwards’s] contribution to the invention of in vitro fertilization. [My husband] had the sense to think that there's some more to the story, you know, but there wasn't one documentary or one book of popular history that sums it all up. I had to do some real hands-on research to get the real story and find source materials that were out of the mainstream. I learned enough to put together a treatment and that's what I submitted to the Tribeca Film Institute for the Sloan grant, but I tried to write it in an evocative way.

With the grant, I was able to take two trips to the U.K. and interview people up and down the country. I met with the second mother of a baby born through IVF, and Bob Edwards’s old colleagues, people who knew him at different stages of his life. Most importantly, I got to know Roger Gosden, who was a student of Bob Edwards (later, after the technology was invented) but he got to know him very well and was writing a biography of him. Roger and I worked together, and he served as my advisor through the Sloan grant. He helped me, because he's a scientist and biologist himself, but he's also a wonderful writer and storyteller. He was a perfect partner. So that's where it came from. Let There Be Life is also the title of the book that Roger wrote about Bob.

Science & Film: It sounds like your partnership with your advisor had a great impact. You then had a second Sloan grant, the Sundance Institute Commissioning Grant. How did that change things?

Gillian Weeks: It afforded me with the continued development of the script. It was an incredibly ambitious story because it spans ten years, and there's a lot of hefty science in there. It’s an intimate story about a family as well. It took a few drafts, so having the support of Sundance, and the creative advisor that they partnered me with, Andrea Berloff, meant a lot. She helped me develop a team and gave some great notes. I did some additional research, but mostly it meant I could survive as I was trying to make the script better. I think it was after a couple more drafts that it was finally able to go out into the world.

Science & Film: How did things progress with the project from there?

Gillian Weeks: I have some great producers, and we're still looking for a director who is going to embrace the story. I think it has a great shot of being the sort of movie where people go through a real, joyful, emotional experience and come out feeling great about themselves in the world. We're just looking to take that to the next level.

In the meantime, the script has opened a lot of doors for me. Based on the script, I got my first real paying job as a screenwriter, writing the story of Jonas Salk and the invention of the polio vaccine. It’s because of the script and that they had a lot of similarities. You have an enigmatic, mid-century male scientist who is driving along on this quest with a lot of love for his family and personal ambition, battling certain demons, and either trying to make life or save life. There was a lot in common, including the task of making the scientific process and biological research digestible, exciting, and dramatic. All of that is very challenging sometimes. I was able to apply a lot of what I learned with LET THERE BE LIFE.

That movie has Jeremy Strong attached to play Jonas Salk. We finished the script with Bron as the studio and 21 Laps as producers. We just started looking for a director. What's interesting is they [21 Laps] had started developing it when they bought the rights to Splendid Solution by Jeffrey Kluger, an editor at Time Magazine. He wrote Apollo 13, the book that the movie was also based on and he's a spectacular writer. He can teach a masterclass on dramatizing science. They'd been in development long before the pandemic began but the first few months in, they realized now is the time to talk about how science matters and the truth about vaccines to combat lies and misinformation, to prioritize saving lives and our children over our own egos and fear. They reached out to me shortly after the pandemic began. It’s a little ironic, I feel like I have this terrible global catastrophe to thank for an opportunity to tell a story like this. But the time has certainly come to tell it.

READ MORE: From Book to Screen: 5 Notable Adaptations in Development

Science & Film: You have a great template to work from with Kluger, in particular.

Gillian Weeks: He’s fantastic, and very enthusiastic. In the process, I got to know the Salk family very well. Jonas Salk had three sons. They've all been wonderful collaborators, very generous sharing their memories of their father and providing access to audio diaries that we hadn't known of or listened to before. They’ve also helped with some insights into their father's frame of mind at the time, because even though it was a very famous story and it got a lot of media attention at the time, I think there's a side to Jonas that hasn't been told because it's hard to get inside his head. That’s what we're trying to do with this: talk about how science can come from a place of love.

Science & Film: Congratulations on your inclusion on The Black List. I'd love to talk about OH, THE HUMANITY. My sense is that there's a more humorous tone to it?

Gillian Weeks: In a funny way, LET THERE BE LIFE also opened the door for this project, because I’m also doing it with 21 Laps. We started talking about both projects in the same initial conversation and they began on the same day. This one has a strong science aspect to it as well, though more engineering than biology. Again, I feel like I need to credit my husband and his voracious curiosity. In addition to reading obituaries of scientists, he has an interest in airships, and it was he who was reading the story of not just the Hindenburg, but the history of airships. He said there's the reason the Hindenburg blew up but then there's a deeper story of corruption there. There's a political tale to be told around what we think of as just a terrible accident. I thought that was an interesting thing to say, because you have this incredibly famous image of this exploding airship, and everyone seems to know that surface-level story. But there has to be something else behind it all.

I began investigating and reading whatever material I could get my hands on. It’s been discussed in many sources, of course, and there is an accepted explanation. But it just so happened that at the same time I was looking into it, there was a book that was about to be published by a journalist, a former Wall Street Journal editor named Michael McCarthy, who wrote a book called The Hidden Hindenburg. I got an advanced copy and sure enough, Michael had turned up some compelling and shocking new information about what really led to the disaster. It's rooted in bureaucratic...not just incompetence, but callousness. That felt very timely when you think about capitalism and the way that people's lives are being leveraged for profit. That's where it began. It sounds like that should be a drama, right? The reason it's funny is because after the Hindenburg blew up, a whole group of Nazi officials had to go to New Jersey and cover up their own incompetence. I just found the idea so funny, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to rewrite this absolute, ridiculous fuck-up on their part at a time when they’re in the middle of global posturing.

I write dramas about science but LET THERE BE LIFE has quite a lot of jokes in it. I also like to write comedies. I think I try to approach everything that I write, even heavy things, with a sense of fun. [With OH, THE HUMANITY], I got to really go in that direction. Although I will say, the tone of the script begins as a straight comedy that’s dark but silly. Then slowly, over the course of the film, it gets more and more severe. Like boiling a frog. By the very end when you're dealing with very heavy topics, like the mass enslavement and genocide of people during the war, we are handling that with the gravity that it deserves—showing why this matters on a global human scale.

Science & Film: I'm curious to talk about your TV and episodic work, because I know that you participated in The Black List x Women in Film Episodic Lab. Having a background writing features, is there anything you enjoyed more working in the TV format?

Gillian Weeks: I am agnostic about the form, it is truly about what the story is asking for and there aren't a lot of stories that need ten, 20, or 30 hours to do them. You have to set up a strong engine and have some interesting characters at the center of it. You look high and low for the kind of stories and relationships that justify that sort of treatment. It's an amazing opportunity to go really deep on these characters. The project I worked on through The Black List Lab was set at an elite college. Both my parents worked for the University of Oregon, my dad as a professor and my mom as an administrator. I was interested in the culture of higher education so that's a mother/daughter story about big money and education. It’s called POLITICAL SCIENCE.

I recently wrote a pilot for Netflix that is not based on a true story but also has a lot of science elements. It’s set in the slightly futuristic but very true world of oil and gas in the Permian Basin, with all the new technologies that are emerging there. It's also a private detective, episodic mystery show. Again, you combine the fun, broadly accessible story format with the real deep science and culture to make it feel very specific.

Science & Film: What are you working on now?

Gillian Weeks: I am writing a true story limited series about the Salvator Mundi, which is the most expensive painting ever sold for $450 million at Christie's to Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. That's based on a documentary called THE LAST LEONARDO, which is absolutely fantastic. It's one of the best 90 minutes you're going to spend watching anything. But I'm developing it into a limited series, so it involves going deeper on each of these strands. There's no shortage of material. [The story is] about art and beauty and grief, and the battle of better angels of our nature, but it’s also about the global art market, corruption, and the power play among the one percent.

Science & Film: It sounds like you've come full circle in many ways, doing a scripted adaptation of a documentary.

Gillian Weeks: Exactly. I’ve definitely drawn from the work we did at Jigsaw [Productions]. But now I have the freedom to dramatize it in a new way.

Science & Film: Do you feel like your writing style has evolved over the past few years?

Gillian Weeks: Yes. When I first started writing, I was writing a lot of comedy. I don't consider myself a comedy writer in the sense that there's a different discipline to being a joke machine or working on half hour scripts but I like things that are funny. It's a combination of my own tastes and interests, and the opportunities that are presented. Right now, I have made a kind of specialty of true stories, or stories that are rooted in very specific subcultures. I enjoy that there's a lot of freedom to approach them in different ways. I am always trying to find the fun within a story. How do we make this feel like a blockbuster? How do we entertain? It's not enough for a story to be important. It also has to be resonant. It has to be like a real joy to watch. I try to challenge myself constantly to shape what is true into something that is also entertaining.

To answer your question, my voice has changed. . At the same time, what I've learned over the last few years is the discipline. It's the craft of understanding what makes a story good, working from an intuitive place, but also from a sort of logical, craftsperson style.

Science & Film: Any morsels of advice that you would like to share with screenwriters in your shoes, but, say, five years ago?

Gillian Weeks: There's artistic advice and practical advice. The practical advice I try to give people is that programs like Sloan's genuinely helped introduce me to a network of people and provided support as I was writing the scripts. Frankly, there's a long chapter in any writer's life where you have people asking you to do a lot of free work. It’s a full-time job, but they're not paying you to do it. Sloan’s support meant not only the chance to do the research, but to spend the time to make the script truly good. I could also afford to feed my family. Eventually things change and people start to compensate you for your work, but applying to these sorts of programs is important. An idea that is based on a true story, that means something to people today. It is a smart strategy. I managed to find a story that checked the boxes for Sloan but was also something that I was passionate about writing.

The other thing I would say is that I've now written for almost five movies or TV shows that are based on true stories. My process generally is to learn everything you possibly can, just hoover up all the information you can about the story, especially when it's about science. Really try to understand the science of it so you can explain it to a layperson in normal terms. Then, when you go to write, forget it all. Put that aside, let your brain cool off and try to take a big step back to see the big picture of what the story is. As a lot of writers will tell you, it's about the central truth rather than the literal moment to moment, truth of it. Finding what that core truth is, or the emotional story inside of it, can be difficult, but that's where you have to start.

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