Interview: Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Biopic

In 2016, screenwriter Zach Dean wrote a script called VOYAGERS which landed on The Black List. The the film tells the love story of famous astronomer Carl Sagan and his partner Ann Druyan, and their work together on NASA's Golden Record. These records were launched into space in 1977 as a message to whatever might find them about Earth and humankind. In 2017, on the 40th anniversary of the records' launch, we spoke with Zach Dean about the project. Since then, it has moved forward and the script iterated upon by Sebastián Lelio (A FANTASTIC WOMAN) and Jessica Goldberg (AWAY). Now, it has just been announced that the film will also be directed by Lelio and will star Andrew Garfield as Carl Sagan and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Ann Druyan. Ben Browning from FilmNation Entertainment, together with Druyan and Lynda Obst, will produce. FilmNation will be at the 2023 Cannes film market with VOYAGERS. As the project heads towards production, we are re-publishing our original interview with Zach Dean.

Science & Film: What is VOYAGERS about?

Zach Dean: The story I am telling is the love story of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. They have a really compelling story that honestly hasn’t been told on the big screen. There are also a series of other stories being told throughout the narrative, which spans time. You don’t necessarily know how they are connected until you see that these are all parts of the origin story of the music that went out on Voyager.

S&F: What research went into writing it?

ZD: Ann Druyan is one of the producers on the project. We have spent many hours together. I spent a week in Ithaca with she and her family. I have interviewed and spent time with three of Sagan’s children. I also interviewed his second wife Linda Salzman and his collaborator Tim Ferris. I spent a lot of time getting to know all of them to see their different perspectives on the same events. It is a dear story for a lot of people so I take it with a lot of gravity.

Carl Sagan with the Viking Lander model. Source: NASA/JPL

S&F: Why did you want to write this story?

ZD: I met with Lynda Obst who is a wonderful, famous Hollywood player who has been around for many years; she is a very good friend of Carl and Ann’s. They made CONTACT together with Jodie Foster in 1997, which is based on a novel that Carl wrote. They produced that together. I was speaking to Lynda about a different project but then she approached me about this one. Later, I met with Ann and we ended up developing a trust between the three of us and built it from there. It was a fantastic experience to work with them.

S&F: Did writing VOYAGERS change your views about science or scientists? People sometimes see scientists as unapproachable.

ZD: I think the thing about Carl is that he made science approachable; he made it emotional, he could bring it to a level that felt human without dumbing it down in the process. He had a level of poetic and oratory skill that allowed complex things to be summarized in metaphor which allowed people to understand things they didn’t necessarily have the scientific training for. They could understand the metaphor behind what he was trying to say so it would become eye-opening. I wish he was around now. The world could use some Sagan right now.

S&F: It’s a timely story.

ZD: It’s a very timely story. Sagan, along with his colleagues at Cornell, challenged the notion that people could survive a limited nuclear exchange through his Nuclear Winter theory. They argued that you could simply not have limited nuclear exchange, because the climate change provoked by the burning of targeted city centers and petroleum reserves would saturate the planet’s atmosphere, detrimentally affecting the Earth’s ability to sustain human life. We cannot recover from that. The present re-considering of the limited nuclear change option is horrifying.

S&F: How has the Black List helped get VOYAGERS closer to production?

ZD: We are doing great. The producers are packaging the film right now with Warner Brothers. Lynda Obst is a producer and Ann Druyan is as well. The next steps will be getting a star and director attached.

S&F: How long did it take you to write it?

ZD: From pitch to draft to second draft and revisions, it was a little over a year. We did a lot of research and travel, and the people involved were wonderful. I talked to a lot of people in the Defense Department and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I spent time with a lot of the scientists there. I got to see the signals coming from Voyagers I and II in deep space.

S&F: What was that like?

ZD: The signals come through in an amazing, big control room where they are tracking every unmanned spacecraft. It’s pretty cool. A lot of the senior scientists there were people who came up under Carl in the 70s and 80s, and they revere him.

S&F: Did you talk to any of them about why certain tracks were included on the Golden Record and why others were excluded?

ZD: We did talk a lot about what was put on the record and why. There was a lot of controversy surrounding those decisions. There is a really wonderful moment in the film where the team is picking examples of architecture to include on the record, and a lot of buildings had to be ruled out because much of the world’s most magnificent architecture are religious buildings, but they did not want to highlight one religion over another to send into space. So in the end they chose to include the Taj Mahal because it was built in the name of love and not in the honor of a god.

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