Meet the Filmmaker: Justine Beed on LA FORZA

Recent USC graduate Justine Beed has been recognized by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation not just three times, but three times in one year, for the same project. In 2023, she earned the USC Sloan Screenwriting Grant, participated in the Fall Athena Film Festival Fellowship, and won the Sloan Student Grand Jury Prize. We spoke with Beed to discuss her series pilot LA FORZA, unlikely sources of inspiration, and the lineage between scientists and artists across time.

Science & Film: Can you tell me a little bit about LA FORZA?

Justine Beed: LA FORZA is an anachronistic romantic comedy about an 18th century scientist, Laura Bassi, who became the first female professor in the world to receive her doctorate. It’s also about her husband, who was her assistant throughout the process. It’s a fun historical comedy.

S&F: Laura Bassi being a real figure, can you tell me how you came to discover her?

JB: I’d been researching different scientists and female firsts, because I love feminist history. A lot has been left out of the history books. Funnily enough, around this time, Laura popped up as Google Doodle! I clicked through to a little blurb about her history.

S&F: What about Laura Bassi’s story made it the one you wanted to tell, rather than the other female firsts you’d researched?

JB: I’ve always found university settings to be full of full of fun, satire, and things to draw upon. They're little microcosms of society and bureaucracy that are fun to play with, and the fact that as a woman she began teaching in the early 18th century… I had to see how she was able to pull it off.

It’s also the romance. I grew up on BBC miniseries, so I’ve always wanted to write one. When I read more about her husband, Giuseppe Veratti, and the fact that they were colleagues and partners in science and love, that did it for me. It was a marriage of convenience at the start, but it turned into something deeply loving. They truly found love, with one another and in figuring out the unknown together. That’s what drew me in, for sure.

S&F: ‘Figuring out the unknown’ is a great way into the show. Considering the period, I’d imagine Italy during this time to be very religious, with ideas around science not being what they are today.

JB: Yes, I was really interested in the fact that not only were Laura and Giuseppe enmeshed in science, but they were also deeply spiritual. I love the fact that religion and science were so tied together during this period. In fact, the Pope was Laura’s patron. I found that so strange and wonderful. In a lot of ways, Laura also championed the transition from Cartesian philosophies toward Newtonian physics among her colleagues and at the University of Bologna. She was at the forefront of wanting to not only communicate with her colleagues within Italy, but to find new ones abroad. There’s a lot of correspondence between scientists in Europe and the US from this period that ties back to her. It’s probably why so many people like me have been inspired by her. . . It’s a relief because a lot of her work was destroyed when Napoleon invaded Italy.

S&F: Napoleonic pettiness! Can you say more about that shift from Cartesian to Newtonian physics?

JB: Mostly, it’s changed the idea of force from being something so tethered to materials toward the concept of gravity, this invisible force. I think this is what scared off a lot of people. Many felt it threatened the idea of God.

S&F: You’ve won multiple Sloan grants, which entail the support of a science advisor. How did working with your advisor impact your development of the script? Were there any lightbulb moments?

JB: I first met with Dr. Rosa di Felice from USC, she was so open and receptive to working together. It wasn’t just that she was a physicist. She’s Italian and her husband is a physicist too. They both teach at the same university, which is a very similar partnership to Laura Bassi and her husband. I found myself going back to the social dynamics of what it’s like to be in a romantic and professional relationship with somebody, in addition to the physics components.

She had a great point about how the sciences benchmark against prior knowledge. She would reference Benjamin Franklin and later Alessandro Volta. I enjoyed pulling at that thread, of how science is building on itself through and across a community of scientists. I loved tracking that progress with Rosa too.

S&F: An intellectual lineage, you might say. I’m curious about the creative lineage of the show you envision. Are there particular TV shows or artists that inspire you, or that you see as a touchstone for LA FORZA?

JB: Certainly Julian Fellowes and Merchant Ivory. There’s a lot coming out recently I’ve been pulling from too. In particular, LIDIA POËT, which is an Italian TV series about the first female lawyer. It’s very similar [to LA FORZA] in tone and in terms of following this charismatic lead who gets herself into trouble by pushing the boundaries. A mentor of mine recently referenced THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, which has darker themes, but as LA FORZA starts to take shape, I’ve realized the two have more and more in common. I find these genre pieces so comforting, so I hope that LA FORZA ends up being a comfort to people.

S&F: We’ve spoken about the science advisor component, but given that you’ve won multiple Sloan grants, is there anything else you’d like to add about their impact on you and your work?

JB: It’s life changing, in a way that I couldn’t even have fathomed. I’ve been writing for a while, and seeking a thumbs-up of some kind, a sign to keep going. These grants are very much that sign, but it’s also Sloan specifically.

I have a brief story to tell: When I was an undergraduate in 2014, our film society received funding to go to the Sundance Film Festival. One of the films I saw was I, ORIGINS. It blended science and spirituality, and it was very experimental but truly struck me. To have this crazy opportunity to attend the festival at all, let alone see this incredible film was amazing. Then, I saw the Sloan logo pop up in the credits. I became very interested in the fact that Sloan had funded this sincere investigation into questions of the unknown through science and spirituality, also the fact that Mike Hill, along with Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling were part of this Sloan network. Now I feel so connected to their work in a lot of ways. Being a small part of this community is very special, and I’m so grateful.

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