Tribeca Talks – Alfred P. Sloan Foundation presents: Prodigies, Nobelists and Penguins: Science and Stereotypes in the Movies – May 5, 2007
(Left to right: Sidney Perkowitz, Darren Aronovsky and Billy Shebar)
Darren Aronovsky (DA) – Filmmaker, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, Pi
Billy Shebar (BS) – Screenwriter, Dark Matter
Sidney Perkowitz (SP) – Professor of Physics at Emory University
(SP) What do you think of how Hollywood portrays scientists in film?
(BS) I’ve seen portraits that go either way, but things have gotten better and better. There used to be a lot of films with mad scientists, but we’ve gone beyond that. Dark Matter is about post-Tiananmen Square Chinese students in the U.S. facing a lot of scholarly pressure. The film looks at cosmology. It’s an interesting moment in history. I researched cosmology and found that “dark matter” itself is an unsolved problem. The film is about a mentor/student relationship where the mentor studies the cherished model of science and the student sees this model is on its last legs. Filmmakers must make an effort to get the science right.
(DA) I like mad scientists like Dr. Frankenstein. People have gotten savvier with science. There was a difference between researching the science for Pi than for The Fountain. Pi was pre-Internet. The Internet makes it easier to do the research and get the science right. In Pi, the protagonist Max, a mathematician, could fall into the cliché of the mad scientist. He’s doing extremely focused, disciplined work. Mad scientists don’t come out of science fiction, they come out of pure fiction.
(SP) What about the idea of obsession in science fiction?
(BS) As a writer, there is an attractive side to obsessiveness.
(DA) There’s a sense of alchemy with scientists because they’re dealing with a secret magic that can change the world and the universe. I like to research the science and bring it to a fictional place by combining science and mysticism. I’m curious about films that are more traditional like Dark Matter. Hopefully, the intellectual quest comes through.
(SP) I’ve been an advisor to Chinese students and they seem to face a lot of pressure. In Pi, the protagonist’s pressure is internal, while in Dark Matter, the pressure comes from the outside world.
(DA) I have a friend who’s a marine biologist quit to do production design. Why? Because, academia put film competition to shame.
(BS) Writers and scientists both feel pressure.
(SP) Some films about real mathematicians who go mad such as A Beautiful Mind. Can you comment on why mathematicians seem to have more intensity that what’s good for them?
(DA) There’s a fine line between insanity and genius. I don’t know why it’s math people. Maybe because they’re speaking a different language than us.
(BS) There’s a sense that the degree of abstraction borders on insanity.
(SP) How do you decide how much fiction to mix with science?
(BS) In 1991, there was an event at the University of Iowa where a Chinese physics major killed five people. Dark Matter is a fictional film that was inspired by this incident. A lot of the relationships in the film parallel real people. “Dark matter” seemed to be the perfect metaphor for an invisible foreign science student.
(DA) What I think is cool and interesting to an audience. In high school, I was in a class about math and mysticism. I grounded Pi in stuff that’s so true to it. In The Fountain, it’s about longevity. Great ideas came out in the research. Find facts that tie into the story. Some of our grandkids may live to 200 if our world still exists.
(SP) Comment on some really good and also the worst science-based or science fiction films.
(BS) I loved The Wild Blue Yonder by Werner Herzog. It’s a hybrid documentary/film with undersea footage.
(DA) Don’t know. It’s so huge. Entertainment Weekly last week had its top 25 sci-fi films/tv from the past 25 years.
(SP) Gattaca was really great and the worst was The Core.
(SP) Do you have any predictions about science-based or sci-fi movie trends?
(DA) Environmental destruction is going to be everywhere. More movies about cloning, mixed reality/psychedelics. Movies about different levels of consciousness. What James Cameron does next is kind of going back to Isaac Asimov.
(BS) Movies about neuroscience; the connection between the brain and the mind.
Q: Do you feel in today’s marketplace, what’s defined good about movies are the celebrities. Would Pi have the same impact today that it did in 1998? What advice do you have for science filmmakers?
(DA) YouTube. There are more opportunities now so much more than in the Pi days. It’s a full-time job to get your film out there. If you make something really good, people will react to it. It’s not all about celebrities. Do something that’s your own and believe in it.
Q: Do you recommend or insist to your actors to do their own research on science?
(DA) The Fountain was co-created with a neuro-scientist. He would write primers (sort of like Cliffs Notes) to give to the actors. We had a huge library of information. Hugh Jackman went to see a monkey get brain surgery. It was emotional and effective for him. Wikipedia is also amazing.
(BS) There’s nothing like a carefully written book on a subject. I’m also a believer in personal interviews.
(SP) You’re not going to get emotional stories from the Internet.
Q: Are there any organization that hook up screenwriters with scientists?
(SP) AFI, National Academy of Science, Sloan Foundation
Q: Is Dark Matter available on DVD?
(BS) We’re in discussions with distributors for a theatrical release, but there have been issues around the Virginia Tech incident. It’s a bit sensitive to release a film about a campus killing, even though we made it before the incident.
Q: Will we see more people of color in science films?
(SP) Scientifics reality changes in culture. In the U.S., most scientists are white and makes and this is reflected in the movies. One of the few African-American scientists I’ve seen in the movies unfortunately was in the movie The Core.