Ms. Hollywood Science, I'd Like You to Meet Mr. Government Bureaucracy...

I just read a blurb in Premiere magazine noting that the U.S. government is offering grants to scientists, in the hopes of sexing up the science industry and recruiting today’s youth into such disciplines as nuclear physics, genetic modification, and other serious realms of scientific study that videogame playing, reality-TV watching, celeb-mag reading Americans are running away from in droves.

But after searching the and U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science grant databases, I was unable to unearth greater details or a grant application. However, a Google search did yield “Pentagon's New Goal: Put Science Into Scripts,” a related New York Times article by David M. Halbfinger:

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 3, 2005 - Tucked away in the Hollywood hills, an elite group of scientists from across the country and from a grab bag of disciplines - rocket science, nanotechnology, genetics, even veterinary medicine - has gathered this week to plot a solution to what officials call one of the nation's most vexing long-term national security problems.

Their work is being financed by the Air Force and the Army, but the Manhattan Project it ain't: the 15 scientists are being taught how to write and sell screenplays ... Exactly how the national defense could be bolstered by setting a few more people loose in Los Angeles with screenplays to peddle may be a bit of a brainteaser. But officials at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research spell out a straightforward syllogism:

Fewer and fewer students are pursuing science and engineering. While immigrants are taking up the slack in many areas, defense laboratories and industries generally require American citizenship or permanent residency. So a crisis is looming, unless careers in science and engineering suddenly become hugely popular, said Robert J. Barker, an Air Force program manager who approved the grant. And what better way to get a lot of young people interested in science than by producing movies and television shows that depict scientists in flattering ways?

... Teaching screenwriting to scientists was the brainstorm of Martin Gundersen, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California and sometime Hollywood technical adviser, whose biggest brush with stardom was bringing a little verisimilitude to Val Kilmer's lasers in the 1985 comedy "Real Genius."

More recently, he was asked to review screenplays by the Sloan Foundation, which awards prizes for scientific accuracy, and found most to be "pretty dismal," as he put it. "My thought was, since scientists have to write so much, for technical journals and papers, why not consider them as a creative source?" Dr. Gundersen said.... The Air Force is providing $100,000 annually for three years; the Army Research Office has added $50,000 this year....

Dr. Gundersen, meanwhile, offered Valerie Weiss, a participant in the 2004 workshop, as a potential success story. A film buff at Harvard while she was getting her Ph.D. in biophysics, Ms. Weiss switched careers to film four years ago and is now trying to sell a comedy built around a Bridget Jones-like biochemist who applies the scientific method to her hunt for a mate.

She said she hoped her background would give her film the kind of personal touch that Nia Vardalos brought to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" as a Greek-American. "To write a film that is going to have impact like that, it needs to be from somebody that has direct experience," she said.

Ms. Weiss said Dr. Gundersen's notion that scientists could make good screenwriters stood the test of reason.

"They're inherently creative, and willing to take more risks than other people," she said. "They're searching for the unknown, they're compensated very minimally, they're going on blind faith that what they're searching for is going to pay off. And filmmaking is exactly the same way."

I’d like to argue that a good screenwriter—or a good writer of any sort—can write a great story without having the “direct experience” that Valerie Weiss claims is required. Also, Nia Vardalos’ "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," although highly profitable and occasionally funny and touching, is not a masterwork example of impact-laden cinema. It’s a goofy little comedy.

Writers need to do their homework: reading, research, interviews, and endless imagining. But you don’t have to be a female Harvard science PhD to write a dating comedy about a female science PhD. The education, skills, and experiences of a writer will likely culminate in a better story than a “direct experience” person throwing ideas down on paper. “Direct experience” does pay off with memoir writing, but for romantic comedies and action thrillers? Not so much.

Novelists such as John Le CarrĂ© (aka David Cornwell) are the rare exception. Le CarrĂ©, a former spy that writes spy thrillers (“The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” etc.), is probably a better fiction scribe than actual espionage mastermind. And there are others in this vein. Scientists, soldiers, construction workers—great writers come from a variety of backgrounds and day jobs. But the work of a great writer is not limited by his or her past.

The U.S. government should try offering to all writers—not just scientists—encouraging them to write exciting, scientifically accurate science-themed screenplays. And more importantly, programs such as this should help writers find scientists that they can rely on for fact checking and research. Maybe even co-writing.

Imagine that: The federal government hooking up writers and scientists to work together on new projects. Scientists helping writers flesh out their screenplays while writers help recruit today’s kids into the world of hard science. Scientists correcting writers when they lose track of facts, and writers smoothing out the story arcs and dialogue of the microscope gazers and number crunchers.

That would be a worthy program. But ignoring writers while funding scientists to take a break from science so they can learn how to write? That’s nothing more than a study in entropy and thanatology. We might as well start paying screenwriters to design cloning technology in their spare time...


Speaking of Scientists: "Life is an anti-climax for some but for most of us it adds up to 16 hours of orgasmic pleasure. Researchers in Germany have calculated that is the number of hours that the average person spends enjoying orgasms during his or her lifetime.... and people spend six weeks doing nothing but playing during childhood, will watch television for a staggering five-and-a-half years ... spend seven years doing nothing but working ... [and] 24 years and four months in the land of nod." -- Allan Hall, "You've got it coming: all 16 hours of it," The Age (Victoria, Australia).

Talkin' 'bout Filmmakers: writer-producer-director Judd Apatow gets focused in an all-out interview conducted by Mike Russell. (Apatow's one of the the new comedy masterminds behind “The Ben Stiller Show,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Cable Guy,” “Anchorman,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Fun with Dick and Jane.”) Read on...

1 comment:

J.R. Kinnard said...

When it comes to misdirected ideas, our government is second to none. Instead of investing in stupid things, like education, they want to use Hollywood to increase interest in science. Would these be the same Hollywood liberals that they hate? Too much.

Typical lazy American thinking; rather than determine the root cause of something, throw some money in the general vacinity and hope for the best.

Sorry to be a downer, but it would be nice if just ONCE the government would think seriously about education paying teachers a decent wage.