7 Questions for Doron Weber, VP at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Earlier this month, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Film Independent announced the Sloan Film Summit, which will bring together 150 screenwriters, directors, and producers, as well as film schools and film organizations, who are dedicated to bridging the gap between science and popular culture. Ahead of the Summit—which takes place November 14 through 16 at L.A. Live in Los Angeles—we spoke with Doron Weber, Vice President at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, about science in film.
Why is it important that there are movies about science, or movies that have scientific content?
That’s a very good and legitimate question. I would say first, our culture and society is scientific and technological, so in a way, it’s like saying, “We want you to make movies about modern life,” right? Think about any issue or problem—food, water, energy, climate change. All these issues demand a kind of scientific or technical understanding to be able to grapple with them, and increasingly, we know that.
Another reason I think we’re doing well is we’re with the zeitgeist. The culture knows it needs to understand this stuff. Ebola, right? Everybody’s like, what’s the mode of transmission? How does it work? What’s a virus? How does a virus replicate? How does it hijack the machinery of the cell? People are going to need to know this, not because they want to know science, but because they want to protect themselves and their families. They want to know, “Is it safe for me to go on the subway?”
So I think more and more we literally just need to understand how things work in order to survive and prosper and be healthy and educated and successful in modern life. I think that’s why it’s important. I would call it an essential survival guide or kit, and it enables you to have a deeper appreciation of yourself and your place in society on the planet and all of that.
It shows you the influence of movies: They help people understand certain things and begin to take stock of them. We have this film about Alan Turing now getting a lot of buzz, The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley that Harvey Weinstein has bought. I’ve probably seen about ten Turing scripts over the years. It’s an amazing story, and even though to us it’s like “Oh, here we go, another Turing script,” now, through the movie, it validates it to the general public.
We showed it at the Hamptons, where it won the award for the Best Feature Film, and people were coming up to me so moved and amazed by this story, which for some of us has been known for a long time. But film helps get it out there and kind of say, “Wow, can you believe this guy?” Churchill said no single person did more to help us win the war than Alan Turing, who was then persecuted for his sexuality, and the film shows you what an incredible life he led. Film allows people to take it in in a way they wouldn’t have taken it in even with a terrific biography, which had been written by Hodges, which I think the film is based on.
So film is still unbelievably powerful and it becomes a reference point for people that they can talk about, so it enters the cultural conversation more, and then people, I think, go on to deepen their understanding either through further reading or by being more open to these kinds of questions when they encounter them in their own lives.
What are some movies you’ve been to where you’ve said to yourself, “ugh, they got the science really wrong?”
Generally, dissing movies isn’t really what I like to do. The purpose of our program is to get young filmmakers to begin dealing with those subjects and themes and making good films about them. We’re not the science police. Our program is a film program, not a science program—you need to have a minimal threshold of science or technology content or characters, but once you satisfy that, we’re really just picking the best writers and the best scripts.
Our aim is to get Hollywood to start taking this material as good raw material, fodder for making exciting, interesting, compelling films. So I would rather talk about films that you wouldn’t think fit, but actually do: Social Network or Memento, or Moneyball—these are all films that we would consider big, take ideas, either scientific or technological ideas or characters. The Hurt Locker, which won the Oscar, would have qualified because that’s all about demolition and that engineering challenge: How do you, how do you take apart these bombs?
Our view is that if the film just stimulates your interest in some way … take A Beautiful Mind, for example. It was a successful film; it won the Oscar. There wasn’t that much math in it, but people got intrigued by this character of John Nash played by Russell Crowe. And then, after the film, a million people went out and bought the book, which does have a lot more math and lets you go more deeply into the ideas. To me, that’s an ideal marriage or synergy where you don’t overload the film with too much information or educational stuff because that’s not why people go to see movies.
Nitpicking about, for example, that there’s no sound in space—that’s one of the things scientists love reminding us about, and it’s true. If you’re making a film, it’s nice when they get it exactly right, but in the end, it’s impact—the overall impact of the overall film—that matters, and if it makes you curious or excites you or arouses your interest in a subject I think is the way to go. And I think as filmmakers get more informed about science and technology, they will make their characters a little more credible, a little more believable.
Do you have any favorites that you’ve funded? My favorite was Robot and Frank, which I think nailed the very complicated relationships we’re going to have with our robots in the future—they won’t be machines, they’ll be our friends. What happens when we need to reset them?
I think it’s a really smart film. It started as a $20,000 grant I gave in 2003 to the filmmakers, and they just stuck with it and expanded it and opened it up. That’s one of the things we say, that we’re trying to influence the next generation, and you never know—we’re planting seeds. It’s as much about exposing them to a subject. It’s not that I don’t expect the actual scripts to be made; it’s that once in a while, you get it where there’s actually a direct correlation between something we supported, and then their determination to get that film made.
I also like Valley of Saints, which is set in Kashmir. It’s a very kind of small, lovely, unbelievably touching film, heartbreaking and subtle. I thought it was beautifully done. The Imitation Game, I think, is a terrific film in terms of a big movie that actually manages to cover a lot of ground and do a very effective job. It has great performances.
There’s also a film called Basmati Blues. It’s a Bollywood musical about genetically modified rice. What we try to say to that is that there are a million ways to make films about science. They don’t all have to be serious and sober. It’s basically about, “is she going to marry Mr. Wrong or Mr. Right?” But she’s a geneticist working on rice, and that’s kind of the plot. But you watch it because there’s great singing. Brie Larsen does her own singing in it. Donald Sutherland is in it, too, and that’s a film that took many years. They had the money raised, and the funding came from Iceland. And then Iceland went bankrupt—talk about losing funding for film. But they persisted and they wound up raising the money, and they shot it.
Also Future Weather, which is about three generations of women, and working class, something we don’t see that much in films. All very strong female characters. It deals with climate change—a young girl uses science as a bulwark against the chaos in her life. The reason people go into science is that it’s very personal. It’s not a cold decision.
What are some projects that you’re working on right now that you’re excited about?
We have a lot of great stories about smart, amazing women. We’re developing a script about Hedy Lamarr now that Diane Kruger is optioning. The playwright and television writer, Bathsheba Doran—who wrote for Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire—we gave the grant, through [the Tribeca Film Festival], for her to write a two-part television series, and I’m reading drafts. Diane is working with her. Hedy Lamarr was really a pioneer—I think she was a better scientist-slash-engineer than she was an actress. And so she’ll be remembered for that. Her invention was revolutionary. It’s the basis of your smartphone, and smart missiles too.
We have a story about Rosalind Franklin that Rachel Weisz is interested in. She’s the woman whose x-ray crystallography image helped launch the helix form of DNA. We have several scripts in place about Marie Curie. That’s an extraordinary woman—won two Nobel prizes, lived a very independent life, scandalized everyone because she dared, after her husband died, to have a lover—how shocking. We haven’t caught up with her. There’s Lisa Meitner, who was involved in nuclear fission.
I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m very excited about The Man Who Knew Infinity, which is about Ramanujen, the great Indian mathematician, who is played by Dev Patel, and Jeremy Irons plays Artie, the mathematician from Cambridge who brought him over. This guy came out of nowhere—he was just a phenom. Other than Einstein, there’s been no person as brilliant as Ramanujen. But it’s also about east-meets-west, ‘cause he was Indian and he couldn’t really adjust to the British climate and the British way of life, and he died very tragically young from tuberculosis.
Are there any scientific areas that you think have been underserved in cinema?
Probably most people in most fields think that their area is [underserved]. I would say that if people knew more about what science is doing—I don’t think you need to go to Science Fiction. I think real science is as weird and as crazy as some of the stuff Science Fiction people are making up. I think looking at things like synthetic biology, nanotechnology … those areas that are fascinating. Quantum mechanics, which is incredibly weird, now suggesting seriously that there’s about a 25 percent chance that we really are all living in the Matrix. That is mind-boggling. I keep thinking and my brain is still working on that. It’s very hard to fathom, the “Many Worlds” Theory. In my theatre program, we had a play called Constellations by Nick Paine, which is going to open on Broadway in January with Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s basically a romance, but the woman is dying. She studies quantum mechanics, and it uses many worlds theory to kind of explore, almost structurally as well as thematically, the relationship. And again, that’s just mind-bending stuff.
Is there one scientist, or one science story, that you’d love to see a movie about?
I think there are a million probably stories out there about scientists—but you have to find some emotional hook that makes you care about them. We have a lot of scripts on various figures, some of whom I’ve mentioned, especially the women; we have these great women characters that we’d like to see more films come out about. We just keep supporting them and giving them little grants and encouraging people. And eventually, like the Turing, they break through. And now Ramanujan. So we have two great figures, and I’m really hoping the Hedy Lamarr is next. And then maybe the Rosalind Franklin, because that’s a terrific story.
I predict 50 to 100 years from now, no one will believe that we needed a foundation to go incentivize or bribe people to basically make films about life—that’s what science and technology is. But for now, we still think of it as something that has to be incorporated into the story. The divide, to me, is artificial. But it’s very powerful, this two-culture thing. So a lot of our efforts, a lot of the stuff I support, is just trying to make it whole and bring them together so people can at least understand each other. Film is a great language communication device. But ultimately, will it turn everybody into Leonardo da Vinci? I think he was a great scientist and a great artist. I like to think, anyway, that he saw it whole. He saw everything multidimensional, and most of us don’t have that capacity.
What’s coming up next for Sloan?
We have this summit coming up, and I love that because once every three years we get everybody together and my favorite part is they come up one by one and tell us about their project. It’s like, everybody gets to make their little Oscar speech, and they thank everybody, and it’s so wonderful, the range and variety of projects that these filmmakers have been involved in all over the world—all kinds of genres and forms. I love that. It’s always very invigorating.
And then we have these films that that are coming out. Of course, The Imitation Game is the hottest one that’s got Oscar buzz, but Basmati Blues, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Experimenter, we have a film about the making of Einstein on the Beach, which is a documentary.
And then a whole lot of other projects—the Hedy Lamarr thing that we’re developing, I hope something happens with that in the next year. The Rosalind Franklin [project] we’re still developing. Besides Constellations, which is opening in January, there are some terrific plays, including one called Informed Consent. So there's a lot of great stuff in the pipeline.
I think it’s a good time for us. We’re getting terrific scripts and there’s a lot of enthusiasm, and I think we’re moving closer to the mainstream. When I started this and we talked about science in Hollywood over 15 years ago, people looked at you like you were from outer space, but now it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
This interview has been edited and condensed.