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A Scientist Ripped My Screenplay a New Asshole Thanks to Hollywood's Science Hotline

The Science and Entertainment Exchange is making movies like Thor and Ant-Man more scientifically accurate, but the process can be painful.

by Mike Pearl
Apr 25 2016, 6:03pm

Header by Lia Kantrowitz. Photos by the author

If you're a screenwriter, and you have a question about science, you can call (844) NEED-SCI. Whether your question is about black holes, time travel, evolutionary biology, or brain surgery, Rick Loverd, or one of his colleagues at the Science and Entertainment Exchange, will answer the phone, and connect you with a scientist who is willing to inject a little bit of real-world accuracy into your movie, TV show, video game, or other entertainment property. And it's all free.

It's hard to say what's most puzzling about this service, which launched in 2008: That filmmakers would want it to exist, that scientists would be willing to help out the world's biggest sources of scientific misinformation, or that someone would pay for it to exist without asking Hollywood for anything in return.

But Loverd would push back on all these points: "Filmmakers operate in a world of a lot more structure than people give them credit for, [and] scientists are a lot more creative than people give them credit for," he told me. And as for being free, he explained that the nonprofit aspect of his parent organization, the National Academy of Sciences, is "what makes us so powerful."

Souvenirs from the Science and Entertainment Exchange's many consulting projects

Loverd told me today the majority of requests come via email. The number is still accessible, but the phone it's connected to only rings about once a day.

As it happens, I need this kind of help. Something I do other than write articles on the internet is write screenplays, and one of them recently sold. I'm not allowed to give away plot details now, but I will say it's a thriller that takes place in the not-too-distant-future, and it's about people fighting for control of a biochemical agent with very specific properties: it has to be powerful, have a certain half-life, and must blow up under certain circumstances.

Loverd was eager to help, but there was instantly a problem: a script like mine that's already headed for production is way past what Loverd calls "that moment when you've just had an idea and you're wondering how to outline it." In other words, bad science takes root early on, and cleaning that up can be messier than if the writer starts out with a sound scientific basis.

Unlike me, major Hollywood players have found (844) NEED-SCI at the right time. For instance, when Marvel's Thor was in its early stages, the filmmakers went to Loverd's organization for advice. Mind you, Thor is about a Norse god whacking monsters with a magical hammer, so science might seem like the last topic on a storyteller's mind—but not so with Marvel. "They were looking forward already and thinking about The Avengers," Loverd said. So they needed a "grounded, plausible reason," for that Norse god to ever hang out with Tony Stark.

The team assembled by Loverd, which included physicist Sean Carroll, cooked up the canonical compromise you see in the Marvel movies. Inspired by the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," they rethought all of Norse mythology as alien technology. "If you were a viking subsistence fisherman, on the shores of Norway in 900 AD, and Thor and his friends come down to hide the Tesseract on Earth, and you saw them, you would think they were gods. What they were was a very advanced race of people," he said. At one point in the finished film, Natalie Portman's character paraphrases Clarke, saying "magic's just science we don't understand yet."

My information being added to the (844)NEED-SCI computer system

I asked Loverd to place my request in the (844) NEED-SCI system, and connect me with a scientist. The internal filing system for connecting projects to scientists was impressive. Searching any topic of interest to a screenwriter—biotechnology in my case—produced an instant cornucopia of geniuses. 2,065 of them, to be exact–all of whom had been vetted.

Not long after, noted biotechnologist Andrew Hessel was on the phone with me, and he was more than happy to talk to me about my screenwriting problem. I described it in detail, along with the fictional future world in which my fictional biochemical existed. And then I was in for a scientific ass-kicking.

"That's a stretch. In terms of just... physics," Hessel told me. "You're essentially creating something that doesn't exist in nature." But more than taking an issue with the central plot device in my movie, he simply didn't buy my fictional future, saying, "I think that premise is garbage."

Loverd, holding his organization's promotional Erlenmeyer flask

Reeling, I asked him to help me sort things out and get on a better footing. He told me it was going to be tough to do that in just one phone call. "If you really want to go into any kind of explanation—which you don't in a movie—it would require a few days of pulling papers to kind of give you a foundation," he said.

Without going into too much detail, Hassel streamlined some unnecessary aspects of my fictional invention, and schooled me on futurism. Without calling for changes to the plot of my movie, he pointed out some unnecessary bells and whistles in my idea that might send any real chemists in the audience into a rage. I said I'd see about trimming the unnecessary parts. "Just tweaking that chemistry would be kind of interesting, so you can make this work," Hessel said.

When all was said and done, we found common ground. "I really like this," he told me, adding, "there is some bizarre chemistry, but it's not super crazy."

According to Loverd's assessment of a typical consult, mine may have gotten more tough love than is typical. Ideally, he told me, "it's a little bit like taking an improv class." By contrast, mine was downright contentious for a few moments when Hessel felt like my movie misinformed people about climate change. But I had asked for his honest opinion, and when I stopped being defensive, positive results followed.

Scientists of good standing within their communities have every reason to be tough on screenwriters, and discourage them from playing fast-and-loose with the facts. For the scientist, Loverd told me, there's a "nightmare" scenario, in which a writer "misinterprets or outright manipulates the science that you give them," and that even worse would be if that writer, "takes it a step further to tell the world that you're the person that gave them that information."

Still, Loverd says he doesn't have a specific goal in mind. Screenwriters are under no pressure to reach a standard for scientific accuracy, and Loverd knows each project has different demands. His guiding philosophy is just to "create the community, and good stuff will happen."

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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