Art and science are often shaped by similar desires: to think outside the box, to provoke thought and probe for answers with intangible results. So the fact that 137 Films, a non-profit film production company dedicated to making science documentaries, hosted its most recent fundraiser in a Bucktown gallery was an understandable move.
The group formed in 2003 when its founding members, a few years out of Northwestern's MFA film program, decided to focus their collective filmmaking on the unpopulated niche of science documentaries. Taking a lengthy trip to Antarctica was out of the picture, but Fermilab, a world-renowned research center located in Batavia, was right in their backyard. Using a news article as the basis of their plot and working the university connections they already had, the group embarked on 137's first film production.
From interviews with New York Times science writers, Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman and President Bush's science advisor John Marburger to an all-access, year-long pass to Fermilab, the material led to a story far grander than they had foreseen. We sat down with the directors Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross to discuss the process of producing their first feature film, The Atom Smashers.
Where did the idea for the film come from?
C: When we started discussing this notion of being a science documentary production company, I thought [of this story I read in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago]...What attracted us to the story was that Fermilab is searching for this thing called the Higgs boson, which is a tiny sub-atomic particle that explains how everything has mass. When I first heard about it, probably in 2002, they were in a race to find the Higgs boson before a bigger lab opened in Europe called CERN. That's what attracted us to the story, a high-stakes race.
Since then we've found that the story is much bigger than that...In January of 2004 I was talking to our funds development person and I said that good documentaries are a combination of a great story, hard work and luck. Something happens in really good documentaries that the filmmakers have no control over, and suddently the story takes a turn or is shown in a new light. That's luck. And I was telling this person that we really needed an event, a happening, like that. Three weeks later, an important experiment at Fermilab was canceled out of the blue, and Fermilab's federal budget was slashed by over 200 million dollars. Now, that's not exactly good luck. We were not happy to see Fermilab and the scientists there thrown into a crisis. But it did expand our story, and it suddenly raised the stakes dramatically. We realized that the story here is really bigger than the search for this particle. The story here is really "What's America's relationship to science?"
So are you optimistic about science in America?
M: I think it's important for us to leave it open-ended...We talk about looking at the huge, long picture: Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein...Do we as a culture care about finding out answers? Forget about whether America's first. Have we as a people lost sight of the importance of understanding the world? I think that's what makes [the scientists] concerned, wondering "are we alone out here looking for answers?" That's as big a question we will raise. Do you care? Should you care?
How do you merge these ideas?
C: You can think of it as being organized in concentric circles. We start at Fermilab with the search and when we need to we zoom out as the more literal, local story warrants it...That will lead us through the larger issue.
M: We're also talking about how since World War II America's attitude towards science has changed. We have archival footage that dates back to late '40s or '50s, and we'll contrast it with today's attitudes.
C: And that older [footage] describes a golden age of science because at that point the government would just write you a blank check if you needed a lab. They really valued science. But now scientists have to scramble for every dollar they get.
Who's your intended audience?
C: Anyone who likes a good story. One of the reasons we wanted to focus on documentaries about science is not only because no one else is doing that but because there are great stories in science. No one thinks about science as being something other than a source of information. But we believe it's an untapped resource of drama and great characters and high stakes.
Wanna show your support for 137 Films? Visit http://137films.org to make a donation and find out when the group will host its first screening.