Written By April/May 2011 : Page 12
Written by Louise Farr TOOLS The Science of Storytelling When writers and scientists meet, ideas marry. Y our obstacle: Script a scene about the algorithm a computer scientist would use to create a convincing virtual world. You must find an emotional hook and include snippets of the science behind evolutionary ro-botics and computer graphics. Might be a tad unexpected, not to mention difficult, but that was Mat-thew B. Roberts’ assignment for the “Imperfections of Memory” episode of SyFy’s Caprica . Today’s tech-savvy audiences are poised to flip the channel if writers get it wrong. Knowing this, Roberts called Northwestern University artificial intel-ligence expert Malcolm MacIver, who became advisor to the show through the Science and Entertainment Ex-change—one among a handful of edu-cational organizations putting writers, producers, and directors together with key scientists and engineers. So, with the right chemistry of sci-entific smarts and screenwriter know-how, the problem got resolved: Zoe Graystone (Allesandra Torresani), the teen daughter of gazillionaire computer genius Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), sits on a rock, silhouetted against an unnaturally blue sky. She’s talking to her father’s lab scientist Philomon, on whom she has a crush. To be more precise—also to complicate matters — Zoe is dead, and that’s her avatar sitting on a virtual rock in a virtual world. “Look at the sky. And look at that tree. Exactly identical to that one over there,” she says, objecting that whoever programmed look-alike trees for this virtual world took the wrong approach. “Living systems use generative algo-rithms,” she elaborates. “With a gen-erative model, the system would use a basic generative kernel of a tree. Pow! An infinite variety of tree-like trees.” Philomon, turned on by Zoe’s excite-ment, brags, “I work with top-secret mili-tary robots.” Zoe breathes back, “That’s really hot.” They kiss, and there’s a cut to the Graystone family’s futuristic estate. Roberts’ original draft had worked, and there was nothing wrong with his science. But according to former show-runner Jane Espenson and Roberts himself, the scene became richer and more current thanks to MacIver, whose words Roberts used almost verbatim. “It was pretty impenetrable, but that was okay,” Espenson says about the lan-12 • WGA W Written By APRIL/MA Y 2011 A RT b Y R T AMMARI e LLO
The Science of Storytelling
When writers and scientists meet, ideas marry.
Your obstacle: Script a scene about the algorithm a computer scientist would use to create a convincing virtual world. You must find an emotional hook and include snippets of the science behind evolutionary robotics and computer graphics.
Might be a tad unexpected, not to mention difficult, but that was Matthew B. Roberts’ assignment for the “Imperfections of Memory” episode of SyFy’s Caprica.
Today’s tech-savvy audiences are poised to flip the channel if writers get it wrong. Knowing this, Roberts called Northwestern University artificial intelligence expert Malcolm MacIver, who became advisor to the show through the Science and Entertainment Exchange— one among a handful of educational organizations putting writers, producers, and directors together with key scientists and engineers.
So, with the right chemistry of scientific smarts and screenwriter knowhow, the problem got resolved: Zoe Graystone (Allesandra Torresani), the teen daughter of gazillionaire computer genius Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), sits on a rock, silhouetted against an unnaturally blue sky. She’s talking to her father’s lab scientist Philomon, on whom she has a crush. To be more precise—also to complicate matters — Zoe is dead, and that’s her avatar sitting on a virtual rock in a virtual world.
“Look at the sky. And look at that tree. Exactly identical to that one over there,” she says, objecting that whoever programmed look-alike trees for this virtual world took the wrong approach. “Living systems use generative algorithms,” she elaborates. “With a generative model, the system would use a basic generative kernel of a tree. Pow! An infinite variety of tree-like trees.”
Philomon, turned on by Zoe’s excitement, brags, “I work with top-secret military robots.” Zoe breathes back, “That’s really hot.” They kiss, and there’s a cut to the Graystone family’s futuristic estate.
Roberts’ original draft had worked, and there was nothing wrong with his science. But according to former showrunner Jane Espenson and Roberts himself, the scene became richer and more current thanks to MacIver, whose words Roberts used almost verbatim.
“It was pretty impenetrable, but that was okay,” Espenson says about the language. “We didn’t need the audience to follow everything that was being said. We needed them to go, ‘Okay, these are clearly smart people talking about something that’s ringing true.’”
A little sex helped the science go down, of course. “On the one hand, the audience is looking at it, wondering, Ooh, are they going to kiss?” says Roberts. “On the other hand, you’re shoving technical information down their throats, so when they come out of it they get the best of both worlds.”
Scientists to the Rescue
Getting the best of both worlds is the notion behind the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which began in 2008, a project of the National Academy of Sciences.
Earlier, the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health, and Society began offering consultations on medical issues, plus briefings, tip sheets, and a newsletter. Harvardeducated marine biologist–turned– documentary filmmaker Randy Olson founded Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project to draw attention to the deteriorating oceans. Not to be outdone, last year, the National Science Foundation launched its own flashy Science Scene website (“Smart Science for the Screen,” www.sciencescene.nsf. gov), inviting Hollywood to partner with government-funded researchers. To the same end, this year NSF joins the Entertainment Industries Council’s “Ready on the S.E.T. and . . . Action” program, with S.E.T. standing for science, engineering, and technology.
Clearly something is up: Bringing the latest scientific and technological research to the public, while avoiding wince-making gaffes created in the service of storytelling. “We like to put out there that our goal is not to become the accuracy police,” says Science and Entertainment Exchange director of development Rick Loverd—himself a comic book and TV writer—who arranges introductions and think-tank type meetings between scientists and Hollywood. “What we aspire to do is inspire writers with good science to then achieve their creative goals.”
Writing for Caprica, the now-canceled prequel to Battlestar Galactica, meant interweaving religion, corporate and organized crime, dual family sagas, terrorism, and the moral implications behind artificial intelligence. “Oh, my goodness, so many different threads,” says Espenson. “They say it’s as easy to get things right as it is to get it wrong. No. Actually, it’s a little bit harder to get it right, because if you get it wrong you can just say anything.” Adding to the difficulty, writers had to obey the rules they created for Caprica that lead ultimately to Battlestar, with its armies of destructive robots known as Cylons. “The concerns of science didn’t make it any easier,” Espenson says. “We needed to have our robots, for example, not only be plausible scientifically, but they also had to make sense as precursors to the Cylons.”
Luckily for the writers, MacIver was not one of those scientists who gnashes his teeth over Hollywood’s tinkering with scientific truths. Yes, audiences are savvier than in the past, he says: “You can’t just pass off any old sort of quantum consciousness beam, or whatever.” But he acknowledges that sometimes science has to be tweaked for the sake of drama. “One thing that we can help them with is, if they want to do that, they’re doing it intentionally, not by mistake.”
Janet Lin is a story editor turned executive producer on Bones, where Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) deliver snappy forensic anthropology lessons laced with repressed romantic longing, all while examining festering body parts.
Writers’ requests to Bones consultants can be vague. “You say something like, ‘Well, we need some sort of animal to eat some sort of thing that when digested becomes something else,’” Lin says “Most of the scientists we work with are very kind. They know that if it happened one out of 1 million times— it’s not likely, but it has happened— good enough.”
For an episode about a nurse who accidentally murdered a doctor while trying to save his life, Lin needed a clue indicating that the killer had a medical background. She called Polk County, Iowa, chief medical examiner Dr. Gregory Schmunk. “I was thinking, Oh, crushed ribs from CPR. But he came up with this idea that there would be little pieces of plastic embedded in the bones of the groin area, because she used a plastic knife to cut the flesh open to tie his femoral artery. I would never come up with that on my own.”
Schmunk first got into the consulting business when a colleague recommended him to Jerry Bruckheimer, who put him to work on CSI. “With Bones it’s usually someone like Janet who will call and just sort of flesh out a story,” he says. “They contact me a bit earlier in the course of the writing to get some ideas about how they might proceed, whereas CSI frequently has the answer before they contact me, and I just have to polish the edges a little.”
Naturally, concepts erupt from other sources besides consultants. When Bones’ location people suggest ed that the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific delivered value for money, the writing staff took a field trip. “We were like, ‘All right, we definitely have to find a body in the fish tank somewhere,’” remembers Lin. “We actually talked to all the people there and got tons of information about how you get a dead body eaten up in the tank.” There’s much laughter in the writers’ room, she says. “The sad thing is, you go in to see your dentist and he’s making conversation: ‘How are your kids? How’s everything going?’ And you’re, like, ‘Do you have any interesting bone clues for me?’ Whenever anyone breaks anything, you’re really interested to hear what happened. We’re cannibals.”
It’s ironic, Lin believes, that the writers work so hard to get the science accurate when Bones’ audience is largely oblivious to it. “It’s white noise to the relationship,” she says. “What they write in about is, ‘Oh, my God! Did you see the way he looked at her in Act III?’”
Viewers of medical dramas, on the other hand, tend to believe and absorb information they get from those shows. So Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes has a director of medical research in the writers’ room and a doctor-writer on staff. Her writers need strong stomachs as she sends them to watch surgeries. “Some of them love it and keep going back for more,” says Rhimes, a one-time candy striper who finds hospital tours “endlessly fascinating,” from operating room to morgue.
“What’s different about this kind of a show is that a lot of times, for our story to work, we have to teach the audience something about the medicine first,” Rhimes explains, mentioning an episode in which surgeon Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) removes a giant tumor wrapped around a man’s spine. “We had to teach everybody what that tumor was, what that tumor could do, how dangerous that tumor was to remove, the effects of something like that, the risks, before you could actually even get them to enjoy the outcome of the story.”
Rhimes pauses. “It’s not difficult when a science lesson is being delivered by Patrick Dempsey, but it’s still not the easiest buy in the world. I feel lucky and surprised on a weekly basis that we do it and people still watch, because you’re talking a lot of time about heavy science.”
The hook, Rhimes believes, is to “make medical dialogue sound interesting and compelling and sexy—in a scientifically sexy way—so that I’m leaning forward in my chair to hear more of what you’re saying about surgery. Then I think you’ve got it.”
Elizabeth Klaviter started as Rhimes’ assistant on Grey’s, graduated to medical researcher on that show and then on Rhimes’ Private Practice and is now Private Practice story editor. In her researcher period, she kept a bagful of medical ideas, gleaned from the news, to use when conferring with writers.
“They’d say, ‘Well, my theme is faith.’ I would start pitching stories and we would discuss how they would fit, what the implications for our characters were, different places where I thought the medical story could work.
If it didn’t work, I’d put it back in my bag for a different day.” Often a show results when a personal incident sparks Rhimes’ imagination.
Stuck behind a cement truck while driving to work one morning, she wondered what would happen if it dumped its load into an open convertible.
“I was like, ‘I dunno. Let me find out,’” says Klaviter, who believes her lack of medical background helped her initially on the job because she didn’t know enough to say a scenario was impossible. “What I was able to do effectively was know what story points Shonda was looking for and talk to doctors to answer the questions or to shape the story she was trying to tell.”
Rhimes visualized someone arriving at the hospital completely encased in cement, with the Grey’s surgeons having to chisel the patient out. “We wanted reasons why they wouldn’t be able to remove the cement all at once,” says Klaviter.
Interviewing her fiancé, who had been in the construction business, as well as concrete and cement specialists, Klaviter learned that a body stuck in cement would constrict. If circulation were released too quickly, built-up toxins could prove fatal. “So we talked to a trauma surgeon who helped us come up with ideas that would both impede and move the story forward and give our characters heroic moments, but not too quickly.” The task then shifted to figuring out how a person could get into that state. “We brainstormed and came up with the idea. Perhaps a teenager on a date to impress a girl he was smitten with would stay in a pool of cement while it dried. That’s how that story was born, with all of the beats Shonda needed.”
Adds Klaviter, “If you need something that’s going to kill somebody in the fifth act, as long as you don’t have a specific way you want them to die, we can make it work with whatever disease process we’ve come up with.”
Back at SyFy, the quirky dramedy Eureka is set in a mythical small town that is actually a government think tank for scientific geniuses. A strongjawed everyman sheriff, Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson), is on hand to solve mysteries and wonder at the strange goingson. Co-creator Jaime Paglia, an X-Files, Northern Exposure, and Twin Peaks fan, is the son of a scientist/artist and grandson of special effects specialist Tony Paglia, whose work included The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, and South Pacific. Paglia, lanky and fashionably stubbled, figures he’s combining their interests and skills in Eureka. “I was very lucky that the first pitch I made I sold.”
Deep in postproduction on season four, while beginning season five, Paglia is about to meet at the show’s Sunset- Gower Studios offices with advisor Dr. Kevin R. Grazier, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and former Battlestar Galactica consultant. Afterward, Paglia will head off to outline an episode. “I hate writing outlines,” he complains, “but you can get lost if you don’t.”
At the start of the season, Paglia and co-showrunner Bruce Miller, an ER and Men in Trees veteran, put up a character story board covering 20 episodes. “We can map out the broad strokes—this’ll kick off here and culminate there—and we sort of do that for all the characters,” says Paglia. “We have a separate board that is all about the high concept, Astory, sci-fi stuff.” Then they go about marrying the two boards.
Comments Miller, who runs the writers’ room with Paglia swooping in for a final polish: “Everybody thinks it’s about coming up with ideas, but it’s actually more about listening to other people’s ideas and trying to understand where that idea is coming from, why they think it’s neat.” This season, there are 11 writers, including Paglia and Miller, up from eight at the beginning.
“Anybody can sit around in a room and wait until it’s their turn to talk, but our people are very good listeners. We had a strict ‘no douche bag’ policy when we were hiring, and it held up well.”
Everybody has a scitific sensibility, Paglia remarks. “Some of them are fanatics. I wouldn’t qualify myself as a sci-fi geek—I’m stronger with character. But everybody has different strengths across the spectrum.”
Today, the writers’ room is packed as Dr. Grazier, an enthusiastic man with red hair and a staccato delivery, rattles off a series of science-themed suggestions to include in the next season: Supernovae? Ferocious giant bugs? Naked mole rats? “We’ve never done anything with lab rats. They’re fantastic,” Grazier says, hopefully.
But it isn’t all on Grazier. Like Klaviter, Miller keeps a grab bag of scientific information culled from magazines, news, and the Internet. Other episodes spring from writers’ minds or from their wanting to pay homage to classic science fiction tropes.
Tying high-concept stories to what they want to happen with their characters means taking a typical smalltown problem that could stand alone, but with science fiction to heighten the drama. “I hesitate to say formula.
I try to stay away from that.
But that’s how we approach it,” Paglia says. “By having the characters be real and grounded, it allows viewers to suspend disbelief about the hyperrealistic backdrop of the science fiction. In that way, even though the stakes can sometimes be fantastic, or the trappings, the stakes for our characters are real. Are Carter and Allison ever going to get together? Is Jo going to break it off with Zane? Those are some of the bigger questions, and then we have the toybox of science fiction to play in. It kind of gives you limitless possibilities.”
As he considered an episode about a boy who overdoses on a drug that he and Eureka scientists are taking to sharpen their thinking, Paglia pictured him racing into the night. Viewers would hear thudding footsteps, followed by a splash indicating that the kid was running on water. Paglia asked advisor Grazier how fast someone would have to run to stay on top of a lake. So fast, skin and muscle would flay off bones, Grazier said. In other words, impossible.
“I thought for a minute, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it,’” Paglia remembers. “‘So how fast would he have to run to make it plausible for you to have your name on this episode?’ He’s, ‘Okay, roughly 587 miles per hour.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, we found the happy medium.’” Paglia worries that compromise might stick in Grazier’s side. “But we said, ‘We’re going to do this because we think it’s a hot, interesting story and we hope you’ll suspend your disbelief a bit.’ If we come up against something that’s just wrong, and so clearly just wrong that we will look foolish, we try to find a way to tell it right.”
Planning a season finale, Paglia asked Grazier for interesting visuals to accompany a storyline about the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles. The conversation led to hydrogen and oxygen atoms splitting, which in turn led to the Eureka sheriff’s daughter diving into a swimming pool where remotely controlled experimental sensors implanted under her skin burst the water into flames. “It was one of those moments when I felt [both] the creative side of the writer and the scientific mind of the advisor,” says Paglia.
But consulting isn’t always easy. “I never got any instruction: ‘Please tell us how lines 20 through 30 seem,’” says Caprica’s MacIver. “I always prefaced my contribution with, ‘I have no idea whether this is relevant to you. Do what you want.’” He remembers a writer calling him once about a plotpoint. “It was a bridge to jump over, because I was trying to understand what narrative goals he had and how I could help him render something realistic with regard to science. He was under a lot of time pressure, so we were scrambling. It wasn’t trivial to communicate, I must say.”
Understanding that, the Science and Entertainment Exchange often facilitates at the meetings they arrange between scientists and TV and movie writers. “Both are very creative fields, but they’re creative in slightly different ways,” says former Exchange director Jennifer Ouellette, who believes the system works best when writers come in early in development—correcting misinformation late in the game can throw off an entire plot. Not that she’s rigid. “You’ve got to understand,” she says, “that in Hollywood, story comes first.”
But bad sci-fi movies have handed down years of misinformation, bemoans Grazier, who hopes his consulting can help. And not just for the sake of science, but for the science of storytelling. He has taken four screenwriting courses, co-authored a book, The Science of Battlestar Galactica, and written pilots of his own. “The screenwriter tries to keep the audience engrossed in his or her vision, and when you make a technological gaffe there are some people who say, ‘Hey, not!’ Instantly they’re transformed from being immersed in your universe to a person sitting in a room in the 21st century watching TV. The goal is to do that as little as possible.”
Like Paglia, Grazier agrees that stories are interesting when the people, as well as the scientific facts, seem real. Over his cell phone, he launches into an imitation of the once typical Hollywood mad scientist: “‘If vee use zese chemicals, vee vill get X,’” he lectures, assuming a heavy middle-European accent. “And there was always a nerdy guy in a lab coat with a hot daughter. Now, scientists are interesting people. They’re sometimes quirky, absolutely true. But some of them don’t seem all that abnormal.”
Some scientists even have hot daughters. Some are sexy, as in CSI. And sometimes both apply: In Caprica, the scientist with the hot daughter was Eric Stoltz. For the upcoming pilot for Caprica’s sequel, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, there’s no news yet about any scientist characters or their daughters—hot, nerdy, or otherwise.
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