During my years in New York, I unexpectedly experienced an interesting form of science outreach. I randomly met a film director at a party, Sasha Collington. This director explained to me that she needed the help a biologist to work on her new script. I accepted right away for three reasons. First, curiosity. Second, because just like many other experimental scientists, I get very frustrated with dead-end experiments and I regularly start questioning the meaning of my life. I liked the idea of being directly and immediately helpful to someone. Third I get angry a lot when I hear all the scientific none-sense or the misleading and condescending over-simplification of science in articles or movies. I was therefore tempted by this opportunity to get the science as accurate as possible.
Consequently, we exchanged several emails and met a few times. She began by explaining the story she was working on. The film, in production, is called “Love Type D”:
In her film, the outcome of relationships is governed by biology. We are either dumpers or dumpees. Therefore she was looking for ideas about what kind of biological concept could explain this, how could the characters experimentally test it and whether or not they could overrule it. I understood that she was not looking to double check the science in her script. She was not looking for technical or procedural details either. I rather felt that she was looking for general biological knowledge to nourish her artistic creativity. It was thus a broad discussion, very upstream in the film making process. After her description of her project, I started talking a lot. She had in mind to go for some king of genetic phenomenon, so I explained her the basics of genetics and epigenetics. What is a gene? What is the difference between a gene and an allele? What is chromatin? How is gene expression regulated? How are genes related to phenotypes and why is it much more complicated that we once thought? What are the classic techniques used to identify genes or to assess their level of expression? She was very active in the discussion. I could tell that she was trying to see how she could use those pieces of information to help her story. Indeed, she was asking a lot of questions about practical aspects: what kind of experiments could we use? Could a child perform that experiment? Would the reagents be accessible to a non-scientist? This is where it became really interesting because I perceived a bit better what it means to talk about science with non-researchers.
When it comes to discussions within the scientific community, I am personally very opposed to the storytelling approach. I feel that science is turning into a marketing activity and I really dislike that. It shifts the focus away from data and logic toward fancy tales. However, in this context of communication between an artist and a scientist, and between this artist and her public, I realized that storytelling was not hurting and, on the contrary, was necessary to convey the message properly. First, I understood that aesthetic is important. As an artist using a visual medium, her recurring worry was to know how a given experiment would look like. Would the result appear on a screen? On a paper? In a test tube? Does it have colours? Does it move? Does it make a sound? Does it have to be in the dark? Questions I never even thought of. We had to forget “unfilmable” or visually unexciting experiments such as western blots or ELISA. We were rather trying to imagine microscopy-based results that would visually make sense on the screen. I perceived the benefit of taking into account the visual content and not just the conceptual content. That is something I will keep in mind whenever I have to communicate with people from outside the academia.
Second, I understood the importance of analogy. Among the various scientific concepts we explored, she particularly liked the notion of chromatin compaction and decompaction during the epigenetic regulation. She liked it because it spontaneously evoked the idea of a book that someone closes or opens. It is something the public unconsciously knows very well and therefore they would almost emotionally connect with this scientific concept. I realized that making something “understandable by the public” did not mean “absence of complicated words”, or “not too many parameters”, it rather meant using concept people could relate to. Next time I have to interact with non-scientific people I will try to appeal to those “cultural images” they have instead of falling into the (condescending) trap of over-simplification.
Finally, I had expected that the biggest obstacle would be the knowledge gap between us. But it rather turned out that the main difficulty is the divergence of objectives. I wanted to get the script scientifically accurate whereas her prime goal was, understandably, to have a scientific element that would serve the story: something clear, coherent and pretty. Because of this divergence, we spent quite some time trying to come up with ideas that could be both scientifically and artistically satisfying. I felt a bit like a very annoying person, repeating things such as “well, not exactly…”, “no it’s more complicated”, “I guess we could say that only if…” and often “well, we don’t really know.” I guess that this is a common feeling among people who happened to serve as consultants. We may come off as dull, picky mood-killers. But that’s ok. We are here to give a scientific point of view to something. That is, to provide logical, accurate, fact-driven interpretations or ideas. When advising a film scriptwriter or director, it is important to keep acting as scientists, and not trying to anticipate or satisfy the artist expectation or vision. Even if we reinforce the image of nerdy researchers by doing so.
Overall, this experience was a lot of fun. I loved this opportunity to see how a script was being made and to experience the different perception of what is biology. I would gladly do it again, especially if it is at a downstream step, such as technical coaching during the shooting. Was my help useful? I like to think it was. At least to get her started on the scientific part of her script, to set some landmarks in her mind that would help her come up with that part of the story. Regarding the scientific accuracy, which was one of my objectives, I think it did not work out as well as I thought. There are other limitations in a film production (time, money, space, material, actors…). Seeing that your advice is not always followed must probably be frustrating for scientific consultants, but that’s the way it is. After all, it remains a piece of fiction.