When we go to the movies, we expect to escape from reality. Visiting aliens, time travel, extinct animals coming back to life… that’s the dazzling stuff blockbusters are made of. But not everybody is thrilled by the way scientists look in the movies. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams has the story of screenwriters who want to make movie scientists a little less weird:
When we go to the movies, we expect to escape from reality. Visiting
aliens, time travel, extinct animals coming back to life, that’s the dazzling
stuff blockbusters are made of. But not everybody is thrilled by the way
scientists look in the movies. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams has the
story of screenwriters who want to make movie scientists a little less
(Theme music from “Back To The Future”)
So Dr. Frankenstein and Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” are a
little… freaky. But they’re smart… and enterprising. But those kinds of wacky
movie scientists make real life scientists hurl their popcorn.
Researcher Paula Grisafi says movie stereotypes about scientists are actually
worse than those about lawyers or politicians.
“My sense of movies about scientists is that there are maybe 10% good
guys and 90% bad guys. Or not even just bad guys but misguided, even
when they’re trying to be good, they’re usually sufficiently misguided
that what they start out to do turns out wrong.”
Paula Grisafi says there are a few oddballs in real science labs, but she says her peers are really much more normal.
Really — instead of hair frizzing out of control… they have nice haircuts. And they never, ever wear pocket protectors. Grisafi’s day job is at MIT in
Cambridge, but she’s also an aspiring screenwriter. She’s working on
scripts that she says shake up the Hollywood stereotypes.
“These sort of scientist archetypes are Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde.
They’re people who were loners obsessed with their work to the point of
being a danger to themselves or to others. It’s usually frowned upon in
science to experiment on yourself.”
Take Jeff Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle, in “The Fly.” When
Brundle tests his transport machine on himself, the experiment backfires.
Brundle becomes a genetic mutant, but he’s kinda proud of it.
“Am I becoming an 185 pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that
never existed before! I’m becoming Brundle-Fly! Don’t you think that’s
worth a Nobel Prize or two?”
Maybe Brundle should’ve stopped when he turned that baboon inside out.
Paula Grisafi admits there are a few movies that show scientists as
somewhat normal people. Jodie Foster’s character in “Contact” for
example. But Grisafi says there aren’t enough to balance out the weirdos.
She says at worst, distorted images of scientists might give audiences the
impression that science is more dangerous than good.
So Grisafi jumped at the chance to be part of a screenwriting workshop
for scientists in LA last summer. It was an intense crash course with
sessions called Plot and Character, and of course, Agents and Managers.
The workshop was dreamt up by Martin Gundersen. He’s an electrical
engineer who’s had a brush with fame. He added credibility to Val
Kilmer’s lasers in the film “Real Genius.”
“I’ve met people now who are young faculty members who have told me
they were influenced by that picture to think seriously about science.”
Martin Gundersen says if the scientists in movies were more appealing,
more people might want to go into the sciences. He says the Defense
Department and companies like Boeing are really concerned that fewer
people want careers in science and engineering. In fact, Gundersen
actually landed money from the Pentagon for the workshop.
But Gundersen admits he’s still testing the theory that scientists can be
“Oh it’s impossible (laughs). That’s the thing – you can’t promise that
somebody’s going to get their picture made. To me the truest cliché in
Hollywood is that everyone has a script.”
And so, can chemists and engineers possibly compete?
One box office expert says — sure. Paul Dergarabedian is president of
Exhibitor Relations Company in LA. He says scientists have as good a
chance as anyone at selling a script… as long as their stories are
“And it’s the more interesting characters who bring that scientific
element, or you have a scientist who’s not the typical nerdy scientist. He
might be more of a sophisticated kind of character in terms of lets say a ladies’
man or something like that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.”
And actually, there is a ladies’ man in one of Paula Grisafi’s scripts. Her
story features two rivals thrown together to figure out why sea life is
dying. The stars of the story are a lovely young marine ecologist and a
hotshot microbiologist from Norway. Grisafi’s been advised that playing
up the romance might help sell the story.
“I guess I was sort of writing for a PG audience. I spent eight years in
Catholic girls’ school so I’m not sure how competent I’m going to be to
write really steamy sex scenes, but I’ll make an effort.”
Grisafi says even if she never sells a script, she’ll still get up at 5 a.m. to
write, and then she’ll put in a full day at the lab.
These new screenwriters hope to prove you don’t have to be a mad
scientist or a loner in the lab to invent movies that sell tickets.
For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.