What was the response when you first started giving grants for screenplays dealing with science? That was nine years ago, before CSI, before A Beautiful Mind. So when you said you wanted screenplays about science, people looked at you like you were from Mars. We're big supporters of PBS and National Public Radio, but we wanted to go beyond that, to commercial films that can make money and be entertaining.
How do you see your role? We really have two cultures, the sciences and the arts, and there's a huge gulf between them. I see myself as a translator, comfortably moving between the two worlds. I shuttle back and forth, seeking ways to open the channels of communication and find common ground.
Is it hard to bring the two cultures together? Well, we discovered that a big university like UCLA has a great film department and science departments full of Nobel prize winners, but the two groups never met, never talked to each other. They didn't even know how to find each other on campus. So we set up a requirement that, once a year, people from science and engineering had to come talk to the film students. That got the students excited. They discovered that scientists could be pretty cool people, and there were some great stories there.
What do you look for in screenplays and other works? We want the most talented screenwriters, authors, and playwrights to use science as the raw material, the clay from which they fashion whatever they're going to do. There are box office opportunities here, sexy and tantalizing. And there are infinite ways to approach the subject matter. Any genre will do: comedy, satire, thriller, drama. They don't have to put scientists on a pedestal. Irreverence is fine, as long as it's smart irreverence. Tell the South Park guys to give me a call.
Obviously, you're not seeking those old "eat your spinach"documentaries about mitochondria. No. That's a message I still have trouble getting across. We're not talking about educational, didactic treatments. That's death for any work of art. And some people think you just add the trendy issues of the day, like cloning or stem cell research. That doesn't work, either.