7 Questions for Doron Weber, VP at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Earlier this month, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Film Independent announced the Sloan Film Summit, which will bring together 150 screenwriters, directors, and producers, as well as film schools and film organizations, who are dedicated to bridging the gap between science and popular culture. Ahead of the Summit—which takes place November 14 through 16 at L.A. Live in Los Angeles—we spoke with Doron Weber, Vice President at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, about science in film.

Why is it important that there are movies about science, or movies that have scientific content?
That’s a very good and legitimate question. I would say first, our culture and society is scientific and technological, so in a way, it’s like saying, “We want you to make movies about modern life,” right? Think about any issue or problem—food, water, energy, climate change. All these issues demand a kind of scientific or technical understanding to be able to grapple with them, and increasingly, we know that.

Another reason I think we’re doing well is we’re with the zeitgeist. The culture knows it needs to understand this stuff. Ebola, right? Everybody’s like, what’s the mode of transmission? How does it work? What’s a virus? How does a virus replicate? How does it hijack the machinery of the cell? People are going to need to know this, not because they want to know science, but because they want to protect themselves and their families. They want to know, “Is it safe for me to go on the subway?”

So I think more and more we literally just need to understand how things work in order to survive and prosper and be healthy and educated and successful in modern life. I think that’s why it’s important. I would call it an essential survival guide or kit, and it enables you to have a deeper appreciation of yourself and your place in society on the planet and all of that.

It shows you the influence of movies: They help people understand certain things and begin to take stock of them. We have this film about Alan Turing now getting a lot of buzz, The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley that Harvey Weinstein has bought. I’ve probably seen about ten Turing scripts over the years. It’s an amazing story, and even though to us it’s like “Oh, here we go, another Turing script,” now, through the movie, it validates it to the general public.

We showed it at the Hamptons, where it won the award for the Best Feature Film, and people were coming up to me so moved and amazed by this story, which for some of us has been known for a long time. But film helps get it out there and kind of say, “Wow, can you believe this guy?” Churchill said no single person did more to help us win the war than Alan Turing, who was then persecuted for his sexuality, and the film shows you what an incredible life he led. Film allows people to take it in in a way they wouldn’t have taken it in even with a terrific biography, which had been written by Hodges, which I think the film is based on.

So film is still unbelievably powerful and it becomes a reference point for people that they can talk about, so it enters the cultural conversation more, and then people, I think, go on to deepen their understanding either through further reading or by being more open to these kinds of questions when they encounter them in their own lives.

What are some movies you’ve been to where you’ve said to yourself, “ugh, they got the science really wrong?”
Generally, dissing movies isn’t really what I like to do. The purpose of our program is to get young filmmakers to begin dealing with those subjects and themes and making good films about them. We’re not the science police. Our program is a film program, not a science program—you need to have a minimal threshold of science or technology content or characters, but once you satisfy that, we’re really just picking the best writers and the best scripts.

Our aim is to get Hollywood to start taking this material as good raw material, fodder for making exciting, interesting, compelling films. So I would rather talk about films that you wouldn’t think fit, but actually do: Social Network or Memento, or Moneyball—these are all films that we would consider big, take ideas, either scientific or technological ideas or characters. The Hurt Locker, which won the Oscar, would have qualified because that’s all about demolition and that engineering challenge: How do you, how do you take apart these bombs?

Our view is that if the film just stimulates your interest in some way … take A Beautiful Mind, for example. It was a successful film; it won the Oscar. There wasn’t that much math in it, but people got intrigued by this character of John Nash played by Russell Crowe. And then, after the film, a million people went out and bought the book, which does have a lot more math and lets you go more deeply into the ideas. To me, that’s an ideal marriage or synergy where you don’t overload the film with too much information or educational stuff because that’s not why people go to see movies.

Nitpicking about, for example, that there’s no sound in space—that’s one of the things scientists love reminding us about, and it’s true. If you’re making a film, it’s nice when they get it exactly right, but in the end, it’s impact—the overall impact of the overall film—that matters, and if it makes you curious or excites you or arouses your interest in a subject I think is the way to go. And I think as filmmakers get more informed about science and technology, they will make their characters a little more credible, a little more believable.

Do you have any favorites that you’ve funded? My favorite was Robot and Frank, which I think nailed the very complicated relationships we’re going to have with our robots in the future—they won’t be machines, they’ll be our friends. What happens when we need to reset them?

I think it’s a really smart film. It started as a $20,000 grant I gave in 2003 to the filmmakers, and they just stuck with it and expanded it and opened it up. That’s one of the things we say, that we’re trying to influence the next generation, and you never know—we’re planting seeds. It’s as much about exposing them to a subject. It’s not that I don’t expect the actual scripts to be made; it’s that once in a while, you get it where there’s actually a direct correlation between something we supported, and then their determination to get that film made.

I also like Valley of Saints, which is set in Kashmir. It’s a very kind of small, lovely, unbelievably touching film, heartbreaking and subtle. I thought it was beautifully done. The Imitation Game, I think, is a terrific film in terms of a big movie that actually manages to cover a lot of ground and do a very effective job. It has great performances.

There’s also a film called Basmati Blues. It’s a Bollywood musical about genetically modified rice. What we try to say to that is that there are a million ways to make films about science. They don’t all have to be serious and sober. It’s basically about, “is she going to marry Mr. Wrong or Mr. Right?” But she’s a geneticist working on rice, and that’s kind of the plot. But you watch it because there’s great singing. Brie Larsen does her own singing in it. Donald Sutherland is in it, too, and that’s a film that took many years. They had the money raised, and the funding came from Iceland. And then Iceland went bankrupt—talk about losing funding for film. But they persisted and they wound up raising the money, and they shot it.

Also Future Weather, which is about three generations of women, and working class, something we don’t see that much in films. All very strong female characters. It deals with climate change—a young girl uses science as a bulwark against the chaos in her life. The reason people go into science is that it’s very personal. It’s not a cold decision.

What are some projects that you’re working on right now that you’re excited about?
We have a lot of great stories about smart, amazing women. We’re developing a script about Hedy Lamarr now that Diane Kruger is optioning. The playwright and television writer, Bathsheba Doran—who wrote for Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire—we gave the grant, through [the Tribeca Film Festival], for her to write a two-part television series, and I’m reading drafts. Diane is working with her. Hedy Lamarr was really a pioneer—I think she was a better scientist-slash-engineer than she was an actress. And so she’ll be remembered for that. Her invention was revolutionary. It’s the basis of your smartphone, and smart missiles too.

We have a story about Rosalind Franklin that Rachel Weisz is interested in. She’s the woman whose x-ray crystallography image helped launch the helix form of DNA. We have several scripts in place about Marie Curie. That’s an extraordinary woman—won two Nobel prizes, lived a very independent life, scandalized everyone because she dared, after her husband died, to have a lover—how shocking. We haven’t caught up with her. There’s Lisa Meitner, who was involved in nuclear fission.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m very excited about The Man Who Knew Infinity, which is about Ramanujen, the great Indian mathematician, who is played by Dev Patel, and Jeremy Irons plays Artie, the mathematician from Cambridge who brought him over. This guy came out of nowhere—he was just a phenom. Other than Einstein, there’s been no person as brilliant as Ramanujen. But it’s also about east-meets-west, ‘cause he was Indian and he couldn’t really adjust to the British climate and the British way of life, and he died very tragically young from tuberculosis.

Are there any scientific areas that you think have been underserved in cinema?
Probably most people in most fields think that their area is [underserved]. I would say that if people knew more about what science is doing—I don’t think you need to go to Science Fiction. I think real science is as weird and as crazy as some of the stuff Science Fiction people are making up. I think looking at things like synthetic biology, nanotechnology … those areas that are fascinating. Quantum mechanics, which is incredibly weird, now suggesting seriously that there’s about a 25 percent chance that we really are all living in the Matrix. That is mind-boggling. I keep thinking and my brain is still working on that. It’s very hard to fathom, the “Many Worlds” Theory. In my theatre program, we had a play called Constellations by Nick Paine, which is going to open on Broadway in January with Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s basically a romance, but the woman is dying. She studies quantum mechanics, and it uses many worlds theory to kind of explore, almost structurally as well as thematically, the relationship. And again, that’s just mind-bending stuff.

Is there one scientist, or one science story, that you’d love to see a movie about?
I think there are a million probably stories out there about scientists—but you have to find some emotional hook that makes you care about them. We have a lot of scripts on various figures, some of whom I’ve mentioned, especially the women; we have these great women characters that we’d like to see more films come out about. We just keep supporting them and giving them little grants and encouraging people. And eventually, like the Turing, they break through. And now Ramanujan. So we have two great figures, and I’m really hoping the Hedy Lamarr is next. And then maybe the Rosalind Franklin, because that’s a terrific story.

I predict 50 to 100 years from now, no one will believe that we needed a foundation to go incentivize or bribe people to basically make films about life—that’s what science and technology is. But for now, we still think of it as something that has to be incorporated into the story. The divide, to me, is artificial. But it’s very powerful, this two-culture thing. So a lot of our efforts, a lot of the stuff I support, is just trying to make it whole and bring them together so people can at least understand each other. Film is a great language communication device. But ultimately, will it turn everybody into Leonardo da Vinci? I think he was a great scientist and a great artist. I like to think, anyway, that he saw it whole. He saw everything multidimensional, and most of us don’t have that capacity.

What’s coming up next for Sloan?
We have this summit coming up, and I love that because once every three years we get everybody together and my favorite part is they come up one by one and tell us about their project. It’s like, everybody gets to make their little Oscar speech, and they thank everybody, and it’s so wonderful, the range and variety of projects that these filmmakers have been involved in all over the world—all kinds of genres and forms. I love that. It’s always very invigorating.

And then we have these films that that are coming out. Of course, The Imitation Game is the hottest one that’s got Oscar buzz, but Basmati Blues, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Experimenter, we have a film about the making of Einstein on the Beach, which is a documentary.

And then a whole lot of other projects—the Hedy Lamarr thing that we’re developing, I hope something happens with that in the next year. The Rosalind Franklin [project] we’re still developing. Besides Constellations, which is opening in January, there are some terrific plays, including one called Informed Consent. So there's a lot of great stuff in the pipeline.

I think it’s a good time for us. We’re getting terrific scripts and there’s a lot of enthusiasm, and I think we’re moving closer to the mainstream. When I started this and we talked about science in Hollywood over 15 years ago, people looked at you like you were from outer space, but now it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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iStock
Hollywood's 5 Favorite Movie Villains
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iStock

Movie villains are meant to bring out the best in a hero, but with the right script, director, and performer in place, these bad guys can sometimes steal the show from their clean-cut rivals.

Take any horror movie, for example—chances are you’re not watching Friday the 13th to root for the absentminded teenagers down at Camp Crystal Lake. And Steven Spielberg certainly didn’t become a household name by directing a shark movie titled Three Guys on a Boat Drinking Narragansett.

The Hollywood Reporter set out to celebrate these iconic agents of evil by surveying 1000 professionals in the entertainment industry (directors, producers, entertainment attorneys, etc.) on their favorite movie villains. A rogues' gallery of murderous AI, mafia bosses, and a diabolical fashion magazine editor all made the top 25 list as the worst of the worst, and while they’re all deserving, the top five are the gold standard. They include:

5. Nurse Ratched: Played by Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
4. The Joker: Played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Wicked Witch of the West: Played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
2. Hannibal Lecter: Played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002)
1. Darth Vader: Played by David Prowse and James Earl Jones in the Star Wars movies (Prowse 1977-1983, Jones 1977-present)

That top spot might not come as a surprise to most, unless you’re still in your twenties: According to The Hollywood Reporter, survey respondents in that age group put Darth Vader in the sixth spot—behind Regina George from Mean Girls.

To check out the entire list, head to The Hollywood Reporter.

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