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

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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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12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?


To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.


The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.


In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.


The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.


The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   


Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.


It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”


In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]


Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.


The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.


Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.


Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''


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