This article was reviewed by a Caltech researcher.
As part of Conversations on the Quantum World, a webinar series hosted by the Caltech Science Exchange, Caltech physicist Spiros Michalakis and Hollywood writer and producer Ed Solomon discuss how scientists and creatives work together to put the science in science fiction.
Michalakis, the outreach manager for the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM), devotes his time to bringing the wonder of quantum to the public. He has collaborated with Marvel on movies including Ant-Man and Captain Marvel. Solomon has written numerous films, including Men in Black, the two Now You See Me films, and most recently, the crime noir-thriller No Sudden Move. He co-wrote all three of the Bill & Ted movies, collaborating with Michalakis on the time-traveling storyline in 2020's Bill & Ted Face the Music.
In conversation with Caltech science writer (and sci-fi fan) Whitney Clavin, they brainstorm a quantum-based idea for a screenplay, review some of the best and worst ways science and scientists are portrayed on film, and even give the audience writing advice.
Highlights from the conversation are below.
The questions and answers below have been edited for clarity and length.
What is the benefit of a collaboration between scientists and storytellers? How does it benefit movies and TV?
Spiros Michalakis: When it comes to quantum outreach, it's so difficult to go to third-graders and try to explain quantum entanglement, but I thought it would be cool to do it through the movies. Hollywood has such a powerful voice to the mainstream. So, if you can infuse some of the stories with some cool science—not just facts but some really cool science—and start building a bridge of trust between our side (the academic side) and then the entertainment industry, I think it can pay off a lot.
Ed Solomon: Usually the real-life answers are much cooler than the ones that we make up in our head. And I think all writing benefits from rules. I think rules free you. So, I go to Spiros and go, "Hey, I had this idea. Could we do it this way?" and he mocks me for a half hour—well, nicely mocks me—and then basically says, "Actually it would have to go like this." And for me, this springboards me into places I never would've thought to go. And we'll brainstorm together. It's really fun.
I think we approach our work the same way. It's just about trying to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being, really, whether it's through art or through science.
Are there times when the story has to override the science?
ES: This thing [a sci-fi television project] that we're working on right now, it takes place in a slightly different time to present day. And one of the rules we set for ourselves is to have one buy-in: Let's say 200 years from now, there's this one piece of technology that we don't have now. But everything else that we're trying to do really has to be possible. And I like that. You can't have too many of those [buy-ins].
SM: I think for me it would be when I was working on the original script for Captain Marvel, and I sat down for a week with the writer, and we came up with what I thought was a really cool origin story for Brie Larson's character. And then [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige was like, "Well, this is too complicated." He said she can't really be a quantum expert on cryptography, working in the Air Force. And I asked what he wanted, and he said, "I want her to have lasers or fireballs coming out of her hands." I was like, "Yeah, you can do that, but I don't know if we're going to go with quantum then."
Is there a specific film or TV show that stands out for its accurate scientific foundation? What about the least accurate?
SM: Do I really want to answer this? So, there are many that are "least" accurate, but, to me, least accurate is more about not even doing the basic amount of homework. Not even picking up the phone and saying, "Hey scientist, does the phrase ‘utilitarian wormhole' sound good? Is there ever a thing like that?" And we'd say, "What? Those words never go together, but maybe you mean ‘traversable wormholes?'" Starting there before you even go deeper into the concept of how you would use the technology in the movie is key.
The best movies in my mind are the ones like The Martian or Interstellar, the ones that call a scientist and say, "Hey, we want to listen to you, spend a couple of hours with you to get a sense of how your mind works." Whenever they do that, not only do I give them a free pass, but I will also tell my friends to watch the movie.
ES: It's actually more than getting facts, it's about understanding the way you might think about something or another scientist might think about something, because you can actually clone a lot from that. And that takes me down the road quite a ways until I hit a wall and go, "Hey, Spiros, I'm stuck. Did this ever make sense?"
What are some of your favorite media depictions of scientists themselves and how they behave?
ES: What I hate are the scientists who are obviously just not scientists—any cliché version that Hollywood will present.
SM: One of the other reasons why I appreciate movies when the directors or producers or writers call us up is that they get to meet us. And then we get to bring other scientists into the fold, and they get to see what real scientists look like, how they think, their little ticks and idiosyncrasies, what they wear. So, instead of coming up with random science and also random scientists, they get to see real people, and that makes a difference.
ES: We're all just people trying to figure out our lives, and we have such a narrow passion that we devote our lives to it. That's what I love about research with anyone who has done a deep dive in any field.
SM: There's something else: There's a feedback loop that lets us see the next generation look more diverse because of the movies that showed better representation and got it right. Not just the science but the scientists. And then people can see themselves and can say, "I want to be that."
And now we have a question from the audience: One viewer is working on an extremely nonlinear story and finding it tricky to structure it into a linear screenplay. Any tips on bridging it?
ES: I would say think about how you would tell the story to a third-grader or someone you're sitting next to on a chairlift. You innately know how to tell a story. And the key there is to think about who you're telling it to.
Think about your story and the coolest way to tell it, and don't get too bogged down in a structure ahead of a story. The structure will naturally emerge out of the story you're telling. And if the story you're telling requires a nonlinear format, it will emerge. The structure will be there if you think about just relating it to another human being and think about where their head is at as you're relating.
SM: Go slow, take it slow, go small. Don't try to do too much. A single idea well explained can blow anyone's mind, Nobel Prize winner or not. The things that we are missing still in the theory of everything, for example, are so fundamental that once we understand, we may look back and say, "How didn't we think of that for thousands of years?" It's an invisible thing that will become so obvious. It will not be extremely technical; it'll be the opposite. If you can do that in a movie, just a single concept simply expanded throughout, then the whole movie can leave people wanting more.
ES: Small, simple, human, moment to moment to moment is your story. That's what it is.
Here are some of the other topics addressed in the video linked above:
- How did you two meet and begin working together?
- How do you avoid alienating and confusing the audience with science in a story, especially in a low-budget film?
- Are there times when you feel like it's important for society to get the science right?
- Is there a specific example of science in one of your projects that really worked?
- Where do you get your ideas?
Learn more about the quantum world on the Caltech Science Exchange.