Sunday, February 27, 2005

Our moment --- and we missed it (part 2)

So what do you do? What do you do when you're a documentary filmmaker and something incredibly important happens in your story --- and you miss it?

In astronomy there's a thing called a Gamma Ray Burst. It's one of the strangest things that happens in the universe. A gamma ray burst is a massive explosion that, for a few seconds, is brighter than the brightest thing you can imagine. But it only lasts for a few seconds. Literally. That makes it hard for astronomers to study them because a giant radio telescope can't just whip around in a second or two to catch one in progress. So what do they do?

Gamma ray bursts leave an afterglow. By the time the telescope can point in the right direction, all that's left is an afterglow where the explosion happened. But a lot can be learned from the afterglow --- not quite as much as seeing the real thing, but still pretty important.

That's exactly what we did --- we focused on the afterglow of our event. It wasn't quite as good as the actual thing happening, but we decided we had to move quickly before it cooled off. Within a couple of days after hearing about what had happened, we were at Fermilab interviewing the leaders of the project that had been canceled, covering a visit to the lab from Ray Orbach from the Department of Energy and Speaker of the House Hastert, and asking anyone we could find what they thought about what had happened.

We got quite a bit of coverage and eventually had to move on as the afterglow cooled off. In a couple of really frustrating moments, we got replies from scientists who declined our request for an interview because they were just too upset. They were afraid of saying something too dramatic. It made us gnash our teeth, of course, because they were under the impression we were looking for composed, professional scientists and we were looking for furious, impassioned scientists.

More on what scientists think we want later.

In short, we're not exactly sure if our moment will be what we want it to be. Nothing is clear until the editing process begins. During production, you just gather and gather, and we believe we gathered quite a bit. This moment, like the afterglow, has themes and ideas that will resonate long after the moment has passed, infusing the rest of the story with more meaning. A documentary can never have too many of those moments...

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Our moment --- and we missed it (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to Elizabeth, our fund development person, saying that all good documentaries result from a combination of three things: a great story with great characters, good production and editing, and a stroke of luck. The first two are largely under your control as a filmmaker. The third, of course, is not.

"We've got the first two covered," I said. "What we need is something to happen. We need a stroke of luck."

As things often happen, not long after I said that, we got our wish. As Leon Lederman had hinted, there was some moaning and groaning going on as a result of the Bush administration's recently released budget. What had happened was something much more drastic. The Department of Energy, a division of which is directly responsible for Fermilab's budget, had suddenly cut Fermilab's next project, called the BTeV. The more we heard about this, the more we realized that this was, ironically, the stroke of luck we had been waiting for.

Before I write any further I must point out that in order to be a good documentary filmmaker, you must walk a tight line. Obviously, as a person, you never want harm to come to anyone. You never would wish something bad upon your subjects. You would never, as a person, hope for drama to enter the life of someone you've gotten close to.

However, as a filmmaker, you must develop a certain steely, clinical chamber in your heart. That metallic, impervious chamber starts beating quickly when something untoward does happen in the life of your subject. That's the voice in you that says "gosh, that's terrible. Where's my camera?" As long as the event has happened, as a filmmaker you owe it to your audience (and, truly, to your subject) to document it, to record it, to capture it. I say you owe it to your subject, because as Monica, my co-director, wisely pointed out, the truth makes the best story of all. People in your films truly become people when a full range of experiences happen to them. Audiences relate to them and respond to them when it becomes clear they are real people. As a filmmaker, you owe it to your audience to deliver a full story with real people.

So, we must confess, the steely chamber in our hearts began thumping, especially when we began to understand the scope of the tragedy there. This was not just the cancellation of another Fermilab project. This was the only major project scheduled for operation beyond 2009. With this one dead in the water, essentially Fermilab was dead in the water. It literally has no funding for Tevatron operation beyond that point. In short, Fermilab might have to close its doors in 2009. Unless something major happens, like an important discovery.

Let me repeat that: unless something major happens, like an important discovery. Ahem.

That's right. Suddenly, the search for the Higgs boson could be characterized as Fermilab's only chance for survival. If Fermilab did find the Higgs boson, you can bet the funding would flow again. If it looked as though the search for the Higgs was losing its importance to Fermilab, suddenly it must be back in the forefront, riding like a white horse, leading the charge.

Not only that, but there were some very angry, confused, dispirited, and bitter physicists at Fermilab. I think it should be obvious to anyone reading this that in all the appearances you've seen physicists make in documentaries, the words "angry, confused, dispirited, and bitter" are not adjectives you'd ever use to describe them. Physicists are often funny, earnest, intense, and perhaps clumsy, but the darker emotions are not typically associated with them. Any time emotions run high, it can energize a story with pathos, but when those emotions come from physicists? Gold.

And they had a right to be angry. This project had been in the pipeline for years and had passed every step with flying colors, clearing peer-review and governmental checklists. It was on track, and as recently as 45 days earlier had been given a major green light. Now, with no warning, it was simply canceled. Hundreds and hundreds of physicists had worked for years, some as much as a decade on this as their main project. Suddenly, all gone. Ten years in a career is not something easily dismissed. International collaborators had spent millions of their own money and years in their careers. Italians, Russians. All wasted.

And here's where we, the filmmakers, began to dispair. The more we found out, the more we realized we had missed. All the physicists had known the new budget was being released. All across Fermilab, scientists waited in front of their computers. It was even projected on a big screen. When the words flashed up on the screen, we were told physicists literally gasped and staggered into the hallways in disbelief. Literally. Phone calls, emails, stunned silences, oaths, curses, heads held in hands. An "all hands" meeting was called, in which the director of Fermilab addressed everyone and fielded questions. He announced he didn't know what was going to happen next, but thought that they'd probably have to cut 100 people from the staff. So much happened on that day.

And we missed it all.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Leon Lederman

Today we interviewed Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate. He doesn't spend a lot of time at Fermilab, but they still keep an office there for him. We didn't know this at the time, so we looked around for a place to shoot. We were all there, except Luke who had a conflict. Even Elizabeth, our funds coordinator, came to watch the interview. In fact, she was the one Dr. Lederman first spoke to. He wandered up, hands in pockets, while Eliz was working on the laptop on a draft for a grant proposal.

"Are you my person?" He said, smiling. He might have been expecting just a reporter with a notebook.

Meanwhile, we had chosen a classroom in which to set up. It had rows of bright orange plastic chairs, and Stefani rejected my idea of shooting Dr. Lederman in a sea of orange plastic. She opted to place him against a blackboard covered with scrawled equations. She set up the camera and lights, Andrew got the sound gear ready, and I helped here and there. I was a little nervous. Monica sat in one of the plastic orange chairs, reading over our notes. It was then that Eliz walked in and said "Dr. Lederman is here!" I ran over to shake his hand. He seemed a little surprised at all the "gear," saying something like "wow, you guys have a lot of stuff." I told him we weren't quite ready and he agreed to come back in 15 or 20 minutes.

He was soft-spoken, wore a tweed jacket and tennis shoes. He's in his 80s, but was quick and lively and his memory was flawless. I didn't notice, but afterwards Monica and Eliz both pointed out that he was wearing his gold Nobel lapel pin.

He was a great interview subject, and sprinkled his sentences with jokes and wry observations. Interestingly, he was absolutely obsessed with global warming. It seems to be what his full interest has shifted towards --- the legacy we (as guided by this administration, which he held in barely concealed disdain) will be leaving behind and the continuing damage we're doing to the planet. It's a concern that many people seem to develop as they age --- maybe thinking of their own legacy, what impact they have made on the world causes them to think more about the impact we've all made.

Near the end of the interview we asked him more questions about how the Bush administration treats scientists. We were aware that he had been one of the signers of the letter many leading scientists had written to President Bush protesting the administration's attitude towards science and scientists. He directed most of the answers to our persistent questions along those lines towards Bush's environmental policy, but near the end he mentioned that he had heard some "moaning and groaning" about the Bush administration's budget which had just been released. I was dimly aware that some numbers were due to be released, but I didn't quite understand the importance of Feb. 7 in the national science community.

We were about to find out...