Wednesday, June 1, 2005

An audience with the chief

Dr. Michael Witherell is the outgoing head of Fermilab. A lot has happened on his watch: they discovered the Top Quark there (a huge milestone in particle physics), 9/11, and now a potentially devastating budget cut. He was very candid when we spoke with him --- one of the things we've had to get used to in making this documentary is what I've described in other posts: scientists who are accustomed to presenting perfect data. This affects how they think about interviewing, causing them to assume we want only clear ideas perfectly expressed. They strip away the rough edges and the emotions and the politics and the strange day to day oddities. In their defense, they spend a lifetime ignoring oddities (as Ben Kilminster told me, it's bad science to pay attention to exceptions) so it's only expected that they think that's what we would want, too. I mentioned in an earlier post the scientist whose career was devastated by the budget cut and refused to be interviewed because he thought he would become too emotional and couldn't conduct a calm interview with a clear presentation of the facts, which is what he thought we wanted.

Some scientists, though, really want to be on camera. After another interview that was not particularly riveting, our interviewee followed us out and asked what he could do to be a better interview subject. Apparently he could sense that it was not camera "gold" that we were getting.

I had to stop and think --- I didn't really know what to say. I realized it's very easy for us behind the camera to recognize what's working and what's not, but it's not so easy to explain how to get there to someone on the other side without sounding sensationalist. It made me realize how easy it is to step on that slippery slope towards being the camera that zooms in on the tears, that shows the close-up of the blood stain, that chases the victims and shoves a microphone in someone's face and says "how do you feel?" In our disappointment that the emotional scientist (see how fascinating that phrase sounds? Can you see why we're so obsessed with it?) didn't want to be on camera because he couldn't keep it together, there's a twinge of guilt that we actually ARE looking for the oddities, the exceptions.

So I said something about "truth" and "honesty" in answers and about being brief and not using long rambling sentences, all of which are true. But then Monica said simply "you must be provocative." I stopped and realized how true that was, and yet how strange it made me feel to actually hear it said that way. But if we have over two hundred hours of raw footage (which is what we're expecting), consider what happens when you have two scientists discussing a career-changing budget cut. One says, sitting upright and expressionless, "Needless to say, we are very disappointed, but the scientific community must respond to the wishes of the political community, and often this is at odds with our intentions and our hopes as we move forward towards a better understanding of the universe. However, other opportunities for growth still exist at this facility and we will doubtless reallocate our resources to pursue these avenues." The other scientist says, leaning forward and gesturing, "It sucks! I was really mad! I thought, 'what are these idiots in Washington thinking? How could they do this?'"

We had both of those responses. As an editor, as a viewer, as a cameraperson, and as a director, the second response is much more interesting. But is it as accurate? Is it true? Is it honest? Is it entertaining? Is it exploitative? Less sophisticated? More sophisticated? Is it an oddity? Is it bad science?

Luckily, making documentaries is not science. Sometimes oddities tell the same story much better.

Dr. Witherell was a great interview subject because he fell right in the middle. He, like Judy Jackson, is part politician. But he's also an intensely passionate scientist, and this makes him great in front of the camera. We were fearing lots of careful answers, guarded responses, but he was engaging and honest. He immediately plunged into his take on the Bush administration, America's relationship to science, the troubles Fermilab has seen recently, the search for the Higgs (here he gave us both: he said something careful about how the particle physics community will all benefit whomever finds it and how they are cooperating in the search wherever it leads, but then with a slight push admitted "of course I want to find it here!") and a realistic look at its future. He was, in a word, great. The only trouble was Stef was not present and I'm afraid my camera and lighting arrangements were not, in a word, great.

Dr. Witherell's last day in office is June 30. He is due to lay off 100 people before he leaves. Not sure how we're going to address this.

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