Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Status Report

So, where are we?

As I mentioned in the last post, we came back from New York almost done with filming. We then got one more interview: Ben Kilminster (the rollerblading, rock band-singing experimental physicist) presented his Higgs results. He had done some pretty important work in the Higgs area, and so we interviewed him and filmed him doing a "practice talk" before presenting the results (actually, I was out of town, and I think it's the only interview I've missed...).

That interview marked our official end of production. We've now officially moved into "Post-production."


Having said that, there may be an interview here or there that we determine we need once we get into editing, and we can always break out the camera again to get it on tape.

But what's happening now? See here for a summary of the post production phase. We've completed step 1 (digitizing the footage), and (thanks to some terrific help from our interns Cate, Jamie, Robert, and Caleb) we are narrowing in on step 2 (logging the footage). We've also made a dent in step 3 (transcribing the interviews), but still have a ways to go. I'd like to begin step 4 (the paper edit) by the beginning of October, and step 6 (beginning the edit) by November. Step 7, the first deadline (rough cut) is tentatively slated for March.

In addition, other things happen more or less continually --- we applied for another grant recently, and several more are upcoming. We're having a fundraiser Wednesday, and Andrew is going to unveil a much-needed overhaul of our website soon. And we just took a group photo last night... as soon as I get a copy from Stef I'll post it!

Monday, August 28, 2006

East Coast Trip part four

OK, I swear this won't turn into a serial soap opera.

Sometimes you find yourself in situations you don't expect due to circumstances outside your control. For example: Andrew's brother GENEROUSLY donated our rental car. In fact, he upgraded us to a Jeep Grand Wagoneer because we had three people and a bunch of gear. This same brother also allowed us to stay at his very large house in a suburb of DC. One morning, we were really hungry and needed some coffee. I got some directions and headed out to get the group some morning supplies. On the way back I had to make a quick phone call. Suddenly I had to stop and take stock of my situation. I was an SUV-drivin,' Starbucks drinkin', cell-phone talkin' guy wearing sunglasses. I rushed home and took a shower.

So, we left Wednesday evening for New York. We took one of those commuter planes, which normally make me crazy. But this one was pretty smooth. Once we were in the clouds I got out the video camera and got some nice shots to keep myself distracted, and the flight attendant came over and started giving me tips about how to get the best footage of the city when on final approach, such as which side of the plane to shoot from, etc. When she gave the "electronic devices must now be turned off" announcement, she turned a blind eye and let me keep filming.

Luke had our New York accomodations lined up, and after a brief bit of confusion about our driver (we weren't using a taxi, but rather a driving service, which is pretty popular in New York. They're a little cheaper, or sometimes a little more expensive, but you can just call and someone will be around to pick you up. It's a little less hectic than hailing a cab) we made it to our pad for the next two nights: a penthouse apartment in Brooklyn, with a 500 square-foot rooftop balcony that had an amazing view of all of Manhattan. We had a great time at Scott's place. He's a fabric designer, and he gave us a showing of his most recent designs, right after a huge dinner of Jamaican chicken from the place down the street called "The Islands."

Our interview with Dennis Overbye was not confirmed, but was planned for Friday morning. He had just arrived back from China, and we hadn't been in contact in weeks, and weren't 100% sure he still remembered us. I had called and left messages, but we just didn't know anything. Monica was flying in for that interview, and if he wasn't able to do it or had forgotten then her trip (and the 2nd half of ours) would be for nothing. In the meantime, this being Thursday, we had a day to kill. Andrew and Luke unfortunately had free lance work that kept them busy, so I was on my own. I went to the American Museum of Natural History, which was incredible, and then took myself down to Coney Island to see the last of a great institution before it gets the seedy amusement park equivalent of a gut rehab. It was cold, windy, full of trash, and pulsing with hip hop and R&B music. Carny rides whipped screaming kids and people around rusting rides, and tired hawkers tried to convince people to play their games and spend money. One guy was flatly intoning his shtick into a microphone as I walked down the boardwalk, trying to intice the curious or bored with the promise that they could "shoot a live target with a paintball gun. That's right, folks, shoot an actual, living, breathing human being with a paintball gun." I couldn't help but wonder about the poor sucker they found to stand up there, probably in some kind of mildewed foam suit and a football helmet, and get hit with paintballs.

But I got a call from Dennis Overbye and had to duck behind a building to avoid screaming sirens and hawkers. He sounded a little tired from jetlag, and asked "now, what are you interviewing me about?" but generally seemed game.

The next morning I met Monica outside the office of the New York Times in Manhattan and we spent an hour with a cup of coffee planning the interview. Luke and Andrew got stuck in traffic with the gear and were nearly an hour late, but we managed to race up to the conference room for the interview. After a hurried set up, we started.

Dennis was good, but seemed a little tired. He didn't have the same kind of spark that Natalie Angier and Kei Koizumi did, and his "presentation" was a little slow. It didn't make for exactly riveting footage, but he threw us some curves that should keep things interesting. For example, contrary to our other interviews, when asked about Fermilab closing and CERN opening, he shrugged and said "as long as the science happens, it really doesn't matter where." He was pretty uninterested in who did what where, and wasn't even particularly concerned about the trend in US science spending. "If CERN and the Europeans are willing to spend the money," he said, "maybe they should get the discoveries." It will be nice to throw that notion into the mix as well. It will give the viewer a more complex bite to chew on.

His eyes did light up when he discussed a recent trip to Fermilab. He mentioned the CDF detector building, where we have spent so much time, and referred to the huge pieces of equipment as "gigantic brightly-colored toys, looking like a giant child had been playing with them and left them out." It's true --- for some reason, even though the equipment they construct there at Fermilab (some of it for CERN, ironically enough) is incredibly complicated, it is usually housed in a simple, enormous tube or rectangle, and is almost always painted bright orange or blue.

We had to high-tail it out of the New York Times building, into our "driver's" car, and out of Manhattan to the airport in Queens. Then it was back to Chicago where Andrew and I realized somehow we had each forgotten to make a note of where we parked my car (it WAS 4:30 am when we parked, after all), but due to his terrific spatial memory we found it and dazedly went our separate ways, with five more hours of excellent footage in the can. With our total at about 114 hours, we were just about done shooting.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

East Coast Trip part three

So, we had finished two interviews in one day. As strange as it may sound, one interview per day is standard. Two is a workout. First of all, there's the preparation time, spending an hour or two writing up a list of questions, trying to put the interview (and the person) in the larger context of the film. This is important because we've experienced the sensation of getting back and thinking "oh, we should have asked *this!*" It wasn't likely that we'd get back to the East coast, so we had to be comprehensive with our lists. Then there's driving to the interview, spending an extremely rushed hour of setting up equipment, the interview itself (which involves what seems like mental overdrive, cramming two hours' worth of thinking into one hour), another rushed half-hour of tearing down equipment, and finally hitting the road to go home. Doing all that twice in one day is a real brain teaser.

The next day, however, we were back to one interview: with Kei Koizumi (see more about him in previous posts). We set up in a conference room in the AAAS building, and spent about 20 minutes fiddling with the camera angle. Finally Kei came down and we talked for about an hour. He was also great --- like Ms. Angier, he said some things we'd been hearing around the edges but found difficult to pin down on camera. For example, he indicated squarely that this administration hadn't expressed much interest in what he called "curiosity-driven" science research: exactly the category of the search for the Higgs. Things that don't have military, pharmaceutical, or industrial applications; things that don't generate sales, patents, or products. That was the first time I had heard anyone frame it in that way: "curiosity-driven" science. We'd heard the term "pure research," or "for the sake of knowledge" or similar phrases, but never that one. Somehow it seemed incredibly succinct, and very telling. An administration (and a culture?) that abandoned "curiosity-driven" science seemed... well, unfortunate, and even depressing. The Bush administration is not alone in this, of course, and there always has been (and always will be) a struggle between those who have money (the politicians) and those who want to spend it (the list is long, but in this blog we're talking about scientists). Koizumi refered to a famous exchange in 1969 between physicist Robert Wilson (who essentially built Fermilab) and the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. When asked what Fermilab's accelerator would do to aid in national defense, he answered, "It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending." These are big words and big thoughts, that still have resonance today. Or, at least, they should.

Friday, August 4, 2006

East Coast Trip part two

After we packed up and left Senator Domenici's office, I got a quick shot of the exterior of the Hart Office building, forgetting for the moment the lesson I learned last year until a security guard came out to remind me that tripods are not allowed on government property. I propped the camera up on a wall and got the shot, just before the sky opened up and dumped a downpour.

We packed up and drove across town, crossing into Virginia and found ourselves in a charming little neighborhood with winding streets and Victorian-era houses. Natalie Angier's house was beautiful, over 100 years old, and full of incredible antiques. Ms. Angier met us at the door and left us alone for a while as we set up shop in her living room. Lighting was a little difficult; it was cloudy outside and therefore a little dim in the living room, but we didn't want to overlight the scene. We positioned her by a window and attempted to enhance the window ambience with a strategically placed light. I think we had mixed results.

As you know if you've been reading this blog, we've been trying to hook up with Natalie Angier for over a year, and so were anticipating this interview. Monica was unable to join us, as I mentioned, and was very disappointed to miss speaking with Ms. Angier. We consulted before I left, however, and I think I represented both of us pretty well.

One reason we had been looking so forward to this interview was that although our scientists gave us a unique and fascinating perspective, they were often loath to step back and comment on the big picture. We struggled with this as filmmakers; while they expressed disappointment with the budget cuts, they stopped short of drawing a conclusion about the Administration's stance on funding science. They hinted at frustration with the nation's rejection of science in the classroom, but resisted critiquing U.S. culture at large. An urgency appeared in their voices and a glint flashed in their eyes when they talked about finding the Higgs before CERN did in Europe, but always followed up with a comment about how science is international and that everyone would win, no matter who made the discovery. In short, they were mostly careful, conservative, and guarded, just like responsible scientists should be.

But careful, conservative, and guarded does not a story make, especially when from the outside it seems anything but. A glance at the multitude of articles (I listed some in a previous post, and could drop links to 15 or 20 more) proclaiming the urgency and complexity of our story indicates that it is, in fact, a dramatic, complex, and even exciting one, involving a confusing and fascinating mix of politics, culture, and science. That's why Monica and I realized early on that we couldn't (and shouldn't) rely on our scientists to be cultural critics.

That's where analysts like Kei Koizumi (more on him shortly) and journalists like Chris Mooney, Dennis Overbye, and Natalie Angier come in. Ms. Angier is an outspoken cultural critic for the New York Times, focusing on the intersection of science, culture, and religion. Made to order for our film.

And she didn't disappoint. Like Rocky Kolb in front of the opera house, she expressed real and heartfelt concern about the direction the U.S. is headed politically and culturally. She said much of what we felt some of our scientists were thinking, but didn't verbalize. She strongly criticized the Bush administration's refusal to accurately and openly engage science and scientists, the worrisome lack of science education in the US, the accelerating trend of physicists and scientists to leave the United States due to a lack of opportunity to work at the head of the field, the politicization of science, and the baffling difficulty Americans have in keeping science and religion separate. This last point was particularly prickly for her, and she has written extensively on it. In short, in a single interview she was able to infuse much of our footage with meaning. She's only one voice, of course, but she provided some balance and even urgency to the mix.

Her temperament was a bit difficult to read. Being a fairly well-known journalist, she had a reputation to protect and uphold, so she often weighed my questions carefully before answering, and seemed a bit self-conscious on camera. In addition, due to noise concerns, we had to switch off the air conditioner, and it was steadily getting more and more steamy in the living room. I tend to watch for signs of weariness, boredom, anxiety, or nervousness as I interview people, gauging how much longer I can go (Monica and I have earned a reputation, I fear, for saying "we just have one more question" and then 30 minutes later continuing to pump our subject for more information. That's why it was actually something of a relief when Mr. Domenici simply said "thank you" and took off the mic). It was hard to tell with Ms. Angier. We finished in just over an hour, and after the interview I got my first indication that she had a more or less positive response to our session when she asked who we were speaking to next and her eyes lit up a little when we mentioned her colleague, Dennis Overbye. "Oh," she said, "I think he'll be great to talk to." She then proceeded to give us his home, office, and cell numbers. Perhaps I was reading too much into the situation, but I figure if she thought we were buffoons she would have tried to keep us away from her friend at all costs...

Her husband came home and indicated that Kei Koizumi, our next subject, was a "real straight shooter" and a good guy. Their daughter was slightly interested in the fact that her mother was being interviewed on camera, but was more interested in getting to her Karate practice. We packed up quickly, waved goodbye, and piled into the SUV, tired but happy with how our first day had gone.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

East Coast Trip part one

Andrew and I arrived at O'Hare airport at 4:30 am. That's right, I said 4:30 AM. We had a lot of equipment to lug and check, and Andrew wisely wanted lots of time to make sure it all made it. After all, our first interview was later that same day in Washington DC. We had a lovely breakfast at the airport McDonald's and soon were on our way out east. I've developed a small flying phobia in the last few years for no particular reason, so I battled my nerves as we headed out across Lake Michigan and I watched the Chicago lakefront skyline scroll by beneath us. It's the turbulence. As much as my brain tells me that the plane engineers knew about turbulence when they designed the planes and built them accordingly, when those bumps start something much deeper that my intellect starts saying "this is all wrong!"

But I made it. We hit Ronald Reagan airport and Andrew went to grab our rental car, generously donated by his brother. It was a Jeep Grand Wagoneer, and for once I was grateful for having an SUV. We met up with Luke who had taken the next flight, and by the time the three of us and all our gear piled in we were pretty tight. Monica was unable to attend the first part of the week and was scheduled to meet up with us on Friday in New York.

Our first interview was with Senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico. We parked the car in a parking garage, did a quick clothing change, admired Luke's super-fly sunglasses, and went to the Hart office building in the swampy summer midmorning. DC was in the midst of intense rainfall and flooding, and the air was thick with moisture. We made our way to Senator Domenici's office, where we found the first clear evidence of seniority: his office was a sprawling multi-room affair with 12 foot ceilings and lots of artwork from his native state. His "people" greeted us, we waited a few moments, and then were shown in. The senator was not there yet, so we whipped out our gear and set up the camera, lights, and sound in near-record time. Finally the senator approached. One of his staffers (they all seemed to be Young Republicans either still in college or just out) came up to me and politely explained that the Senator was very keen on discussing his recent PACE initiative (which happened to be the same thing I wanted to talk to him about --- the report he had commissioned from the National Academies of Science which recommended increasing science and math in the classroom, ominously titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm"). She said she would be sitting in on the interview just to make sure the Senator... that he... just to be sure...

"OK," I said, a little unclear. "That's fine."

So she and another staffer sat in the large office as Senator Domenici came in. He had a huge desk and Luke framed it up nicely.

"Senator," the staffer said, a bit loudly and slowly, "they're here to talk to you about the PACE initiative."

"Right," the senator said. He was moving a little slowly, and seemed a bit small behind the desk.

I started right in with a question about the reasons why he had commissioned the report. I was interested in hearing him describe why it was that he felt so concerned about America's scientific position in the world that he commissioned an expensive study to recommend what to do.

He started speaking, and started squeaking.

He was rubbing his shoes back and forth across the footrest of his desk. Luke, who had the headphones on, later described it as if there were a clown just off-camera making balloon animals the entire time he was talking. Not wanting to startle him, I waiting until he finished, then casually said "Senator, do you ever, you know, just kick off your shoes while you're here in your office?"

"Do I ever!" he said gleefully, and kicked them off. Problem solved.

I had expected to get a lot of boilerplate Republican rhetoric, but I soon discovered a second example of seniority. Senator Domenici was born in 1932 and has been in the senate for 34 years, and he's beholden to no one. He was extraordinarily frank about what he thought about this administration's leadership in the field of science.

"I used to think he might be able to pull it out," he said. "But now I think it's pretty clear that this will go down as a failed presidency."

"Look," he went on, "I went in there and I told him he'd better get moving on the science and the math. Other countries are threatening us on all shores with economic and scientific progress."

"So, in the last State of the Union address," I asked, "when President Bush announced his new initiative to increase science and math in the classroom, you had some influence there?"

Then came the third example of seniority. He smiled a sort of wry smile as if to say "Influence, hell."

"That was all me," he said. "I told him to say that, and he did."

Later he said some very specific things about Fermilab, including an intriguing and almost cryptic remark about restoring Fermilab's budget. I tried to follow up, but he said he probably shouldn't say anything more about that.

His aides didn't have to jump in or correct him or spur him on, but I could tell he was getting a little tired and after one particularly well-turned phrase he said "thank you" and took off his microphone. Interview over.

We thanked him and quickly packed up. As we were working he called for "my staff lady." She came in. "No, no," he barked, "My other staff lady." I suspected the short-term things like names were a little slippery for him. When we left we thanked him again, and I noticed his shoes were still off.

Outside in the staffers' office his publicist quickly informed us that he would have to approve the interview. I hedged a little. This was not something we did. I told him it would be months before we knew what we would use. The aide was pretty firm, and finally Luke came up with the solution that we would send him the "selects," or the bits we planned to put in the final edit for approval. This seemed to be fine with the aide. It finally was made clear that they were nervous about that bit about restoring the Fermilab budget. "We can't be sure what that budget will do," the aide said. "The senator might not be accurate about that." He gave us a little look like "we never know what the hell the senator is going to say these days." We found them all to be very gracious and helpful, and the Senator was surprisingly frank and poignant. Like I said --- that probably comes with seniority. He was an old school senator --- the ones who actually believed in what they did.

OK, strike that cynicism from the record.

Next stop was Natalie Angier from the New York Times.