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.


Bill Rexroad said...

Jeff, if your filmmaking turns out to be even half as good as your writing it will be a prize winner.

Bill Rexroad
Hutchinson, Kansas

Professor said...

I've been in Washington in the Winter and the early fall, but I've heard summer is a special time there. I hot, sticky, unbearably special time.

I know you survived, I'm just waiting to hear more.

Clayton said...

Thanks, Bill!