Special thanks to David A Kirby for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema
I teach undergraduate and graduate courses on science communication, science fiction, and the history of science at the University of Manchester as Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. I also serve as Programme Director of our Biology with Science & Society undergraduate program. – Adapted from David’s Homepage
David’s Homepage: http://www.davidakirby.com
#1 – What was the impetus for Lab Coats in Hollywood?
In writing this book, I wanted to uncover the backstage role that scientists have played in the production of movies both recent and historic. There are plenty of books that examine the depictions of science and/or scientists in movies and TV shows. There are also a large number of books that look at the “real science” of movies and TV shows, showing what science in these texts is wrong and which science is correct, which can be fun. But, there were no books that asked the question: What decisions were made during production that explained why these depictions of science are the way they are? I was particularly drawn to the fact that scientists could be involved in helping filmmakers make these decisions. Studying the interactions between scientists and filmmakers would also help us better understand the nature of scientific expertise. What do filmmakers consider “science-y” enough to bring in an outside expert?
#2 – How long have scientific advisors been used in Hollywood?
It surprises people to learn that filmmakers have utilized science consultant from nearly the beginning of cinema. Some of the more well known early films that utilized scientific advisors were the 1922 Lon Chaney, Sr. film A Blind Bargain, 1925’s dinosaur extravaganza The Lost World and Fritz Lang’s classic 1929 space film Frau im Mond. However, the consistent use of science consultants is what I call a post-Jurassic Park phenomenon. Nowadays, it would be shocking to find a movie or a TV show with significant scientific content that did not use a science consultant.
#3 – How much of a say do the advisors have? Are there examples of films where they have been very influential?
Science consultants have as much say as filmmakers will allow. But, the biggest thing that surprised me was that most filmmakers care a great deal about scientific integrity. The stereotype, of course, is that Hollywood filmmakers are money-driven hacks who will abandon scientific accuracy at the drop of a hat. In my interviews with both scientists and filmmakers I found that this could not be further from the truth. Sure, some filmmakers are pretty cavalier with scientific integrity, but most filmmakers see the value in scientific authenticity. Filmmakers are professionals who take pride in their artistic creations, and the constraints of scientific realism provide them with challenges. It bothers most filmmakers when they have to abandon scientific accuracy, because it means they were unable to meet the challenges of creating an entertaining story within these constraints. Some of the best examples where scientists had significant input were Deep Impact, Contact, and Finding Nemo. Of course, a film that came out after my book was published, Interstellar, would now top this list.
#4 – Your book talks about how their work helps in raising awareness of scientific issues. Could the same be said of the new wave of modern TV shows? Or comedies like Big Bang Theory?
We are certainly living in a new Golden Age for televised science. Not only are shows like CSI and The Big Bang Theory ratings hits, but shows like Breaking Bad and Masters of Sex are also critical darlings. These shows have certainly made science seem more “sexy” and they have already led to more students choosing careers in science.
#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?
I am currently working on a book titled Indecent Science: Religion, Science and Movie Censorship, 1930-1968, which will analyze how cinema served as a battleground over science’s role in influencing morality. From 1930 to 1968 movie studios sent their screenplays to censorship groups in the U.S. and U.K including Hollywood’s official censorship body the Production Code Administration (also known as the “Hays Office”), the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency and the British Board of Film Censors. This book will explore how filmmakers tried to tell stories about science and how censorship groups modified these cinematic narratives in order to tell what they considered more appropriate stories about science as a social, political and cultural force. It will examine how censors showed anxiety over specific sciences like evolution and psychiatry, as well as generalized concerns about scientific ways of thinking including the theological implications of scientific research. It is definitely a fun topic and I think people will be surprised at how many movies were censored because of their scientific content.
[Image Credit: http://www.davidakirby.com/userimages/kirby_headshot.jpg ]