He’s the producer behind 300, Terminator: Salvation, Tron: Legacy, and more films than you can hardly imagine. But you might be surprised to learn Jeff Silver’s career in filmmaking started with a Bar Mitzvah gift from his aunt, a Super 8 camera. It’s a wonderful reminder of how a small moment can change everything, which might explain why Silver chose to use science advising for Terminator: Salvation and Tron: Legacy – those small science details could change anything, from a character to a storyline. Of course, the only way to really know is to ask and Silver was more than happy to answer our questions, plus a few more on the advantages of science advising, his favorite moment of making Tron: Legacy, and a few words of advice for the next generation of filmmakers.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to work in the film industry?
I was that neighborhood kid with the Super8 film camera (a Bar Mitzvah gift from my aunt) making short movies with my friends – mostly influenced by Laugh-In and Charlie Chaplin. That was in the late 60s and early 70s. American and European film were in renaissance – Kubrick, Altman, Fellini, Truffaut. Simultaneously, the 60s political scene was raging and the Hollywood studio system was disintegrating. So what’s a suburban hippie kid with a camera to do but make movies? I read every filmmaker bio, scoured the how-to books, and shot as much film as my allowance would permit. But I was torn. I also wanted to be a marine biologist. And Jacques Cousteau was my hero. His films, like the The Silent World, his inventions, like SCUBA, and his environmental messages, regarding whaling and nuclear waste, were equally inspiring to me. I thought I would climb aboard the Calypso one day, and wield a movie camera on behalf of science. As I grew older, the movies won me over, but I’ve always remained a scientist at heart.
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
I was an unlikely candidate for a film career. The son of a dentist from Miami was not exactly connected, which was apparently what you needed to be in 1977 when I graduated from Brandeis University in Boston. So, I wrote about a hundred letters to producers in New York. It was about as far as I dared venture, but New York was perceived at the time to be at the heart of the independent film scene – far from the supposed establishment “evils” of Hollywood. Very few responded, but one did – Otto Preminger – the great Viennese director of Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent. He invited me up to his office in the penthouse of the Columbia Pictures building in Manhattan, where I told him I wanted nothing more in the world than to work for him. But, I told him that my parents had given me a backpacking trip to Europe that summer, and that I was supposed to leave the next day. He said that if I’d drop that trip, I could have the job. Was he testing me? Probably, but I agreed. I became his assistant and story editor for the whopping salary of $50 per week! As my duties included reading books for possible projects, I read Graeme Greene’s The Human Factor and recommended it to him. He actually took me up on my suggestion and made it! I’m grateful to Otto for giving me a break, and the rest of my career can be traced to that moment.
For Tron: Legacy and Terminator Salvation, why did you choose to use science advisors? How did The Exchange help connect you to the scientists? What were the benefits for these films?
On Tron: Legacy, we faced a legacy issue of our own – how to follow in the footsteps of one of the truly pioneering films of modern cinema, the original Tron. The original was not only cutting-edge in its use of computers in the design and making of the film, but also in its depiction of the future of our relationship to the whole digital world. Some 28 years later, much of the original’s visionary thinking came true. When we Legacy filmmakers thought about the issues we contemplate today – artificial intelligence, teleportation, digital avatars – we felt that Tron: Legacy had inherited an obligation to be forward-thinking as well. Having consulted The Science & Entertainment Exchange on Terminator: Salvation on questions of robotics and cyber-hacking, I was sure they’d be able to put together one of their famous think tanks and kick-start our imaginations in these areas. The session was amazing — a merger of science and art – scientists and filmmakers riffing on far-out sci-fi subject matter, ultimately stimulating creative ideas we would not otherwise have considered without their scientific perspective and inspiration.
Why should film and television projects consider science advising? What is the advantage of using real science in film or television?
When someone wants to suggest that an idea is far-fetched, they’ll often say, “only in the movies”! But I find the opposite is true. Filmmakers are perpetually in desperate search of original ideas. But when we open ourselves up to exposure to ideas from outside our movie realm, the real imaginative stuff happens. One way of doing so is venturing into the realm of science. I find that my mind is expanded nearly every time I speak to a scientist about his field. They suggest ways of looking at the world that I wouldn’t have dared imagine. Maybe next time, when we want to describe something truly out-there, we should turn the old adage around and say, “only in science”! Hopefully, the real science filmmakers apply in the creative process will be equally inspiring to the filmgoer.
What was your favorite memory of making Tron: Legacy? Did you have a favorite character or scene?
One of my favorite moments in making Tron: Legacy was when I brought Jeff Bridges to do his digital body scan at Gentle Giant (a digital scanning facility in the Valley). As he stood there in his “onesie,” preparing to subject himself to the scanning laser that would record his every physical nuance, he said to me, “Its crazy, we’re sitting here in a tractor-trailer in a parking lot behind a Von’s Supermarket, doing exactly what [the original] Tron suggested the future would be like – getting scanned into a computer. Somehow, I pictured it would be a lot cooler, man!” We had a good laugh about that!
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
The real interesting stuff in science happens where the disciplines cross – astrobiology, biomimetics, bioinformatics, nanotech – where people from disparate fields bring a different way of thinking to a problem. When that happens, sparks fly! So, my advice to filmmakers would be to go beyond references to earlier films and works of art, and reflect on other fields, including science. Reflect on cultures outside your own. And continue to expand the technical boundaries of storytelling. Think about immersive experiences – think holodecks!
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