Today’s Featured Entertainer, director Valerie Weiss, could also be a Featured Scientist. Weiss’s passion for both science and filmmaking started in high school, eventually leading to a Ph.D. in Biophysics and an award-winning sci-fi short. Weiss also founded the Dudley Film Program at Harvard University and served as its first Filmmaker-in-Residence. Her feature film debut, Losing Control, tells the story of a female scientist who wants empirical proof that her boyfriend is “the one.” The smart and original romantic comedy will be released in early 2012, with advance screenings happening this fall. We caught up with Weiss to ask her about her unusual background, what it’s like to switch from one male-dominated field to another, and how science in films can change the public’s perceptions.
Wow! Talk about an overachiever! You’ve led a busy life. Tell us about your background. How did you get started, first in science and then making the transition to filmmaking? Were you always interested in the performing arts?
I fell in love with science in tenth grade when I had an amazing biology teacher named Mr. Charambura. He’d been in the Peace Corps and had malaria–twice. He had a super casual teaching style and taught biology like he was telling stories. I had been acting in plays and thought I would be an actor up to this point, so when I took this class, I thought for the first time that I might want to do something else. I loved that biology got to the how and why of life and that is the reason that I was interested in theater and acting, too. So from that point on, I studied art and science simultaneously.
I went to Princeton and majored in Molecular Biology and earned a Certificate in Theater and Dance. It was at Princeton that I transitioned from acting to directing plays and really felt that I’d found my niche. Directing was so much more suited to my personality and my desire to think about the whole picture as well as the minutiae. By the time I graduated from college, I found myself at an unusual crossroads– having a passion for science and directing, but not being experienced enough in either one yet to do it professionally. So, I decided to keep going with these dual interests and went to Harvard Medical School to do a Ph.D. in X-ray Crystallography (the 3-D photography of molecules) and founded a film program for graduate students so I could continue directing and learn to make movies. I made my first film while I was writing my dissertation, and two weeks after we wrapped production, I had to defend my thesis, and after that I never did another experiment again. I was sure I wanted to make films.
Given the subject of your latest film, you haven’t really abandoned science, but is there something about the practice of science that you miss, especially when compared with your current life as a filmmaker?
What I miss most are the scientists. I love scientists. I love their earnestness and sincerity, their curiosity, the collaborative nature and their awkwardness. I felt very comfortable in that world when I did my Ph.D. and I really miss it sometimes. I love that I got to work with scientists on this movie and that I am getting to meet so many scientists when we screen the film at biotech companies and universities.
How has the education and training you received as a scientist proven useful in filmmaking?
It’s actually been incredibly useful and not just for the obvious reason that it informed the story of this film. Doing a Ph.D. taught me to be extremely independent, which is probably why I’m so drawn to independent filmmaking, and it also taught me to never give up. I worked on the same project for five years before I got meaningful results in grad school. It really taught me that anything worth doing that is fresh and original takes a long time with a lot of failure along the way. I learned to be persistent and tenacious which is essential in the entertainment business. I also think I developed a process of discovery and experimentation through doing my thesis that I use in my approach to filmmaking. I spend a lot of time researching and experimenting before I actually write my scripts and direct my films. It helps me stay creative and open to many possibilities before narrowing in on the exact film I want to make.
How did you come up with the idea for Losing Control? What made you want to make a comedy rather than a more serious film? It’s been said that comedy is more difficult that drama. Do you agree?
When I got to Harvard and started working in labs, I knew there was a movie there. I thought it was an untapped world waiting to be explored on film– kind of like The Office set in a lab. I also really wanted to show what a real female scientist was like– full of contradictions, vulnerability, and feminine, like the women I knew in grad school, and not the stereotypes you usually see in films. I also wanted to explore what the impact of doing research 24/7 has on your psyche and your love life. It becomes really hard not to question everything in your life when that is what you are being trained to do all day, every day. I also knew there would be a lot of comedy taking Sam–my female protagonist–who was somewhat warped by her experience in the lab, and putting her in the dating world of Boston and seeing how she would react and how people would react to her. Many of the interactions Sam has in the movie, I’m afraid to say, were based on my own awkward experiences. For me, the film had to be a comedy because that is why I wanted to make it in the first place– to share so many of the funny things I experienced at that time in my life. I’ve heard that comedy is harder than drama, and maybe that’s true, but my metric for whether things worked in the script, and eventually, the film, were whether they made me laugh out loud, so that was a pretty easy test to do.
You’ll be speaking at The Exchange’s screening of Losing Control in Washington, DC. How did you become involved with The Exchange? What do you think of the program?
A few years ago, I spoke on a panel for L’Oreal’s Women in Science Awards about the role of women scientists in the media. It was a fascinating panel and I got to meet astronaut Sally Ride, who was also on the panel, so that was incredibly cool. Afterwards, Barbara Kline Pope approached me and told me they were starting The Science and Entertainment Exchange. They’ve been kind enough to invite me to all their events, which are always fabulous and exactly at the intersection of my two main interests. I think The Exchange is a fantastic program. Clearly, Hollywood needs this kind of resource if it is interested in making films with more credible science plots and characters. I think the general public is getting more sophisticated about science as technology makes the spread of information easier. I think the younger generation won’t stand for ridiculous science depicted on screen for much longer because what kids are learning in elementary school now is what I learned in grad school. Not kidding.
At one point you were recruiting scientists to appear in the film to give advice to Samantha. Did you receive many videos and did any of those scientists make the cut?
Yes, we shot a lot of interviews at the AAAS meeting last year. We got a lot of great material and at one point considered intercutting it with the film the way the old married couples appear in When Harry Met Sally. However, the flow and pace of the movie worked so well without it, it would have been like putting on the brakes every 20 minutes. I’d still like to feature them in the DVD extras.
Do you think putting science into movies (for example, having a scientist as the lead character) helps change the public’s perception of scientists and science as a career?
I think so. I’ve had many people tell me how much they love our main character because she is so real, authentic and relatable. I think that’s the first step in turning people on to a career in science. They actually have to know that a real person is doing the job in the first place. That was something I struggled with as a scientist. I had very few female role models and almost no fictional references, so I couldn’t even visualize what a life a scientist would look like. I think that’s part of why filmmaking won out.
It might be said that you’ve gone from one male-dominated career to another. What are the similarities and differences between the two?
There are many similarities. People constantly quote the dismal statistics in both professions, but as a female scientist or filmmaker, what can you do about it? It doesn’t change your passion or your drive to succeed. Maybe it does make you work harder because you can’t take success for granted, but nobody can in either of these fields; they’re just too unpredictable and competitive. I think the biggest similarity is that some of the best attributes that women naturally have like collaboration, nurturing relationships, creativity and empathy are extremely valuable for both pursuits, but are often trampled on or stymied by more forceful male colleagues, which is a real shame because those qualities are assets for turning out exceptional work.
Can you identify with your protagonist? As a lab scientist, did you go through some of the same trials and tribulations as Samantha?
I definitely relate to Samantha. I think everyone who does a Ph.D. fails more than they succeed which can lead to extreme self-doubt, both professionally and personally, and lead to some crazy behavior. I love that Sam really “loses control” in the film because I think there is a real tendency to want to do that when you are that frustrated. I also really identify with her naiveté. I went straight from college to grad school and felt relatively sheltered when I would go out in Boston and that everyone’s lives were more glamorous than mine, working in a lab all day and smelling of sulfur. I can totally relate to her fish-out-of-water behavior in the club and party scenes.
What’s next on your agenda? Can you tell us anything about your next project?
I have two films that I am working on now. One is called Overstuffed and is a family dramedy about three adult children in crisis who need to move back home with their hoarder father. One of my characters is an environmental engineer and one is studying pre-natal psychology, so I will definitely need science consultants to help me out with this one! The other film that I’ll be directing is called Positively/Negative and was written by Ben Weber who plays Rudy in Losing Control and will star in the film. This one is about genetic testing and the impact on a family with Huntington’s disease, so both films will have science angles.
What advice would you give other scientists who’d like to follow your career path?
My advice would be to develop a strong point of view. Science teaches you to have a balanced perspective and let the data speak for itself, but filmmaking is the opposite. A director needs a strong vision and the ability to communicate that vision clearly. It is worth taking the time to do some soul searching to figure out what kind of stories you want to tell and how you want to tell them. This is just as important as learning the craft and technical side of filmmaking.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Losing Control will be released in theaters in early 2012. Independent films live and die based on word-of-mouth, so please spread the word about the film–put the trailer on your Facebook page, host a screening at your company or university, and tell all your friends about the film leading up to the release. Our website is www.losingcontrolmovie.com where you can see our trailer, press, and read about our cast and crew.
Read more Featured Entertainer interviews here.