Physicist-Filmmakers Catch Particle Fever
By Alaina G. Levine
Photo by Myrna Suarez
Mark Levinson and David Kaplan both have doctorates in physics, but chose very different career paths. Levinson became a scriptwriter and filmmaker and Kaplan remained an academic physicist. But the two came together over the last few years to create the film Particle Fever, which chronicles the story of the search for the Higgs boson, with unique insight into CERN’s two major experiments, ATLAS and CMS. What started as a tale about the search for knowledge and the many personalities that make up CERN ended in a smashing climax with the announcement of the discovery of the elusive particle. In the following interview, the filmmakers share their experiences crafting this work and how their backgrounds, both past and present, helped them meet the challenges.
AGL: Why did you make this movie?
David Kaplan, Producer: I just wanted to record in some way these events. Part of it was that I knew a very dramatic thing was going to happen in particle physics, dramatic in that everyone who had been working in the field, at least in my narrow theory side, was going to be very dramatically affected by whatever came out of the LHC. So just for that reason I wanted it recorded, and I naturally tended towards film because there’s a little film in my background. But that seemed to be the best way to capture the events and the experience of it. I had never seen anything like this before, where you are actually in real time going with physicists through the emotional roller coaster and experiencing it as opposed to something simply being explained to you, something you might see on the Discovery Channel. It seemed like an obvious time to do it, and I also thought that if I don’t do it, nobody would do it. Some artist may come in and do something interesting on Discovery Channel, but nobody would capture the experience of the physicists from inside. And then once the ball started rolling, I couldn’t stop it, because I again knew that if I didn’t keep going, it wouldn’t happen and we would miss this incredible opportunity.
Mark Levinson, Director: From my perspective I was a feature filmmaker. I came to it from the [point of view] of making a feature film. I certainly wasn’t interested in making a short, but for me it represented the opportunity to show, in a narrative dramatic form — which is what I was working in — this incredible subject and incredible story. It was this opportunity to combine these two threads of my life, and hopefully also show authentically what was happening. I still think the most amazing thing [is] that we come up with these incredible theories that have all this abstraction, and result in something that they predict about the physical world.
AGL: Mark, let me ask you about your career — why you originally chose physics and why you chose film, and how that path was carved towards film from physics.
Mark: I fell in love with physics in college. I hated physics in high school, but I had a great physics teacher in college and really just was in awe that you could construct these theories, these beautiful abstract mathematical theories that had consistency and logic, and somehow describe the physical world. I think that is still just so phenomenal. One of our characters, Fabiola [Gianotti, former spokeswoman for the ATLAS experiment at CERN], says it’s really the most mysterious thing of all. That there are laws of nature, and that they are describable by mathematics. This is what entranced me about physics. I was a theoretical physicist, very abstract, and totally excited by it. But when I finished, it was not a very good time for theoretical physics and I simultaneously got very interested in what I thought film could do. In a sense, there was a certain parallel in film where it’s amazing you could take what is essentially a bunch of still shots and put them together and create a representation of a world, a story that has drama and is compelling. Somehow that seemed like a more natural path to move into at that point, but it was still about following an enthusiasm for an ability to create something that in one sense is an abstraction and in another sense has a tremendous physics impact.
AGL: I can definitely see the parallels. So when you graduated with your PhD, you were already on your way to Hollywood?
Mark: Not Hollywood. [After graduating from UC Berkeley], I was in Berkeley thereafter and was part of the [Hollywood] outliers like Saul Zaentz [Academy Award-winning producer], Francis Ford Coppola, Walter Murch [Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer who worked with Coppola]. But I was getting involved in film towards the end [of my doctorate], but only in an appreciative sense and starting to conceive what I might do and starting to think about a script. Luckily I did finish my degree first.
AGL: So how did you start your career in film? Was it pitching scripts? Or networking or working on small projects with these outliers? Can you tell me about that path?
Mark: I did start writing a script and in some sense my practical life changed very little. I was a graduate student in theory sitting in a room by myself writing with pencil and paper, not getting paid very much, and then I was doing the same thing writing a script. But what really became my film school was that I answered an ad for a production assistant intern for a small film, but a very legitimate interesting film, called Smooth Talk, based on a Joyce Carol Oates short story, and somebody looked at my resume and thought that a PhD in physics is not the absolutely worst thing to do to prepare yourself [for a film job]. So I got involved in this production and it became a soup-to-nuts thing, where I was involved in preproduction, and production with the editing, and I met the editor. The editing is where it all seemed to come together and in some sense it was like bringing data back to a theorist. [While making] my very first film I was working at the Saul Zaentz Film Center and started to meet people. Suddenly I had gone through film school in the course of one film and then I did start to write a script and made it, which sort of completed that, and was able to fall in with some people in the Bay Area, and that allowed me to survive as a filmmaker.
AGL: And your script was made into a movie?
Mark: It was made into a movie. It was called Prisoner of Time and it was about a former Russian dissident writer and a painter and how they were trying to adapt to all the changes after glasnost.
AGL: David, let me ask you about your path. You are still a “physicist”; of course, you never stop being a physicist…
David: I hope not.
AGL: Tell me about how you moved into the filmmaking world.
David: At the end of high school, I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t see the point, but my sister applied for me to a small school in southern California because she knew I liked making little movies and that was Chapman College. So I went and did film classes for a year, and decided I wasn’t going to make it in film because I wasn’t as driven as some of the people in the program. I also didn’t find them very friendly, so I was looking for something else to do, and my cousin lived in Berkeley and encouraged me to transfer up to Berkeley. They didn’t really have much of a film department, so I transferred into physics because it happened to be what I was extremely good at in high school. And then I eventually became a physicist because of that and wrote a couple of good papers and got lucky and remained in physics. And I never thought I’d go back to film, certainly not as a career, and in fact when I wanted to record this event I didn’t think that it has to be in film. I just thought it had to be recorded somehow, but film happened to the thing I felt most comfortable with.
AGl: This question is for both of you: How has being a physicist helped you in the filmmaking process?
David: This was the first time I made a movie except for the little things I did in high school. I think being a physicist helps being a human being, because you look at any complicated situation and attempt to break it down to its elements and figure out a path that is not biased by what other people are saying but [rather] by logic. You can [eliminate] a lot of bad directions very quickly by looking at a situation and boiling it down. That’s good for any complicated thing. For the simplest things in life it’s not good to be a physicist, because you’re a pain in the ass and you take a long time to do very simple things. But for something as extraordinarily complicated as making a film, I felt that I looked at the project and the elements and I was constantly looking at the elements to figure out how we were going to do it.
Mark: For me, the great advantage of having a physics background was that I didn’t have to do a lot of research to catch up and get up to speed. The second I met David, I could think about the filmmaking. I didn’t have to learn physics, which would have been a huge endeavor obviously, to be able to understand it. Perhaps the greater advantage that the film has from [our spearheading it] was that we knew what we could leave out. As you discover the field, it starts to be hard to distill what are the really great and important things and what aren’t, and for David and I, we were always on the same page: “This is the story, this is the physics we need, this is what we don’t need” and that became really crucial.
David: (laughs) We weren’t always on the same page.
Mark: (laughs) Well mostly.
David: We probably cleared through 90% pretty quickly, [the items] we never had to discuss.
Mark: And we both had the same perspective, that mostly less is more.
David: That’s definitely true. I think I even pushed for even less (laughs) but didn’t win. But this is why the film had to be made by people who really knew the subject. Because somebody coming in has a lot of ramp-up time and then they get very excited about the physics as stuff they just learned and they want to talk about it to everybody, and that’s not what we wanted to do. In fact, the last thing we put in the film was the physics. The structure of the story, developing the characters, the arc, the narrative, all of that stuff we wanted to construct, until the very end when we put in the physics, when the physics absolutely has to go in, and we understood that the real elements of the science had to be explained. [But only] for the sake of the narrative, not for the sake of teaching the audience something.
AGL: In the course of making the film and with your interviews, was there new information that was revealed to you that you were surprised to learn?
David: I can’t say I learned any physics. I was happily surprised, although I made this assumption, at the willingness of just about everybody in the field to support this project and be involved in it and understand it was important, partly because when you’re in it the only real thing people talk about is what they’re working on. And I look at it as we’re all encouraging each other to keep going, to keep pushing, keep doing more physics, and it’s hard, and anytime anybody deviates from that path there’s concern or suspicion. But I was surprised by the near-universal acceptance that somebody needs to make this film. And in fact some of my colleagues immediately thought it was brilliant idea. I was just surprised about that, and it may be that we are finally in a transition period where our generation has totally accepted the fact that we absolutely have to reach out to the public and to take a few more steps towards them, in giving them a sense of what we do and what science is and even what the experience is.
Mark: For me, I would say two things. One, I did learn the whole idea of the multiverse. When I was in physics it wasn’t anything that was discussed.
David: (laughs) It didn’t exist.
Mark: It didn’t exist. And so the big discovery for me was this concept and the reasons for it and that was quite interesting. And the other thing is a little askew. I was a theorist — I was very abstract. The LHC would have almost been too practical for me. And so I had very little contact with experimentalists. I was sort of an extreme case. Coming into contact with experimentalists and really getting to know them and understand them was new and terrific and gave me a whole appreciation for this other side, which I have to admit I did not really immerse myself in.
AGL: Was there any way for both of you that your physics background hindered the process, or that it was a disadvantage for you?
David: When I was just getting my PhD a couple years in and I was trying to figure out why I was getting a PhD in particle physics, which was so incredibly impractical. I was off on vacation and I remember doing a very complicated logic puzzle that I spent a solid 10 days on it until I solved it. I discovered how tenacious the degree was making me: that I was willing to push for a very long time on a very hard problem that I didn’t know I would solve. At that moment I decided everybody should get a PhD in physics. I think there are a handful of things you discover in college and you decide everybody should do that because it will make the world a better place. So I don't know that it hinders anything other than perhaps there are simple tasks, there are tasks that can be delegated, but your first instinct is to look at a situation and try to pull it apart and understand it in detail, and sometimes that's not the most efficient [way to do it], or you insult people who should be doing the job that you just instinctively attempt to do yourself.
Mark: I think the training for a physicist is great for a lot of things. But frankly my active physics career prior to this film was nearly 30 years ago. I really think I look at things and approach things like this film as a filmmaker, but I think the skills that I had developed, the analytical skills, the way you approach things and knowledge, was really useful. I was talking to a film class last night and I said the good news is that I didn’t go to film school, but the bad news is I got a PhD in physics (laughs). That was my path in, so you choose your poison. I think it was a very good way to approach things, and in my case I don’t think it [serves as my] major perspective. My wife occasionally says that she can see the physicist in me coming out, maybe more lately (laughs), but that’s not the way people for most of the last 20-30 years have thought of me.
AGL: When you were approaching the crafting of the film, did it seem like it was like one gigantic math problem?
Mark: I approached it as a dramatic film. Right from the beginning I was thinking about story structure, and I was already constructing scenarios about what the drama could be. I had thought about [the film’s] conflict, and we set it up initially [that] the competition between ATLAS and CMS could have been the dramatic story, or more about the theorists and experimentalists divide, and in fact I had started with several characters from CMS that were counterparts to ATLAS that we were going to follow. But I was always thinking about it in terms of a structure. Maybe naively, not thinking that it was a big problem to solve (laughs). It became a big problem to solve, and it seemed initially it was going to be fairly straightforward, [but] the problems emerged later.
David: For me, Mark’s been in filmmaking for 30 years, he thinks like a filmmaker. I am fresh off the boat so I was approaching it [differently]. I wouldn’t call it a math problem at all because [with] math problems you take a set of logical steps and you either get to a solution or you don’t. I can’t say the steps taken here were illogical, but it was much more like model-building in physics, where I think I have a new theory to explain xyz and I would like to build a model. You start building it and you discover little problems with it and then you make little changes and then you discover a big problem and then you reinvent it or recreate it or turn it on its head and you keep attempting [to solve it]. You know at some point you may have to give up on it but if you’re dedicated enough you push incredibly hard until you figure out the configuration in which it works. So it’s a thing you want to create and you discover if it actually works, as opposed to something you solve with logic and get to an answer.
Mark: I became very aware and saw the parallels in my mind to scripted features, where you start with a theory in physics or you start with a script (those are the theoretical constructs of something), and then you go into the practical aspects of it — film production, or the experiment, both of which are different processes where you need lots of money and lots of people and it's completely crazy. You’re just gathering stuff and you don’t have time to digest it at all and you’re just hanging on and trying to survive, and then you come back…
David: And collect data…
Mark: You collect data or dailies and then you come back to the editor or the theorist and you start to see what you have. It very much paralleled that process.
AGL: What was July 4, 2012 like for you, both emotionally and logistically [when the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson was made]?
Mark: Logistically it was extremely exciting. It was actually very interesting because we did not expect initially that there was going to be such a huge announcement. There was a regularly scheduled physics conference in Australia where they were supposed to announce the latest results from the experiment and we weren’t even going to cover it. I actually had some friends from ATLAS who were going and Fabiola was going to give a talk and I asked [them to] record her talk, [because] maybe there’ll be something interesting, but it’s not worth us going because we don’t think it’s going to be that significant. But then a week and half before, there was an internal memo sent around by the director general of CERN to employees that there was going to be a seminar on the morning of July 4, and that raised our suspicions. So I actually wrote to Fabiola and I knew she wouldn’t tell me exactly, but I just said, “Fabiola are you going to do the presentation in Australia or at CERN?” and she said, “I’m going to be at CERN,” and then I booked my ticket (laughs). And it was really within a week, and then we realized that something big was going to happen. David was hearing gurgling of what was going to happen…
David: We were getting rumors along the way and we couldn’t confirm it but that email from Fabiola was the nail in the coffin that we had to go over there.
Mark: And I wrote to Martin [Aleksa, ATLAS Liquid Argon System Run Co-Coordinator] and I said “Here's the situation: Do you think I should be at CERN?”, and he just said “You should be at CERN” (laughs). So we realized, and then I got over there and then it was quite interesting. We had seen other preliminary results, so suddenly there were all these precautions put in place. They wouldn’t open the auditorium until the morning because they didn’t want people camping out overnight, so it became clear that it was big event. And then we heard that [Peter] Higgs was maybe going to be coming and it was very exciting. For me on the ground there, when you’re in that situation I have to say there are so many practical things that you are thinking about. I’m just thinking “Jesus Christ I hope I’m not missing the most important event” when it was actually being done I was just concentrating on the practicalities and it was that night afterwards, when I went back and went on the Internet and saw basically an explosion [of news] and it was everywhere on every newspaper and I thought, wow we just witnessed an absolutely monumental thing. This is what we wanted. This is what we were really hoping for all along.
AGL: When you say practicalities, do you mean the filming and directing?
Mark: Yes, who are you with and are you getting them and can you get to them and can you hear them and all the technical things that meant we had actually recorded it (laughs).
David: Should we go to the other room? Should we carry the batteries? Blah blah blah.
Mark: Do we have enough tape? Oh my God, is somebody leaving?
AGL: Up until this point, you couldn’t have known when you started this project that this would be the climactic moment in the film, but what did you think was going to be the climactic moment in the first place as you crafted the film?
David: The film was not supposed to be about the Higgs. The film was supposed to be about the fact that people have been speculating about things like the multiverse, and for many years, people have assumed that there’s going to be some new physics that comes with the Higgs, and supersymmetry was the most popular theory among them. So there was a dichotomy that was growing between the possibility of seeing the new theory at the LHC or the possibility that we would never have access to the next theory, and the fear that generated within the community. I knew the LHC would say something about that, but I didn’t know how definitive and I even figured it would be an unhappy ending, which is hard to sell broadly. So in that case I was hoping for the best, but in my mind the best ending would be any sort of information from the LHC that would emotionally impact the theorists.
Mark: From my perspective, I was constantly thinking what could be endings, and for a while I did think that the first physics [results would be the finale].
Interview has been edited for clarity and space.
Alaina G. Levine is the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2014) and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a science career and professional development consulting enterprise. She can be contacted through www.alainalevine.com, or followed on twitter @AlainaGLevine.
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