The Exchange is celebrating its third anniversary this month, and to commemorate the occasion (and more than 350 consults!), we will be featuring interviews with the people who made the program possible. This week, Janet Zucker (producer, and Advisory Board Vice-Chair for The Exchange) tells us her vision for the future of The Exchange, why she feels an immense debt to science, and what scientific topic gets the most air-time in Hollywood.
Tell us about your background. How did you become a producer?
I attended the UCLA master’s program in public health and business and in my final semester I impulsively decided to start a management company in the entertainment business. I represented many television and film actors, among them Judge Reinhold and David Caruso. This time period was the beginning of the rise to power of talent managers in the film business. I was at the beginning of the curve. I found myself most interested in developing projects for my clients. Following the birth of my daughter, I decided to leave the management business with its 24-hour on-call responsibilities and focus solely on producing.
How do you decide what films to produce? Is there a “gut reaction” to films you want to make?
I’ve always had very eclectic taste in material. What usually draws me to a project are compelling characters and stories that make me continue to turn the page. I have to be interested in where the story will lead me as a reader. Gut reactions are something intangible, but I think that every great producer has to follow their gut at some point. Sometimes it gets you in trouble, but usually it pans out in spades.
Why did you and Jerry help start The Exchange? What were your initial thoughts on the program?
Jerry and I felt an immense debt to science following our experience with stem cell politics and Prop-71. We realized how important it is for the well-being of the world to infuse science into public awareness through entertainment. The world gets so much of their information and attitudes through the entertainment media and we wanted to inspire filmmakers to embrace science and portray it on film in a way that would encourage people around the world to appreciate its importance in our lives and the survival of our planet.
The Exchange recently celebrated its 350th consult, with many more on the way. What were your initial hopes for the program? Where do you think the program will be in another three years?
When Jerry and I started The Exchange along with Ralph Cicerone, we felt that you can’t dictate how creative people portray accuracy in science. We felt the first goal was to encourage openness and allow a natural free-flowing dialogue to occur between the Hollywood creative community and scientists. We felt the natural outgrowth of that dialogue would be more science and a better portrayal of science in filmed entertainment as well as a willingness to explore the shades of grey. Our initial hope was simply to start the process of interaction. Eventually we would like to see the program expand into the area of education. We want to inspire our youth to embrace science and explore the outer limits of their imagination. Often people look at science as being too difficult to understand, yet when theories are explained within an entertainment context, all of the sudden people become engaged and embrace it.
Beyond connecting television and film projects with scientists and engineers, The Exchange hosts numerous events throughout the year. Is there a particular event or science topic at an event that wowed you? What topic would you love to hear more of?
It’s hard to identify one science salon or event because they have all been amazing in their own way. They’re like my babies and I can’t possibly put one above another.
Why do you think filmmakers seem to be increasingly interested in getting the science right?
In some cases it’s about “getting it right,” but many times scientific theory is just so much better than what Hollywood can make up. Scientists are also incredibly creative people, and the knowledge and experience they have can lead to wonderfully entertaining fiction that feels real. It’s amazing how often the truth is truly stranger than fiction. We have gotten to the point where audiences can be wowed by reality.
What science field or topic do you think gets the most attention in Hollywood? Is there a lesser-known field that deserves some air-time?
Films that deal with time travel or other depictions of the future are really popular right now. I think that audiences will always be drawn to films that depict a world that could be their reality.
If you left filmmaking to pursue a career in science, what field would you study?
I have always loved the ocean, so I would want to be a marine biologist.
Anything you can share about your next project?
Jerry and I just returned from Australia where we were shooting a new film called Mental, starring Toni Collette and Liev Schreiber. I’m also in the middle of developing a show at Starz that is centered in the stock car racing world and a film called Imagining Nathan at Disney.
Read more Featured Entertainer interviews here.