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, Jerry Zucker (director, producer, and Advisory Board Vice-Chair for The Exchange) shares his thoughts on The Exchange’s success, plus why he finds science fascinating and his words of wisdom to aspiring filmmakers and scientists. (Not to mention, a good dose of his trademark humor!)
Tell us about your background. What sparked your interest in screenwriting and directing?
Essentially, I have no background. I just liked to make people laugh as a kid. It was a good alternative to getting the crap beat out of me in school. My brother David and I started making 8mm films when we were in high school and continued at the University of Wisconsin. I was an education major because, ironically, it was the only degree I could get without taking any more language or science!
We got together with our friend, Jim Abrahams and started Kentucky Fried Theater, doing live skits and showing funny videos. Eventually, we were headstrong and foolish enough to pack everything up in a U-Haul truck and drive to California in hopes of making it in Hollywood. We ran the show for 5 years in Los Angeles, not achieving fame or fortune, but we developed our style of humor. At some point, we realized that film was the best medium for our humor and we wrote a script based on our live show called Kentucky Fried Movie.
What moment early on in your career stands out at as a turning point?
I think when the doctor cut my umbilical cord. That was a big thing for me. It was the first time I was really on my own having to fend for myself. I still cannot believe my Mom let him do it.
Seriously, there were probably a hundred of them, but I will tell you one: when I saw the film Turning Point. That was a real turning point. No wait, that was not one of them. In order to get Kentucky Fried Movie financed we made the first 10 minutes with our own money. When it was finished we took it to a friend who owned the New Art Theatre in Los Angeles and asked him if he would show it before one of the films. He agreed and it was the first time we had ever seen our work on film, projected on the big screen in a real theater with a big audience. The 500 people that were there that night loved it! It impressed our friend who owned the theater and he ended up finding us the money to make the rest of the movie.
The Exchange recently celebrated its 350th consult, with many more on the way. Did you foresee this type of success for the program? Where do you think the program will be in another three years?
It’s funny, I had guessed that we would be at 352 by now so I overestimated a little bit and Janet thought we would be at 348 so between the two of us we got pretty close. In fact, it is sort of like a movie. We do not go into anything thinking it might fail. We always start a new project with an enormous burst of energy and confidence. In the end sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong. The same was true with The Exchange. We thought from the beginning that it could be a really valuable tool and something that the Hollywood creative community would embrace.
What sort of reactions do you normally get when people find out you are in cahoots with scientists and engineers?
Well I usually do not use the word “cahoots” when I’m speaking about The Exchange, but I think most people think it is really cool. That is after they recover from the initial shock that I would have anything to do with a prestigious, intellectual organization like the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). “Cognitive dissonance,” I think is the appropriate phrase. But pretty much everybody who hears about The Exchange, particularly in the industry (show business, not science), has an incredibly positive reaction to it.
What fascinates you about science? Did you have any interest in science as a kid?
Science has always fascinated me, with the possible exception of dissecting frogs. Of course, for me, science is best when someone is kind enough to dumb it down a little. Ralph Cicerone promised me that one day the NAS will open up a remedial branch in my honor. But what really fascinates me about scientists is that strange obsession they all seem to have with truth and facts and proof. So weird! Here in Hollywood, the city of crossed fingers, we are more into karma and a general belief that everything will work out eventually because we deserve it.
As a filmmaker and client of The Exchange, you know firsthand what science consulting can do for a project. What can you tell other filmmakers about the consulting process? What are the benefits of working with a scientist or engineer?
Research is critical. Whether you are working on a true story or science fiction, or even a comedy, it is incredibly helpful to have access to information from people who have real-life experience in that area. You can find a lot of facts on the Internet, but having a conversation with an expert who you can ask questions specifically related to the situation in your show is invaluable.
Recently The Exchange connected me with two scientists in the bio-fuel industry. They helped me shape the working environment of my two lead characters. In addition to all the technical questions, I also asked them what kind of casual science-related conversation two people might have in the lunchroom. They launched into a full simulated conversation right there on the phone. They literally wrote the dialogue for me. A few weeks later they arranged a tour of a company similar to the one in my story.
The great thing is that it is not just about authenticity. You can brainstorm with a scientist about a storyline that is totally hypothetical – like my sex life in college.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
I think I would want to tell both groups why I am so passionate about science. For me it began when our daughter Katie was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I will never forget the day we went into Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. They pricked her finger and tested her blood sugar; it was over 600. Then I watched as they plunged a needle into a little bottle of insulin and injected it into Katie’s arm. Twenty minutes later, we had our daughter back. Despite the horror of the diagnosis, Katie was laughing and running around like the happy kid she always was. Every time I think about it, I am filled with gratitude that a couple of scientists, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, had the drive and the passion to pursue the mystery of diabetes and discover insulin.
Years later, I had the honor of meeting Paul Berg, whose research in recombinant DNA led to the human-based insulin that Katie now uses, and thanked him personally. During the years, I have had the opportunity to meet many of the brilliant and dedicated people involved in the design of insulin pumps, glucose monitors, and hundreds of other devises that improve the quality of my daughter’s life. Now more than ever we need bright young minds to pursue careers in science, and great filmmakers to tell their stories.
What are the similarities you see between science and entertainment?
We are all incredibly handsome. They are also both tremendously creative and collaborative fields. We are always trying out new theories. You have an idea of where you want to get, but you have to experiment your way through it, and it might take a long time to get there. There is also a lot of risk involved, financially speaking, and we both spend a lot of our time begging for money. Of course, there is no such thing as bench research in entertainment. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a National Institute of Comedy that would pay me to experiment with different kinds of jokes and invent new theories about storytelling and humor on film?
Ever since The Exchange began, I have noticed a great synergy between filmmakers and scientists. From what I have observed filmmakers are fascinated by science and its ability to stretch and challenge the imagination. It is actually good exercise for our brains. Scientists also seem fascinated by the movie business. The level of interest has definitely been reciprocal.