With a background in film and a secret enthusiasm for science, John Nein, a Senior Programmer at the Sundance Film Institute, seems to have found himself in the perfect line of work. Each year, Nein oversees the process for the Sloan Foundation Prize at Sundance, a prize awarded to an outstanding feature film with a science theme or depiction of a scientist as a major character. The Sloan Foundation also supports a panel discussion, which brings scientists and filmmakers together to talk about the films. As the man “in the middle of it all,” we jumped at the chance to ask Nein some questions about the benefits of the Sloan Prize, his greatest science heroes and what field of science he’d like to study.

You oversee the process for picking the winner of the Sloan Foundation prize at Sundance.  Were you interested in science before you got the job?

Watching films for a living does often strike people as a dream job, but I’m always quick to point out that when you are programming a festival like Sundance, there’s a great deal more to it than watching films. The independent film world is constantly in transition and keeping up with what’s happening, what role we can play in supporting the work of emerging filmmakers and the community as a whole, and particularly filmmaking internationally, takes an enormous amount of time, which is to say nothing of the planning of the festival itself. However, when all is said and done, watching the great films that come our way is rewarding in many ways. 

Programming a festival was not something I intended to do, although in retrospect it makes sense. I was a graduate student in UCLA’s Film Directing program and through a couple of connections found my way to a job putting together the panel discussions and seminars at Sundance Film Festival, in addition to screening international films for the programmers. After a few years of doing this, I gradually played more and more of a role in the process until I was invited to be a programmer of the festival. 

I confess to being a lifelong sci-fi geek. I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember – from an old book I had when I was a kid called How Things Work to always wanting to win the science fair. Although I toyed with the idea of pursuing math or science in college, the discovery of theater and film seemed more exciting than three-dimensional calculus, but my interest in science remains. I still read science-related books and magazines and try to keep up on my Science Friday and Radiolab podcasts. 

Tell us how films become candidates for the Sloan prize.  How is the winner chosen?  Besides the monetary prize of $20,000, what are the benefits of winning? 

The process of considering films for the Sloan prize is actually quite straight forward. We don’t give more consideration to science-related films than any other kind of film, but once we have selected the films that will be accepted to the festival, we look through the list to determine which ones have subject matter that is in line with the mandate of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This is something that happens in consultation with the Sloan staff and we generally come up with roughly three or four films that fit the eligibility criteria (although that number changes from year to year depending on the work that is submitted). We then assemble a jury comprised of five people – a mix of scientists and filmmakers – who come to the festival, watch the films and deliberate to determine the winner of the prize (along with a citation to give their decision some context). 

As for the process itself, it’s not particularly difficult, but there are quite a few films that inhabit a ‘gray area’ that needs to be discussed. For example, the Sloan Foundation works tireless to support films with an accurate and constructive depiction of science, so most often science-fiction falls outside their mandate. However, from time to time we’ll see work that would be considered future science – meaning that it’s quite rigorous in extrapolating a possible future – with technologies or ideas that might seem outlandish but actually aren’t. So a film like Another Earth, which won this year’s prize, posits the appearance of a seemingly parallel planet to our own, which could be construed as science fiction but actually occasioned a fascinating conversation between the filmmakers and astrophysicist Sean Carroll about the real science of multiple universe theory.

Other than the prize money itself, the award is one way of creating awareness for a film. At a time when marketing an independent film is challenging and costly, filmmakers and distributors are eager to use any form of recognition to generate visibility for their film – in whatever form it might be making its way into the world. 

The Sloan Foundation also supports a science-themed panel at the festival that includes both scientists and filmmakers.  How have you worked with the Science and Entertainment Exchange in putting together this panel?  What do you think the scientists and filmmakers have learned from each other?

The panel discussion which we present every year in partnership with the Sloan Foundation is something that’s actually quite hard to put together because it requires a perfect chemistry between the filmmakers and the scientists, so it’s been really key to find the right people. That task became a lot smoother when I came across the Science and Entertainment Exchange. We’ve always been pretty successful in getting top scientists to come out to Sundance (not surprisingly – there are a lot of cinema buffs in the science world), but The Exchange almost feels like it’s cheating – having at your disposal this amazing roster of people with whom you can readily be put in touch with. It occasionally feels too good to be true. 

In terms of what the scientists and filmmakers learn from each other, I think it varies from panel to panel but the one thing that seems a regular revelation is one of process – it’s the realization that both filmmaking and science rely on a mix of creativity and logic; that people wrongly consider science to be exclusively empirical and the work of artists to be this thing that just descends from the clouds into their heads. In truth, the intersection between the methods of scientists and artists are fascinating, and that has been a topic of conversation almost every time. 

Imagine you¹re a scientist. What field would you want to study?

That’s tough and I kind of ask myself that question from time to time. I guess it changes depending on what I’m into – one of the great things about having an interest in science is that every few years you hear about fields that you didn’t even know existed. But I guess if I’m honest, I’d have to say that I’ve been fascinated with space since I had a glowing star chart on my bedroom ceiling. So I guess if I had to choose, it would astronomy, astrophysics, or aerospace engineering – something like that.  

Who are your greatest heroes in real world science, past or present?

I’m not sure that my list of heroes is a very good one, mostly because I tend to be interested in people whose lives offer something more than their scientific accomplishments (which of course I have a limited ability to understand), so I engage with scientists whose stories I relate to outside of the science: people like Galileo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin or Emilie du Chatelet because their stories coincide with social and political dramas. Or with people like Einstein and Oppenheimer because they wrote extensively about philosophical issues. Or people like Richard Feynman or Oliver Sacks just because their lives made/make for quite interesting books.


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