Producer John Williams’ involvement with The Exchange started with fruit flies. Or rather, an Exchange event on brain abnormalities and the “cheap date” gene in fruit flies. Williams is an avid supporter of science in all forms of media, from television and film to websites and apps. With that in mind, we asked him a few questions on his background in filmmaking, the Hollywood community’s interest in science and what he thinks of The Exchange.
Tell us about your background. Why did you become a filmmaker?
I played in a band in my early teens but when it became abundantly clear that I was never going to play at the level of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, or Muddy Waters, I put down my guitar and I found a new interest in theater due to a fantastic English teacher who also ran the theater program. I worked as the student director for several pretentious plays including an adaptation of Kafka's The Trial and Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechwan. I was described in the yearbook by a teacher as a dilettante, which also has the meaning of "one who dabbles in the arts.” I think that was a fairly apt description, and maybe it also defines a part of a producer's roll.
As a producer you have to know something about a lot of different aspects of production: physical, technical, business, legal, story, art department, music, casting, etc. I was a Modern European History major in college, but one of my favorite classes outside my major was a History of Film class. When I got out of college I hoped to work in network news or somewhere in the media. I had a brief encounter with an advertising agency, which wasn't a great fit, and then found my way to a job at PBS in New York where I worked with station producers and independent producers trying to help finance their projects. After three years and really seeing the process of producers putting together television projects, I decided to try it on my own as an independent producer - that was a very long time ago.
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
My first production was a television production of Sam Shepard's play True West with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. We were all getting our first real career starts with that production; John and Gary (who are my age) were really great to work with. I felt I got a great glimpse of the kinetic excitement of being around and a part of real artistry, and with a production partner, American Playhouse, who was dedicated to supporting great creative work. My hope was then as it is now to have more experiences like that where the production process and experience allows for creativity to flourish.
How did you get involved with the Exchange? What do you think of the program?
I heard about The Exchange from Jesse Kennedy who was working with Janet and Jerry Zucker on some projects; I was lucky enough to wrangle an invitation to an event on brain abnormalities and the “cheap date” gene of certain fruit flies who are alcohol intolerant and addictive - it was a fascinating introduction to a group of people that I would not normally be exposed to.
I think the access to scientists and the insights they bring are an incredible resource to television and film producers. I hope The Exchange is successful in expanding to become a resource for all forms of media production but also that the entertainment and broad media communities can also find better ways to bring science in an entertaining and accessible way to the broader public. At a time when our national dialogue sometimes seems to focus on issues that are antithetical to science, it is unquestionable that the quality of life and the future of the planet are absolutely dependent on our dealing with scientific realities of population, pollution, health, nutrition, energy, and so on.
How would you describe the Hollywood community’s interest in science? For example, has it always been there, or do you think that interest has grown or changed in recent years?
I suspect a paradigm of The Exchange’s achievements is helping facilitate the discussion that ultimately re-launched Cosmos as a series for Fox - that is a worldwide science in the media event that we can all look forward to. Hopefully, we will see The Exchange facilitate the launch of other entertaining and fascinating science-based TV series, websites, apps, or otherwise.
About 10 years ago, when Shrek came out, you made the transition from live-action to animation. Do you think you’ll ever go back to live-action, or is animation where you’ve found your calling?
I had no experience as an animation producer, but I had tried very hard, and gotten very close, on producing a PBS series on the history of animation (which is a fascinating and very entertaining subject), including the parallels of certain animation styles, characters, etc. as reflections of the times they were created. John Lassiter and Walt Disney both separately described animation as "story, story, story.” I think the function of a creative producer in animation and live-action are very much the same in that, if you don't have great characters and a great story, you’re never going to get a great film. The processes are different, and generally, animation is more family friendly in the scheduling, but I think great storytelling is the common secret sauce to both mediums and is a calling card for writers, directors, or producers. Those who can contribute to that are valued in all mediums.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Clearly some of the biggest names in iconic films (and other entertainment) have included those who have delved deeply into the realm of science-fantasy and science-futurists - to name a few: James Cameron, H.G. Wells, Phillip K. Dick, Michael Crichton, and Steven Spielberg. Great scientists are visionaries and great ideas people, and so are great filmmakers - they should make for some great marriages.
The greatest thrill about producing is to see a concept, a book, a storyline come to life and get out to the public at large. I guess I think of producing being a bit of a fire-starter. The greater challenge we all have is to apply our talents to the bigger ideas that can ultimately help change and improve our world. Getting out media that promotes a better understanding of the critical scientific issues of our times is a great reason for us all to learn from and support The Exchange.