Dream huge. Dare more. From watching classic movies in his youth to directing his first movie in his late 30s, filmmaker Jon Amiel shares what inspires him and talks about science in the movies.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I never wanted to a filmmaker. Never thought I could be – any more than I could have been Van Gogh or an Olympic tri-athlete. So I spent as long as possible avoiding it. I was a general odd-jobbing man-about-the-arts for the longest time. I didn’t direct my first movie until I was in my late 30s.
What were your favorite movies and television shows when you were growing up?
There was an old kerosene heated movie theater in Hampstead that was my “local.” It was called the Everyman and it is still there, though the kerosene heating and the excruciatingly monastic wooden seats have been upgraded. The classics of world cinema I saw there – work by Satajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Bunuel, Truffaut et al. – rocked my world. All my favorite television shows growing up were Westerns. That is why most Brits of my generation would love to make a Western.
Have you always been interested in science? How did you acquire your interest in science?
I had a favorite uncle (we all have one don’t we?) who left school at 14 but was a passionately combative auto-didact. He used to fling copies of Scientific American and New Scientist at me and make me read articles I could barely understand. But he also gave me extra allowance money. So I grew to love science.
Say the name Darwin in this country and you are bound to attract controversy. What drew you to Darwin as a film subject? Do you think that movies with scientific themes such as Creation can play a significant role in fostering scientific literacy? How do you strike the right balance between the entertainment value of the story and its educational message?
I was not at first drawn to making a film about Darwin as a figure, scientific or otherwise, until I came to understand him as a man. This I came to do when I read about the death of his beloved daughter and the letters he and his wife wrote to each other during that period. So my film about Darwin came to be about creativity, marriage, and parenthood. Along the way you come to understand Darwin’s scientific ideas. Ideas don’t make great drama. People do. Films can do a certain amount to foster science literacy, but they need to be good films first. And good science second!
You have participated in a number of Exchange activities. Why did you become involved, and what have you enjoyed most about working with The Exchange?
The Exchange asked me to get involved with a panel on evolution after I made Creation. I loved working with scientists. They are often so much more creative than movie people.
A science-fiction film you made several years ago (The Core) was criticized for not getting the science right in several instances. Did those reviews influence your decision to become involved with The Exchange?
I long ago learned that it’s possible not to read reviews of my movies. The good ones are like a Chinese meal and the bad ones chew on my liver like a death cap amanita. Critics love to criticize. Experts love to tell you what you did wrong. I let them enjoy their sense of superiority. The poor darlings seem to need it.
Why do you think filmmakers seem to be increasingly interested in getting the science right?
Oh, anything for a quiet life! No seriously, we – most of us filmmaker chappies and chapesses anyway – would much rather get the science right than wrong. There’s more fun to be had in the learning, there’s more satisfaction to be had in the making. Sometimes there comes a point where the demands of a story have to take precedence over the accuracy of the science. Sometimes fiction can illuminate truth better than fact. And that’s a fact!
There must be differences in making an action adventure film like Entrapment and one without so much action and adventure like Creation. What are one or two of those differences, and do you have a preference for making one type of film over another?
Drama is always easier to make than a comedy or a thriller. Why? Because a drama gets to dictate its own ground rules. With a comedy you enter into an unwritten contract with an audience to make them laugh. With a thriller to thrill them. Fail and you’re penalized by them. With a drama they need only to be interested! You have far more latitude. Mind you, drama is the genre that dare not speak its name in the power-corridors of Hollywood these days. Use that word in a pitch and it’s over.
What do you think you learned from the scientists you met that has made you a better filmmaker?
I don’t know about being a better filmmaker but they have helped me make better films! We think of science as fact based and film as fiction based but the two are more closely allied than you might think. Some of the most important scientific ideas are based on the imaginative organization of the known and the suppositional. Some of the best storytelling is based on the relentless application of logic.
Why should film and television projects consider science advising? What is the advantage of using real science in film or television? How important do you think it is for movies and television to portray science as accurately as possible?
I think it’s important for films to portray science as positively as possible. Maybe “positive” is more important than “accurate.” There are many deeply negative stereotypes of scientists in our collective unconscious. Mary Shelley probably started it 200 years ago with Dr. Frankenstein. There is also a deep anti-intellectualism in American culture that’s ensured the continuation of the stereotypes. For a culture or a country to thrive they must continue to produce great scientists. Time and time again I’ve heard scientists say they were inspired to go into their fields by films like Fantastic Journey or Deep Impact or Contact. Were these great films? Not really. Were they accurate science? Not really. But they got the right results in my view.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Dream huge. Dare more.