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, Sean Gesell (Vice President of Zucker Productions and The Exchange Advisory Board member) tells us where he sees the program three years from now, what he learned from interacting with scientists, and what Exchange event wowed him.
I am a Los Angeles native, and after starting in the business at a talent agency, and working on set for a film in Chicago, I came home in search of the next opportunity and was introduced to Janet and Jerry Zucker by some of my friends and former colleagues. We hit it off immediately and I began working for them in February 2005. Shortly thereafter, my former Chancellor at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Ralph Cicerone, was named as the next President of the National Academy of Sciences. Knowing about the Zuckers involvement with stem cell politics and their passion for the sciences, I introduced them to Dr. Cicerone hoping the meeting of such minds would one day foster something more. That initial meeting marked the beginning of a wonderful partnership, as Dr. Cicerone returned two years later with the mission of enlisting the Zuckers as his Hollywood partners in bridging the communication gap between the entertainment industry and its science counterparts. Conceiving The Exchange, Dr. Cicerone and the Zuckers felt it was a matter of moral responsibility and urgency to get the two worlds talking on a higher level; that science make itself available for consultation to those people creating content being seen by and influencing millions of people across the world, while filmmakers, creatives, and other entertainment industry professionals should be utilizing this resource and embracing the opportunity to tell more accurate and engaging stories.
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?
I absolutely saw this type of success for the program, and actually can even see much greater things to come. I envision The Exchange as a program that holds its place as an automatic phone call by any and all writers, directors, producers when even just the germ of an idea comes about. Calling The Exchange would be no different from searching the Internet for information, it would be second nature. But it takes searching the Internet one step further by actually connecting you with an expert in that area to have a conversation. In three years, The Exchange will be exactly that, a resource being used by creatives all across the industry on a daily basis.
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?
Hollywood and the entertainment industry have always had a fascination with science, dating back to Georges Melies’ 1902 film A Trip To The Moon! The two communities have been inspiration for each other in so many ways, pushing the limits of imagination and reality. There has always been a high level of interest, however, I would say recent years have led to an increased interest because of the fascinating work science is doing, pushing the envelope further than ever before, and this creates exciting and dramatic stories, which producers are always looking to share.
Why do you think filmmakers seem to be increasingly interested in getting the science right?
While there are still some out there who are content letting their imaginations run with implausible ideas, I think an increasing amount of filmmakers are realizing how entertaining real life can be at the same time. There is no reason not to ask the question and get it right when the resources to do so are right in front of you.
We know The Exchange is truly an exchange of information, ideas, and creativity between those in the science and entertainment fields. What have you learned from the program, its scientists, and collaborations with Hollywood?
During these last few years since our launch, I have become more and more of a science geek because of my involvement with The Exchange. It truly opened my own eyes to the value and moral obligation of telling stories rooted in fact. And some scientists work their entire lives to achieve one small victory in the briefest of moments, yet they value every small step along the way. This has given me a higher appreciation for people’s work and dedication, and encouraged me to take the time in my own work to enjoy the process and the opportunities we are afforded.
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?
While I enjoyed so many of the events The Exchange has hosted, I would have to say that two in particular stood out above the rest. The first one was Pablos Holman’s salon on hacking and technological innovation. Hearing about some of the things he and his colleagues at the Intellectual Ventures Lab are working on was fascinating, and really opened my eyes to the creativity and imagination that goes into the work of some scientists. My other favorite event was a salon hosted by Seth MacFarlane, with guest speakers Sean B. Carroll and Neil Shubin, discussing evolutionary biology. I felt their approach to such a hot-button topic was open minded and inviting, while still being based in scientific fact. The evolutionary discoveries they shared with us, both historical but also among different species, were also fascinating, learning how various organisms have adapted to live in the harshest of conditions.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Embrace science, logic, and truth, and let your imagination use them as a starting off point for even further creation, innovation, and storytelling.
What inspires you?
I am finding myself being drawn more and more toward fun, science-related topics, and using them to create new stories. The projects we already have, I am finding myself encouraged to infuse more science or highlight the existing science already in it, and when I read a potential new project I find myself looking for the science embedded in the story! It seems like a Pandora’s box was opened because I am finding there are endless stories to be told from this world.
Read more Featured Entertainer interviews here.