A factual depiction of science may not often appear in Hollywood films, but graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama’s dramatic writing program have been tasked with challenging the status quo.
“The drive is to get real science into a screenplay,” Peter Cooke OAM, head of the School of Drama explains.
Students, drama faculty and six scientists gathered on Tuesday, Sept. 23 for the annual Sloan Symposium, which invites scientists from local Pittsburgh universities, including the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University, to present their work to the dramatic writing students.
Scripts inspired by the evening will be submitted to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Film School Awards, which provides $35,000 in prize money to CMU students annually. The competition asks graduate students to write scripts that put accurate science and technology at the forefront—stories that can both educate and entertain the public. Last year, a record number four CMU students were awarded this prize for their scripts.
The guest speakers hailed from an array of scientific backgrounds. For instance, CMU faculty member Alessandro Acquisti studies the effect that big data has on privacy. Another speaker, Emily M. Elliot, is a geologist at Pitt whose research focuses on nitrogen and how human activities impact the distribution of the gas throughout the earth’s systems.
Molly Mehling, from the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University, believes that the intersection between science and art can help educate the public about science by “making a bridge to society.” In conjunction with her research on the condition of aquatic resources, Mehling is a photojournalist who heads a photography workshop that teaches scientists how to communicate their work visually.
Following the presentations was a question and answer session during which students and guests were invited to ask questions about the speakers’ work. In turn, the speakers were given the chance to express their thoughts on how Hollywood portrays science.
Reid Simmons, whose robotics work aims to make robots more emotionally expressive, explains his view of Hollywood’s depiction of robots, such as those human-like ones in movies like Bicentennial Man.
“Stop doing that,” he implored the writers. “It’s killing the field . . . all we get is fictionalized version of robots.”
With advice like Simmons’ in mind, students will begin the process of researching and writing screenplays or pilots inspired by the scientists’ work.