Q: Yeah, I’ve read that you spent a lot of time talking with DiCaprio in particular. What was the focus of those conversations?
A: One of the things we talked about a lot is that scientists will knock themselves silly trying to get the word out. Because that’s what we do. A really big part of science is replicability and peer-review; you’ll hear that mentioned over and over again in the movie. Scientists really want people to look at their work and confirm it; that’s a big part of science. We talked about ways that you can see the characters struggling to be clear and get the word out and talk to other scientists.
And it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes things can happen that can subvert that process. We talked a lot about how scientists can get marginalized by special interests; by conspiracy theories; and how frustrating that is — when you have news that’s important that you have to share because you know you can solve problems if you can just get the word out about it and get other people to take action. We had dozens and dozens of conversations about this; about how scientists feel when they are ignored.
Q: Can you see the remnants of any of those conversations in the actors’ dialogue or performances?
A: All of those pieces of dialogue that you see, we went over and over and over. You see Leo or Jennifer [Lawrence] or Rob trying to … there’s a couple of really big moments in the movie for them as scientists where they have their big speech where they really get to say what’s on their minds. There’s a lot of me in there.
Q: From a scientific or technical perspective, was there anything you wanted to make sure the cast or crew understood correctly? Say, when it came to the proper way of searching for comets, or the terminology, or anything you wanted to make sure was represented accurately on screen?
A: Leo, in particular, did a fabulous job with some very complex technical material. They had to learn quite a bit about how asteroid discovery works and how to characterize orbits and all of that.
But, fundamentally, I think the thing that they did very well, and that I was really interested in making sure that they knew, is that science tries to tell the truth. We really try. We try to tell the truth about the way that we see the world working around us, based on empirical evidence. In any given situation, scientists are going to try to get the truth out there. They’re going to try to tell what we know. They’re going to try to make sure that other scientists can replicate the work. That’s a strength of science. And that’s a unique way that science operates — it self-corrects.
And it may be messy. We may not always get the right answer the first time, but we’re going to get more data and that’s going to allow us to refine our answers. To me, it was really important that they all understood that. And they all got that immediately and really infused it into their characters.
Q: Is there anything that director Adam McKay or the actors asked you about? What questions did they have for you as science adviser?
A: One of the things we talked about a lot is science denialism — what do you do? If you’re a scientist, and you have information that needs to be shared, and people ignore you, what’s the right thing to do? So you’ll see that debate played out in the movie, and there are a few key scenes where this happens. You’ll see the scientists debating [things like], ‘Do we go out and protest in the streets? Or do we try to engage with people who are in power?’ Because very often, scientists are not empowered to make change based on the knowledge that we gain. We can learn about what’s happening, and we can make recommendations, based on the science, that we know are likely to work. But we, personally, are not the people who are empowered to be able to do this.
Q: Are you pleased with what ended up on screen in terms of the movie’s adherence to scientific accuracy and the overall messaging? Where does it diverge from real-life?
A: We very quickly veer into the realm of science fiction. We don’t know of any giant comet hurtling toward Earth, and that’s a really good thing. Right off the bat, we’re in sci-fi territory.
That said, there are a few places where you’ll see that the movie is obviously science fiction, and it postulates technology that we don’t have yet and that isn’t quite there. But it’s also not the main point; the main point is that I hope people see scientists portrayed as human beings, in all of our flaws and all of our glories. And I hope they come away from it knowing science a little bit better. That knowledge, hopefully, will help in building trust in science as a process. Yes, it’s obvious science fiction, but I think it has some important points to make about the value of science in our lives.
Q: The filmmakers and actors haven’t been shy about the fact that the movie was conceived as a parable for climate change. There are also some striking similarities to the past few years during the pandemic. With that in mind, what else do you hope audiences take away with them after the credits roll?
A: I hope people take away from this movie that the situation is not hopeless. And what happens next, with regard to climate change, or the pandemic, or a host of issues, is up to us. If we make good, science-based decisions, both in our lives and as a society, we can have better outcomes. We can directly impact the future in a positive way; we don’t have to choose the negative path. We can choose a better way. That’s up to us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.