The making of Naturally Obsessed

Richard and Carole Rifkind

Amy Charles 1 November 2009

Revealed: the secret life of the lab

The scientific community has a little bit of a priesthood attitude. You know, we do this secret stuff, and you don’t understand it, and you never will

Editor's note: Don't miss Amy Charles' review of the film, here.

Amy Charles: I’m here with Carole and Richard Rifkind, the makers of Naturally Obsessed: the Making of a Scientist, which shows in edge-of-the-chair fashion something of how science is done and what the life of science is, as they follow a group of graduate students in the crystallography lab of Dr. Larry Shapiro of Columbia University Medical Center.

I say “edge of the chair” advisedly, because by about twenty minutes in, I found I really wanted them to win. I wanted them to get good crystals that were going to work in the synchrotron. And I caught myself holding my breath and I thought, you guys did it, you really did it. I’m into it and I understand why this is exciting. Or at least I understand enough of it to be engaged. How did you find this lab, and, more specifically, how did you find Rob?

Richard Rifkind: Well, we weren’t looking for Rob, we were looking for a lab with really good characters. We’d learned from our previous film [The Venetian Dilemma] that the way stories get across is that the stories are about people. They’re not about things. So we interviewed a number of labs around the New York region until we found a lab which we thought had a sufficient number of good characters. Good students – articulate, interesting – and a good professor.

Carole Rifkind: Rob didn’t hit us right away, and I think in the final editing is where Rob came to dominate as a character, because he was the one who had the most outstanding scientific success.

RR: He began to emerge towards the very end. Although we really were scared; we didn’t know who was going to win.

CR: We really did record all of them very evenhandedly, and it was in the edit that we chose to deemphasize some of their activities and emphasize some of Rob’s. So in a certain sense, in building the dramatic structure, Rob had to take priority. It wasn’t so obvious until we had to cut things out.

AC: OK. But you got that because in the end he was able to get a good crystal, he was able to solve his structure, he went on and graduated and so there was some finality to that story.

CR: Exactly.

AC: Here’s why I asked about Rob: As I started watching the movie, I saw a bunch of lab denizens, the sort of people I’ve seen before. All of a sudden, there was Rob, and he immediately took over. I was a little bit worried, because I thought, “Oh, have we got a mad scientist here?” I mean he’s a little crazy and difficult, he looks a little crazy, and you have all these very straight-looking graduate students next to him. But as the movie went on, I became worried for him. As he says, he’s not a young guy. I wondered what is going to happen to this guy, who’s obviously suited to this environment as a grad student, but who’s going to hire him when he gets out? His situation created some real tension, and I wondered if, whether you were putting this together, you worried that he might be too dominant a character, but also whether he was going to be so different from the other characters in the lab that he stole the show.

CR: Amy, what worked for us in making this film is that we were a combination of Dick’s scientific technique and my pull in the other direction. Because when Dick says that we were very evenhanded in filming, that’s true. That was our commitment, because that was kind of the scientific way of going about it. We were collecting evidence. But in telling the story in the edit, that was where we realized the dramatic potential. Kil is much funnier than he is on camera. I mean Kil told jokes all the time, and he was really quite outrageous, and Gabe was very soulful, and that had to be suppressed in the end to let Rob’s character ride through the whole story. So – a documentary is true, but there are many truths.

RR: We actually tried very hard not to focus on Rob. In fact there were actually other students who dropped out for different reasons.

CR: There were three others that didn’t make the final cut, for a lot of reasons – the combination of personalities, the timing of their stories…

RR: One of the challenges in filming students as characters was the question of when they would become unaware of the camera’s presence. The camera’s presence changes things, and we wanted to change things as little as possible. These three were the three students in the lab who became least concerned about the camera.

AC: And you were there for –

RR: Three years. We would shoot for anywhere from one to five days at a stretch every couple of weeks. It was a lot – hundreds of hours of tape.

AC: Carole, I think getting to the drama is a chronic problem in trying to tell science stories journalistically – there’s so much time when nothing dramatic appears to be happening, because all you see is people working. I thought you guys did a really wonderful job of compressing things so that you could see all this drama in a single hour. But a problem that novelists and other writers have is the problem of trying to get a scientific drama like Rob’s into an even shorter space, because you can’t have the entire work be about one particular scientific story. How short do you think a story like that could go?

CR: You can’t answer that in terms of quantity, but you can answer it in terms of intent. Our intent was to show, for instance, the joy of doing the work, not the repetitiveness of it. That’s very flexible; that’s elastic. We had no script to work from; we had to intensely observe the things that interested us, like the joy of doing the work.

AC: It’s elastic, but I think maybe just to a point. I was watching as the movie went to see how the dramatic tension worked, and it goes like this: You introduce the crystallography, the process. The students have to grow the crystal, it has to be a good crystal, and then they have to take it to the synchrotron and get a good result. And we got to the synchrotron three times – the first time, nothing, second time, nothing, and third time, Rob got something. But the movie had to build up to each trip, and you had room in between these hopes and failures to show what the stakes were in these students’ lives: why these trips to the synchrotron were important. It does take a certain amount of time to show these things, and allow that emotional tension to build. That’s why, when you say, “it’s elastic,” I wonder how elastic it really is.

RR: Well, we got it down to about an hour, and I think that was down about as low as we could get it.

AC: I should say that I’m not actually a proponent of tiny stories, but I’m aware that this is a reality that we struggle with. If you’re trying to show and explain science, editors will say, “People don’t want to see that much science – can you make it shorter, can you leave things out.”

RR: Well, our goal, with regard to the science, was to have enough science so that to the scientific community, whether they were crystallographers or anything else, it would seem authentic. The goal was authenticity. That would be the validation of the film scientifically. The goal for the lay audience was that the human story was clear, the challenges and the arc of success and failure, the emotional drain that it takes. So those were the two goals, and we had to balance the science with that.

CR: I was a writer and architect before I became a filmmaker, and I understand what you’re getting at. It’s different in writing than in filmmaking, because the editor’s role is very different, but you still have to be able to be very honest, and say, “This is what I need to say,” or, “This is what the audience will appreciate getting from me.” And you have to know when to let go, in terms of the amount of time you allow yourself to do exposition. You don’t really want to do exposition, you want to tell a story, and the question is “what do you need to do to tell the story?” So I don’t know that it’s length as much as the elements of storytelling.

AC: All right. Richard, I want to ask you about something you just said, about showing the science on a level that would be authentic to scientists. When you edited this movie, how did you decide what level to pitch the science at? Because it sounds to me like you were really pitching it at two levels, a professional audience and a lay audience, maybe without thinking so much of teaching the science as teaching the process, how people live it.

RR: That’s exactly right. We definitely set up our goal as not to teach science. We didn’t expect anybody to watch the film and then go out and do crystallography, or even understand what a protein is, necessarily. We wanted to show the process for a lay audience – for anybody who’d ever struggled to do something, struggled to leave a mark in whatever form they worked in, to identify and have empathy with what goes on in science. Not that they could do it, but that they could understand how the same struggle they went through in whatever they did – ballerina, painter, writer – the scientist is going through the same kind of process.

AC: When you showed this to the audience – and I know that on the website for Naturally Obsessed you have some videos of audience reactions – did you find that the audiences were listening at the level you had hoped they would?

RR: The way I was able to determine that may sound a little silly, but if the lay audience laughed at the same places the scientific audience laughed, I figured they were getting it. And they did. The things that seemed amusing and insightful to the scientific audiences also got emotional reactions from the lay audiences, about at the right level. We made little short segments of the film and tried it out on various audiences to see what problems we were up against, so it wasn’t sheer guesswork.

AC: Did you find that the lay audiences wanted more science? Did they ask scientific questions after the movie?

CR: It was interesting, comparing a lay and a scientific audience. The lay audiences were generally comfortable with the science. A small number get scared by the word diffract, and forever after question their competence to watch the film. That bothers us a lot – you know, in so many action-adventure films you don’t know what’s happening and you can stay riveted. So I think it’s revealing of what we as communicators have to face in dealing with popular audiences, that scientific terminology puts people off, or can put some people off. But in general, people understood, and it was a revelation that there is this emotional experience of doing science, that it’s got all these ups and downs, that human relationships are so important, and that people grow and mature as they do science. For the scientists, I mean there are as many scientists who do not understand crystallography as do understand crystallography, but they were perfectly empathetic with the human situation, and didn’t let the lack of science bother them. They liked the authenticity of it, though, that this is the way x-ray crystallography is, this is the culture of as science lab, these are the relationships that make science go forward. I guess generally speaking, the culture of science is what our focus was, and what the scientists feel very keenly. I guess all audiences feel that that’s what they’ve experienced.

RR: One of the most interesting things that I learned that I didn’t know before was that when a film is seen by an individual in front of his television set, or in a group audience, there’s a different response. In a group people are much more secure with things they don’t understand. There seems to be a certain supportive element in having people around you who are watching the same film. When people see it alone, they get a little more scared.

AC: So when you were making this, did you consider introducing a didactic element, where you sat down for two and a half minutes and you explained what diffraction is, what a protein is –

RR: You’re talking to a professor. (laughter) Of course, but I suppressed that urge.

CR: It’s interesting – for high school audiences, in fact, we had one enormously successful screening by a teacher who did do that. She didn’t do it with the science, she did it with the research technique, the idea of what you have to do as a researcher. It was 11th-graders, not science students, but students who were taking a special course in research techniques at a New York City public high school [The Lab School]. She worked very hard on a didactic introduction to the film, and broke it into two parts, and introduced each part with viewing goals and concluded with a summary of it.

AC: What did the students think of it?

CR: They were fantastic. They got it, and they were very vocal about their life goals and how they connected to the students in the lab who were realizing their life goals. It was a very profound discussion.

RR: One of the most curious observations at that particular high school was about two kids who were at the back of the classroom, necking while it was dark. They asked very good questions, and insisted they were watching intently, despite what was going on.

AC: (laughing) You wonder if this says something about their relationship. When the kids saw the movie, though, what was their reaction to this view of what being a scientist is?

CR: They get a very interesting view of perseverance, commitment, seeing long-term goals. We were at the Lab School for six sessions, and they didn’t see it as a science movie. At that age, they were looking for their identity, and they responded very intelligently in terms of human growth, personal growth. We also showed it at a very funny screening, Global Nomads at the World Science Festival, with schools in Canada, Florida, and Brooklyn. And again, the students had a terrific time talking about what it takes to do something that’s important.

The issue that I kind of wanted to address – the concept is empathy. And in thinking about science and communicating science to the world, the empathy is something that I think we have to think about. To the extent our film has been successful, I think it’s because we wanted to establish an empathy. That you could put yourself in the shoes of a scientist. Because we both felt, Dick as a scientist and me as a nonscientist, that the gulf between science and the public is so broad that the way to involve general audiences in science is to keep on coming back to, “How can I empathize with the task of the scientist?”

AC: What do you think creates that gulf?

CR: Science has a jargon – Rob was particularly hard with this, he loves his jargon. You can’t imagine how much we had to work to get rid of that jargon. Because jargon means, “I am a scientist,” but it’s very effective. It’s the language of science. And that is a problem. There are two languages, and for a scientist to know how to get out of it, how to leave the comfort of jargon, and for the public not to be afraid of it, and ask a question – I think that’s what our society needs. We have to learn to communicate.

RR: It’s unfortunate; the scientific community has a little bit of a priesthood attitude. You know, we do this secret stuff, and you don’t understand it, and you never will. I remember when I was a young student, going to a cocktail party with a great mathematician. I had the temerity to say, “Can you tell me a little about what you do.” He looked at me, he said, “Sonny, you couldn’t possibly understand.” I think there’s a little bit of that in all of us. It’s something that has to be dispelled. One of the reasons for making the film and sticking to it was that we wanted to show that it can be done. You can show science, and – “Sonny, you won’t understand it” – you will understand it.

AC: I just have one more question for you, from Lablit: Who is your favorite fictional scientist, and why?

RR: My favorite fictional scientist was from a biopic on Paul Ehrlich, called Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. It was Edward G. Robinson in the mid-‘40s. I saw it when I was a teenager, and it convinced me that I could be both a physician and a scientist. You have to know, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. By doctor she didn’t mean a [PhD], she meant a person who wears a stethoscope. Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet convinced me that it was possible to do what I wanted to do, which was science, and what she wanted me to do, which was medicine.