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Genes on film

Michael Hayden’s research comes to life in The Score

Jennifer Rohn 21 December 2005

Understanding genetics is a song and dance with the right screenplay

We wanted an exploding of myths: scientists are not geeks.

Probably most scientists, at some point in their career, have looked around the bustle and chaos of their lab and thought, "Wouldn’t this make a great movie?" But Michael Hayden, a medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia, recently had the rare opportunity to witness an answer to this whimsical question. And if that wasn’t enough, in a world where screenwriters typically work in a closed clique with their own agendas, he and his lab were intimately involved in bringing their own research and lab culture to the screen.

The Score, a lively drama about the dilemmas of modern research, began as a play by the Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver and evolved into a film which debuted with much fanfare at the Vancouver International Film Festival this past September. On 12 January 2006, it will air on Canadian national television, and Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein is said to have expressed interest in distributing the movie in the US. recently caught up with Hayden to find out how this rare collaboration between science and art had come about.

It all began with the Human Genome Project, according to Hayden. He was co-chairing a meeting in Vancouver in 1999 to plan the announcement of the first draft of the sequence, and the participants were discussing ways to "enter into a dialogue" with the public to get across this massive genetic breakthrough – the enormity as well as the excitement.

Hayden – who is brisk, articulate and confident – immediately thought of art as a medium to accomplish this. "I’m somebody who always embraces art as a way of solving science problems anyway," he said. "Even in the lab, I often find solutions to scientific problems if I think in other spheres. Art actually helps research: sometimes you just need to take a walk in the forest, take some distance".

When Hayden saw a notice in the paper for a creative theatre award, his idea fell into place. He promptly rang up Kim Collier, the director of the Electric Company Theatre, told her he wanted to commission a play about genetics, and immediately "got a good feeling". Collier in turn was intrigued, despite having no science background. They agreed to meet, and ended up spending hours talking about a project that would portray "what it’s like to spend life in passionate pursuit of genetics." As an initial starting point, they thought that the rivalry between Celera [the biotech company] and the Human Genome Project could serve as good inspiration.

After that first meeting, Collier and Hayden spent a few hours a week developing the ideas and fleshing out the plot. "We started having lots of fun," Hayden said, "comparing her view of science, and my view of her view!"

Collier was a bit nervous about the whole process at first, as the collaboration was so unusual, so they decided to implement four ground rules. First, the theatre group and the scientists would be a "community of peers, open to each other"; second, the science had to be absolutely accurate; third, Collier wanted "total access" to Hayden’s entire lab; and fourth, coming up with the play would be an "ongoing iterative process", so that each draft of the script would be scrutinized and agreed on before going forward to the next.

So Hayden duly opened up his lab, exposing Collier and her team of writers not only to the postdocs but to the students, the technicians and even his own PA.

"At first my team didn’t want to help," Hayden confessed. "Like most scientists, they felt they were too busy. But in the end they were totally won over."

The drafts began to circulate, and every Friday, there would be a "play reading" of the latest effort that the entire lab was encouraged to attend. "It was tremendous fun", recalls Hayden. And it wasn’t just passive – people in his lab came up with ideas, critiques and extra scenes to make things more realistic. Others were also involved in the ongoing consultation, including genetics counselors from UBC, patients and health society advocates from the Huntington Society of Canada and the Human Genome Organization.

Aside from the competitiveness of the Human Genome Project, another battle much closer to home served as a direct inspiration for the plot of The Score. Hayden’s lab had been involved in a "massive international race" against industry scientists to clone the ABC1 gene, a key player in lipid metabolism. This marathon had culminated in three back-to-back publications – fortunately Hayden’s article being the prominent one.

"We were still reeling from that", Hayden said. In the play, the lead scientist, Lynn Magnusson, is racing against a larger French lab to isolate a key cancer gene (a fictional analogue to ABC1), yet is distracted because she knows she herself is carrying a susceptibility gene for Huntington Disease (HD) – also one of the projects studied by Hayden’s team. The title "The Score" comes from the final number derived from counting ‘CAG’ nucleotide repeats in the DNA sequence of the HD susceptibility gene.

"There is a person in my lab who is actually at risk for HD," Hayden told me, "so he was in a great position to help the writers understand what this must be like." And the insights went in both directions; his lab members saw themselves in a new light. Hayden likens this process to a quote from the novelist Gabrille Roy featured on the new Canadian twenty-dollar bill: "Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?"

It was also important for Hayden that certain other issues came across. "We wanted an exploding of myths," he said. "Scientists are not geeks. We have a passionate belief in what we do. There is a lot of creative angst – do we have another idea in us? Ongoing insecurity drives us forward; I believe this is very similar to what artists feel. A scientific paper is never fully finished, which is another similarity to art. There is a process of ongoing self-correction."

Hayden also considered the science itself to be key. One of the most challenging problems in ‘lab lit’ fiction is to convey complicated facts to the audience without losing them. In The Score, this is chiefly accomplished by exposition, in which a genetic counselor explains the ins and outs of heritable disease susceptibility. But the non-scientific issues were also important: Hayden was vitally interested in getting across the power plays and human relationships.

The play was first performed to great acclaim in April 2000, to coincide with the official announcement of the completion of the draft human genome sequence in Vancouver. Hayden’s dream of "engaging in a dialogue" was fulfilled with the after-performance sessions in which both the actors and members of his lab fielded questions from the audience. What’s more, the theatre’s run of the show was sold out, the reviews were glowing and the play cleaned up at the "Bessys" (British Colombia’s top theatre award).

Things went a bit quiet after that, until the opportunity arose to transform the play into a movie, thanks to a $300,000 grant from Genome Canada. "So in came new actors, and a new director", Harden said. "We got to change things that hadn’t quite worked."

Did he prefer the film to the play? "They are both good," Hayden demurred. "The play format lets you interact more with the audience, but the movie can be more widely disseminated."

But Hayden wasn’t too happy with the sexual affair depicted in the film version. "It came late in the film, and we couldn’t get rid of it." Why would he want to, if he was keen to depict scientists as real human beings? "The romance was a distraction," he said. "The sex was a bit gratuitous, and didn’t seem particularly germane to the movie."

The Score is actually a musical, with songs and dancing. I was curious why the decision had been taken to make the drama a musical, as I assumed this might have limited its mainstream appeal. "This was Kim’s idea," Hayden said, "but it was quite wonderful in the end. The songs are interesting and the movement lightens it up." The production has a good dose of comedy, but it also "quite moving", he added.

Are there any aspects of the character Lynn Magnusson in Michael Hayden? "Some aspects, yes," he said, after a pause. "The passion, the complexity, the drive. The wish to traverse multiple worlds: academia, industry and one’s own personal life."

Related links

The Hayden lab has a website here

The Electric Company Theatre’s website can be found here, with a page devoted to the play

The HGM2000 has a webpage about the play’s debut here

Read more about the film version