Do we have a new sci-fi classic movie from Spielberg?
That’s probably going to be hotly debated for quite a while, but Spielberg’s adaptation of the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, feels like a blend of the more classic tone and adventure vibe of E.T. and the look of Minority Report. Cline’s novel seems to have divided people, with passionate responses on either end of the spectrum. Maybe it’s too nerdy and filled with too many geeky references, and ultimately follows what strikes many people as an unlikeable character. On the flip side, it’s a love letter to video game nerds of my generation, guys like me who grew up playing Atari, Nintendo, and goofy computer games like Zork.
Well, one thing’s for sure. Whatever you may have thought of Cline’s novel, Spielberg’s movie is quite different. Whether that’s a good thing or not may depend on you opinion of the book. I found the movie to be a highly watchable adventure tale though it was populated with some rather pedestrian characters. The forward movement of the plot dominates the story, which is often the case with novels of this type adapted to the screen. After all, feature films (as I discuss more in my book) are structurally closer to short stories than novels. It’s really hard to adapt even a relatively short novel down into a 2-hour movie. Add into that the world-building aspect of a futuristic society addicted to VR and it gets even harder. There’s a lot of information dumbing required and it tends to come out in bursts of explanatory dialogue between characters about things that honestly they should all already know but that they need to tell each other so that we, the audience, can hear it for the first time.
While the movie is quite fun and visually engaging, it lacks some of the darker undertones of the novel (no mention of sex with robotic surrogates while plugged into the Oasis). In part, this is due to the fact that plot takes most of the focus of the storytelling while character development is reduced to more basic and familiar ideas we’ve seen in other movies before. And in this sense, I’m less of a fan of the movie’s handling of the characters than the novel. This may come as a shock to people who find the movie’s version of the main character more likable than the novel’s. Let me explain.
I find it fascinating when people confuse the likability of a character with our ability to empathize with them. I found Michael B. Jordan’s “bad guy” character in Black Panther to be someone I ultimately didn’t like (he was a bay guy, after all) but for whom I felt profound empathy. I understood why he felt the way he did even if I completely disagreed with his violent and vengeful methods. There are plenty of stories in which we might find ourselves empathizing with an unlikable character (Breaking Bad, anyone?).
So, while I am aware that the main character in the Ready Player One novel is not always the most the likable guy around, I still empathized with his situation and his journey. For one thing, the theme of empathy is actually rather crucial to Wade’s development in the book. He begins the story as a rather self-absorbed teen who just wants a way out of his rather shitty existence. Honestly, I get it. I was quite self-absorbed as a teen too, and I wasn’t living in a dystopian world with little prospects for my future. Add to this the fact that Wade is growing up in a world dominated by technology and virtual reality where actual human contact is minimal and it should become rather obvious that Wade is going to struggle with empathy in general.
Neuroscience supports this notion. Children need to have interactions with real, live people in order to learn languages. That’s why those DVDs that claim they’ll teach your baby a foreign language are a load of crap. Don’t believe me? I recommend reading Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. Along with language development, children also learn to read and understand emotional cues through interacting with real people. As we continue to grow, our patterns of behavior shape our ability to empathize and be present and connected to other people. Technology can have negative effects on our abilities to empathize, as indicated by this 2014 study that suggests that the presence of a smartphone lowers our ability to empathize with conversation partners.
So here’s Wade, growing up on virtual reality. Does he struggle with empathy and thus being a typically likable character? You bet your ass he does! But in this way, the Wade of the novel strikes me as far more believable than the one in the film. Spielberg’s Wade is a wide-eyed kid who just hasn’t grown up enough to realize there are deeper concerns than his future alone. He’s handsome in a nerdy way and easy enough to like.
The novel’s Wade, on the other hand, starts as an overweight hardcore nerd who has numbed his pain at the loss of his parents by escaping to a virtual world. His natural state of existence is isolation. His goals are to ensuring his own comforts and survival. He has no real empathetic adult figures in his life that have been consistent and ever-present. As a result, he has limited empathy for the people around him even as they wind up being killed by IOI. While some people might be turned off by this, I found myself thinking, nah, I get it. What else does this kid know at this point?
What ultimately has me reflecting on the novel (but that feels lacking in the movie) is that its main character really grows by the end. To keep things shorter (and possibly give it more of a boy-saves-girl vibe) in the movie, it is Samantha who gets captured by IOI and enslaved. But in the book, Wade is the one who has developed a rather elaborate and highly risky plan to be captured by IOI and entered into their indentured servant program in order to gain the required access to the IOI systems so he can hack them. I get why the movie skipped all of this as this section of the novel could be a feature film of its own.
Wade’s whole plan is incredibly risky as it could well result in his enslavement for life. It also represents a big shift in Wade’s worldview. It would have been much easier for him to stick to a safer plan in which he could continue trying to be the first to the egg and become the sole victor. Instead, he puts himself in harm’s way to do what he can to ensure that IOI will not become the lords of the Oasis, ruining it for everyone and continuing its enslavement program. This side journey sets Wade up to make more self-sacrificial choices by the end of the book. But this is not something the Wade at the beginning of the novel would have done. His contact with Samantha slowly affects him and he has time to go through a very familiar maturation process for someone in their late teens: the realization that the world is bigger than one’s own preoccupations. As a result, the ending of the novel felt more satisfying for me as Wade traveled a longer distance in his personal growth.
Is the movie worth watching? Sure. But even though I know the detractors of the book might disagree with me, I think the novel’s worth more some very thoughtful reading and reflection.
[Originally published on MikelWisler.com. Republished with permission.]
Before I was a filmmaker, I was a sci-fi writer. I’m still a sci-fi writer. What can I say, I’m a huge nerd and I love it.
I recently came across a video I hadn’t seen of Ben Affleck doing part of the Criterion Collection edition commentary on the movie Armageddon. It brought back some memories and made me realize something about the film I hadn’t years ago.
I haven’t seen Armageddon in a long time. I saw it in theaters and then got a VHS copy of the film for Christmas. I was only in high school in ’98 when the film came out. But even as a high schooler, I have to admit that between Armageddon and the other “a huge asteroid is about to hit earth” blockbuster of that era, Deep Impact, I was a little more into Deep Impact. The plot and characters struck me as slightly more authentic than Michael Bay’s rather silly concept of a gang of oil drillers magically turned astronauts.
Take a look at this short segment from Affleck’s commentary for Armageddon:
It’s pretty hilarious, in my opinion. Maybe Affleck just doesn’t care anymore what Michael Bay thinks of him, or maybe Bay is really a good sport and now recognizes this particular glaring logical misstep in the movie’s concept. Either way, seeing this video pop up on my Facebook feed made me realize that Armageddon ultimately is not very kind to scientists, in particular to everyone working for NASA.
This strikes me as sci-fi written by non-science-loving folks. Or at least, created by people who don’t understand what scientist really do. Meanwhile, screenwriter Drew Goddard has openly stated that his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, is intended to be a love letter to science. And that makes sense. Weir’s novel features a scientist, Mark Watney, who is both endowed with intellect and profound humanity. He’s got a dark sense of humor, makes mistakes, but learns and adapts. And in the end, it’s his determination to do the math and work through the logical and scientific challenges he faces that keeps him alive.
Armageddon isn’t alone in portraying scientists poorly. There’s a danger in sci-fi to rely on the notion of the “mad scientist” who brings about some grand threat to humanity. Now, that’s not to say that sci-fi writers are not allowed write stories where scientist go too far and bring about problems. I’m a fan of such stories and I’m even prepping to publish a two new novels of my own that deal with ethical problems brought about by greed, fear, and other factors influencing our scientific pursuits. But the important thing for me is that these are universal human shortcomings we all face, scientist or not. And scientists are definitely quite human.
For a good example of this, I recommend checking out Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks. I’m working my way through it right now and finding it to be incredibly enlightening to the humanity of scientists in both their great reliance on intuition and their hubris that has caused many problems throughout history. It’s a fascinating read and really brings valuable perspective.
So what am I getting at? I believe in the three-dimensional portrayal of characters. Armageddon, in its effort to get us to buy what is ultimately a ludicrous concept (that a bunch of oil drillers can be transformed into competent astronauts with a mere week or two of training) ends up being quite insulting to actual astronauts and all scientists who work for years to make the breakthroughs that allow our knowledge and technology to advance.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that oil drillers are buffoons. It’s not a simply either/or situation. If a movie were to portray a plot in which a scientist, let’s say a chemist, where to show up and save the day by fixing a car a bunch of mechanics had been unable to fix, I would find that equally ridiculous. You’d have to set up clearly that this chemist has a background as a mechanic. But still, if the chemist has been working as a chemist for years what’s the likelihood they have the real-world experience as a mechanic to do a far better job than any actual mechanics? It could happen, but it’s incredibly unlikely. More importantly, how are the mechanics portrayed in such a story?
In the case of Armageddon, NASA’s scientists are presented through the lens of our oil drilling hero who seems to think they’re all incompetent. But it can go the other way too. One of the things that bug me to no end about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is that the film is incredibly uncharitable to farmers and to some extent even undermines environmentalism. The main character is a reluctant farmer who feels the call to exploration. There’s nothing wrong with this. We’re not all farmers. We’re also not all explorers. The real problem is that the only other farming character in the film is portrayed in a rather villainous light. Combine this with the film’s thesis that humanity is not supposed to be mere caretakers but explorers instead, and Interstellar sadly comes off saying (in this capacity, at least) that there’s no point taking care of our planet and placing value on those who feel called to stewardship of our resources and the growing and raising of food for humanity. In short, once we pillage what we can from Earth we’ll be saved by those bold enough to take us to new planets. Of course, we’re going to need farmers to keep feeding us once we land on a new habitable planet, so …
Meanwhile, a novel and movie like Jurassic Park presents scientists of various disciplines arguing the moral responsibility and prudence of cloning long-extinct creatures. This strikes me as a somewhat more balanced approach. Granted, one could make the case that geneticists are not presented in the best light while paleontologists and mathematicians are. However, it is worth pointing out that Jurassic Park is a story about cloning, so, of course, the particular geneticist in this plot are the ones that said, “Sure, let’s do this. Damn the consequences.” In the novel, the real bad guy is the park’s owner, a businessman. Sorry businessmen.
As a sci-fi writer myself, I hope to engage in more nuanced portrayals of both scientists and non-scientist characters. I grant that any given story is only a limited perspective on our reality and can only be populated by a limited number of characters. There are many aspects of Interstellar that I really love and I grant (well, sort of) that maybe there just wasn’t time in the movie to portray farmers in a better light (though, come on, that thing is long). So I continue to learn and seek to write well-rounded, three-dimensional characters that wrestle with the real ethical and philosophical issues surrounding the advancement of our knowledge and technology. I doubt I’ll get to write a blockbuster like Armageddon, but I hope to contribute my own small way to more thoughtful portrayals of science and those who dedicate themselves to discovery and exploration.
In the meantime, I look up to guys like Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, two people who have braved spending a whole year in space aboard the ISS. Now these are some badass scientists right here!
[This post first appeared on mikelwisler.com on December 8, 2016.]
As a filmmaker who has become a published author, I continue to seek out information that will help me grow as a writer. One of the main things I continue to dive into is anything that will help me reach out and connect with my target audience. Marketing is a pretty major thing whether you’re starting out or you’ve been at things for years.
I recently read Bryan Cohen’s Kindle book How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step System for Enticing New Readers, Selling More Fiction, and Making Your Books Sound Good. The ebook is short but chalked full really insightful steps writers can take in developing and polishing a really compelling and effective blurb that can attract readers. As I read through the book I sought to apply what Cohen advises writers to do by revising the blurb for my first novel, Unidentified, which is currently out on Kindle and paperback. I kept a file with each new draft so I could see how my blur evolved with each exercise at the end of each chapter. Toward the end of the book, Cohen also invites readers to join the Facebook group he started as a collaborative forum for authors to be able to help each other with marketing and selling their books. I hopped on there and shared my developing blurb and got some great feedback that helped me continue the polishing process.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “but I’m a filmmaker, not a novelist,” please don’t be too quick to dismiss this post as not relevant to you. I can say with confidence that what I’ve learned through the process of reading this book and revising my novel’s blurb several times will be quite applicable to any short synopsis I need to write for my short films and any pitch material I develop for feature film projects. Cohen’s book really helped me see the craft and purposeful art that goes into writing a compelling blurb that engages the reader quickly and on an emotional level that peaks one’s curiosity to find out what happens to these compelling characters they’ve just been introduced to. So, even if you’re not a novelist, I still think there’s a lot you can gain by reading How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis.
Now, I’ll leave you with a tangible example what I learned in reading this book by sharing with you two versions of the blurb for my novel (which is also a feature film currently in development), Unidentified. First, I give you the version I had on Amazon before reading Cohen’s book. Finally, I’ll share the latest version so you can see how it changed.
One year ago, a boy mysteriously vanished after claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrial beings multiple times. No trace of him has ever been found.
Now, Boston-based Special Agent for the FBI, Nicole Mitchell, is brought back from administrative leave when a girl in the same New Hampshire town also claims to have been abducted. Disturbing similarities connect the girl’s case to the missing boy Mitchell failed to find a year ago.
Certain that someone is manipulating victims by using the powerful suggestion of UFOs and the alien abduction scenario in order to kidnap these kids, Mitchell enlists the help of paranormal debunking psychiatrist, Dr. Alan Evans. But who among the locals knows the truth? Is it the girl’s parents, the peculiar new pastor in town, the local police? As the case unfolds, Mitchell and Evans are confronted with a much darker and far more sinister reality than they ever expected. But can Mitchell shake off her own dark past in time to help this girl? Nothing could have prepared any them for what they are about to encounter.
Troubled FBI Agent Nicole Mitchell is brought back from administrative leave and offered a second chance to solve her most haunting case. A disturbing series of kidnappings has a small town terrified. Mitchell is certain that a serial kidnapper is exploiting local fears of UFOs and stories of alien abductions to hide in plain sight. Desperate to uncover the truth, Mitchell enlists the help of a skeptic who questions even her theory.
In three days, a local girl will vanish for good. As Mitchell rushes to solve the case in time, she uncovers a far more sinister reality than she ever imagined. Mitchell must shake off her own dark past if she’s going to save the girl. But could this case be her undoing?
Mikel J. Wisler’s debut novel blends sci-fi and horror in ways fans of the darkest episodes of The X-Files are sure to enjoy while looking at UFOs in a new way. As an indie filmmaker turned novelist, Wisler is prepping to make Unidentified into a feature film. Buy the Unidentified novel today and help the movie get made.
We’re very excited to announce that we are in pre-production for a wonderful short comedy called “Undatement Line,” written and directed by Chris Esper. “Undatement Line” deals with the whoas of dating in the online age. We’ve had the pleasure of showing some of Esper’s previous short films at theStories by the River Film Festival and we appreciate his focus on story and exploring meaningful topics from fresh angles. In fact, we’ve shown an Esper film at every single one of our festivals thus far and his short film, “Always a Reason,” took home the SbtR Award for Excellence in Storytelling at our 2015 festival. So we are very much looking forward to working with him on this new film project. The casting process for “Undatement Life” is underway with production scheduled for this fall.
Esper has also authored a very engaging book, The Filmmaker’s Journey, detailing his journey so far as a filmmaker where he shares many great insights into the growth process every filmmaker has to undergo as they set out to develop their visual storytelling and writing skills. The book is available in trade paperback and on Kindle through Amazon. You can check it out here: www.amazon.com/dp/B01F6J3W5O/
Recently, Esper’s book was reviewed by Mike Knox-Smith. You can read that review here. I’ve read the book and highly recommend it!
It’s been over a decade since YouTube launched its video sharing service. While it is true that most of us, myself included, tend to use YouTube primarily to find videos of crazy cats and hilarious fails, sites like YouTube and Vimeo have also become platforms where indie filmmakers have been able to share their short films broader audiences than ever before. But more than just a great means to reach a global audience with your latest project, the advent of online video sharing has changed the very nature of short films, how they’re made, how they’re structured, and how they’re seen. Understanding these changes has been a particular passion of mine over the last several years of making short films with Stories by the River.
For one thing, short films have gotten dramatically shorter in recent years. New filmmakers are finding increasingly creative ways to tell complex stories in a very short time frame. A lot of what is happening with short films today involves a move away from making short films that have what I call a “mini feature” structure that sticks closely to the traditional three act structure and usually takes between 20 to 30 minutes to play out. But the short films really making a splash online these days are often between 5 and 10 minutes. Some are even shorter still. In many ways, modern short films have dumped all the excess baggage of drawn out opening credits, mood setting, and lengthy exposition. Within seconds, the central conflict of the film is introduced. Often times, the best short films today are the ones offering up just glimpse of a moment that is sure to change the characters. Here’s a quick video I made explaining how new filmmakers can focus their short film script in a similar fashion.
Based on my experiences making and distributing short films, as well as battling for attention in the film festival circuit (which has been greatly altered by online media as well), I wrote the book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age. The book is out now on Kindle and will come out on June 7 in trade paperback. In Short Films 2.0 I discuss how short films have changed as a result of YouTube and similar sites as well as how the most effective short films today embrace a very a different core philosophy than short films of decades past. I also explain why understanding these changes matters to filmmakers, and even draw of philosophy and neuroscience to help filmmakers think about how their short films are being seen and experienced by online audiences. I provide lots of practical examples from short films you can watch and even bonus materials like short film scripts and lists of helpful books, websites, apps, and more.
You can grab your copy of Short Films 2.0 by going to: www.amazon.com/dp/B01ESCNCP0
Recently, I had the privilege of being interviewed by Philip Smolen over at Rogue Cinema. This is a two part interview and part one is out now. Part two will be out in April. In this first part, I got to look back at my early days of making short films and I even talk a little about how Stories by the River came together.
Philip Smolen has reviewed several of our SbtR short films and has had some great things to say:
“Parallel” is a beautiful cinematic tone poem that fiercely champions the idea of everlasting love. It’s a stunning achievement in romantic sci-fi.
– Philip Smolen’s review of “Parallel” (Rogue Cinema)
[Playing with Ice] is a wonderful and satisfying short that speaks volumes about what we hold inside and the damage it causes. Wisler has made a life-affirming and nifty pseudo sci-fi movie all at the same time. Bravo!”
– Philip Smolen’s review of “Playing with Ice” (Rogue Cinema)
Read part one of the interview here: http://www.roguecinema.com/an-interview-with-mikel-wisler-part-1-by-philip-smolen.html
As some of you might already know, we are hard at work developing our first feature film, Unidentified. In an effort to lay the groundwork for this process, I wrote and novel adaptation of the same story and we have been hard at work getting the word out about the novel now that it is available on Kindle. This past Thursday evening, I had the great privilege of being part of the Citywide Blackout show on WEMF Radio, in Cambridge, Mass. I got to talk at length about the novel and the development work we’re doing on the film. You can now listen to the recording of the whole show. The half-hour segment where I’m interviewed about Unidentified happens about sixty minutes into the show.
On top of this, Unidentified was mentioned in the latest news from Rogue Cinema! You can read that whole article by clicking here. We are excited to see the project continue to gain more exposure. We definitely cannot do this on our own. So please do feel to share this with friends on social media and keep an eye out for more news and interviews. And don’t forget, the Kindle book is only $2.99! Be sure to check out the film’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts. Thank you so much for your support and enthusiasm for this project.
I do a lot of strange things. I’m the first one the acknowledge that fact. Even though I’m a long-time filmmaker, I just did a bit of a jump into a whole different field and published my first novel last month. But maybe I’m too used to my own craziness, because this doesn’t seem so off to me. Or maybe it’s the fact that I started off years ago writing short stories an even a novel (whose decade-old draft still sits on my shelf in my office). But I certainly can understand why for many people who know me as a filmmaker, hearing about me publishing a novel might come as a surprise. I hope it’s a good surprise.
Here’s the low-down on what I’m up to with that, and how that relates to what Stories by the River is doing. We have long been exploring the possibilities of producing our first feature length movie as we have continued to make short films and workout and tone our filmmaking and storytelling muscles. We’ve also been exploring options in terms of genres that might allow us to tell a story we’re very excited about and that can captivate an enthusiastic audience interested in something independently produced. In part, that’s how I ended up pitching Dominic and Kristina Stone Kaiser, my partners here at SbtR, on the idea of making a sci-fi/horror project, Unidentified.
If you’re curious about why the horror genre specifically, here’s an article I wrote a while back for Horatio where I explain my love for the genre. Here is also a short video where I talk about why I wrote this novel.
As I worked on the first draft of the screenplay for Unidentified, it became clear to me that there were aspects of the story, particularly the inner lives of the characters, that I wanted to have more time to explore. A novel seemed like the perfect venue for such exploration while still maintaining the fast-paced thriller momentum the story requires. In addition to this, I recognize that as a filmmaker who has written and directed many short films and even sought funding for other feature film projects that I needed to present my prospective investors with something more than just a cool idea and a gripping script. I need to present them with hard numbers on the audience for this specific story. What better way to connect with my audience than to get a book out there? This is an especially exciting notion in this new digital age where self-publishing is no longer looked upon with the same condescension of even just a few years ago.
Actually, self-publishing is the way to break into the publishing world today. Authors like Lisa Genova (Still Alice) and Andy Weir (The Martian) both self-published their first novels. It was no easy road, but Genova’s first novel went on to be picked up by a traditional publisher, became a New York Times Best Seller, and was made into a movie for which Julianne Moore won the Oscar for best actress earlier this year. Weir’s first novel was also eventually picked up by a traditional publisher, became a NYT Best Seller as well, and the movie version directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon comes out in
November (correction, it’s actually October 2nd). Obviously, these are some remarkable stories and by no means do most self-published authors go on to enjoy quite this level of success. But Genova (whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago and shooting interviews with about her journey of self-publication) and Weir do demonstrate how publishing is changing today as self-publication has become the go-to option for new authors and is now a territory many publishers pay attention to in their quest to discover new authors.
Now I’m not at all imagining that I’ll enjoy quite the level of success that Genova and Weir enjoy (I think they’re far better writers than me, if I say so myself). But that doesn’t stop me form being inspired by them!
Back to my novel … So I used my feature length screenplay as a very detailed outline for the novel for Unidentified. And you know what? It was incredibly fun! I’m serious! Maybe it’s just nice to take a break from dealing with all the logistics of producing and directing films and constantly having to consider what can and cannot be done on a budget, but it was nice to just dive into a story and allow myself to be taken along for the ride even as the writer. Little pleasures as a storyteller can be quite fulfilling, such as how I realized that if I wanted it to be raining during a particularly dramatic scene in the novel, I could just go a head and do that without worry of how much it will cost me to make that rain or how to keep all the gear dry during shooting.
In the end, it is the ability to really dive into the inner journey the various characters are on that really made the experience so much fun. And so far, the readers who have been grabbing their Kindle copy of the book and sending me their comments or posting reviews on Amazon seem to be enjoying the journey as well. That’s exciting to me! And as a long-time lover of The X-Files, writing this script and novel feel kind of like coming home.
I invite you to check out Unidentified in novel form. Every sale is a hard number we can take to potential investors as we seek to tell this story in two mediums. You can be part of making this dream of ours a reality and help us tell a meaningful story that dares to explore some important, if scary, questions. Grab your copy here.
Lately I’ve been an incredibly busy guy (note the absence of blog posts by me in recent weeks). So I’m going to start this blog entry by admitting right upfront that I have not seen even a single frame of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new science TV show, Cosmos. It’s probably quite good in it’s own right (though in light of recent comments by Tyson, I have questions as to just how good the show is). But I just haven’t had the chance to check it out.
All the same, I have had my eye on the controversial statements Tyson has made as relate to other academic disciplines, particularly the field of Philosophy. If you haven’t been following this issue, Tyson recently made some very disparaging comments about philosophy on a podcast where he was being interviewed. In fact, this is not the first time he has made comments that dismiss philosophy as being counter productive to progress (in his mind) since we might be sidetracked by asking too many questions about the nature of reality and our existence in this universe. I don’t want to dive into all the details of what all he specifically said as that will make this blog post much too long. Instead, I highly recommend reading this article by Scientist and Philosopher (yes, both disciplines together) Massimo Pigliucci where he quickly addresses the misconceptions Tyson (whom he seems to know personally) has about philosophy. It’s a very worthwhile read, even if you’re not a scientist or philosopher. Pigliucci is very even handed in his response, being both direct and kind.
Now, I admit that the topic is of particular interest to me as I do have a BA in Philosophy from Bethel College, where I had the privilege to study under Chad Meister, James Stump, and Tim Erdel, among other professors (look those guys up, they’re not only amazingly intelligent, they’re also genuinely amazing people). So I recognize I probably have a bias in this situation as I’m already clearly sold on the value of philosophy (as I crammed in that BA while getting a totally different BA in four years). Or maybe–just maybe–I have something Tyson seems to lack: an actual working understanding of what philosophy is and the broader and deeper purpose it serves (which Pigliucci addresses head-on in his article). I’ll let you decide.
I’m also a lover of science and have long drawn to science fiction as both a favorite genre of mine for reading and watching as well as the genre I most often find myself working in as a writer and filmmaker. I believe science fiction is a genre that is uniquely equipped to dive directly into big philosophical questions (much as the horror genre often comes ready-made to dive into the spiritual realm directly). Sci-fi offers us big philosophical questions like: Is it right to arrest someone for crime they have not yet committed but supposedly are sure to commit in the future (Minority Report)? Are we alone in the universe (Contact, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and many others)? Is it right to bring back to life potentially dangerous creatures that went extinct 65 million years ago (Jurassic Park)? What does it mean to be a living being (Frankenstein and much of the Zombie genre)? Is it right to use our advances in genetics to engineer better human beings (Gattaca)? Can human beings have a loving relationship with artificial intelligence (Her and Transcendence)? Can technology bring us to a place where we lose sight of what is real (The Matrix Trilogy and Inception)? You get the idea.
Recently I’ve rewatched two sci-fi movies that are personal favorites of mine and have profoundly influenced my own journey into filmmaking: Jurassic Park (the movie that made we want to be a filmmaker) and Gattaca (the movie that taught me that great science fiction can be quiet, introspective, and deeply moving). Both function as cautionary tales of sorts (as does much of sci-fi and horror).
Now what does this all have to do with Tyson and his position that empirical science is far and above so much better than philosophy? Allow me to put it this way: I love science and I believe in the value of scientific pursuits and empirical research and progress. I also believe that such scientific pursuits and progress must always first be held up to the illuminating power of that profoundly important branch of philosophy known as ethics. Science, left to its own devices and driven solely by a thirst for the type of progress Tyson seems to think is far more valuable than wasting our time asking philosophical questions, runs the risk of being blind to ethics. This is where science fiction continues to serve us well. These are just two examples, but Jurassic Park and Gattaca caution us to the dangers of ethics-blind scientific development.
In Jurassic Park, the ever eccentric and at times obnoxious character Ian Malcolm (a mathematician who specializes in Chaos Theory, or Complexity Theory as it has more recently been known), points out to John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park, the following: “I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it. […] You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could. And before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunch box. And now you’re selling it! You wanna sell it!” When Hammond tries to push back with the assertion that his scientists have done amazing work, Malcolm cuts in with, “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” (See the whole scene here.) Jurassic Park goes on to play out with a plot structure more akin to a horror movie, where indeed we can’t help but be confronted with the reality that maybe Hammond’s scientists did move too fast and now it has cost the lives of several people. What’s more, this power Hammond has tried to wield may not be something humans will ever be able to contain and effectively control.
In Gattaca, we observe a society that has embraced progress in human genetics the point of designing nearly perfect babies in hopes that they will have the most appealing qualities, lasting health, and excellent intellect. This sounds good in theory at first glance. Everyone wants the best for their children! But as anyone who might take the time to pause and consider the ethical implications of this type of thirst for the “perfect” children might point out, the society of Gattaca eventually lost sight of the innate value of every human being, regardless of genetic gifting. A new caste system is created where non-designer human beings are firmly marginalized and pushed out of the upper stratus of workplaces and society in general. Ian Malcolm’s line, “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” applies equality here. It’s worth noting that these two films came out just a fews years apart. Clearly, in the world of Gattaca, the people wielding the power to design the genetics of children do not pause to consider the long-term repercussions to the whole of the human race. Inadvertently, the society of Gattaca sacrifices justice and equality in the name of individualistic perfection (take genetics out of the conversation, and I’d argue that this is actually one of the core problems the Unites States of America has been facing for at least a century in our quest for the “American Dream”).
As I read about Tyson’s dismissal of philosophy (or if we even want to be generous to Tyson, his potential dismissal specifically of the philosophy of science), I was struck by the notion that Tyson’s idea of scientific progress is distinctly western and modern. Tyson seems to be an empiricist, which likely explains why the only type of “progress” that seems to matter to him is progress that can be measured in a lab (which is why he mistakenly believes philosophy has not offered humanity any progress in the last several centuries–a dead giveaway that Tyson does not actually understand philosophy and does not know it’s history and continued evolution, as Pigliucci points out in his article). My fear is that the exact kind of thinking Tyson is engaged in here is the type of thinking that will charge blindly ahead because as new scientific and technological developments occur, new opportunities present themselves. Meanwhile, folks like Tyson are so focused on the notion that we could accomplish something that no one pauses long enough to ask if we should. I think this is why science fiction continues to offer us cautionary tales. We seem to need constant reminders that just because we are capable of doing something does not mean doing so is the best or most ethical choice.
Want a real world example? Currently, Japanese scientists have been developing a rather elaborate machine that together with virtual reality can offer users a rather realistic and complete physical sexual experience. Yup, that’s right. Sex with a robot–basically. Don’t believe me? Read this article at your own risk. It makes perfect sense to me that our technology is evolving to a place where this sexual experiences with robotic machines is possible. But just because such a thing is possible, is this a road we should go down as a species? Don’t we already have too many problems born out of our individualistic and self-serving views of sexuality? Aren’t people already isolated enough and lonely? Do we need yet another tool that isolates us further from other people and likely fosters unhealthy views of sexuality?
While Tyson can dismiss philosophy as pointless armchair speculation, I’m glad sci-fi continues to bring these important philosophical questions to the pop-culture landscape. Is it any coincidence that while these Japanese scientists develop this sex-machine movies like Her and Transcendence offer up to us questions about the nature of relationships with technology that blurs the lines between human and machine? I’m more than a bit creeped out by the idea of a character like Sam from Her having access to the type of machine now in development in Japan.
And, I for one, will continue to tell sci-fi stories born out of deep philosophical questions that wrestle with faith and doubt in our vast universe (“A Silent Universe”) and our often mistaken desire to escape the here-and-now in hopes that the future will be better and we will be happier (“Playing with Ice”). I invite you to check these films out and join the conversation. What are your thoughts?
“It sucked.” That’s what I often dread hearing as a filmmaker. That’s not to say that I expect everyone to like everything I make. That would be impossible. But it doesn’t make it sting any less when someone genuinely has a very negative reaction to something I’ve poured my heart into. All the same, I’m dedicated personal growth as an artist. This means that I first have to acknowledge I’m not always going to get it right. Sometimes, something I make might legitimately “suck.” So as vulnerable and uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I find I need feedback.
So, if someone says to me, “I didn’t like it” or “it sucked” (and most people are far too nice to just say something sucked even if it might rightly deserve such an assessment), my natural follow up question is, “What didn’t you like about it?” Basically, I ask them to tell me more. Because, when it comes right down to it, I couldn’t possibly care any less about the fact that you didn’t like my script or film. What I care about is why did they not like it. Why (and by extension, what) is where growth is possible.
In that sense, when someone tells me, “I loved that film of yours,” my next question is basically the same. “Why?” I ask, “What did you like about it?” Because, even when it comes to positive feedback, I learn nothing from vague generalities and quick praise. Don’t get me wrong. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside for sure when someone tells me, “I saw your latest short film and I loved it.” But when it comes to learning about what’s working and not working about the stories I’m telling, it all comes back to why. Why did you like or not like this specific film or script?
I can learn several things when I manage to get people to explain why. For instance, I few years ago I had a rare opportunity to show a my short film, “Always Reaching” to a rather famous Hollywood producer. He graciously watched it and then sent me an e-mail detailing why he felt the film is more or less garbage. At first I was utterly devastated. Certainly, here was a blown opportunity to make a good impression on someone with power and influence. Things had not gone the way I hoped they would. He said the film was esoteric and made a few other … well, frankly … odd observations about why he so thoroughly disliked my short film. However, once I had time to clear my head and chat with my producing partner and fellow screenwriter on that film, it became more and more clear to me that we had simply made a film that in almost no way matched this particular Hollywood producer’s tastes. Reflecting on the types of films this producer made compared to our slow-paced character-driven dark drama, it seems clear to me that his feedback, while a valid subjective reaction he’s entitled to have, did not turn out to be feedback I should put much stock in. We had more or less simply made a movie that was, well, not his type. If you’re curious, you can see “Always Reaching” right here and form your own opinion (and even tell me what you think of it): https://vimeo.com/4889017
So in this instance, I feel like it was sort of like making a horror movie that then someone watches and tells me they hated because they hate horror movies in general. Well, okay then. Duly noted. If you find yourself in a situation like this, do yourself a favor. The moment they walk away, mentally hit “select all” on their feedback in your mind and quickly and firmly hit the mental “deleted” key. That is useless feedback. There’s nothing of value to be learned there.
Over time I have also learned that not all feedback sources should cary the same weight in my mind. Some people I know have proven themselves to be very observant and capable of providing me with very specific and helpful feedback as to what’s working and not working in a story (be it script, rough cut, or finished film). These people genuinely praise what is honestly working and critique and point out the weak areas, giving reasons why those weak areas detracted from their experience of the story. Often, they even provide specific thoughts on how to make those weak areas stronger. On the other hand, I know people (many of whom I love dearly) whose opinions when it comes to my work I have slowly learned to hold loosely (some even to disregard completely) as I believe their feedback is too colored by specific quirks that I have no interest in catering to. Often such people will offer me their thoughts and I take it all in politely and sort through it later, but not putting too much stock in what they’ve said either way. One thing I’ve been learning to do more and more (I’m a work in progress here) is to not take their feedback personally. In fact, with such people, I often cease actively seeking their feedback altogether. I mean, what’s the point, right?
Now, keep in mind, there’s a difference between not seeking feedback from people because I might have an aversion to being told my work is anything but awesome. Like I said, praise feels good, but many times doesn’t help me grow. So what I’m talking about here is identifying and seeking out those people who provide truly constrictive criticism (which at times does include hard critiques of ares in which my work has seriously failed to rise above mediocrity). So it is incredibly valuable to find those people who honestly love you and want to see you succeed, but don’t necessarily automatically love everything you produce. They know your potential and are unwilling to settle for watching you fall short of it. But they also know that this whole business of being creative is hard work, it’s vulnerable, and often times, in spite all our efforts, we just don’t quite manage to get it all right. And I don’t know about you, but in those instances it’s oh so tempting to fall back on my old life as a Starbucks barista. These people don’t let you do that.
When it comes to my work, I find feedback a crucial part of developing a new project. In a real sense, I feel like a story only exists in my head as long as I haven’t shown a draft to anyone. Even though I may have succeeded in putting words in a document in a Final Draft or Pages document, the whole process is so subjectively wrapped up in my limited perspective that in practical terms, it’s like it still doesn’t exist outside of my mind. So I tend to roll out an early draft to a trusted circle of friends who have proven a track record of providing helpful feedback. They can let me know if I’m wasting my time barking up this particular tree or if there’s real potential here. They often give me specific insights into what’s going on in the story or how things are being interpreted that I need to keep in mind. I had this happen just last week with a script. A close friend read my second draft for a script I’m working on, and she pointed out how she’d interpreted one particular aspect of the story and I realized that (1) I had not intended for things to be interpreted that way at all and (2) what she pointed out was likely to be the way many people could interpret that aspect of the story. It’s a thing of beauty. In that instant, the story was outside of my head and I had to contend the reality of presenting this to an audience and trying to ensure that the audience wasn’t distracted by something I did not mean to bring up in the story in the first place. Revisions will clean that right up!
That’s why I love the feedback and revision process. I then expand my circle and show to more people and get more feedback. And usually at this stage, I start to consider trends in my feedback. If I’m showing a third or fourth draft to ten people, and one of them gives me some rather unexpected feedback, I often have to weigh that against what the other nine said. It could they are just an outlier, statistically speaking. However, if four or five people out of those ten are saying very similar things … I probably should stop and listen carefully.
Finally, often times, people will have very specific things they will suggest when it comes to fixing problems or weak areas in a script I’m working on. Sometimes such suggestions are spot on and I actually integrate them. However, more often than not, the suggestions are indicative of observing that something in a specific area of the story is not working but are not something I would want to implement for various reasons that can range from stylistic choices to how taking such advice might actually bring about other issues in the script. But what I often do in those instances is to try to listen carefully to the suggestions offered then I go away and think it all over. 99 out of 100 times, when I sit down to rewrite the script, I end up tossing the specifics of the suggestion aside and discover my own unique solution that both addresses the issue and uniquely serves the story in a much better way. So, while I hardly ever simply implement such feedback, it provides me a kind of springboard I can jump off of with my own solutions. And so, feedback and suggestions remain invaluable to me.
A word of advice for fellow artists when it comes to asking for feedback: Always stop and listen first! Respect the people giving you feedback, especially if you asked for their feedback. Really soak what they are saying and consider it fairly before implementing or dismissing it too quickly. I have been asked for my feedback by some people at times only to instantly find them arguing with me about why all my feedback is wrong or off base. In those instances, I usually discontinue the conversation as quickly as possible as it is clear to me that the person is not currently interesting in my actual feedback. They may simply need a little friendly affirmation and a change of subject. If you ask for feedback, though, don’t be that person. Don’t argue. Soak it in for the moment and work it out later if you need to implement or dismiss. This doesn’t mean you can’t discuss things. Just don’t let all the reasons why you love your project get in the way of hearing valuable feedback.
It really is a never ending process. Be it revisions on a script or considering how to make a better film next time, we all need feedback as filmmakers and storytellers (and many other lines of work too, for that matter). But do keep in mind: not all feedback is equal! Do you know who the people are you can trust to give you truly honest and helpful feedback? If so, be sure to let those people know how much you value their help! Never take them for granted.