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Science Talk

Klaatu's Back and He's Not Happy

Scott Derrickson, director of the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, talks about his take on the iconic sci-fi movie. And Nobel laureate Richard Roberts discusses the importance of open-access science publishing. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting December 10th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky.

(movie clip)

Polygraph operator: Are you aware of an impending attack on the planet Earth?

Klaatu: Yes.

Steve: That's a scene from the new movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, an updated version of the classic 1951 film of the same name that opens December 12th. We will talk with Scott Derrickson about the movie, his astronomer advisor and other sciencey stuff related to the film, and we will hear from Nobel laureate Richard Roberts about open-access science publishing, plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, director Scott Derrickson. He called in last Saturday. We started by talking about [the] particular challenges of remaking an iconic film.


Derrickson: The original was 57 years ago and a lot of the elements of it, you know, needed to be updated for modern audiences and modern audience expectations and that sort of thing; but it is still very much an attempt to preserve aspects and elements, iconic elements, from the original film and certainly the basic story line from the original film that made it special in the first place. So it's a tricky balance putting those two things together, but that was the attempt and that was, you know, if that was what the reimagining of it was an attempt to do.

Steve: And speaking of a tricky attempt, I mean, the thought of doing this project at all, I mean, was it a little scary for you. Because I know that for a lot of sci-fi fans, that in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still is sacred.

Derrickson: Yeah, and it's still there. You know I mean, I think that if you are going to remake a movie, and if you're going to remake a classic movie especially, you need to have a good reason; you shouldn't do something like that lightly. I wasn't scared. I was certainly skeptical about the idea when Fox approached me about that they have a script and they wanted to do the remake. and I love the original film. The original film is an extraordinary movie and when I read the script, it made sense to me, the idea of doing a new version of this, and what made sense to me was that it is an extraordinary story. The original film is rooted so deeply in the ideas of social problems of its time, the cold war specifically and the fear of the bomb and struggle to establish the U.N.; and I love the idea of telling the same story in modern times dealing with the new kind of social peril that we have put ourselves in and some of the social problems that we have got. I thought that made sense, and I also respect the fact that, you know, people love the original so much but from the mass movie going audience, you know, 98 percent of the movie going public doesn't know this film. And it's not a film that the most modern goers know or would recognize. And I love the idea of bringing this great story to [a] new audience; and in my position on remakes is that if you do a good remake or a bad remake, you don't change the original film; it's still there. and There had been four versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I think Philip Kaufman's version was brilliant and maybe even better than Don Siegel's original. I think that the two following ones were far inferior to Don Siegel's original but I don't think any of these three remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has changed the original at all. It's the same film that it was.

Steve: Could you just talk a little bit about how this movie came to be, because according to the production notes, [Keanu] Reeves' manager, who winds up being the producer here, had this idea in mind a long time ago, and now it's a reality.

Derrickson: Yeah, that was something that he told me. You know, he had wanted to do this, and he would like[d] the idea of doing this with Keanu years and years ago; and then he wasn't involved at all in the developments of the project early on. I mean, it was done with 20th Century Fox by themselves. They were hiring writers, and I think they were working on screenplays for years, and when they had what they liked, they sent it to me. And then I got involved and at that point we started talking about you know actors and actresses and I said I wanted Jennifer Connelly and when we talked about Klaatu, I said I wanted Keanu, and there everyone thought that would work very well; and then you know this turned out the producer had already really liked and talked in the past with other people about doing this movie with Keanu, so that was interesting to find out.

Steve: You had an encounter with Robert Wise, the director of the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still. Could you just talk about that real quick?

Derrickson: Yeah, I was a film student in the early '90s and the first film that I made at U.S.C. film school got into a film festival in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Robert Wise was receiving a lifetime achievement award at that festival and I loved his work. You know, definitely my top 10 favorite American directors, probably in the top five, and so I asked the festival director if I can meet him, you know, outside the gala event of the festival, and to my surprise, he arranged a private dinner for me at Robert Wise's hotel. And so I went to Robert Wise's hotel and had dinner with him at the hotel restaurant and it was really fantastic. It was a really memorable experience and I talked to him a lot about his films and asked him a lot of questions about, I remember, talking about The Sand Pebbles and talking about I Want to Live, and, you know, of course talking about, I remember, telling him The Haunting and The Day the Earth Stood Still are my two favorite films of his. And I remember him telling me, I told him I was interested in working in different genre[s], and I was a fan of particularly horror and sci-fi; and he strongly urged me to start my career on the horror genre, and I asked him why and he said that horror is one of the best genre[s], if not the best genre, at[for] starting [your career], which he did. And he said [that's] because it allows you to demonstrate your command up[of] the medium a[of] film, and, you know, you can do more with the camera and more with sound design in horror than any other genre; and he said if you make a good horror film, people will be very likely to like your work in other genres. And it made so much sense that it was good advice [and] I took it and things that worked out well since then.

Steve: That is really interesting. I love to hear directors, you know, when [I'm watching] Inside the Actor's Studio I far prefer to listen to directors talk than actors; I mean, they are all interesting, but I find that I learn a lot from directors that I can apply in things that I have nothing to do with making movies.

Derrickson: Well this is the thing that I learned from him in respect to making movies, but in some ways it just stuck in my mind so seriously as a creative person and as an artist in general. I was talking, you know, about how interesting it was to me that he had been able to work in so many genres, and he spoke with great pride about the fact that there was no such thing as a Robert Wise style. And, you know, he told me how he approached each film and did not try to imprint his own style on it but tried to figure out what's the best way to tell this story. And what occurred to me in the, sort of, life lesson that I got from that was that, you know, there is humility in that. And that was part of his greatness as a director, I think, came from the humility that he had that he was not trying to push himself on the screen; he was trying to put the movie on the screen in the best form that it could be, that it could exist; and he was very proud that he had serviced his films that way and that no one could look at his body of work and say this is a Robert Wise film, because it's this way and it seems like directors for the most part would want just the opposite. They would want their films to be recognized as their films, and there's a lot to that, and there's a lot to learn from that very simple, you know, thing that he had said.

Steve: Astronomer Seth Shostak is one of your technical advisors for the film. What did he bring to the film?

Derrickson: He brought a lot to the film. You know, because it's science fiction, I felt pretty strongly that the science needed to be real and the science language needed to be legitimate and, you know, it started with him reading the script and going through it and flagging all of the things that were either simply scientifically wrong or scientifically impossible or just scientifically suspect and then with each of these things, he helped to fix them, basically, and he would correct the language of some of the science speak that Jon Hamm gives in his briefing to the scientists. He created, you know, we had actually a long discussion about the equation that John Cleese and Keanu Reeves, playing Professor Barnhardt and Klaatu, that they work out on the blackboard and that equation is a very real equation about a very, you know, significant theoretical physics idea about the nature of the universe; and you know he spend sometime working along with Keanu, [who] wanted to know in detail what the equation meant and what significance it would have on this Barnhardt character, and how would it affect the scene, so that was all real science that was brought into the movie through Seth. Even the Nobel Prize being won for biological altruism; [t]here was an awful lot of discussion about what that Nobel Prize was going to be for. And you know we wanted it to have meaning and, you know, my wife is a nurse and because my wife is a nurse, anything that I have to write or anything I have to direct will have no representation of medical procedures that are not correct because my wife will not allow it, you know. And what I have learned from that—because she hates that in movies—and what I have learned from that also is that you need to respect people's profession[s] when you are representing them in the movie. We had military advisors to make sure there are soldiers who acted like real soldiers and moved like real soldiers but for the science aspects of this movie, because in [it's] science fiction, it was particularly important.

Steve: This is a fascinating thing, and this really struck me as just a reflection on what's now accepted culturally and that is Reeves at the beginning of the movie plays a real earthling; and apparently he gets a bit of his skin sampled by whoever the aliens are, and the later character played by Reeves is a physical clone of that original earthling, and but that's never really explained because it doesn't have to be, that we just accept that that's a possibility at this point.

Derrickson: Yeah, that is interesting and this shows that how far this advanced, highly progressive and, even still theoretical, science has entered the mainstream, that you don't have to explain it. You just put that in there and everybody gets it: "[Okay], they took the DNA and they were able to clone his body."

Steve: I mean did you think for a few minutes about whether you had to explain it or not or it was a just …

Derrickson: I think there's some people in the audience that won't get it, but I think that to explain it anymore would make the majority of the audience feel a bit insulted, you know?

Steve: Right, right.

Derrickson: Like, really, they'll think that we're so stupid that we don't know what a clone is. It was a decision that was made, but and I did think it was important to have Jennifer make [have] the line where she said, you know, "They must have come here in the past and taken a DNA sample from a human subject", and that line is in there.

Steve: I forgot it was in there, because it was so clear from the visual story telling that that was …

Derrickson: Yeah, that line was put in there just to make sure, but there was conversation about, do we show a picture of the old climber that they know where the DNA came from so that people really get it, and it was like no, people know what this is.

Steve: Right.

Derrickson: And I think that we could have left that line out and it, probably for the most part, probably still would have been fine. That was just a bit of the [a] safety precaution and Jennifer did a great job in the line, so when I looked at the scene with and without it, it didn't get any better or worse, so I left it in.

Steve: Cool. One other thing. This is a carbon-neutral production. How did you try to do that in your day-to-day directing of the film?

Derrickson: Honestly I don't know, I mean, I know that that's the case but that became the burden of the physical production people and the physical producers and that was something that didn't really affect me, and in some ways I think that's a statement in itself that you can have a green production of a major Hollywood movie, and it doesn't have to impinge on the process creatively at all. The only way that I felt, I mean, I know that they had the generators that they used, and I know a little bit about the decisions, some of the things that they did, they altered, you know like driving hybrid cars and stuff like that. But I was only affected because there was very, very little paper used on the show, and everything was done digitally. And so for story boards it ended up becoming really confusing, because, you know, normally with the production all the story boards are on paper, and when I would do a new set of story boards that get circulated to the crew, and we were doing all that digitally, and it became very confusing, too; I never knew if people have [had] the updated story boards and some people had them and some people weren't able to keep them in order on their computer and so that became the only thing that we had to, the only sort of suffering that I went through as a result of the show being adjusted the way it was. But you know I think that it's pretty fantastic that the show did that and I think anytime major corporations, you know, go greens, for lack of a better term, it's a big deal, and I think it's something that needs to happen, in [and] the corporations that are doing [it] are to be proud that they are doing it.

(movie clip)

Klaatu: If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives.

Steve: I recently attended a talk at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx by Richard Roberts. He won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1993 for showing that genes can exist as multiple discontinuous segments of DNA called exons. His lecture was a technical description of research, but he began by talking about open-access publication where all published papers are available free on the Web. Well, here are his remarks and then a brief conversation I had with him following his talk.

Roberts: I just want to make a pitch for open-access publication. As I am sure all of you now know, N.I.H. has mandated that any paper that is published, and where the work was paid for by N.I.H. funds, must have be put in a journal such that within 12 months of publication, the paper can go into [the] PubMed center and will be free [and] available to anybody who wants it. And this is something, this idea that open access to the literature is something that all scientists should have, is something that lot of us has [have] been pushing forward for many years. I can't begin to tell you how important this is, and most students these days are not aware of any literature that is not available online. Most of them don't know where the library is, and I think the best way to bury your results is to publish them in [a] print-only journal. And unfortunately an awful lot of good biology is being lost, and if you talk to any drosophila geneticist they will tell you much of drosophila genetics was done 50 years ago, and people have forgotten about it because it is buried in the archives of the library somewhere. And so this is really the great equalizer. The thought that you could actually mine your literature; now we should be in a position to interpret experiments that were done 20 to 30 years ago with much less knowledge than we have now, when there was just a wealth of data awaiting to be mined, looked at, [and] understood and I [it] can greatly enrich biology. So when you get the chance, if you can find journals like PLoS Biology which makes stuff available immediately, Nucleic Acids Research, which I am a chief editor of, and we publish all our stuff immediately. We make it freely available to everybody as soon it is published, and when you get the chance, please choose these journals and tell the publishers that what is good for science is to get the stuff out there quickly and not to have them tie up copyright and stop you from making it available.


Steve: A practical question about the open-access issue. You obviously are a big supporter of open access, and when you're talking to students, how do we convince them, at the beginnings of their careers, to publish in PLoS Biology rather than Nature and Science?

Roberts: Well, I think one of the questions is that supervisors need to do a good job of educating them, but in particular I think the universities need to make it quite clear that they are going to be making hiring and tenure decisions not on the basis of the number of papers that they have got in Nature and Science, but rather on the quality of the work that they have done, irrespective of where it is published.

Steve: And, I mean, it all sounds great, and yet how do we then motivate the universities in that direction? Because I got to tell you from my point of view as a journalist, we are as guilty as the universities are—we check out what's in Science and Nature before we check out what's in PLoS, even though, I have been spending a lot more lately looking at the TOC [in]and PLoS and there is some great stuff in there.

Roberts: Well I think, you know, the universities, it is actually in their best interests to be in support of all of this, and if you look at what's happening at Harvard and M.I.T. for instance at the moment, Harvard is insisting that the people publish in good places, they are actually providing the money to pay open-access charges when that's appropriate. M.I.T. is planning on putting everything up on the Web, I think many universities are going to put all the workup on the Web very quickly, and I think the real problem at the moment is not so much the universities, it is the commercial publishers who are still fighting tooth-and-nail to try to stop this open-access movement. They have not yet accepted that they have lost the battle.

Steve: And what you talked about, the fact that the 12-month restriction, if you will, is too long—what would you like to see that cut down to three months?

Roberts: Zero.

Steve: Zero obviously, but what would you accept this …

Roberts: Well, I think, you know, the way in which we will try to do it is to get it cut down to six months and then to get it cut to three months and then down to zero.

Steve: We will zero it down.

Roberts: Yes, exactly.

Steve: Thanks very much.

Roberts: Welcome.


Now its time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Dealing with company and getting Christmas dinner together are giving women the most stress this holiday season.

Story number 2: Happiness is contagious.

Story number 3: Red wine boosts the body's levels of omega-3 oils.

And story number 4: More than 130,000 inflatable breasts are apparently lost at sea.

Time is up.

Story 4 is true. En route to Australia more than 130,000 inflatable breasts are now missing. They were supposed to be sent to subscribers of a men's magazine. The lost could be a boon to science however. Years ago, a shipment of rubber ducks was lost at sea. When they started to wash up on shores around the globe scientists used the accidental experiment to get new information on ocean currents. Let's hope this latest lost cargo buoys our knowledge base as well.

Story 3 is true. Red wine has been found to boost your levels of heart-healthy omega-3 oils, As according to research to be published in the January issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study included over 1,600 people from England, Belgium and Italy. It could at least partially explain why moderate red wine consumption appears to improve cardiovascular health.

And story 2 is true. Happiness appears to be infectious according to the British Medical Journal. A happy person made their friends happier and the ripple effects spread to three degrees of separation. For more, listen to the December 5th episode of the Daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

All of which means that story 1, about company and cooking being the biggest stressors on women this time of the year is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. As for pretty much everyone else it's the economy, stupid. That's according to the poll taken by the American Psychological Association. As Eddie Murphy so succinctly put it 25 years ago: "Hey we're losing all our money and Christmas is coming; I won't be able to buy my son the GI Joe with the kung fu grip".

Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Visit for all the latest science news, videos and our Ask The Expertsfeature, which last time I looked, was about the controversy over whether a record-breaking potato qualified for the title of world's biggest, or was that claim half baked? For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes

Scott Derrickson, director of the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, talks about his take on the iconic sci-fi movie. And Nobel laureate Richard Roberts discusses the importance of open-access science publishing. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

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