From Physics graduate and entrepreneur to an astute and inspirational filmmaker, Steve Brown embodies the brilliant mind behind Chasing Einstein, tackling both the role of director and producer. Brown elaborates on what makes a story worth telling and poignantly highlights the hard-working efforts behind making a feature documentary. Chasing Einstein becomes an extraordinary insight into the humanity of science and that we all share the same big questions regarding our universe.
What was the process behind creating this documentary, and how long did it take to produce?
It feels like it took a lifetime (laughs)! I studied Physics in college and there was a point in my life where I thought I would pursue the Physics seen in the film. Yet I ended up not going into Physics, partly because it felt like it moved so slowly and I just didn’t feel like it was breaking new ground. I was more interested in joining in the middle of a paradigm shift. So I became an entrepreneur and went into tech and then, later, I got into film. I had the chance to re-explore what that path would have been. In some ways, the unfair thing about the documentary is you get to skip to the end of the line. I was interviewing Barry Barish at CalTech, which was one of the schools that I was considering going to, and I was like, ‘Gosh, if I would have gone to school here you would have been my Professor and I could’ve been right there in your group working on this project.’ Doing the documentary, however, I’m right there in the moment of this big discovery, following him to the Nobel Prize and being backstage. It’s a whole different kind of intimacy with science when you’re exploring the personal side of it as much as the meaning behind the math. I think that’s actually what’s more interesting to me now. Truth itself in science is not an absolute truth: it’s the best explanation we have at the time. By its very nature, if we’re making progress, everything we know now will someday be changed, will someday be different – if we’re making progress. If something stays the same for a long, long time, maybe it means we’re not making progress. And Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which has been the dominant theory of astrophysics, no one’s toppled it in a hundred years. All of my films have been about this search for truth in some way or the other, and human dilemmas that happen in those kinds of searches, where you end up in places where things don’t add up. The dilemma in modern science is one where we keep going with what we have or at some point, maybe, we’re on the wrong path and we need to go back to the drawing board. Maybe, something’s wrong with the fundamental principle, so that whole house of cards falls down and a completely new world comes out of that. Yet the film doesn’t answer that question, it’s really more that the film asks that question. The film tries to show the stakes in asking that question.
There are three sides of the debate in the film, there’s the side where people spent their lives validating the existing model by finding gravitational waves. But then, the galaxies aren’t adding up, they don’t work the way they’re supposed to according to Einstein. Therefore, there’s either a bunch of invisible stuff we haven’t found yet, or we simply need a new theory. And so we found, I’d say, some of the leaders on both sides of that debate, so the leading chance to find dark matter and then one of the leading voices trying to redo gravity and create a new model of gravity. There’s a moment of truth for both sides of the debate. As a human race, sometimes we only have one shot to do these things, kind of like climate change. We only have one thing on the scale of Cern. We could collaborate and join forces and do something big, which means we don’t have a lot of competition. Then the question remains, how does a group of people around the world decide what the one big thing is we can do? Well, it tends to be conservative and go with the establishment. When we’ve gotten so big and agree on these huge projects, it does become a big bureaucratic question. How do we decide what we’re going to actually look for, and are we looking for the right things? Are we looking for the keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is?
Following Spark: A Burning Man Story to producing Twinsters, Poached and Socotra: The Hidden Land, there seems to be a cosmopolitan leitmotif among your documentaries, as they center around relevant and modern topics. How do you choose these stories and at what point do you say – ‘Okay, this is a story worth telling’?
It takes a big commitment to do a documentary. You’re talking about years of your life of going deep into something that hopefully has meaning for generations to come, and you’re really doing something that’s part of your cultural history. It means you’re going to be spending a lot of time with certain people on a certain subject and in certain places. One of the key things is to pick things that you are genuinely, authentically interested in and are curious about. So people say, “Follow your passion”. No, it’s not follow your passion, it’s follow your curiosity. There are big questions of life that I’m curious about, but it’s going into the very specific, individual story and cracking that open and finding those big universal questions inside. The story about the Burning Man was really a story about the values of a community, Twinsters was about the meaning of family, Poached was about our changing relationship with nature, as well as a redemption story. The question is, there will be a time when future generations will look back at what we’re doing now and we’re gonna hope there’s some redemption for it. The stuff that we’re doing now, the future will judge us for. So those are the kind of things that, at least, attracted me to the story. I had some friends who said, “You started in science, why don’t you do a film about science?”. I thought about it and I was sort of thinking about what would I do. Ultimately, I would look for the next frontier of the paradigm shift and what it’s like to be on the threshold of a paradigm shift, to be that person where your choice is to either stick your neck out for something new, but also challenging the establishment that you grew up in and were trained in. That’s where those values and dilemmas happen, and that’s where it gets interesting.
What do you think documentary filmmaking means in this day and age? Especially with streaming platforms such as Netflix, do you think documentary films have become more popular, and more relevant, than ever before?
Certainly, the way you can do a documentary now makes it possible to get it to the whole world through many different channels. I think the challenge then is not getting it out there to the world, the challenge is to get anyone aware of it. The question is how do you find stories that are so interesting and relevant and how do you get above the noise. In our case with this, it’s a matter of being able to find that core audience who cares about science, who cares about the big questions and also about the philosophy of science, the humanity and meaning of science. So what we’re doing now is trying to find that core audience in ways that we could actually make them aware of the film and in ways that we can actually afford to do it (laughs). Independent films don’t have the marketing budget of a Hollywood film. It’s to talk to people like you, that’s how! (laughs)
What is the fundamental idea you want people to take away after watching Chasing Einstein?
I think that one of the things is that we have become, generally in our society, more dependent on science than ever, but also more divorced from science, from our actual connection to science. The more it’s pushed into a black box that we don’t understand, the more we mistrust it. It’s a really dangerous time on our planet when the public doesn’t relate to science. Yet relating to science doesn’t mean understanding all the details, relating to science means understanding the process of science and having respect for the process. I think it’s respecting the humanity behind science, rather than the politicization of science making everything seem like a conspiracy theory. It’s pretty scary for the planet if we give up on science. So seeing the humanity of science and seeing that the questions from leading scientists in the world about truth are ultimately the same questions that we have, I think that’s a good thing. In the very beginnings of science, we were more connected to it because we could see it with our own eyes, we could get the telescope and go, ‘I see the moon and Jupiter too!’. It was something we could experience directly, but now it’s much more complex. We don’t experience it directly. Rather, we’re experiencing it through big data and algorithms. It becomes very abstract to us, which means we’re putting more and more faith in people who are on the inside and who know what they’re doing. If we don’t know those people, if we’re not connected to those people, we get more and more vulnerable to being led astray. So I think one of the takeaways, I hope, is that people will feel more connected to science by realizing that we all have the same big questions. It’s hard to get scientists to talk about life and death and certain spiritual questions, yet in the film, we get really personal with the scientists about these life or death questions. You realize we’re all in this together.
Do you have any upcoming projects following Chasing Einstein?
It’s called Dreams at Sea. Again, it was sort of exploring this threshold between these two worlds. There are a lot of films done about the war and there are immigration stories, refugee stories, where there’s this sharp break: we left that behind, we’re gonna forget about it and we’re just going to focus on this new world. But in the modern world, there’s no clean break because everybody’s still connected with each other on social media. Even though we’re there and have moved on, when you go into Facebook or into Instagram, your feed is full of all this stuff that’s going on in this past life. You’re in this limbo state for a long, long time and it’s really hard to let go. Particularly the United States has become such a melting pot because everybody comes from somewhere else and everybody has their family story. Their origin story always involves somewhere or somebody being a refugee or an immigrant and leaving everything behind and starting over. It’s like the family legacy, and we’re proud of those stories. I was looking for stories that felt like, someday there will be a new generation that will be proud of these stories: this is their origin story. They’re only there because of all of this struggle. However, at the moment, we experience all of these stories differently because of everyday news and social media, it’s so politicized. It’s harder to build your own mythology of your own story, in a way. The mythology you want to build around your own story, for your identity to have meaning, to have power and be proactive in your life – it’s hard to do that when you’re in this constant swirl of social media, so it is different now than in past times.
CHASING EINSTEIN celebrated its premiere at CPH:DOX on Saturday March 23 and will have its UK Premiere at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival on Sunday 19th May, 1pm at Stratford Picturehouse. For more information visit: www.chasingeinsteinfilm.com