How Does Hollywood Get Its Science Right? One Expert Explains

From Back To The Future to Breaking Bad, Hollywood’s relationship with science is almost as old as filmmaking itself. In a noble effort to make film concepts as scientifically accurate as possible, directors have made it their personal task to hire experts — scientists, military personnel and engineers — to advise on the scientific foundations of science-heavy movies. Interstellar, for example, had notable physicist Kip Thorne to weigh in on the black hole madness of the film. Breaking Bad had Donna Nelson, a University of Oklahoma chemist, whose knowledge on the hard sciences made Walter White’s Blue Sky meth “tight, tight, tight.”

How does Hollywood achieve such a close relationship with the scientific community? Ann Merchant, deputy director of communications for the National Academy of Sciences, recently graced Reddit’s AMA subreddit to explain how scientists and filmmakers converge to create scientifically sound movies. She also clarified some of the most common misconceptions about scientists’ involvement with big budget Hollywood films. Here are some of the most intriguing questions Merchant answered on the popular Q and A thread.

Redditor dGraves asked, “What’s the most stupid fact you guys had to correct or totally change in a script.”

Merchant answered,

“We are actually pretty careful never to characterize any of the questions we receive as ‘stupid.’ We welcome all questions and are just really happy that we’re being asked — the asking itself conveys immediate intelligence upon the asker! Our interaction with our Hollywood ‘clients’ are often also held in confidence by NonDisclosure Agreements. So as much as I’d love to give you a great story to share, I can only tell you that anyone who approaches The Exchange is our kind of entertainer, open to suggestion and ready to use science as a way to enhance their narrative.”

Reddito Ash7778 asked, “What are some of the most common corrections you make?”

Merchant answered,

“I wouldn’t say that our role is to provide ‘corrections.’ We are not the Accuracy Policy. If we positioned ourselves as the people who ‘corrected’ we wouldn’t be very welcome in Hollywood. Rather, we try to provide information in compelling and engaging ways and share fascinating facts that end up being way more useful to the entertainers than their original (possibly quite flawed) concepts. We like to say it’s akin to the first rule of improv: It’s not about ‘no, but’ it’s about ‘yes, and.’ So even if we see something pretty horrible, we don’t gasp and cry foul, we simply make them a better offer. And science has lots of better offers to make! Of course, I should insert a caveat about accuracy when it comes to health. It’s important that those storylines are accurate because they could otherwise provide dangerously misleading information.”

Redditor ebbycalvinlaloosh asked, “What is the most scientifically accurate (or at least plausible) sci-fi movie that you can think of?”

Merchant answered,

“There’s no clear answer on this. We know that GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR had the benefit of amazing technical advice. But there were detractors that pinged both movies for flaws in their science. At the end of the day, there will never be unanimity of opinion on these things. I personally thought the science in GRAVITY was terrific and didn’t care if Sandra Bullock’s hair didn’t float around in zero-G. She’s Sandra Bullock and she has to look beautiful because this is Hollywood. But did it disturb my sense of the story or my understanding of the science? No, not for me. At the end of the day, it’s hard to address this accuracy question because it’s complicated. I’m not ducking you, it’s just not easy to answer quickly or easily.”

Read the rest of the AMA here.

[Image from Warner Brothers]