2020 is a reminder of just how important science is in every aspect of our lives. With a global pandemic that has lasted for months on end and sadly taken hundreds of thousands of lives prematurely, scientists hold the key to restoring our safety and previous way of life. However, scientists are unfortunately not always respected, let alone believed. And yet, their contributions extend beyond technological advancements and medicine, but into art as well. They are being utilized more and more in film and television, but appreciation can still go unnoticed and unappreciated despite their esoteric knowledge. Thanks to scientific consultants, characters are more realistic, storylines are more probable, and science on screen is more entertaining.
In order to dive deeper into this process, I recently spoke with scientific consultant P. James Schuck on his contributions to director Michael Almereyda‘s latest film, the stunning biopic Tesla.
Can you give a brief overview of your work and how you were brought on to be the scientific adviser for Tesla?
My background deals with electromagnetic radiation and light. In a sense, there’s some remote control of various items and we do that by shining light back and forth these days, not just microwaves and radio waves. My PhD is in applied physics, and I’ve spent a lot of my time working on making antennas for electromagnetic radiation – in particular, light. Tesla’s work has always been near and dear to my heart. That said, I learned a lot about Tesla and I think I only appreciated a fraction of the work he’d done before I started working on this film. I have to give Michael a lot of credit for teaching me many things and kind of realizing what an amazing and complicated person Tesla has been and also how interesting his life has been, which hasn’t really been touched on before this film.
My understanding was that the film was written by Michael either in film school or right out of film school. It’s a project he wanted to do for a long time but didn’t have the right circumstances to make it happen. He eventually got this grant through the SLOAN Foundation and SFFILM and was coming to the Bay Area to work on it. At the time, I was living and working in Berkeley at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab doing my research. I happened to know someone associated with SLOAN and SFFilm. When she found out what Michael was looking for, they immediately called me. They had me at hello (laughs). I mean, I thought the project was amazing.
What things did you learn or appreciate more about Tesla from working on the film?
What I was most familiar with was his work on building his AC (alternating current) motors and the fact that that was the technology which won out despite Thomas Edison’s attempt to make DC current be the main power source. By the way – and this is a total tangent – did you know that maybe one of the last Edison DC power stations was finally just discontinued down on Lower Manhattan? They had signed something like a ninety-nine year lease or contract, and it finally ran out.
Oh wow. No, I didn’t know that.
Yeah! So, there were people still using DC power and there are advantages to DC, but for what everyone else wanted to use it for mostly up until now, AC was clearly the better technology. I was familiar with AC dynamotors and generators, essentially. I knew he was associated with these Tesla coils that have these lighting spikes flying out of his hands into these beautiful spheres that you can find in science museums now. But, I hadn’t fully appreciated what he had done [with] what we think of now as fluorescent lighting and types of wireless power, things like that.
He was certainly a showman and one of his earliest demonstrations was in collaboration with Columbia University, which I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time. He stood in the middle of a room with what was a precursor for a fluorescent light bulb or a fluorescent tube, and showed that it could light up. He ran his Tesla coils along the side which created a huge amount of electromagnetic radiation, basically radio waves, that ran through. I had not really appreciated how he was doing those shows and that’s how people realized that energy could be easily transmitted with these electromagnetic waves through seemingly invisible energy transfer. I can see how that must have been pretty impressive back in the day. I wish I could’ve seen them.
What did your involvement process on the film look like? Did you mostly help with script or did you work directly with the actors and perhaps even help with set design?
I was mostly involved with the script. I spoke with Michael several times, and I read two or three different versions of the script which, for myself, was really neat to see how things evolved. Nominally, he asked me to go through the scientific content and add any other comments I had. In a sense, I learned a lot from Michael because he pulled a lot of scientific dialogue from original sources. Since the language was completely correct, there wasn’t a lot to fact check since it was pulled from the original scientific sources themselves. That was impressive and it even helped me understand the parallels on how the physics evolved. At the time, they didn’t understand electricity very well. A lot of the words they used like ‘tension’ or ‘flow’ come from things they did understand better. Tension came from cables in pulley systems or flow came from water flow. A lot of the language comes from drawing analogies to systems that were better studied during the turn of the century. I studied that as part of my degree, but it was neat to see those in real context and to see them come from direct sources as opposed to just textbooks.
I didn’t work much with the actors, but I did spend a little time with Michael and Ethan Hawke on a panel at Sundance. Michael had found someone who was very good at studying and recreating old scientific instruments. When I saw the instruments in the movie, it was really impressive to see. For example, there was that one scene with the spinning egg. Tesla was somewhat famous for that spinning egg because he just used rotating magnetic fields from his rotating AC current. That was sort of an early version of showing how he can change the phase of his AC currents. I remember looking for that specifically while going through the script and to make sure it was in the film, and sure enough it was. So, seeing that recreated even as a replica was pretty cool. I wish I had the ability to recreate those old instruments. I can build the modern version of what he was doing because that’s what we do in our lab, but it was neat to see those older pieces.
One thing that I appreciated from Michael is that he clearly wanted to get as many diverse inputs and opinions about the film as possible. One of the first times we talked, we talked about the science but he wanted to know what else struck me about the script in terms of the story and characters. We got into some really interesting conversations, and he really wanted to get input from someone with a PhD background. It was really fun giving him my take on the characters, too. We also spoke about the ending and the way that turned out was really great. If there was a time I was going to be able to interact with the actors, that would have been it. Something tells me doing a karaoke scene with Ethan Hawke or even just being there would’ve been pretty cool.
Now, looking back especially with the company Tesla, you can kind of appreciate Tesla’s life as a whole and it’s not such a sad ending. At the time, it kind of felt as he got older, he was moving from one hotel to another and giving these birthday speeches that were getting more and more far-fetched or out of touch. It was kind of sad to read some of that history and it was in earlier versions of the script, but I think Michael wanted to point out that the Tesla story wasn’t meant to be a sad one in the long run. A lot of what he said turned out to be more right than wrong. There was some crazy tinfoil hat, old man stuff coming out, but I think most scientists are secretly tinfoil hat people that love to have hypotheses and see how far they can push them.
That’s one thing I enjoyed about the film. This movie is really unique in how it’s filmed in terms of the production and set design as well as breaking the fourth wall. It has a lot of creative and quirky elements to capture Tesla’s legacy and him as a person.
That’s accurate, and I agree. I really think he thought a lot about that breaking of the fourth wall and almost as a way to convey how influential he is on everything we have right now. Some might hate it, some might love it. I loved it and thought it was a very creative and ingenious move. It’s one of my favorite parts, and I also loved it when Edison went over the bar and pulled out his cell phone.
Oh yeah, that was great. There’s also this allegory behind it about how art and science can be blended together and woven throughout time to still be relevant. He was also ahead of his time in a lot of ways.
Agreed. It was a really good and unique take that could have been very cliche, but it was a different perspective than I’ve ever seen or heard. It made me appreciate it more.
From a scientific point of view, do you think this film coming out right now is timely?
I do. Like a lot of life, science is somewhat cyclical and we talk about this in my research group, about how science is like a helix and similar topics come up again and again periodically. What advances are other technologies, tools, capabilities, and so then you can get more and more knowledge on these topics as they come back around. I do think it’s a really timely film. I also think there would have been relevant times twenty years ago as well. Even David Bowie played Tesla at one point, but I think now is particularly important for several factors. One is Elon Musk’s company, but also the internet being where it’s at, people fighting over technologies and people maybe attempting to use disinformation to get their own interests or perspectives across. On maybe a more pragmatic point of view, you know The Current War is a pretty bad representation of Tesla. In fact, I think it’s quite misleading. So, I’m glad this film came out so people can get a better view of Tesla’s important contributions. The main characters [in that movie] are more Westinghouse and Edison while Tesla is portrayed as this sort of a weaselly eccentric in the background.
Yeah, Tesla has been portrayed in a few different ways. In reality, he wasn’t very social and didn’t prioritize romantic relationships. I liked how this film leaned into portraying him as more of a philosopher and Renaissance Man. I think he spoke eight languages and he also enjoyed poetry and music. It was cool to see a more robust depiction of a famous scientist because that image can be so one-dimensional at times.
Oh yeah, I agree. For me, of course, I always appreciate when the scientist is a bit more multi-dimensional. There’s articles out there in the history of science – and someone wrote a thesis about this – on how scientists fit into one of six categories in movies currently and how those types have evolved a little bit. It’s nice to see a little more multi-dimensionality because I think that also helps people not be afraid of science.
Can you talk about the need to hire scientific advisers in film and television and how pivotal they are in not only conveying scientific accuracy, but an overall story as well?
I think there are a number of reasons! I don’t want to get too political, but just having some appreciation of why people are doing science and what motivates them, aside from some crazy lunatic who is wanting to take over the world or recreate dinosaurs while screwing whatever impact that has on the rest of the world. It doesn’t come through in their academic papers, but I do think scientists get a little obsessed with stories and narratives themselves. I think that’s what drives them to want to investigate and learn about whatever new part of the universe they’re searching for and investigating. So, I think there’s some really compelling stories that come through there. When I talk to scientists or non-scientists and non-experts, I think these stories are still compelling to a lot of people. In the end, it’s still people doing science. So, I think that connection would come through more with additional consulting or dialogue going on. I guess what I’m mostly saying is that we’re all more alike than we think. There are some aspects that can be pulled out more and some similarities between science and even filmmaking beyond just the fact they’re both creative endeavors at their heart.
I love that. It was so great speaking with you! Is there anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?
Some of Tesla’s first demonstrations and lectures he did in New York City that he was famous for were sponsored by the society that became The Electrical Engineering Society. A number of them had Columbia University connections, which is where I’m at. Columbia was actually the first university to give Tesla an honorary degree, ahead of Yale. That was something that was wrong in the film and that I gave Michael a hard time about that. [laughs]
Tesla is available for rent on VOD right now.
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