Now in theaters, The Happening joins that rarest of film genres — movies with a biology teacher hero. Better-looking than most biology teachers, Elliot Moore (played by Mark Wahlberg) flees a mysterious plague of vertigo and suicides striking the northeastern states with his family and friends.
Escaping the chaos, Moore determines that neurological toxins released to the air by trees defending themselves from mankind are behind the plague.
Never wanting to shrink from a look at science on the silver screen, I interviewed writer/director M. Night Shyamalan about the science behind The Happening and whether scientists get a fair shake from Hollywood:
Q: How do you come by your interest in science? Science isn't a hot topic with most film directors, is it?
A:I think it is a forgotten passion of mine, just daydreaming about some of the wonderful things we've learned from science. My family was in the medical field when I was younger, so science was always a particular (laughs) option out there for me and I saw it as interesting even after life took me to art school and then film school.
Q: So, how was it reopening that interest for this movie?
A:Well, we spent last year talking to scientists and developing ideas for The Happening and it has been fun. The way it really worked is that the story is science-based. I had the idea for the movie and then I asked a research assistant to check into it. "Go tell me if I just made up that part of a consciousness, a rabid ability to defend itself in the environment?" I asked her. And she came back with this stack of research papers. Often a story is loosely based on something you heard somewhere in a conversation and then you have see if it will work.
Obviously, we were heavily influenced by the scientist James Lovelock in looking at the evidence.
Note: Scientist James Lovelock first published the outlines of the "Gaia" hypothesis, which suggests that Earth's flora and fauna are interlocked to systematically moderate conditions in Earth's atmosphere to make the planet more hospitable, a controversial idea best known from his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
Q: So how does reading studies compare to reading scripts?
A:They're not the same (laughs). The articles were dense. They use a lot of words to say very little. In scripts we try to use as few words as humanly possible to convey an idea or sentiment.
You read all these journals and say, did they just take a whole paragraph to say that one little thing?
I am familiar with journal articles, though, from the reading my wife did for her PhD. She's a psychologist.
Q: So what does science have to offer to filmmakers?
A:I do love it. Just talking about anomalies in science with researchers, just a phrase they throw my way can lead to ideas, maybe work into a story. I may try a real science-fiction film sometime.
Q: So what comes first, the story or the science?
A:Oh, the story has to come first. You just deposit these ideas away and let your brain work on them. Like the idea of crop circles in Signs (a 2002 movie starring Mel Gibson) that just sat in the back of my mind for a long time and then one day I had an idea for a story.
The trick is not to have too much science in there. I had to restrain myself; you have to leave things for the audience to puzzle over.
Q: The plague in The Happening seems to riff off of real-world biological outbreaks. To what extent did you have those in mind?
A: Oh sure, we thought about red tides, lakes where the toxins had poisoned people. And we talked to neuroscientists about the effects of toxins on behavior to get ideas.
Q: Scientists often feel they get badly treated in films; they're madmen in lab coats. What do you think of their complaint?
A:I guess they feel they are trapped in the "knowledge at any cost" role. But in The Happening, science is a means for people to validate the believers out there, how they feel about the natural world. The hero, Eliot, sees the gaps of knowledge as something wonderful; he sees mysteries that make his beliefs stronger.
Q: So what sort of science fiction movies do you admire?
A: I loved The Andromeda Strain. I wish they had offered me Jurassic Park.
Q: That would have been a different movie then.
A:That would have been really cool. I mean that's just a great science idea, one of those wonderful what-if ideas. I like all of Michael Crichton's ideas.
Q: Those are movies that are a little more suspicious of science, aren't they?
A:Well, in The Happening, I see the character of Eliot as the opposite of Mel Gibson's character in Signs. He (Gibson) was a priest who lost faith and went to rely on reason. Eliot is a man of science who is interested in belief.
Q: Are you satisfied with the science in The Happening?
A:It was a balancing act. In the early script, we had the science right away, all laid out. I felt it was more powerful to pull back, but then I wanted to put it back in, I even thought about putting it in the credits. Like I said, we were very much relying on James Lovelock and research on the brain. There is just a tremendous amount of information on neurotoxic effects on behavior and physical disorientation.
Q: Have you gotten a response from any scientists?
A:So far we've heard mostly good responses.