Tamara Krinsky is reporting on the science-oriented films and conversations from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. This is her second report for Scientific American.

Winning a jury prize at Sundance can change a filmmaker's life, bringing them recognition and new career opportunities. But winning the Alfred P. Sloan prize brings a filmmaker a li'l something else: $20,000 in cold, hard cash! The award, presented by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was established in 2003 to recognize a film "that focuses on science or technology as a theme or depicts a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a hero." It is part of the Foundation's “Public Understanding of Science and Technology” program.

While at this year’s festival, I sat down with Doron Weber, Vice President of Programs, who oversees the Public Understanding initiative, as well as the Foundation's Digital Information Technology and the Dissemination of Knowledge program. I was curious about how a philanthropic institution dedicated to grant-making "in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economic performance" found its way to giving out prizes for filmmaking.

Weber, whose background is in the arts, said that when he came to the Sloan Foundation, they were already engaged with supporting programs on public television. However, he believed that to truly fulfill the mission of fostering a better public understanding of the increasingly scientific and technological environment in which we live, the Foundation needed to cast a wider net. Said Weber, "My argument was if you want to reach the public, then you need to go to the mass media because that's where the public is – films, theater, television."

As a result, the Foundation makes grants to filmmakers and supports programs at film festivals and organizations such as Sundance, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival and Film Independent, as well as to emerging filmmakers via film schools. Projects that have received support from the Foundation include the romantic comedy Adam (Dir. Max Mayer), the sci fi thriller Sleep Dealer (Dir. Alex Rivera), Bill Condon's multiple award-winning film Kinsey, Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Primer (Dir. Shane Carruth) and the environmental drama Future Weather (Dir. Jenny Deller). The Foundation recently handed out the 2011 Film Independent Producer’s Grant, which comes in the form of a $25,000 post-production grant, to Nicholas Bruckman, producer of Musa Syeed’s Valley of Saints. The film had previously received a Sloan grant for screenwriting through NYU.

One of the reasons that the Foundation decided to help out Valley of Saints with a second grant is because it's important to Weber to not just support films in their nascent script stage. He explained, "My aim is in getting things made and out into the marketplace. I don't want it to win 20 awards and have been working on it for years but then only five people see it...we really want things that will get out into the world."

Sundance programmer John Nein, the point person for Sloan at the Festival, broke down the Jury Prize process for me. He and the other six Sundance programmers choose films for the festival without taking into account what might be right for the Sloan prize. Once they have settled on their slate, they then examine it to figure out which films might be appropriate for consideration. After consulting with the Foundation, they come up with a list of projects (usually around three) that are officially eligible for the award. A five-person jury comprised of two scientists, two filmmakers and a wild card – often a journalist – ultimately make the decision.

This year, three films were in contention for the Sloan prize. Braden King's unconventional love story/road movie Here stars Ben Foster as a satellite-mapping engineer conducting a survey of Armenia. Jim Kohlberg's The Music Never Stopped, is based on Oliver Sack's case study "The Last Hippie." The prize went to Another Earth, Mike Cahill's directorial debut, a story of love and redemption set against the discovery of a planet that appears to be a duplicate of our own. In addition to winning the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, Another Earth also received a Special Jury Prize.

Cahill co-wrote the film with its star Brit Marling, who plays Rhonda, an MIT astrophysics student who accidentally kills a music professor's family in a drunk driving accident the night the discovery of a new planet in our solar system is announced. After she is released from prison, she goes to apologize to John Burroughs (William Mapother), the husband and father who survived the tragedy. Unable to tell him the truth, she instead becomes his housekeeper, and a relationship eventually develops between the two. The story of their affair develops against the background of revelations about the new planet, which is eventually found to be a mirror image of our own, complete with duplicate versions of everyone on Earth. When a company sending a civilian shuttle to Earth 2 holds an essay contest to award a seat, Rhonda applies, believing that perhaps it's a way to start over.

For their story, Cahill and Marling borrow from the idea of superior conjunction, positing that the planet was previously hidden behind the sun. As explained in the production notes, "The rare alignment of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn create a powerful gravitational force, which drew the planet into faster orbit, making it visible for the first time due west of the North star."

Throughout the film, stunning images of Earth 2 dominate the sky, teasing the audience with just enough realism to engage with the "What if?" and allow oneself to be carried away by the story. Just enough information is presented without getting too specific, thus making the situation plausible, yet not overwhelming the viewer with too many technical details. As narrator Dr. Richard Berendzen, head of NASA's Consortium, presents updates about the new planet, the audience toggles back and forth between the intellectual and emotional elements of the film, one reinforcing the other. Anchored by Mapother and Marling's nuanced, powerful performances, Rhonda's struggle for redemption becomes all the more poignant as the realization hits everyone on Earth that somewhere, out there, there's another You who perhaps has made different choices.

"I've always loved the kind of science fiction that employs fantastical ideas to tell us something about the human condition," says Cahill in his Director's Statement. "The film expands upon a single idea: what would it be like to meet oneself?...If we were literally confronted by ourselves, what would we feel? Would we judge them, accept them, despite them, love them? And taking the idea further, what would it be like if we as a society, moreover we as a planet, could objectively observe ourselves?"

Fox Searchlight bought the distribution rights to Another Earth at the Festival; release dates have not yet been announced.

So if you're a filmmaker and want your crack at the Sloan prize, what do you need to know? "I would say the single most important thing is that you don't have to go the Moon in your script," said Weber. "Think of The Social Network – that's a perfect Sloan script. Obviously, it's one of the hot movies of the year...but the notion is that science and technology are all around us – it's part of the world that we live in. And so instead of just thinking you've got to get weird or everyone has to be wearing a lab coat – technology is ubiquitous – all our lives are kind of defined by it. There are many more stories than they think. The stories are right there."

He predicts that 100 years from now, no one will believe that there was a foundation that essentially had to go bribe artists to write about science by dangling money in front of them. "Really the message is make films, make plays about the world you live in," said Weber. "Science and technology are really artificial categories. What's science? How nature works, a systematic understanding of the laws of nature. Technology is the tools we use to make things better, to improve our capabilities which separate us from animals. So write – you need a little bit of a specialized understanding, but what we're looking for is the common language, which is why we like theater, why we like film."

In addition to presenting the Sloan prize, the Foundation also supports the presentation of a science-themed panel discussion at Sundance. The basic idea is to put scientists and filmmakers together in conversation. Sometimes the filmmakers are from films featured in the festival; sometimes they are brought in because of a prominent science-oriented film in the marketplace that year. This year's event, "I'll Be Your Mirror: The Science of Ourselves," featured filmmakers Cahill and Kohlberg, Dr. Helen Fisher (Rutgers University, author of Why We Love) and Dr. Sean Carroll (Cal Tech, author of From Eternity to Here). Paula Apsell (Senior Executive Producer, NOVA) moderated the panel. As described in the Sundance program guide:

It's been said of mirrors, "Take a look at yourself, and then make a change (na na na . . .)." In science, some pretty unusual things have led us to big discoveries about ourselves. From prairie voles and chimps to parallel universes and rock 'n' roll music, you'd be surprised how much we learn about us by looking at them. What other mirrors are out there?

For Nein, the most interesting thing about these conversations is the discovery that the process of science and the artistic process have a lot of commonalities. "The notion of creativity within science, the notion of great advancement happening through seeing something that's not there, the notion of process, of how inspiration works within that process – I mean, basically you have this reductive image of science in which there's a rigidity to the research that happens," said Nein. "And of course, there is a huge amount of research and of data. And yet, the notion of vision and creativity as part of scientific query is not that different from a filmmaker and where they start and all the questions that they go through. So I love these discussions. They start at very different places and almost always come back to that issue of how they see the world."

Image Credits: Photos of Mike Cahill and stills from 'Another Earth' provided to the press by Sundance festival.


About the Author: Tamara Krinsky is an actress, journalist, new media producer and science geek. She is the associate editor of Documentary Magazine, and has written for Variety, Filmmaker Magazine, indieWire, Tubefilter.com and The Star Ledger, among others. As an on-camera host, she covers entertainment, tech and science news, including red carpets, sit down interviews and live events—adventures include writing and hosting THE SPOTLIGHT, a lighthearted tech news show for consumer tech site Tom’sGuide.com; correspondent work for PBS's WIRED SCIENCE; Marvel.com's red carpet coverage and AT THE FEST (Webby honoree), which featured interviews with independent film directors, writers and talent. She blogs about science and culture at www.sciencelush.com, and tweets @tamarakrinsky. For more: www.tamarakrinsky.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.