The Academic Path to Hollywood

January 04, 2006

Showing up on the big screen at your local multiplex isn't something most scholars would consider career-enhancing. But what about having an Oscar-winning director ask your views or guiding movie stars through the thickets of historical accuracy? What professor's heart wouldn't beat a little faster at that?

As someone who has worked as a producer for years and written about the intersection between Hollywood and academe, I would like to offer some advice to professors interested in working on television series or feature films.

The academic's most obvious path to Hollywood -- writing the big, definitive book on a historical subject -- is the most time-consuming. Robin Lane Fox's first book on Alexander the Great was published in 1974 and optioned several times before Oliver Stone finally got the epic on film in 2004. Here's the first lesson: Having your book optioned is no guarantee that a film will ever be made, nor that your views will be reflected in the script. As far as producers are concerned, an option is basically protection against similar films being made or lawsuits being filed.

Sometimes even unpublished work creates a buzz. In 2000, Tyler Anbinder, an associate professor of history at George Washington University, got a phone call from representatives of Martin Scorsese, who had heard of Five Points, Anbinder's 2001 book on a slum neighborhood in pre-Civil-War New York.

Anbinder agreed to read the screenplay for Gangs of New York and give his reactions, and a few months later, found himself face to face with Scorsese for a Q&A -- one at which Anbinder learned something about how films are made. He asked Scorsese why a certain scene was being set up the way it was, and the director told him about his vision of the shot. A historian's quibbles were not about to change the scene at that point -- after all, Scorsese been laboring for more than 20 years to get the film made.

By the way, after the meeting, despite numerous conversations discussing day rates and his availability to fly to Rome, where the film was being shot, Anbinder never met with anyone from the production again. Still, he did get a "Special Thanks" credit at the end of the film, and appears in a Discovery Channel documentary on the making of the movie that is included on the DVD. So, all told, not too shabby.

If you hear that your campus is being used as a movie location, check it out. There are a lot of ways to get involved. Patrick O'Donnell, a physics professor at the University of Toronto, was hired as an extra on Good Will Hunting to play a drunk in a bar. By helping actor Matt Damon with the math that his tormented genius character would be tackling on screen, O'Donnell became a consultant.

Or you can actively lobby for a consulting job. Gordon Laco was a lecturer in maritime studies at Canada's Georgian College when he heard that the owner of a historic sailing vessel had ordered all new rigging, so he did a little sleuthing on which films could possibly be using the ship. A year and half later, Peter Weir, the director of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, hired Laco to consult on the film. Laco says his job was managing information as well as being a source. He was on set for every shot and, as a result, now has a thriving consulting business.

An eager academic would do well to read the "trades" -- The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety -- to keep abreast of coming productions. Another good source is a Web site called Done Deal Professional, which tracks script and book sales.

And sometimes, producers come looking. Cheryl Heuton and Nicolas Falacci, creators of CBS's crime-solving TV series NUMB3RS, called the PR offices of several colleges before getting someone who understood their requests for an academic interested in consulting on the show. Today they find it easy to work with Gary Lorden, the head of the math department at the California Institute of Technology. Don't be shy. Cultivate a relationship with the media-relations staff at your institution and let them know that, when Hollywood calls, you're available.

Some directors are avid students of history and care as much about selecting their advisers as they do about casting their stars.

The director Ron Maxwell, whose films include Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, wants academics to tell him what to read and why, and what to avoid, before he writes a screenplay. He worked closely with Gabor S. Borritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, on both films and frequently had several historians on set. Maxwell says that knowing the scholarship is right frees him up on set. The audience, he adds, will know something is wrong if the historical details aren't right.

Ready to Sign On?

Before you do, make sure you really have the time to commit to a film. For Gangs of New York, the producers wanted someone who could be on the set in Rome for nine months -- a great way to spend a sabbatical, but hard to square with a regular teaching load.

When they say "let's do lunch," don't take your best suit out of mothballs -- it's just a nicety. If your first meeting goes well but you don't hear back from the production, don't take it personally. Getting a film made is a long process, with many detours and setbacks. Don't be shy about calling to ask what's happening. Hollywood types like initiative.

Know Your Place

You might be asked to read the script and give feedback. Bear in mind that a script is a tool, not a tome. Time and place are compressed, and filmic conventions may gloss over details that have consumed your research hours. Still, you need to make sure that the script contains no howling errors -- and not just in your subject. On NUMB3RS, one script had a subplot of the math professor dating his grad student, and Lorden was quick to point out how much trouble a real-life professor would get into for that. Preproduction -- i.e., before the cameras roll -- is the easiest time to make corrections.

You might have a named chair at Hallowed Halls U, but on a film set, status is measured by the size of your budget -- and you don't have one. With no budget, there's not much reason for the camera operators, set designers, or props department to take you too seriously. On the other hand, an adviser does have access to the director and to the star. (You have access to the writer, too, but writers don't have much status, as they will be quick to complain.) So work with decorum, be collegial, and go through channels.

Don't Back Your New Colleagues on the Set

If your new best friend, Troy Major-Starr, asks you about his sword, reassure him that the propmaster has given him absolutely the most accurate sword -- the very double of one in the British Museum. (Of course, if the propmaster has given him a plastic butter knife, you've certainly failed at your job). By and large, actors are sensitive and want to be reassured. Don't create a crisis they're going to unload on the propmaster, or, even worse, on an already harried producer or director.

Don't wait to speak up until it's too late! If you're determined that the medieval feast must include stuffed peacock, tell the propmaster three months before the film starts, not three minutes before the scene is going to be shot. Suggest alternatives when the proposed prop or costume isn't accurate.

Don't hide information from the director. If he's going to stray from the path, he needs to know where the path is. If you don't know, admit it, and then find out. Give the director several choices and stand back. They've hired you as an adviser, not a deity.

Mistakes Will Be Made -- on Purpose

In The Patriot, the British soldiers wear red coats. That way the audience knows they're the British and, thus, the bad guys. The historical advisers on the film knew that some actual soldiers wore green and told the costume designer and director. For the film to explain who the guys in green were would have taken too much time (money). So, while the red uniforms are historically wrong, they're cinematically right. As a director told one adviser, "You know it's wrong, I know it's wrong, and about 400 other people know it's wrong, and they're not going to be happy anyway."

Be Prepared to Work

Making a movie is alternately engrossing, confusing, and boring. A film set is a bustling place, run by the assistant directorwho's responsible for breaking down the script into scenes. Movies aren't shot in order from beginning to end, but rather in sequences determined by the budget, the weather, and the availability of people, places, and things. Boritt says watching the first take of a scene was fascinating and the second take was still interesting, but by the 10th take of the same scene, he found himself wishing he'd brought a book. If you prefer to hang out in the trailer, they'll give you a pager and beep you when you're needed, but it's far better to be available all the time.

On NUMB3RS, Gary Lorden's job is to help the scripts credibly utilize bona fide mathematical techniques such as cryptography, combinatorics, number theory, and epidemiology statistics in solving crimes. Besides reviewing scripts for mathematical authenticity, he has also been asked to come up with math or physics concepts and equations to provide the mathematical background to what some of the characters are doing, saying, or thinking. The show actually uses a whole team of mathematicians from the California Institute of Technology, including Lorden, Nathan Dunfield, Dinakar Ramakrishnan, and Richard Wilson. Even students can get a share of the glory. David Grynkiewicz served as a hand double, writing the problems on a blackboard and on notepaper.

Don't Expect to Get Rich or Famous

Feature films typically will have healthy four-to-five-figure honorariums built in with expenses paid while on location. Television series budgets are far leaner, but you'll probably get a show cap or jacket.

The academic with a hankering for on-screen action will probably be indulged. Robin Lane Fox had originally asked Oliver Stone for a single credit "introducing" him and a chance to ride with Alexander's army. He didn't get the first -- credits are regulated by various union rules -- but his riding was deemed good enough for the screen, and he appears in the front lines in several battle scenes. Similarly, Gabor S. Dorritt appears in Gods and Generals as a Union soldier.

Generally speaking, you won't have to worry about learning lines. You're not a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and you'll be appearing under a special dispensation for nonspeaking extras.

The benefits, apart from seeing yourself immortalized on celluloid, are increased sales of your book (Anbinder's publisher timed the paperback release to coincide with the film's premiere, and he says that sales benefited.), increased visibility in your field (you could find yourself on panels, discussing the film and defending the director's choices), and popular acclaim. Laco went out on the publicity tour for Master and Commander and relished the experience -- "I got treated like talent," he says, showing a mastery of English as it is spoken in Hollywood (where "talent" refers to actors, never to writers).

And you can capitalize on the production's popularity. Anne Simon, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who was the science advisor to The X-Files, wrote a book on the science behind the series: The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

But perhaps the most satisfaction will come from sitting in the dark, watching the credit crawl of once-mysterious titles -- Clapper/Loader, Best Boy, Key Grip, Gaffer -- and then seeing your name on the silver screen.

Kate Coe is a television producer who has written for the Los Angeles Times and other publications on the topic of academe and Hollywood. She is working for several companies on the extras packages for classic movies being transferred to DVD.