Interview: Mark Levinson and David Kaplan on Catching “Particle Fever”

On recreating the excitement of discovery as scientists recreate the Big Bang in a new documentary about the Large Hadron Collider....Read More
Mark Levinson's "Particle Fever"

If it took centuries for physicists to locate the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that’s said to be responsible for all the mass in the universe, the years Mark Levinson and David Kaplan spent on “Particle Fever,” their documentary about the discovery, might seem slight in comparison. Yet their task was nearly as challenging, to convey to audiences both the excitement and enormity of what scientists sussed out with the Large Hadron Collider in the summer of 2012 without making it feel like a science class.

In fact, it’s the collision of sensibilities between Levinson, a film industry veteran as an ADR supervisor with a PhD in theoretical particle physics, and Kaplan, a wild-haired professor of particle physics at Johns Hopkins, that allows “Particle Fever” to share in the thrill of the 10,000 scientists who collaborated on essentially recreating the Big Bang to get closer to the roots of the universe than ever before. With no small assist from the legendary editor Walter Murch and the graphics gang MK12, the film streamlines the process while exuding the enthusiasm that comes from experimentation, chronicling the project’s many highs and lows, including an accident caused by a faulty electrical connection that temporarily derailed the project for a year.

Shortly before the film hits theaters this week, Levinson and Kaplan spoke about how they were able to keep “Particle Fever” on track, building a better movie about science and taking on the multiverse.

Mark Levinson and David Kaplan's "Particle Fever"How did you guys meet and make this film?

David Kaplan: In 2006, I knew that this big event would come, the machine was going to turn on and I’m just not trained as a filmmaker, so I decided somebody needed to record it. It was going to have such a dramatic emotional impact on everybody in my field and it’s a great story I’ve been telling all my family for years. I started out trying to make a film, tried to raise money, got a little ways along, then Mark discovered there was some crazy physicist trying to make a documentary film about the Large Hadron Collider. Mark has a PhD in particle physics from the ‘80s, but then became a filmmaker. He contacted me when I was at CERN working in the summer of 2007 and eventually we met and decided to make it a partnership.

With those backgrounds, were you able to complement each other as collaborators?

Mark Levinson: I really approached it as a filmmaker. Once I met David, we realized we really were interested in the same thing, which was to do a dramatic feature that showed the process of science and hopefully discovery in a way that had never been seen before, and I was really able to focus on the filmmaking part of it. Having the science background for both of us became important in terms of knowing how to strip out certain things and be able to focus on the actual dramatic parts of it.

DK: We definitely complemented each other because I was in the thick of it, living the drama and in a sense, I had the story in my head of what it is, but I did not know how to apply it in a really practical way to make it an exciting dramatic film. Mark, of course, has seen films for 25, 30 years go from scrappy stories to something that actually works. We were coming from two different directions and we met in the middle.

I’ve heard Mark say that it was at the end of the filming, you really figured out how to tell the story, but as you went along, how much did you know about what you wanted?

ML: We knew we wanted a dramatic story, but this was definitely a case where we were being directed by outside forces. At one point, [the film’s editor] Walter Murch sent me a quote from Hitchcock that said, “In feature films, the director is God and in documentaries, God is the director.” This was a classic example. We started out thinking it could have been a very linear story. If they just started up in 2008 and discovered something and had collisions right away, it would be a much more of a linear story. The accident really completely changed that. In particular, the discovery of the Higgs was not something we planned on, for sure. We couldn’t think we were making a film about the discovery of the Higgs when it started. What we had to do in the end was a reflection of what happened with the experiment.

When the accident occurred in 2008, did you think you’d still have a documentary?

ML: I had three feelings. When I first heard about the accident, there was a fleeting thought of, “Oh my God, do we even have a film?” The next thought was, “Oh my God, we are going to have a great film!” The third feeling was, “Oh, really, I feel sorry for the physicist.” All three of those flashed through my mind and in the end it was great for the film and I am also very happy that there was a great physics result.

Mark Levinson and David Kaplan's "Particle Fever"I’ve heard you might’ve been frustrated with the way science has previously been portrayed on film. Was that a guiding force in how you went about documenting this?

DK: I wouldn’t quite call it a frustration, but for me being a physicist and watching what was portrayed, I always thought [filmmakers] were missing the real story. They were missing the beauty of it. I just love the people I work with and I love this environment and I wanted to share it. There was an opportunity here because you never get to see it in real time, as it happens. You never get to see the emotional roller coaster that it actually looks like. Mostly, you get to see some physicist explaining something and some beautiful graphic along with it, and you do not see the humanist, highly non-linear process it takes to make any kind of discovery, not even knowing what discovery you are going to make. It was something that was always missing and it was something that I really wanted people to experience.

ML: I certainly felt that I had not seen very good depictions of science of the scientists that I knew. The physicists I knew were not these caricature figures who live just with their head in the clouds and couldn’t tie their shoes and weren’t interested in anything else. I had actually thought that I would maybe write a script that would be about something with science that would be more realistic. But when I heard about David, I realized this was possibly better than fiction and it ended up being true.

Was it difficult to gain access or was there so much construction and controlled chaos going on that it didn’t matter?

ML: No, we had incredible access. The media department was headed by James Gillies when we were there and they were extremely supportive. They all realized we were doing something different. I was probably the first feature filmmaker there, not just a news reporter, and they were excited about that. Traditionally, when people go over there, you are given a handler, someone from the media department that follows you. By the second time, they just let me go wherever I wanted. I was there so much that people just assumed I worked there.

How much of the graphics work of MK12 played a part of that and whether the fact you had to convey the story to them or to Walter Murch, who might not necessarily be as familiar with the science, was actually a way to refine the story for yourself?

DK: Yeah, I think so. Some graphics came very easy, [MK12] just intuitively responded to what was there. The graphics were the last thing — the physics and then the graphics themselves were the last thing that went into the film in terms of big picture creative content. Some things just came up with and worked, there was tweaking and some something there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of struggle. Certainly in that struggle, I learned what the essence was that we were trying to get to, what was important, what was not so important.

In their case, they weren’t deep in science but there were a bunch of science nerds there in that they had some obsession with science, they loved the project, and did an enormous number of graphic sequences for a fraction of their normal cost. In the case of Walter [Murch], he has been an avid science reader for many decades and it is quite a passion of his. He knew almost as much as Mark probably because of their interactions over the 25 years. A couple of quick explanations and he would draw some graphs to reproduce what we talked about. He nailed it.

ML: In terms of coming in, as David said, the graphics were some of the last and hardest things to do because it was also connected with, “Where are we going to tell the science?” The idea always was that we wanted these things to come organically from the story. You have to decide where you are going to explain something, what it is going to come out of, and then what should be said. All those three things had to be in place before the graphics really could be completely visualized. Then there actually was still one final feedback, with the music, which also was affected by it.

These are theoretical discussions that are above my pay grade, but I’ve heard debate about the inclusion of talk about the multiverse, which made me wonder whether you were careful in what you wanted to include since for some audiences, it may feel like the mere mention of certain ideas could be misinterpreted as fact because of the medium. Was that the case?

David Kaplan in "Particle Fever"DK: I would say broadly, it was a difficulty, and I understand why people end up making Discovery Channel-type things, where even the physicist wants to explain things completely with all the caveat, “This is a theory that says this, it’s not necessarily true, blah, blah, blah.” It is not necessarily what we wanted to capture. We wanted to capture the real time, in the moment, what do you think it is now, what do you think it is the next day… Therefore, we are not explaining the whole package and to what extent the multiverse is true or not, and how complete the theory is. It is more like what a handful of physicists were thinking as the time went on.

In the case of the multiverse, this was an idea that started gaining traction a little bit in the late ‘90s and then a lot more about 10 years ago. There are people vehemently against it and there are people who think it must be true, and there are people who think we will never discover it anyways, so it doesn’t matter. The real core point was that we are entering this period where the Large Hadron Collider turns on with massive uncertainty, where the broader sense of the ideas that we are testing are very distinct, vast, and have implications for scientific discovery in physics and particle physics for a generation, or maybe a century. If the multiverse is true in the way that people at this time are thinking about it, maybe it suggests we will never discover anything beyond the Higgs Boson at all.

However, it could be true and we could discover something in the multiverse that is just crazy. It is the scale of the questions and the scale of the drama for the field which we are trying to capture. Because of that, I have gotten some criticism about how the multiverse is portrayed versus super-symmetry, etc., but no more than I would have expected. More broadly, physicists look and they say, “My God, you captured it more accurately than I have ever seen it done before.”

“Particle Fever” opens on March 5th in New York at Film Forum and on March 7th in Los Angeles at the Nuart before expanding into limited release on March 14th. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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