Interview conducted by Alexis Gambis, Executive Director of Imagine Science Films
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you transitioned from nuclear physics to filmmaking?
I was born in Toronto to immigrant parents from Trinidad, which has had a lasting influence on my work. But equally, so has my experience in science. In high school and undergraduate studies at York University, I became interested in the BIG questions of why things are the way they are. I dabbled in philosophy a little bit, but really found a home in physics because these were people that were trying to understand the universe. I fell in love with particle and nuclear physics, particularly experimental physics, which afforded me great opportunities to travel and work in national labs both in Germany and the USA. In undergrad I worked on the ZEUS Experiment.
While I was in Grad School at the University of Illinois at Chicago, working on the PHOBOS experiment something happened. I was losing my passion for the field. The everyday "grunt" work of data analysis, which involved hours and hours of writing code, became really painful. Don't get me wrong, the "big picture" of it all was beautiful, but I didn't have the enthusiasm that a lot of my colleagues had. But, I found myself thoroughly enjoying working with the people in the experiment and talking with them. I loved hearing their stories of why they were devoting their lives to science. That's when I had my realization: I was far more interested in the scientists and the story of science than actually doing science.
I applied to NYU's Graduate Film School, even though I had never really made a movie before, and by some miracle, they let me in. Aside from learning how to make movies, what I really learned during the program was more about myself. The technical parts of making a movie are somewhat easy, but it's the ability to tell stories that matter to me - that's the hard part.
How does your science background influence your work?
I approach filmmaking very methodically and by using problem solving techniques. For example, if I'm trying to get an actor to a certain "place" with their performance, I'll give them a certain direction. If it doesn't work, I'll try a different approach. It's constantly an experiment. But with some experiments, you end up with a result that's more interesting than you had hypothesized. Those are the best moments.
Also, the ability to communicate and work with people is a skill I learned in physics. The idea of the solitary scientist working alone in a lab is not something I've experienced, neither is the auteur filmmaker. Making movies is a collaborative experience, much like in science. Being able to discuss ideas with your collaborators is key, whether in a lab or on a film set.
Tell us about the three films featured in Labocine and other projects
Conservation - one of my earliest films. I was inspired by some big stories of scientific fraud that was happening at the time. Papers were being retracted and exposed, scientists were excluding data sets and really screwing each other over. Academia is a high stakes environment, now more than ever, so I envisioned a Professor that was past his prime and the extent to which he'd go to get some glory. It was a classic story of deception, so I set it in the film noir genre, perhaps the least expected place you would find a story about scientists.
I Was Just Thinking Too Small - lovely little doc done with Imagine Science Films and TEDMED. There are stories of people that needed to work on a small detail to have a breakthrough, but this is the opposite of that narrative. It's about people that always had BIG PICTURE ideas with breakthroughs. How does architecture affect our health? What impact does the health of a neighborhood have on its individuals? How does a child's experiences in their early years affect their health longterm? There were some amazing people with deeply profound ideas that were big. I learned a lot about trying to affect change.
Cosmology - I've always been obsessed with time and all of the ideas pertaining to the beginning of the Universe. Whether it's the cosmic microwave background or the poetic, most cultures and religions have a cosmology story. I decided to couple a common mythology (the cosmic egg) about the beginning of time, with a man's decision to end it all. I was extremely lucky to be able to work with Hugh Dillon, which was a dream come true, because I've been an admirer of his work since Bruce McDonald's Hard Core Logo and Debra Granik's Down to the Bone not to mention his kickass rock band The Headstones.
Sesame Street - I've been lucky to work on some lovely projects with Sesame Street. Working with kids is a whole different beast, but it's incredibly rewarding. It's a lovely show that champions diversity and studies have shown the lasting impact Sesame Street has had on children's education. I'm very happy and proud to contribute to their canon! If (when??) I make a film that makes hundreds of millions at the box office, more people would have seen my Sesame Street work!
Doubles With Slight Pepper - Perhaps my most personal work, it explores a lot of the unique Indo-Caribbean culture that I'm a part of. The film is a very simple story about a fundamental relationship between a father and son.
I was able to co-write (along with Jon Malkiel), a script with Spike Lee called Time Traveler, which is the true story of Ronald Mallet, a physicist that's trying to build the world's first time machine. It's the perfect story, a good amount of cool science but at it's core it's really just a story about a son trying to reconnect with his father. It's a beautiful story that I hope gets made soon.
A feature version of Doubles With Slight Pepper.
I'm also in the early stages of an exciting project that explores the growing Bio-Punk movement, which I think is a gamechanger for science.
But very soon is the Chimera Project! I'm really pushing myself with a magical realism story about immigration, ornithology and Caribbean culture. It's deeply personal and contains characters that are rarely scene on screen or at least not from this perspective!
Other Films directed by Ian Harnarine
Ian Harnarine earned his M.F.A. from N.Y.U.’s Film School where he teaches along with the Physics Department. His films, “Doubles With Slight Pepper” (EP: Spike Lee), won the Toronto Film Festival and the Canadian Academy Award. Harnarine was named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine, “10 to Watch” by Playback Magazine and profiled in the New York Times.