'Losing Control' In The Movies

A new romantic comedy opens in theaters this week, and it stars a scientist as the likeable, and only slightly nerdy, main character. The film's writer and director, former scientist Valerie Weiss discusses Losing Control, and why she made the shift from lab bench to big screen.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Can a science experiment find you the right mate? A new romantic comedy film opens in New York today. It's called "Losing Control." And the main character is a scientist, Samantha, played by Miranda Kent. She is working on her Ph.D. at Harvard, and she's also trying out sort of her love life at the same time. But unlike the stereotypical scientists we see in movies or on TV, Samantha isn't - she's not one of these super nerds with the dorky glasses, the frizzy hair.

She's a regular person, maybe a tiny bit quirky, but who isn't, right? So how did that happen? Is Hollywood finally getting the message that scientists can be smart and sexy, or maybe it takes a scientist to make a movie that doesn't rely on stereotypes. Joining me now to talk more about the film "Losing Control" is Valerie Weiss. She wrote, directed and produced the film. And she's - and we have a clip of it that we're going to listen to right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOSING CONTROL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) You are going to break your neck.

TRUE BELLA PINCI: (as Little Samantha) No, I'm not. The centrifugal force keeps us from falling off.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Sam.

PINCI: (as Little Samantha) My mom doesn't understand science, or she'd know that the equilibrium force of us holding onto each other balances the outward force that makes us feel like we're falling off. Wheeee.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I'm having a heart attack.

PINCI: (as Little Samantha) Don't worry. It's science. It always works.

MIRANDA KENT: (as Samantha) Well, at least, it used to.

FLATOW: That was a great segue from the kids to the rotating little - what was that?

VALERIE WEISS: Sort of centrifuge...

FLATOW: Centrifuge.

WEISS: ...a roundabout centrifuge.

FLATOW: Round - that was - tell us about the plot of the movie.

WEISS: Well, really, I just wanted to make a movie about a centrifuge because I've never seen a centrifuge in a movie before.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEISS: So, as you said, it's a quirky romantic comedy about a female scientist who wants proof that her boyfriend is the one.

FLATOW: Yeah. So she does a science experiment with her boyfriend.

WEISS: Exactly. She spends so much time in the lab doing experiments that it just seems second nature to answer her life questions that way as well.

FLATOW: And this is a movie that stars a female scientist in the main role. She's working at a Ph.D. in Harvard. You have a Ph.D. from Harvard. A little bit of a coincidence?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEISS: Well, they say right, you know, and after six years getting a Ph.D., I know it really well.

FLATOW: But you were not a - you never became a scientist, did you?

WEISS: Well, I mean, it depends what you mean. I've been doing science since I was 14, working in labs. And, you know, I did a whole Ph.D. in X-ray crystallography. So I definitely, you know, consider myself a scientist. But I didn't work at it after my Ph.D.

FLATOW: Right.

WEISS: I made my first movie while I was writing my Ph.D. And two weeks after we wrapped, I defended my thesis and never did another experiment again.

FLATOW: What was the tug to the theatre side?

WEISS: You know, I think I'm attracted to both fields because I love to know why things are the way they are. And, you know, relationships or a theatre gets at, you know, relationships and personalities and, you know, social aspects of our lives. And then, you know, I discovered science in 10th grade because I had a great biology teacher, Mr. Charambura, and...

FLATOW: There's always somebody, isn't there? That gets you...

WEISS: You know, science teachers are so important. Someone has to really, like, introduce you to it because it's not necessarily immediately accessible in our culture and - except for shows like yours. And, you know, then I realized that's another way to ask why, and I could get down to the molecular level of why things are the way they are. So that's really the tug for both fields.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Valerie Weiss, writer, director and producer of "Losing Control." That opens in New York today. A little nervous?

WEISS: Sure. And we've been in festivals for a year. We've screened in 30 film festivals, and we screened for the National Academy of Sciences. So I know audiences love it. So that's - that takes some of the nerves away but...

FLATOW: Did you get support from the science community on this?

WEISS: We got amazing support. A company called VWR - that scientists will know because they furnish everything in your lab - and Eppendorf and Corning and a whole list of other companies were amazing. They filled our - we had a lab from Zencore in Los Angeles that let us shoot for free.

FLATOW: In their lab?

WEISS: In their lab.

FLATOW: Because it looks like a real lab.

WEISS: Thank you. It's so important to me to have authenticity in this movie. And they gave us an empty lab because, of course, they didn't want us messing with experiments. And it was great, except we had to fill it on no budget. So these companies donated equipment to us for free. It was amazing.

FLATOW: How did you decide on the character, the lead character, the scientist - what she would - her character be, not the nerdy kind of science person you might see on the "Big Bang Theory," right?

WEISS: Yeah. Well, you know, like I said, authenticity was so important, and I was lucky enough to have access to this world because it was my life...

FLATOW: Right.

WEISS: ...for six years. And, you know, I just based her on myself and my friends, and she, you know, my class was actually 50 percent women. And the women weren't like the stereotypes you see in movies. They were real and vulnerable and had boyfriends and lovers. And, you know, I just wanted people to get to see that. And so really I just, you know, based it on my own experiences.

FLATOW: And did you - the plot, was that based on your own experience?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEISS: It's definitely exaggerated. My favorite filmmaker is Pedro Almodovar in a movie called "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," was a huge inspiration for me. And I love that sort of zany, absurdist comedy, so you know, things are embellished, but there's a kernel of truth to everything, and the science is 100 percent accurate in the movie.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk about the movie "Losing Control" with Valerie Weiss. You say the science is 100 percent accurate.

WEISS: Yeah. There's one scene maybe we fudged a little. But towards the end...

FLATOW: Yeah? I bet you I know what that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEISS: Don't give it away. Don't give it away. Yeah. Well, I'm not...

FLATOW: 'Cause I thought...

WEISS: ...I'm not a physicist. I'm a biophysicist.

FLATOW: I thought, this can't happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEISS: Maybe in an alternate universe...

FLATOW: I won't give it away, but we all - all of us who've seen the movie say there's a little bit of fudging going on in this spot...

WEISS: Yeah. But it was too good not to put it in. It made me laugh too hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Did you have to teach the actors how to do the pipetting and all that kind of stuff?

WEISS: You know, we did. We spent so much time, 'cause, again, it was so important to me. We had science consultants from UCLA and Xencor. Actually, my actors who play scientists, they came to the lab, they ran a gel, they pipetted. They did everything. They spent a whole day learning. They went to lab meetings. They actually spent probably a week of intensive training, and they were amazing. I think they're really convincing.

FLATOW: How much of the science did you feel you needed to dumb down?

WEISS: No, nothing. I didn't dumb down a thing because I think if you understand science, you can explain it well. And I know Alan Alda is going to talk about that, and I took a workshop with him about communicating science. And I think, you know, it's a matter of A) finding what's personal about it, B) understanding yourself, and C) connecting with your audience. So the only thing we did was find visual ways to explain the same concept. So you know, the scene where she's at a party and she uses elements on the bar to explain her research with, you know, X and Y chromosomes and, you know, audiences get it. It's so rewarding.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, they want as much science as you can give them.

WEISS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. They're just begging for more.

FLATOW: It was something out of...

WEISS: Not sex, it's science. Give us more science.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: There you have it. That was sort of a scene out of "A Beautiful Mind," like they were in a bar, and they were also in another bar.

WEISS: Yeah. Absolutely. It's...

FLATOW: Did you have that in mind at all, the other great scenes in films that were...

WEISS: You know...

FLATOW: ...that you would become part of the lore of...

WEISS: Yeah. You know, I mean, we have some pretty memorable lab scenes we're hoping would go into the great canon of science movies for what we put in there.

FLATOW: All right. Let's take a phone call or two, from Christine in Durham, North Carolina. Hi, Christine.

CHRISTINE: Hi. I'm so disappointed by this movie. I'm a graduate student at Duke, and we've struggled so long to not - I guess the main thing is, is not to sexualize women, especially in science. I mean the documentary "Misrepresentation" just talks about that.

FLATOW: Have you seen - Christine, have you seen...

CHRISTINE: Do we ever hear about a male scientist...

FLATOW: Christine, have you seen the movie? Christine?

CHRISTINE: I haven't. But based on the conversation, I mean, explaining science on a bar - I mean, Ira, you - I enjoy your show, but you got so excited about equating sex and women in science. It's just so disappointing and disgusting. It really is.

FLATOW: Well, OK.

WEISS: Christine, you need to see the movie, because I don't think you'll be disappointed. I think what you'll see is it's the first time a full picture of a real woman is presented, because her brain is absolutely there, and she's an emotional, breathing, real person, and I think you'll actually be very happy when you see it. Check out the trailer at losingcontrolmovie.com. It'll give you a really good taste for it.

CHRISTINE: But you've mentioned sexiness in science four times. Why does that...

WEISS: I also mentioned her research at Harvard, her PhD, the X and Y chromosome. You really should take a look.

CHRISTINE: Yeah, but we all know the history about sexism and women in science. I mean, all of that kind of effort kind of negates what we're trying to achieve.

WEISS: Yeah, I don't think it will. I think you need to take a look, as a good scientist, to do your research before drawing conclusions.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. How many places will this be opening at?

WEISS: We're starting in six cities. We're starting in New York.

FLATOW: If she wants to go see it...

WEISS: Yeah. Well, now we have to go to Durham for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEISS: We are starting in New York, then we go to Boston. And actually, this is out of chronological order, but we go to Boston, April 6, at Kendall Square Cinema. We're really excited to - for our hometown screening. And in Los Angeles, we open April 13 at the Laemmle Theater, and we're going to be in Sacramento and Tempe and Tacoma, and that's just the start. All these places are chains. So we're hoping to expand across the country if we have your support and you come out and see the film.

FLATOW: You must have a sequel or another movie...

WEISS: Oh, we have a TV show, actually...

FLATOW: A TV show.

WEISS: ...in the works. Yeah. We think this is a great episodic story where there's a whole other element that's happening in the lab besides her love life. And we're going to sort of make it an Ally McBeal-ish sort of episodic thing.

FLATOW: Interesting. You know, do you ever hear of Leon Lederman? He was a - he's still a physicist. He spent decades going to Hollywood trying to convince Norman Lear and people like that who are very big TV producers to do a TV series based in a laboratory someplace.

WEISS: Somebody told me this story. This was...

FLATOW: Yeah.

WEISS: ...a long time ago, right?

FLATOW: Oh, this is - yeah. Well, I'm old enough to remember 'cause I actually...

WEISS: Who told me this? I think...

FLATOW: I've known Leon forever so...

WEISS: Maybe Joe Palca told - somebody told me the story.

FLATOW: Maybe Joe Palca. Could be.

WEISS: But I think...

FLATOW: And so if you can pull that off, you know – what the modern version of it, of course, is "CSI."

WEISS: Right.

FLATOW: They got their lab, but they had to disguise it...

WEISS: Right. Well, I think the character-driven element needs to be in there. And, you know, before we made this movie, they said the same thing, like, nobody wants to see scientists and nobody, you know, we have to dumb down the science. And they told me science wasn't visual, which I take huge issue with because it's a very visual movie, ad we found lots of ways to show the science.

FLATOW: Who were the they that told you these things, the producers?

WEISS: You know, just different people.

FLATOW: The industry?

WEISS: Industry a little bit. You know, we met with people who really wanted the movie to be about a scientist who created a potion to find the right man. And, you know, it's like, you know, science is advanced enough. We understand it enough. We can use real science to explore this question. We don't need to make it up.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you good luck and - in your opening. And, you know, we talk a lot about science and theater and film here, and we always hope that they find some legs so everybody can go see them - this gets, you know, wider distribution, so people can call us after they've seen the movie...

WEISS: Great. Thank you.

FLATOW: ...and talk about it...

WEISS: Yes. Let us know after you watch it.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Valerie Weiss. She is losing control here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: She wrote, directed and produced the film, and it's a good view(ph) . I advise you all to go take a look. Thank you for coming and talking with us today.

WEISS: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.

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