For a man whose idea spawned "Evolution," the frothy summer comedy opening today (see review, page 17), writer Don Jakoby is surprisingly sober and philosophical, discussing the awe-inspiring power of science.
The science-guy stance is understandable, however: He wrote the first version of "Evolution" not as a laugh-a-minute popcorn flick, but as a serious science-based thriller.
"I know how inherently dramatic it is to watch people think," Mr. Jakoby says. The former Harvard University doctoral candidate in physics says he was aiming for "a sense of awe" in this cautionary science-fiction tale. The original concept was designed to reflect astonishment at the evolutionary process, he says, by showing a group of human beings confronted with the entire process of billions of years of evolution in a compressed period of time.
"There's no alien mastermind controlling it," he says. "That's really the issue I wanted to address. Life, left to its own devices, will move in the direction of greater complexity, which is really mind-blowing."
While the idea may be intellectually provocative, it is difficult to film. "The sucker trap for the filmmaker is that this thinking process is so rarely done well," says the Columbia University graduate in physics.
Filmmakers often opt to portray the emotional counterbalance to the brilliant mind, because, he says, that's easier to show. "In the end, they rely on the idea that scientists have emotions, because that's easier to show, but they lose what really makes them fascinating, which is that they have brilliant minds."
Jakoby's screenplay has its own story of evolution. First, he says, the sober version made the Hollywood rounds, where, he says with a laugh and a disclaimer of modesty, "the general consensus was that this is a brilliant script, but daunting and expensive to make, and it will have to tread a really narrow ... range of feelings ... [and still] keep the tension for 120 minutes, because it's so deadly serious."
Director Ivan Reitman, better known for such "fun science" films as "Ghostbusters," liked the screenplay. "He was comfortable camping it up, twisting [it] 30 degrees and making it a comedy," says the writer who has also penned scripts for "Vampires," "Invaders From Mars," and "The Philadelphia Experiment." Reitman bought the script from Jakoby. "He was up front about it," Jakoby says. Reitman said, "This is what I intend to do if you sell me the script. If you can't live with that, don't sell me the script."
While Jakoby stayed on to write the first of several comedic drafts of his work, he says only 3 percent of the original scientific content made it into the final cut. His favorite science scene takes place when the lead character, a college science teacher played by David Duchovny, examines the alien substance under a microscope. "That's the moment when it's going from a single cell to a multiple cell organism and the music cues us," Jakoby says. "There, we have some sense of 'Whoa, there's something serious going on here.' "
If advance audiences are any indication, the scientist-turned-screenwriter should take heart about scientific content getting through. The hot topic in a knot of preteen boys leaving the theater? "Cool! Nitrogen-based life-forms, I wonder where they came from?"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor