Interview with Randy Olson
July 20, 2011
Mr. Madison: Today is July 20th, 2011 and my name is Mark Madison at the National Conservation Training Center and I’m here with Randy Olson who is a scientist turned film-maker. Randy got a Ph.D. from Harvard University and was a tenured professor in marine biology. Then several years ago he decided to become a full-time film-maker. He has made two films: Flock of Dodos: The Evolution - Intelligent Design Circus came out around 2006 and his more recent film is Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. He’s also the author of a book called Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age of Style. He’s out here at NCTC to screen his film and help us teach a class. So Randy, welcome!
Mr. Olson: Great to be here.
Mr. Madison: It’s great to have you here. And the first question I have is Sizzle, it’s called A Global Warming Comedy. What type of film does a Global Warming comedy look like?
Mr. Olson: In this particular case, it’s kind of crazy and unorthodox. This movie is actually somewhat original in that it’s a hybrid of three different genres. It is a mockumentary, a documentary, and has reality elements to it.
Mr. Madison: And like I said, we’re going to be screening it this evening. It’s actually a very entertaining film, but also has a serious message about the need to communicate the dire effects of global warming. How did you try to get that message across?
Mr. Olson: Well, the “message” really -- I don’t even know if it’s so much of a message as it is more painting a picture. I think my feeling was that Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth was a valiant effort, but I don’t think it really painted an accurate picture because what they tried to do with that movie was they got to the end of it and said now that we’re all in agreement, that we accept that climate change is happening, global warming’s happening, let’s all get to work. And the fact was, we weren’t all in agreement in 2006 and probably even less in agreement today about whether climate change is happening, manmade climate change, and so as a result my movie doesn’t paint such a clear picture. It really ends up as a big mess by the end of it. It’s a lot of fun and I finish it with some voice over in which I kind of ask, what’s the deal? Why is it that the science community seems to be in agreement about this situation with the climate and yet our country is unable to provide any leadership around the world on the issue and that’s kind of how I end it.
I end it with just saying what’s the deal, and in fact I put this wonderful quote at the very end of it all from Kevin Conrad, the delegate from New Guinea at the 2007 or so Bali conference in which he said to the U.S. delegation, you know, if you guys want to lead that’s great, but if you’re not going to lead, please get out of the way and the place erupted in applause and I think that’s the world’s feeling towards the U.S. is we look to you for leadership but on this issue if you don’t have any ability to lead then all you’re doing is fowling things up for the rest of us that have kind of got it figured out and I think that is the situation today and that was not the picture that was painted by An Inconvenient Truth unfortunately.
Mr. Madison: Your other film was called a Flock of Dodos and it investigated the evolution intelligent design debate. Tell us a little about that film.
Mr. Olson: That one was started by my mother. I grew up in Kansas. My mother still lives there and starting about 2003 or so she began sending me all these newspaper articles from the Kansas City Star about this huge debate that emerged in Kansas over the teaching of evolution and what had happened was that a group of creationist basically had high-jacked the school board in the State of Kansas. They had secured six out of the 10 positions on the state school board and started to work trying to change the curriculum there and put in questions about evolution and then put in the idea of teaching intelligent design as a sort of equal and opposite idea comparable to evolution and it was a mess and for two years. I kind of ignored all those articles she was sending me and that just goes to show you, you should always listen to your mother because finally in 2005 I read an article in The New Yorker about this whole controversy and instantly realized, oh my goodness, this is a really good story, quickly grabbed a film crew and went back to Kansas and shot the initial footage that turned into this movie, Flock of Dodos.
Mr. Madison: Randy, we talked earlier how you’re an interesting and maybe unique hybrid of a professor turned film-maker …
Mr. Olson: Strange.
Mr. Madison: I know. But how does that effect how you communicate your message? How is it different today?
Mr. Olson: I think perhaps what is most valuable and what I have to offer is the voice of a scientist still now in the thick of the broad communication world and one of the realizations that I try and convey in my book is that in 1994 I moved to Hollywood and I think partly was thinking that at age 38 I was going to reprogram my brain and get rid of the science part of me and become a broad film-maker and what I finally realized 15 years later is that once you’ve gone down this developmental path by getting programmed as a scientist, you’re stuck with that voice for the rest of time and you can try and take all the acting classes you want, but it’s as distinctive as your fingerprint. It is there for the rest of time. There are stories that I tell in the book about being at cocktails parties in Hollywood and just saying one sentence and I mean everybody turned and looked at me like what’s wrong with you? You’re a scientist and all my film school classmates eventually came -- there’s one story I tell about they refer to me as “the Randy” of the group which means that being a scientist I have this commitment to the truth and that sometimes when people are talking great big stories and all full of excitement of cackomany ideas, I’m the guy that says wait a second, you know, if I look at the facts, what they tell me is that everything you’re saying isn’t going to come true, and then everybody looks at me and says thanks a lot, you know, way to rain on our parade with the facts as if we’re interested in that. And that’s what you’re stuck with as a scientist, particularly academic scientists. As I put it in Dodos, the blind obsession with the truth and that can cause all kinds of problems at times.
Mr. Madison: And yet there’s, obviously from the title of your book, some things you’ve been trying to modify. What do you mean by don’t be such a scientist?
Mr. Olson: What that refers to is the handicaps that happen when you are overly cerebral and nobody told me about this in 1994 when I moved to Los Angeles, and if you look at the book, the first paragraph of the book is pure profanity from my acting teacher -- the first night in this acting class that I entered into and she picked me out of this group of students and recognized me as an academic and then just laid into me and just basically said I know your type. You think a lot and you don’t act so much and people don’t want to see that. People go to the theatre and they watch actors, hoping that they will act and not stand there and think and she was absolutely right and it took me two years of this class to really appreciate what she was saying. I do and that’s what you do as an academic. You’re taught that before you act, think. Don’t do something until you have thought this through thoroughly.
Well, that seems like a good philosophy for the world but you begin to realize that there’s a trade off which is you lose the ability to be spontaneous and to capture that kind of spontaneous energy that turns out to be extremely powerful when it comes to communication and this is what’s behind reality shows is that they are unscripted and they have this element of spontaneity that the public today, more than ever before, just savors that spontaneous energy and academics tend to be weak on that part of communication.
Mr. Madison: That’s great. Well, we’ve been speaking with Randy Olson who is a scientist, author, and film-maker all wrapped up in one. His films once again are a Flock of Dodos: The Evolution - Intelligent Design Circus and his more recent film is called Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, and his book is called Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in An Age of Style.
Randy, if people wanted to find out more about your film, is there a website that they could go to?
Mr. Olson: Yeah, there’s my main website, randyolsonproduction.com that has all the links and the background to everything.
Mr. Madison: Is that where all the PSA’s are too?
Mr. Olson: Yeah, you can link to them through there. Actually most of that work is on the website of shiftingbaselines.org. That’s where I’ve done all the ocean work and there’s a button on there for the film library that has probably 25 short films that I’ve done that are all mostly humorous and a lot of fun.
Mr. Madison: Yeah, in addition to Randy���s feature films, he’s got a number of hilarious PSA���s dealing with all sorts of marine creatures from barnacles to lobsters. I strongly recommend going to it. Randy, thank you so much for doing this podcast and thank all of you for listening to it.
Mr. Olson: Thank you.
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