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The Producer's Story:
Why Einstein Was Like Picasso
by Gary Johnstone

Einstein's Big Idea homepage

"After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well."
—Albert Einstein

I couldn't agree more with Einstein's point of view here. I've long taken issue with the false dichotomy presumed to exist between art and science. The idea that artists possess a special sensitivity and insight that is their exclusive preserve is laughable. The idea that the great human leaps of imagination that catapult science onto new levels are somehow different to remarkable insights in painting or sculpture also doesn't hold water. To me, creativity is something we are all born with, and it either gets encouraged or stamped on. Either way, creativity is vital to progress in all human fields.

I've discussed this notion with the great Hollywood director James Cameron, with whom I codirected a film about the battleship Bismarck a couple of years back. Being at sea for four weeks, we eventually got onto the subject of our respective parents. It turns out we have similar backgrounds: parents who were both engineers and artists. When you grow up immersed in both of these areas, you don't see them as separate. In fact, there is no separation. Art and science are only ripped asunder by culture.

With backgrounds on both sides of the camp, it's also not surprising that Jim and I became filmmakers. Filmmaking is, most people would assume, at least a craft, at times an art. But it is also hugely technical. Federico Fellini once said that filmmakers have to know how everything on the set works and what it costs, down to the last lightbulb. Only then can they wrestle every last piece of beauty out of their limited resources. No one embodies this more than Jim Cameron. He may have had $270 million to make Titanic, but after everyone had gone to bed every night on the shoot, he and his brother Mike were still setting up special cameras for the next day, cameras they had built themselves.

So what does all this have to do with the NOVA program "Einstein's Big Idea"? Well, I just wanted to point out that I tend to be overreceptive to stories that demonstrate the deep unity of creativity in all human endeavor. When I was asked to write and direct a film based on David Bodanis' book E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, I jumped at the opportunity.

Putting E = mc2 to film

Adapting David's book for the small screen was an enormous challenge. To be honest, any sane person would have turned it down. Making a biographical film means immersing yourself in the minutiae of a character's life; having to do that for lots of famous scientists is a monumental task. Very quickly I decided that the list of 20 or so scientists that David featured in his book would have to be rationalized down to about six: Einstein, of course; Michael Faraday as an example of "E" (energy); Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier for "m" (mass); James Clerk Maxwell for "c" (the speed of light); and Emilie du Châtelet for "2"(squared). And finally, one great example of how the whole equation works in practice: Lise Meitner and unlocking the atom.

All I had to do then was understand the last 200 years of physics and chemistry!

So what sustained me in the three months I had to educate myself in relativity, nuclear physics, and advanced mathematics? Well, in between the mind-blowing conversations with patient professors, the headaches from the strain of trying to comprehend complex theories, and the backaches from lifting dusty tomes off library shelves, a single thought kept nagging at me. It was the kernel of an idea that probably seems insignificant to most, but it inspired me: Einstein was just like Picasso. What, you say? I repeat: Einstein was just like Picasso.

Birds of a feather

Awhile ago I made a film about the groundbreaking painter, and when I took the E = mc2 project on, I was instantly struck with the notion that Einstein was just as creative as Pablo Picasso. The great scientist was also just as bohemian in his lifestyle as the great artist. He was equally promiscuous, poetic, and playful. Above all, the two shared an indomitable self-determination. To both men, their personal project, their journey of discovery was the most important aspect of their lives.

The more I read about the other scientists in E = mc2, the more I realized they were all united by this quality of character. The greats of history are those who are utterly committed to going beyond the bounds of what already exists in their field. It is an obsession to know, to see, to feel the unknowable. Along the way, these singular individuals all have moments of incredible creativity, moments when the world they are immersed in suddenly shifts in front of their eyes. A crack opens up, and how we all conceive of the world changes irrevocably.

My hope is that viewers get even a tenth of the excitement I felt when reading David's book for the first time.

Of course, what happens in those peoples' lives is that everything and everyone else inevitably plays second fiddle. The attraction of exploring the world of E = mc2, at least for me, was this proposition: that achieving greatness somehow leads to a bittersweet compromise in other areas of life. What fascinated me was that behind each of these iconic, idealized characters of science was a life that was as messy, complex, and difficult as the next person's.

It would be wrong, however, to view any of these leading thinkers' lives purely as personal tragedy. Their achievements are unquestionably triumphs. The trick with the film was to somehow unite an illumination of their creative, scientific insights with the moving drama of the struggles they underwent to achieve those insights.

The power of drama

So how do you make a film about nuclear physics, abstract ideas, and some of the most creative individuals that have ever lived, all rolled into one, and still entertain a wide audience? After all, this was to be a film about ideas—there wasn't going to be much to point the camera at.

Drama seemed to me the only answer. And to make the experience as compelling as the real thing, the drama had to be full dialogue. I wanted top actors to delve into the personality of each character and capture the moment. An actor's job is to be emotionally real on screen. Just having some extras wander about looking a bit like Einstein and company while a narrator insists that this is one of history's seminal moments seemed lame. On the other hand, you simply can't have actors, no matter how good they are, explaining what is going on in the realm of abstract ideas. It's false and tacky. Real people don't do that. That is the job of narration or on-screen experts.

So I ended up with a hybrid. To cut a long story short, I then just sat down and wrote the darn thing. I came up with a five-act structure that seemed to work. I drew character charts. I used as many real scenes as I could. Everything is based to a large extent on real events. Obviously dialogue is largely invented, though it's sometimes based on quotations. I tried to write in a sprightly way. The last thing I wanted to produce was a turgid encyclopedia of E = mc2. If anything, the finished script has a fairytale quality. Many people may take exception to that. I admit that the finished film is at times hyperreal.

Getting it

My hope is that viewers get even a tenth of the excitement I felt when reading David's book for the first time. Here was a subject that most would assume closed to them, but by the end of the book I got it. I understood not just E = mc2 but also the beauty, pain, and wonder behind its creation. I was very lucky that NOVA largely liked my script. God knows what would have happened had they not bought into it.

The script, of course, was just the beginning. The film shoot was a ludicrous proposition: a six-week period drama on location in England, France, and Switzerland, all on a TV drama-doc budget. That is a long, long story in itself. Suffice to say I owe a lot of people a lot of favors.

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Einstein and Picasso

Promiscuity, playfulness, genius: just some of the traits that Einstein and Picasso had in common, says Gary Johnstone.

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Gary and McArdle on platform

Chilled by a morning mist, Gary Johnstone (right) prepares to shoot a scene with the young Einstein, played by Aidan McArdle.

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Einstein and Mileva at work

Einstein became so obsessed with his work that he seriously neglected his marriage to his wife Mileva Maric (played here by Shirley Henderson). The couple eventually divorced.

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Crew in Cafe

Johnstone's film crew shoots a scene of the 26-year-old Einstein (far right) holding forth in a café.

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Einstein's Big Idea

Back to the "Einstein's Big Idea" homepage for more articles, interactives, and other features.

Futher Reading
E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation
by David Bodanis
New York: Berkley Books, 2000

Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc
by Arthur I. Miller
New York: Basic Books, 2002

Gary Johnstone Gary Johnstone, the director and producer of "Einstein's Big Idea," has directed and/or produced many films, including the PBS documentaries "The Battle of Hood and Bismarck" and "Secrets of the Dead: Catastrophe!"

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