On Finding Yourself in a Butterfly’s Wings

Pakinam Amer: [00:00:00] . This is a science talk podcast from scientific American I’m Pakinam Amer. Today’s guest is Alexis Gambis, French, even as well and biologists and artists, Alexis lectures at NYU, studies fruit flies and make science films. He’s also the founder of imagined science and nonprofit and an annual film science festival that brings together creatives, scientists, and researchers to tell stories of the confluence of science and art. HIs film Son of Monarchs, premiered at this year’s Sundance, is the winner of the Alfred P Sloan feature film prize. It’s a film for turbulent times. He says at the intersection of art, science, and politics. Alexis believes that there hasn’t been a more momentous moment to tell it. Despite taking on larger scale issues, like immigration, climate change and genetic evolution, the story of the film is deeply personal. 

[00:01:00] Alexis Gambis: [00:01:00] It’s probably the most biographical film that I’ve made, because it speaks to my, you know, to my hybrid identities, you know, French Venezuelan. I did my PhD in the U S and also the laboratory was somewhat of a refuge. You know, I was trying to grapple with personal issues, but also, uh, you know, what I wanted to do with my career, actually, I was also thinking at that time of becoming, you know, becoming an artist or making films and, but I was still doing my PhD. So there was a lot of questions about who I was, what did I aspire to become? And a lot of that was kind of answered through those PhD years and, and being in that laboratory.  So it is somewhat of a memoir in that, in that sense. 

[00:01:43] Pakinam Amer: [00:01:43] Son of Monarchs has layers of narrative. Your main character is a scientist who leaves home to pursue butterfly research in the U S then years later, it goes back to his roots in Mexico and in doing so rediscovers and reinvents himself, there is nostalgia, but there’s also science and geopolitics.

[00:02:01] The Monarch butterfly is central to the story. And a running metaphor and there is this idea that although they are imaginary lines, that non-human animals like the Monarch butterfly cross every year, borders can hold us back as humans. And once we cross them, we may change for better or worse. What inspired all these levels of narrative?

[00:02:23] Alexis Gambis: [00:02:23] The film definitely has been in the making for quite, you know, gestating for quite some time. A lot of those decisions course come consciously in the writing about those different layers. But I think the film is not only about multiple layers, but also about shedding layers, you know, there’s layers of different topics, but also he has to kind of come to the core of who he is and understand like the, the inner workings of, of his own identity.

[00:02:49] I think one of the things that I was trying to do was use the animal, the Monarch butterfly as a common denominator between politics, culture, spirituality ,science. The butterfly was, was kind of the connection between all of these different themes. And, um, and I often do that in my films. I have an animal that, that allows me to connect everything together. It’s kind of like the. The web of all of these different topics. 

[00:03:14] Pakinam Amer: [00:03:14] You’ve been in, involved in making films to communicate and promote science for quite some time, you have a science film festival that’s been running for over 13 years with satellite additions in Paris and Abu Dhabi. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you’ve probably screened hundreds of projects. Do you feel that you’ve reached a formula of what helps a science film pull audiences in like adding a bit of fantasy or building a fictional setting? 

[00:03:43] Alexis Gambis: [00:03:43] In my context in my world, science is, is somewhat of, um, of the music in the background. I don’t necessarily want to put it in the forefront. I, I, I’m very interested in, you know, the, the rhythm, just observing people working.

[00:03:58] I don’t necessarily want to. You know, um, want to inform people, although there, there is kind of this, you know, tangentially things are being, um, evoked about climate change about, um, about the endangered Monarch butterfly. But I, I sort of like it to be floating in the background so that people can sort of, grasp it or, or not, and be like, oh, that was, you know, that was something that was quite devastating that, you know, there’s deforestation or the Monarch butterflies is endangered, but I don’t really want to, you know, I, as a director, I don’t want to really enforce the message on the audience because I think that my pieces are very character driven and I don’t want to be in a position where I’m telling somebody how to feel about a scientific issue.

[00:04:42] And I think the film deals with that to some extent. To your point. Pakinam, about the science, the fantasy aspect. There’s an opportunity when scientists, um, daydream or when scientists are in moments of kind of reverie to go into those fantastical landscapes. Um, and again, it’s not really about me adding those layers of science fiction, it’s really about the character that is imagining becoming a butterfly or imagines that he’s underwater.

[00:05:14] And I think, um, there’s a lot of science today that could be perceived as science fiction to many people. And I feel like there’s, there’s really enough material if you portray it in a certain way, um, to make it dreamlike and, and play on the, on the magical realism of science. And I don’t think you need to necessarily falsify science to make it ou know, science fiction like, or, or to, to enter into those fantastical worlds. 

[00:05:40] Pakinam Amer: [00:05:40] There are a lot of lap scenes in the film and it feels very real. It’s not scientists in white coats trying to bring back dinosaurs in labs that are completely off the grid. I feel like I’ve walked into similar labs before.

[00:05:53] Alexis Gambis: [00:05:53] Yeah. We shot at NYU. I mean, thanks to my position at NYU I was able to get access, able to get access to the labs and, uh, and actually most of the production design team, I would say about half of the production design team are our scientists. Uh, one of the main. Our team se like one of the, one of the members of the, art team was a student that was just finishing his PhD.

[00:06:16] We used his bench, he was the one who set up the lab, you know? Um, and I really wanted it to be scientist production designing to make sure that it looked like a real lab. Um, and I was lucky enough to, to shoot at NYU. Uh, most of those scenes, actually, we shut the small anecdote. We started the film shooting the labs. So that was the first three days of the, of the film production. All of the disections are done by real people that are at the top of their field, in this research around, you know, butterfly research and evolutionary biology. And so we filmed one of the advisors, you know, with latex gloves, um, actually doing the dissection and some of the shots also through the microscope are real scientists.

[00:06:58] And I actually, all of the shots through the microscope were also shot by me because it takes. It takes, it’s almost like cook like food, you know, like tabletop, filmmaking, it takes so much, so much time that it has to be done after you shoot principal photography. So I had to shoot all of those sequences later on.

[00:07:15] Pakinam Amer: [00:07:15] It’s very refreshing to watch a film that feels mainstream in the sense that it’s a full story about a person with science being a big part of their lives, but that also features genome editing and puts a fine point on it. It also felt like it’s making some commentary on CRISPR- CAS technology and personal identity and the uneasy relationship a lot of people have with the idea of gene manipulation. 

[00:07:39] Alexis Gambis: [00:07:39] Definitely CRISPR is underneath a lot of this, a lot of the film it’s actually mentioned very early into the film when he’s at the bar, he says to CRISPR and to the genetic revolution, that’s like one of the opening scenes. And then, um, and it’s mentioned a few times in the film, so there’s definitely like a recurring mention of it. I interviewed two years before shooting the film, uh, Emmanuelle Charpentier though, one of the sciences that got the Nobel prize for CRISPR. She told me when we were discussing CRISPR, she said, you know, my, my biggest issue about how CRISPR is communicated in, in, in the public media is that we don’t see CRISPR enough.

[00:08:17] And she mentioned film specifically. We don’t see it enough and kind of independent films. It’s always has to be these like science fiction. You know, you know, X-Men type of situations. Then she, she said to me, I wish we could incorporate CRISPR and just talk about it in, in kind of a more kind of, you know, working sciences type of atmosphere.

[00:08:36] So that definitely informed some of the things in my film and definitely the idea of changing our, our genetic makeup and whether or not we’re the ones that should change it, or whether or not it’s something that, um, changes based on our habitat. Um, you know, who decides. And you also don’t know what the repercussions are, right?

[00:08:54] Like you, you don’t know whether or not modifying one gene will affect the cascade of other genes or, or how it can also affect the next generation. And, and so it’s, it’s a really fascinating topic, especially when you think of the, you know, the, you know, when we talk about film, we talk often about coming of age, right?

[00:09:11] I mean, that’s like a term that’s used in film, which I always found interesting. And, and so to some extent, this is, you know, coming of age, but like in a CRISPR sense, you know, like what, what happens when we start modifying things and, and who do we become? So, yeah, definitely. I think CRISPR was a beautiful way to step into these questions about who gets to decide, uh, our identity, you know, is it something that’s external?

[00:09:34] Is it something that’s internal? And, um, and of course not everybody will pick up on these things, but I think it’s, it was important for me to also make a gesture to the scientific community and, and mention it. 

[00:09:47] Pakinam Amer: [00:09:47] Why Mexico in particular? 

[00:09:49] Alexis Gambis: [00:09:49] The reason I chose Mexico is because I was really fascinated by the symbol of the Monarch butterfly as, um, you know, not only because it was being, there was a lot of people talking about butterflies and monarchs in the lab because of CRISPR and because of the advent of CRISPR you could now actually color. You could actually study the colors and patterns and butterflies. It was like a whole new field had opened up and there was a, there was an article in the New York times called, um, it it’s, it was basically, you know, butterflies or scientists can now color, color butterfly wings by themselves or something like that.

[00:10:27] Um, and there was all these, like, you know, science fiction mentions about soon we’ll have butterflies where you could have the initials of your grandmother. You know, you can make like boutique butterflies that, um, that have their own patterns and colors that you want. So I was fascinated by that because it also spoke to race and color.

[00:10:46] You know, the idea of color was interesting to me because by studying color, we’re also obviously talking about, you know, racial politics and also it just kind of, I that’s where I like immediately went. Um, and the reason why I decided on Mexico is because the longest migration of any winged insect is from Canada through the U S to Mexico.

[00:11:08] And the Monarch butterfly became a symbol, especially. I mean, I don’t even want to mention his name anymore, but especially in the Trump days, it became a symbol for migrant rights because the Monarch butterfly flies. Doesn’t have any borders. Um, and so there were all these protests happening in DC and, um, in Arizona where people would, you know, even kids and families would lift up the Monarch butterfly and they would say we’re all monarchs.

[00:11:35] Um, and obviously there was a lot of Mexicans, you know, uh, undocumented Mexicans, all of these people that were, that were identifying with the Monarch butterfly. 

[00:11:45] Pakinam Amer: [00:11:45] So, this is not a small project and it took years to make an, a lot of resources. So if you’re a scientist or a science communicator, who do you approach to make big pieces of art like this? I guess what I’m really asking here is how did you funding for such an enterprise and get a big Mexican name, like Tenoch Huerta who starred Narcos and is in the next Black Panther movie to play the main character in a science film?

[00:12:14]Alexis Gambis: [00:12:14] Funding is, is, is complicated when you’re a scientist running your own lab, especially a young PI or when you’re an artist, you know, what’s tough is to make people believe in your story, especially when it’s such an ambitious project. Um, it was very difficult for me to convince people to fund the project. And one is because, you know, you’re, you’re entering into the film, you know, fundraising landscape, as anything as the science world, it’s very political and it’s about. You know, there there’s a lot of criteria that go into funding projects and getting government funds or, um, or being supported by different labs.

[00:12:48] So the way in which I fund my projects is I try to use the science awareness. You know, I try to get, um, different organizations that helped me on the science side. And also the project is partly supported by my research at NYU. It’s not easy. It’s patchwork of in kind grants and research funds, investors that for the most part are science philanthropists, people that believe in science communication, but I would say that’s really how I, I raise money for my films.

[00:13:17] And that’s also how I get actors by the way. I, I convinced them to be in a science film and that’s. That’s how I convinced, you know, Tenoch to be in the film because he’s one of the most demanded actors out there, but, but he doesn’t really get roles as scientists, you know? So I think it was an opportunity for him.

[00:13:33] He was in the middle of shooting Narcos when, when I spoke to him and he says, you know, I, I have no time. And he told me the only time that I have was like in a year and a half in January for like three weeks. And so I didn’t have the money for the film. And I said, okay, let’s shoot it then. And so then I had, I had about a year and a half to figure out how to raise the money for the film.

[00:13:54] And by the way, we didn’t have enough money to finish the film. So I had to raise more money after, after principal photography. But yeah, we all have to be entrepreneurs these days in our, in our work. And we have to be able to, um, both fundraise and it’s, it’s, it’s a tricky business, but I think the other things that I do feed into that ability to, to raise awareness and funding and, and yeah, it’s never easy and you always have to start from scratch, every project that you do.

[00:14:22]Pakinam Amer: [00:14:22] You’ve heard from filmmaker and NYU scientist, Alexis canvas. If he didn’t catch his film at Sundance, he can stay tuned for future screenings sonmonarchs.com.

[00:14:33] This is Science Talk. Thank you for listening.

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