The talented Mr Levinson

JAMES CROOT
Last updated 14:37 31/07/2014
Mark Levinson
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He's got a Physics Phd in particle theory and has been a key crew-member for the likes of David Fincher and Anthony Minghella. As his new documentary Particle Fever prepares to screen to sell out audiences in Wellington and Auckland this weekend he talks to James Croot.  

Despite the press reports and doomsayers, Mark Levinson never thought he was documenting the end of the world.

Sure he'd read the reports about how firing up Cern's (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) large hadron collider (LHC) could cause black holes, but his friends in the physics community and his own knowledge (he has a PhD in particle theory from the University of California at Berkley) told them there was nothing to fear while filming his documentary Particle Fever there.

"That idea [about a potential apocalyptic event], unbelievably, was mostly propagated by a high school science teacher in New Orleans who has almost no scientific training," Levinson laughs down the phone line from the US recently. "The papers that he'd seen said they might be able to create mini black holes, but if he'd read the next paragraph he would have seen that they would have evaporated instantly."

Levinson admits he was more worried but whether he might have anything significant to film, especially after the LHC exploded ten days after he started filming.

"I did have a slight panic that it might take years to get going."

That belief wasn't helped by rumours of other problems plaguing the LHC.  Everybody's favourite TV physicist Brian Cox has claimed he spilt yoghurt on a control panel, while the internet was rife with reports that a bird had dropped a piece of baguette into it. "One of the scientists sheepishly admitted that me may have been the source of that one," says Levinson. "Somebody he knows was looking at one of the power grids and they found some little crumbs and being a wry Brit he made a comment to a journalist and it went wild. In the end, he was called in by CERN's director general.

"Everyone was worried about it working though. When you're doing frontier level work, when something breaks you can't just go into the hardware store."

Levinson confesses the original idea for the documentary actually came from David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist. "He was seeing year after year the anticipation building up for this and his friends and family kept saying he should really document it. But after doing one interview and not capturing any sound, he knew he needed help."

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A meeting with potential investors for his own dramatic project was how Levinson heard about Kaplan's idea. "They weren't interested but it sounded interesting to me. However, I wasn't interested in doing a typical science documentary that was just going to try to explain everything. For me it really represented a possibility to combine the two strands of my life that had seemed so disparate."

Yes, after gaining his PhD in 1983, Levinson had drifted into the world of filmmaking working as an automated dialogue replacement supervisor (which is when the original actors re-record and synchronize audio segments for a film or television programme) for the likes of David Fincher and Anthony Minghella, which over 25 years as encompassed award-winning projects like Se7en, The English Patient, Cold Mountain, The Talent Mr Ripley and House of Cards.

As well as allowing him to put into practice many of the narrative filmmaking skills he'd learned by osmosis, Particle Fever also benefits from the pacing and cutting work of  Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch.

"He's an old friend of mine. And the interesting thing is we met 27 years ago because of physics. He was working on The Unbearable Lightness of Being while I was working as an assistant editor in the same building. He heard that there was a guy that had a PhD in Physics so he sent an assistant down to see if I would go out for lunch with him and talk string theory.

That meal and discussion led to the pair working together on projects like English Patient and Cold Mountain. "Originally I started Particle Fever with another editor but Walter was so encouraging and supportive - he sent me this great quote from Hitchcock 'in feature films the director is god, in documentaries god is the director' - that I just started working on him to get onboard."

Levinson says the biggest challenge he and Murch faced was providing enough science without interrupting the dramatic story they wanted to tell. "We were dealing with a very complex subject and we had to acknowledge most people wouldn't understand it. We didn't have virtually any scientific discussion for a long time. Then we did little screenings to see where people got lost and that helped us figure out what needed to be there. Our mantra was, 'just enough, just in time'.

He praises all the scientists he interviewed for their ability to explain their research, but admits his own background probably helped. "It meant they probably though they didn't have to talk down to me. And I also think they enjoyed the fact I had feature film experience, I don't thing they had encountered that before.

"It turns out a lot of physicists are feature film fanatics. I think some of them had dreams of me introducing them to Nicole Kidman."

So what do they and Levinson think of the typical cinematic scientific depictions? Not a lot it seems. "So many have everyone running around in a white coat."

Levinson saves particular scorn for Tom Hanks-starrer Angles & Demons (based on the novel by Dan Brown). "It's just completely ridiculous. They actually went to CERN in order to film the LHC but they wanted to have a set where a scientist could look at it through a window. You can't possibly do that, you'd be irradiated. So they went back and rebuilt it in Hollywood. And the science itself is completely bogus. They supposedly connect this huge amount of anti-matter which they plan to combine with matter and annihilate the world. In reality, anti-matter lasts an incredibly short amount of time, it certainly doesn't sit around accumulating in a beaker."

He has more time for 2001's A Beautiful Mind (ironically by the same director Ron Howard). "It captures something of the scientific process and you get some sense of what is going on in this guy's mind. I thought that character (John Nash, played by Russell Crowe) was pretty authentic."

1983's The Right Stuff (about Nasa's Project Mercury) was a touchstone for Levinson as he put Particle Fever together, he says. "It's about the people and a scientific endeavour that's compelling and exciting. That to me was the model of what I was trying to do."

Seats are still available for the 10.45am session at Auckland's Sky City Theatre on Saturday. Particle Fever is also scheduled to screen in most of the other cities and towns hosting this year's New Zealand International Film Festival. For more information, see nziff.co.nz

- Stuff

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