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With 'Particle Fever,' director Mark Levinson combines his interests in physics, film

Documentary makes its Baltimore debut this week at Charles Theater

Mark Levinson went into filmmaking shortly after earning his PhD in physics from the University of California Berkeley in the early 1980s, forging an impressive career in post-production sound editing and working with directors such as David Fincher (on Seven), David Lynch (on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), and Anthony Minghella and editor Walter Murch (on The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain). But what drew him to physics in the first place always floated in the back of his mind, and he wondered if a project would come along that would allow him to combine his interests in film and science.

Image caption: Mark Levinson

Image credit: Myrna Suarez (via the Dinner Party Download)

David Kaplan, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy, was already working on that project: the documentary Particle Fever, which follows experiments at the Large Hadron Collider that explore the fundamental questions of the universe, and the physicists who spend the lives pursuing those answers.

Kaplan produced and drove the film's creation, and Levinson directed and collaborated with Murch editing the final version. Particle Fever makes its Baltimore debut this week at the Charles Theater after well-received openings in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, and many other cities.

What makes Fever one of the more gripping science documentaries of recent memory isn't simply the scale and scope of the physics it follows, which Kaplan and a number of his peers quite eloquently explore, but the portraits of the people behind the science. It's a story about scientists as much as science, an approach that drew Levinson to the project.

We caught up with Levinson in late February to talk physics, film, and the inherent human drama in science.

Tell me about how you went from physics to filmmaking and back again.

I got my doctorate in theoretical particle physics, actually, and I was on the abstract end [of the field]. In thinking about it now, it was almost like the art of it that I liked. I loved that people could come up with these ideas and that it had some bearing on reality was amazing. But my approach to it was almost from an aesthetic point of view, and, of course, that doesn't lend itself to a lot of practical applications. And as I got near the end [of my studies] I was thinking this is probably only something I can do in an academic institution. And there wasn't, on the horizon, a Large Hadron Collider that was going to be giving us definitive results.

At the same time I'd really become very fascinated with art and film. And I saw a similarity in perspective between cutting-edge research in physics and art: in both of these disciplines people are trying to make sense of the world around them. In physics, it's the physical world and we're using mathematics as a language to make sense. Art uses other media but it's about representing the world and trying to gain insight into it and ultimately understanding our place as humans in it. And that was interesting to me as well.

I practically went from a graduate student in theory sitting in a room by myself with pencil and paper, not making much money, working on these abstract ideas to writing a script, where I was again sitting in a room, by myself, coming up with abstract ideas for a film. So in an odd way, it was almost a seamless transition in my daily activities.

How did you end up getting into the postproduction sound-editing work that you've been doing, working with so many big name directors and actors?

[After earning my PhD] I answered an ad for a production assistant intern in the Bay area and I sent in my resume. I became very good friends with the people there, who said they just started rolling in laughter when they saw some PhD in physics wanted to be an intern. They decided to take a risk on me, thinking I'd at least know how to file things. It ended up being film school for me. During pre-production they let me go out and do some location scouting. And then I worked in the art department for a while, and then when it was about to start shooting they asked if I wanted to take over craft services. And I was actually interested in food in the Bay area—and it turns out that basically everywhere in a film crew is interested in food. In particular the producer and editor and director loved food, so I went from this intern to the person who people depended on to get their next meal. And the editor, a French Canadian, agreed that when the film ended he'd take me on in the editing room.

And then I finished my script and made an independent narrative fiction film about former dissident Russian artists dealing with all the changes because of glasnost [Prisoner of Time] . During that period I did some teaching and lecturing at Berkeley, I started an after-school program for people trying to get math enrichment, but gradually became more involved in filmmaking, particularly editing, which I found fascinating. It was like theory: you experiment and come back to the editing room. I liked that, and I developed a specialty, called ADR, automated dialogue replacement, where you work with the actors in post-production on films to redo lines or change lines or rewrite lines. And I was interested in directing more and this in some ways became a secret way to do directing because I became associated with them on a number of really high-profile films that allowed me to work with some of the best actors in the world.

And that's how I met Walter Murch, who became [Particle Fever's] fantastic editor. So Walter and I met over 25 years ago and formed a strong friendship and worked on four films together. We worked with Anthony Minghella on The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. And I worked with [Francis Ford] Coppola on a couple of films. And I was sort of developing my narrative filmmaking skills and had not done a documentary.

I, however, did want to make a film that did combine my interest in film and science and art. I didn't think there was any film that I had really seen that showed science in a really realistic and appealing way. And I would like to see something that did that.

How did you first meet David Kaplan and start to get involved with Particle Fever?

I had a script that I was invited to present to a group of Silicon Valley investors. And when I was there the organizers told me about this physicist who had an idea about this big science experiment, they didn't know if it was going to work, and they didn't know if they were going to find anything. And I thought, I'd be interested in hearing what this is all about. And it was David [Kaplan].

It was the summer 2007 and he was in Geneva and we talked once and when he came back to Hopkins I came down and we met and I said, "Look, I'm not interested in doing a science documentary, per se. I don't want to do something that explains particle physics but if we do something dramatic I could use my storytelling skills with good characters, that I would be very interested in." That was exactly what David was interested in, and it ended up being more dramatic than we thought.

How so?

If it had ended up working after the first beam and there wasn't the accident [that halted LHC experiments for almost a year], I think it would have been a very different film. Thinking back, I don't know what I was thinking at that point, but I imagine it to be, How is this going to be a dramatic story? But as it ended up, I could not have scripted it better if I had sat down and said, "OK, let's start with this thing that everybody's been waiting for for years and people's careers are on the line." It ended up being terrifically dramatic and, looking back, it feels like my entire life has been preparing me for this film. So it's a very funny feeling.

This is your first documentary. What was some of the first footage you started shooting, and how was it trying to use your expertise in physics and narrative storytelling and applying it to a different situation?

What I started with was the interviews—characters. That I know I needed. For the theorists, we had David, and David knew Savas [Dimopoulos] and Nima [Arkani-Hamed]. But my first shooting was the experimentalists, so David gave me a contact to Fabiola [Gianotti, at the time the spokesperson for one of the experiments at the LHC] and I wrote to her and asked for recommendations of people and she gave me about a half dozen names. I had done some pre-interviews on the phone and found some who were pretty engaging. And then I set up formal interviews.

And then I went over to CERN and started interviews. And my cinematographer and I had talked about a style, which was we were going to do our interviews as very well-lit, organized, styled shoots that would contrast to what we knew was going to be very vérité, spontaneous activity that was going to be happening. And that gave me a very general idea of people I could follow.

Then everything went crazy when that first beam happened, and then it became, essentially, hanging on for the ride. Luckily I knew a couple of people I wanted to follow but I was still looking for things that were important in terms of telling the story and also just the very human elements of it.

How was it shooting at CERN? I ask because it seems like a gigantic, specialized place. Did people acclimate to having a film crew around pretty readily?

It was fantastic. I really could not have made the film without the incredible support form CERN and the people there. I think generally they're extremely supportive there, but I think we got it at another level for a couple of reasons. Our physics credentials, with David and myself. I think my film credentials also helped. A lot of these people are total film buffs and wanted to know what films I'd worked on and what it was like working with actors. And [the people at CERN] were not used to having a lot of attention, so it was a novelty at the beginning. But they're so absorbed in what they were doing they got inured to it. They became very, very comfortable with us being around.

And then CERN, whose media office was always helpful, they also have a huge audio-visual department. And they would film things for me when I wasn't there and in particular, if I was there and there were things happening simultaneously in different control rooms. They became almost collaborators, really, and I think it put us in a completely different league than any other filmmaking team that wanted to film there. And we just kept coming back.

You mentioned that during your first shoots you were kind of looking for characters. Did Monica Dunford emerge as somebody who could be a character early on? Because she's very good—not just on camera but as somebody who can talk about physics in a way that makes it very relatable.

Monica was one of those people where the second she sat down I knew this was gold. And again, I think that was something that comes from experience, working with actors. And on a film set like this your crew gives you some feedback and Monica—I had spoken to her on the phone before so I knew that on the phone she was very engaging but I had no idea how she'd be in front of the camera. And when she left, my sound person and DP looked at me and said, "Wow. That's a keeper." And we just knew she was going to be great.

Now, having said that, five years on was it clear that she was going to be as enthusiastic and compelling? What also became important to me as far as experimentalists is that it became clear to me that whoever we followed, I wanted them to be at CERN. And that's very, very important. But in terms of filmmaking, it was really clear to me that our experimentalists, we wanted to be able to show them in a dramatic situation, which meant being there, being in the control room. And in particular with Monica we were lucky because she was. So for all the big events she was working on something that required her to be in the control room. And that was important.

Is it pretty cool to spend that much time at CERN?

It feels very much like a university. It's a little bit insular but it's a nice insularity. There's a big cafeteria and everybody goes there, although it's better than most cafeterias—they have French chefs. It's extremely international. And it's also one of those weird places like a university where once you're in, you're in. I made some very good friends there. And you're witnessing something that everybody else in the physics world is watching and you're there. That's pretty cool.

So how was it working with Walter Murch putting this final cut together? Because given how long you shot and worked on it, it sounds like you have a lot of footage, and the film is a very tight 99 minutes.

It's a miracle. It didn't start that way. And this was Walter's first documentary feature. I stared with another editor. I probably shot 200-300 hours. I had another 100 hours where we gave people cameras to shoot themselves. And then I had all this footage that CERN made available, and they have probably thousands of hours. So I started with another editor just going through footage and we started to structure the story, and we did start off with many other storylines, and that was a problem: we had too many storylines. We hadn't worked it all out and that's the point that Walter came on. I put together a complete version that was probably about two and a half hours to show Walter, and he looked at it and he was very enthusiastic about the potential. He had ideas about how we could start pulling it together. And that's how we first contacted him—for some ideas about how to shape this. He gave us some ideas and looking over them I decided to push my luck and ask if he wanted to work with me on it. And it turned out to be good timing for him.

Walter has always been interested in science—that's how we met over 25 years ago when I first got into film. He was already experienced and working on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I was working as an assistant editing a different project at the same time. And he heard some guy with a PhD in physics was in the building and he invited me to go to lunch and talk about physics. He wanted to know about string theory and that's the way we first met. We ended up developing a close film relationship and we sort of joke that we met through physics and now it's sort of come full cycle.

So once he came on he saw what I wanted and he made a couple of big decisions right away and that moved us forward. But we were still working out how this story would be finished. This was March 2012, before the Higgs discovery, and then July 4 [announcement of Higgs boson discovery] happened and I went back and had all this new footage and a dramatic end, which we now had to go back and recalibrate the beginning [of the film].

I had this irrational, vague notion that it would be nice to get [the film down] to 100 minutes. We did many tests and he and I, coming from narrative world, we're used to test screenings and knowing how to react to them because test screenings can be horribly misleading and depressing. But we had a sophistication about that and knew we could use them. We did about a dozen of them and adjusted and adjusted and adjusted and finally, we realized that people were starting to get caught up in it. And that directs you into the final stretch. And that's something Walter's very good about, knowing what you can get rid of. And in the end it's about stripping out the distractions so that it just does move.

Was there anything that got cut that you wish could've made it in?

One scene that I really loved that we couldn't put in at the end was when they broke the world record for energy at the LHC. After the accident and recovery, in November 2009, they got it running again. The next step was to see if they could ramp up the beams to the highest levels that had ever been performed, to break the world record, which was held at that point by the Tevatron at the Fermilab outside of Chicago. And that process of ramping up the energy is exactly what had happened when they had the explosion. So there was a lot of nervousness and, in a sense, it was all on the line, because if they can't ramp it up to higher energy then, really, there was no point to it because Fermilab was already at the energies they were at. And they did it. There was no publicity, so no media was invited and nobody knew it was happening. But I was at CERN at the time and because of my friendship at that point with Mike Lamont, a British guy who became head of the beam operations the LHC, he called me and said I might want to come over to the control center that night because they think they're going to try something.

So I went over and it was at night, it was almost deserted except for one section of that big [control] room, where there was a bunch of people. And it was just very exciting. They push a button and are watching and calling out the energies and they're shouting, "Go, beat the Tevatron"—it was almost like a football match. And everybody was very comfortable with us and it was a great little scene. And we ended up not keeping it in because there's only so many climaxes you can have in a film. You can't make an audience go up and down too much. That's definitely going to be a DVD extra.