Scientific method: Tom Shepard's Whiz Kids watches science talents grow up.

Tom Shepard's 'Whiz Kids' Blinding with Science

Michael Fox June 14, 2009

Back in the ’80s, when Thomas Dolby climbed the charts with a novelty video and radio hit, Tom Shepard was a Colorado adolescent carving an identity as a science prodigy. Now an accomplished San Francisco documentary maker, Shepard revisits the overachieving, hyper-ambitious world of science-obsessed high school seniors in his new film, Whiz Kids. The emotion-charged, feature-length work follows three teenagers through the nerve-wracking run-up and pressure-packed competition of the annual Intel Science Talent Search. Like his previous films, Scout’s Honor and Knocking (co-directed with Joel Engardio), Whiz Kids is propelled by young people at crucial junctures in their lives. Shepard moved to New York for two years during production and post to be closer to both his subjects and his collaborators, the renowned doc duo of editor Jane C. Wagner and cinematographer Tina DiFeliciantonio. Ensconced in San Francisco once again, he chose Herbst Theatre for tomorrow’s world premiere of Whiz Kids, a benefit for the S.F. Exploratorium and The Whiz Kids Outreach and Education Project. Tickets are still available at City Box Office at (415) 392-4400 or Shepard was not sporting a pocket protector when we met last week at Cafe Quetzal.

SF360: How did you accommodate and resist the impulse to do a ‘sports film,’ like Spellbound. There’s the lead-up to a competition, there’s the event, there’s winners and losers.

Tom Shepard: Early on, we recognized that the heart of the film was the coming-of-age stories, and science is not like a tennis match. Science is not like a spelling bee. It’s much more process-oriented. At the same time we wanted drama, and we’re certainly in a culture where American Idol mania pervades, so we weren’t blind to the fact that using a competition narrative was important in terms of raising the stakes. But we were pretty clear that we didn’t want to make a competition film and that it was trying to get at the coming-of-age stories. We started with six kids and the film couldn’t hold all six, and we narrowed it to three.

SF360: It’s curious that none of the students is from the West Coast.

Shepard: There are fewer finalists in the Intel (formerly the Westinghouse) Science Talent Search from California over the years, and it has been dominated by East Coast high schoolers. You look more deeply and you see there are many more science magnet schools on the East Coast. There’s a whole culture now of science research in Long Island. Families move to Long Island so their kids can go to the schools that will teach them research. We needed and wanted to spend time in those science hubs.

SF360: This project seems like a departure from your previous work, but I understand you have a personal connection.

Shepard: It started out as a director-for-hire project. I saw a posting from a couple of Stanford colleagues, and I immediately wrote to Sandbar [the production company] and said, ‘I’m a documentary filmmaker, I’ve been making films for 10 years and (laughs) I was a finalist in this competition in 1987.’ I kind of gulped as I reached out. ‘Is this going to be the next three years of my life?’ And sort of knowing this film would give me the chance to circle back 20 years to my own youth and my own experience as the science geek. The Science Talent Search was hugely formative for me in high school. It’s probably the reason I got into Stanford. I had already sent my admission stuff to Grinnell College in Iowa and was happy to go to a small liberal arts school in the Midwest. Then I [was chosen as a] finalist in the Science Talent Search and immediately got a call from the dean’s office at Stanford.

SF360: Filmmaking seems a radical career shift for someone with a science background. Are there any points of connection?

Shepard: There’s some literature that shows that over 80 percent of Science Talent Search finalists go into science hardcore. I took a right turn and started taking cultural studies classes and ultimately became a filmmaker, and my ninth grade biology teacher still refuses to accept that I’m not a scientist. She’s like, ‘Thomas, you may make documentary films but you’re still a scientist.’ That prompted me to think, ‘You know, documentary filmmaking is very much like doing a science-fair project.’ We collect a lot of data over time, in the form of hours of footage, and we have to distill those hours down into the heart of the story, and we have to communicate those findings in a way that’s going to capture people’s attention. I think the big difference is that we’re also trying to capture people’s hearts as well as their minds in a documentary.

SF360: Another parallel is that doc filmmakers do research, test a hypothesis and check prior ‘studies’ before proceeding with a project.

Shepard: Taking the analogy a little further, is your research question viable? [You’re] looking at what’s out there in the field. Science is very messy, and often very meandering, and it’s oftentimes not absolute even though our intentions are to drive for precision. And God knows documentary filmmaking is meandering and not absolute, and the question that you started with sometimes twists and turns into another question or a whole other set of questions. Being true to the initial blueprint of what sparked the film but also being flexible and open enough to follow the meandering paths in the edit room is important. I would imagine that scientists have to keep that openness as well, because their hypotheses in many cases are going to be proven wrong, and/or new questions are going to get raised. And that’s part of the scientific process.

SF360: I get the sense that you’re still a science guy at heart, and turned on by turning other people onto scientific ideas.

Shepard: The film, first and foremost, is a coming-of-age story, and it’s about teenagers who are wrestling with adolescence and are primarily using science to move through that period in their lives. But if it allows a more general audience to plug into science, or engage in science, because of the humanizing aspects, then I think we’ve really helped that cause. Truth be told, a lot of people, their eyes glaze over when you start to talk about even simple science concepts. We sure found this in the edit room. When we had work-in-progress screenings, we had a little more science in the film and we had people falling asleep. I’ve never had that. (Laughs.) And we thought the science was really distilled at that point, which made us go, ‘Wow! We have to be very careful and very gentle in the doses of science that we give our audience.’ And these are intelligent audiences coming to these focus groups.

SF360: Tell us about working with Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane C. Wagner, graduates of Stanford’s doc program whose films include a great portrait of Philly teens, Girls Like Us.

Shepard: Tina had done a significant amount of shooting for my first film, Scout’s Honor, so we had an initial collaboration out in the field. Then she did some shooting for Knocking. I couldn’t think of better people to help make this film, and, in fact, at the end of the day it was really co-created. Their background telling stories of young people was such a perfect fit. And they’re both very science savvy. Jane’s parents are both research doctors. There were just natural affinities all over the place.

SF360: What’s your philosophy of collaboration?

Shepard: These film projects are enormous. It’s pushing large boulders up the hill. It’s been really nice in my career not to do that all the time alone. And in this project there were a number of capable boulder movers. (Laughs.)

SF360: Was the goal all along a public television broadcast or a theatrical release?

Shepard: Definitely, television was high—and is high—on the list. I don’t know whether a PBS science program like Nova is ultimately going to want this. It doesn’t look like a typical Nova show. But I think Nova is wanting to maybe—I don’t know if ‘refashion’ is too strong but I know that they’ve recently gotten involved with some other projects that feel a little more narrative and a little more verite. And there are so many more nonfiction strands now, like Discovery Channel. The television audience, for me, is the easiest and largest way to get a film out there. Of course, we’ve submitted to film festivals and we want to keep submitting, but I’m a pretty strong believer that, at least right now in the landscape of things, TV is still the biggest outlet. And being able to engage community directly through community screenings, so right now I’m spending two days a week trying to develop national partnerships with organizations that can use this film in their work. This world premiere we’re doing is in conjunction with the Exploratorium, and we see this as a model: Why not do pseudo-premieres all around the country at science and technology museums? In many cases, they have state of the art audio-visual centers. I don’t care what venue a film plays in. I care that people see the film and engage with the material.

SF360: How do you balance outreach on Whiz Kids with developing your next film?

Shepard: I feel really committed to raising the profile of this film. You work three-plus years on a film, you don’t want to let it go. I’m very involved in New Day Films—I’m the chairman right now—and New Day is all about self-distribution, about staying connected with your film and keeping with this idea that you’re going to be the strongest advocate for your film. But it’s important to move on, to move forward. I’m right in that transition period, wanting to be sure that the baby is nurtured until it finds its home and beginning to step into new projects. I’m in a collaboration with Andy Abrahams Wilson (Under Our Skin) called Forget Me Not, about the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. It’s part-time and allows me to be the producer and support the project but not be the sole person who’s responsible for pulling it off in the end.

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