Interview with Dr. Andrew Knoll, Harvard Professor and Science Advisor on Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time

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By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed.”
– Albert Einstein


Terrence Malick’s upcoming film Voyage of Time explores these ideals Einstein considered and seeks to demonstrate the intersection of art and science to show the wonder of the creation of the universe. And though Malick himself has been working on Voyage of Time for decades, human nature has attempted to fathom our beginnings since Paleolithic times.

In his research and production for the film, Malick collaborated with Dr. Andrew Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University. I recently spoke with Dr. Knoll about how he met Malick, his work on the film, how he hopes it inspires viewers, and more.

How did you first come to know Terrence Malick and how did your relationship evolve into you becoming the scientific advisor on Voyage of Time?

I first met Terry more than 20 years ago. He simply called my office, and said, “My name is Terrence Malick and I’m interested in making a film on the history of life, and I’ll be in Cambridge next week, can we have lunch?” [Laughs] We sat down and talked and I must admit, the idiot I am, it was only about halfway through the lunch that I was sitting there thinking, “Wait a second, this guy made Badlands!” And I realized the he was, in fact, not your average documentary filmmaker! And then time goes on and Terry had other projects, but about six or seven years ago, he decided the time was right to do this project and try and do it right and for whatever reason, he was generous enough to ask me to be his chief science advisor and so over the last six years, we’ve talked a lot and I’ve looked at different storyboards and scripts with that and different iterations of the film. Obviously I’m not a filmmaker – there’s nothing you see on the screen that is a result of my genius! But my job was really to help Terry understand the science of that and that the science behind his artistic vision was accurate.

What surprised you the most in working with him? Was it the attention to detail, his commitment to the project after so many years…?

In some ways, I think what I have found just fascinating is the originality of Terry’s take on this story. And we’re all familiar with PBS and BBC documentaries and they’re beautifully well done, but Terry was actually interested in something else. I think he’s really interested in not only exploring this nearly 14 billion year history of the universe as it unfolds, but that we’re actually the product of that. So in some ways, his movie is inviting us to realize just what an awesome thing that is and that I really enjoyed because his take on this is so different from anything that I could have imagined and it was fun to watch it unfold.

Yeah, I know you’ve said in the past that had you made this film, you would have made it differently, maybe more in that documentary style. What makes the style used the right way to tell this story?

I’m not sure there is a right way and a wrong way. I think we need to have multiple ways of telling this story and I think what I like about this way is that it invites all of us, whether you’re a scientist like I am or a high school student, just to sit back and say, “You know, what we have learned about the universe and about the history of life and about ourselves in that context is really extraordinary.” In some ways, it’s good to step back and appreciate what an awesome thing that is.

What do you think was the biggest challenge in making the movie?

I think there are many things because of their scale that are not easy to visualize. Everything from the Big Bang to the microbial world, and I really like both the computer work, the CGI – that I wasn’t involved in – and also some of the choices of the footage that sort of provides an analogy. So for example, when Terry is talking about the Cambrian explosion, this time more than 500 million years ago when the animals diversified through the ocean, he actually does it with some stunning footage of living invertebrate animals. There are some great little scenes with horseshoe crabs, cuttlefish, and octopus that are really evocative. I really like the way he did it.

So what was the catalyst in your life that sparked your interest in Earth sciences and everything else you study?

I grew up in the Appalachians and I used to go out and collect fossils just for a hobby and it never would have occurred to me that I could make a living working with fossils! [Laughs] So when I went to college, I decided I would be an engineer and being particularly brilliant, I realized after a year, I don’t want to be an engineer! I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do, but I remembered what was so important in my life and I was sitting in my room one evening and thought, “Well, I really like geology. I really like biology.” And I had this kind of epiphany that I didn’t have to choose between them, that there were all these places where Earth and life intersected and that I could make a living at that intersection, which is basically how I’ve spent the last 40 years.

How do you think this film will inspire others like your past inspired you?

I hope that what it will do will be to just appeal to the innate curiosity of school kids through retirees. I think curiosity is maybe the greatest thing we’ve been given as human beings and I think you would have to be…it’s hard for me not to imagine someone becoming curious because of this movie.

Yeah, that sort of leads in to my next question: the movie seeks to explore and explain the beginning of time and the evolution of the universe. Why do you think we are so fascinated about where we come from?

I think most of us are fascinated just to know that our grandparents came from Poland or something like that. I think we all appreciate that we are the products of history and whether it’s our own history or our family’s history or the history that Terry’s telling about, which is the biggest imaginable history, I think that there’s something deeply appealing. For me to know that I am the product of this immensely long history of the universe, that’s really interesting! How can you not be interested in that?

It is pretty cool! And not to get too political, but how do you hope this film influences peoples’ way of thinking about how the universe was created?

Well, with the philosophical nature of this and if you want to imbue the story with spirituality, there’s nothing in this film to stop you. What it doesn’t admit is a fundamentalist view that says that this cosmic carpenter made us in seven days, so I don’t think the film forces you to take a particular philosophical or spiritual position, as long as you realize that this story, even at its most canonical, scientific story, is just one of the best stories we have.

Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet, but in doing research, it seems like it covers so much!

It does, and in the IMAX version, it covers it in 45 minutes. So it is very impressionistic, intentionally so. And I should say, because this is very important to Terry, that to go with the movie, an educational website will soon go online. So for example, there are points in the movie where there are these very abstract impressionist vignettes and on the website, you’ll click on something that’s supposed to represent the Big Bang and you’ll have a short clip from a prominent astrophysicist explaining what the science is behind it. So there will be a more overt educational arm to this project.

That’s really cool! I’ll have to check it out! And finally, what do you hope people are surprised by and take away from the film?

I think they’ll be surprised by – and I realize I sound like Donald Trump here – but they’re going to be surprised by the awesomeness of it. That it is visually stunning and I think that the idea that you can take something that sometimes seems as dry as science and portray it as an artist, with this extraordinary visual artistry, I think that will surprise people and I hope it will delight them.

Yeah, the clips that I’ve seen look beautiful.

They really are! The first time I saw a preliminary version of this, I was just awestruck. It’s quite amazing.

Voyage of Time will be released tomorrow. Check out a trailer here.


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