AICN interviews Dr James Kakalios - the Science Consultant on WATCHMEN! Seriously!
Published at: Feb. 24, 2009, 11:20 p.m. CST by headgeek
Dr. James Kakalios has been teaching and researching physics at the University of Minnesota since 1988. A comics fan, he created an extremely popular freshman seminar relating basic physics concepts to popular comic books and superhero movies.
In May of 2002, on the eve of the release of Sam Raimi's first SPIDER-MAN feature film, Kakalios wrote an article in the Minneapolis StarTribune newspaper about a physics problem that had frustrated comics fans for two decades: What killed Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy - the fall from atop the Brooklyn Bridge, or Spider-Man's web that stopped her just before she hit the water?
The article was reprinted in newspapers and magazines - first across the country, then around the world. He was being interviewed ten times a day by radio and television stations all over the globe.
This newfound fame snowballed into a book deal, and now "The Physics of Superheroes" has sold through multiple printings in four languages. In addition to being the "Resident Rocket Scientist" on a local radio station and the go-to guy for comic book science questions in "Wizard" magazine, Kakalios landed a comic geek's dream come true: a job consulting with the production staff of Zack Snyder's WATCHMEN adaptation.
Kakalios was delighted to be working with a team that paid so much attention to detail that their philosophy was, as stated, "We want to know what's around the far corner, even if we never walk down the corridor." I sat down with him this week to talk about his experiences.
AICN: When did you first read Watchmen?
Kakalios: Back in the late 1980's. I read it a collected graphic novel. I was hesitant for a while, paying something like $18 for a collection of comics, but eventually I had heard so much about it I broke down. I started off reading a chapter a night - but the last few chapters were read in a whirl at the end.
AICN: How were you initially contacted to work on the film?
Kakalios: I was giving a Physics of Superheroes talk at an annual meeting of librarians in Denver and made a contact from the National Academy of Sciences, who was starting a new project. This would eventually be known as the Science and Entertainment Exchange, officially launched last November. The National Academy would matchmake scientists and film/television producers who wanted to discuss the science behind a project, but would not know who to contact.
I was called and asked if I was interested in talking to people making a motion picture based upon a comic book.
"Sure - what's the comic?" I asked.
"Have you ever heard of 'Watchmen'?"
When I stopped vibrating like a gong, I said that I had, and was interested!
AICN: Did you do work at home first, or did you fly up to Vancouver to get started?
Kakalios: It started with conference calls with producer Debbie Snyder and production designer Alex McDowell and others, as I recall, and eventually with Zack Snyder. In the summer of 2007, they sent me a script and some conceptual artwork. We chatted some more, and they asked me to fly out to Vancouver in late August.
AICN: How was the preproduction crew to work with?
Kakalios: Wonderful. Everyone was extremely nice and outgoing. These are very busy people, and there is a lot riding on their work, yet they were interested in what I had to say and could not have been more pleasant to work with.
AICN: Were they accepting of all your ideas?
Kakalios: Yes. Of course, you understand that you could not step five paces at the studio in Vancouver without running into a copy of the graphic novel. This was the source, and if I said something was not right, but it was in the comic, they would go with the comic. If I were in their shoes, and had to worry about satisfying a million rabid Watchmen fans, or a physics professor from Minnesota, I know how I'd decide!
One interesting aspect was they were interested in the psychology of science. Why would Dr. Manhattan say something or not question someone's motives? They enjoyed my reply: "If we were good at social interactions, we wouldn't have gone into physics!
AICN: You've spoken of the Watchmen filmmakers' philosophy of "We want to know what's around the corner, even if we never go down the corridor." How did that effect the set design?
Kakalios: Certain things such as what a physics lab would look like in 1959. What did it look like in 1985? At the start of the story we see Dr. Manhattan working on some device -- What could this be? They wanted to know how his powers could possibly work,even if the film never stopped to explain this. In this way they would fill in the layer beneath the surface, and do a better job of creating an artificial reality.
I showed them images of various labs. they loved a shot of a theorist's blackboard. In "Hollywood science", blackboards have a variety of complicated equations that typically have no relation to each other or reason why they are on the board. In contrast, real theorists blackboards have complicated equations that are attempts to solve real problems...but also reminders about faculty meetings and to pick up milk on way home.
AICN: How long did you work on the film?
Kakalios: There was some prep work, a few days in Vancouver, and then occasional phone calls and e-mails.
I was in Rome for the Italian release of my book in September of 2007, and I received an e-mail about the intrinsic field chamber. They noted that in the novel, we see the top of concrete block no. 15, but never what it is resting on. What would they use back in 1959 to support a test block?
I had a very nice conversation with Billy Crudup about physicists and physics (He really knows his science, by the way!), and I next had a major involvement at the 2008 Comic-Con in San Diego.
AICN: Which scientific concepts from the original comic did Moore and Gibbons get right, and what needed work?
Kakalios: Well, no one in science calls it an "intrinsic field", but there is effort at seeing whether Electromagnetism, the Strong Nuclear, and Weak Nuclear Forces can all be combined into a single field. My memory fades, but I think I suggested a mechanism by which such a field could be removed, which involves creating a counter-field 180 degrees out of phase, as in sound isolation devices.
They asked me how one could produce tachyons. I told them truthfully that if I knew, I would be on my way to Stockholm to pick up my Nobel Prize. I said not to worry about Dr. Manhattan saying that tachyons could be created in a giant nuclear explosion, as no one knows if they exist and how to create them, no one could prove it wrong!
AICN: What did you come away with from working on the film?
Kakalios: That there is a genuine and sincere interest in working with scientists in Hollywood. The people who create these films are very intelligent and have wide ranging interests.
They are excited to work with scientists, and while their first responsibility is to tell an engaging story, if they at the same time can get some real science in there and promote the role of scientists in society - so much the better.
The University of Minnesota has posted this video of Kakalios discussing the science behind "Watchmen" -- check it out!