I’m a science nerd. I suppose I have to be to continue in an academic field. At best it helps me break down the confusing concepts that pop up in the media for my friends and family, and I can sort of be a litmus test for what’s legitimate and what bears some scrutiny. At worst, it makes me yell at the screen at theaters and ruin movies for my friends with my impatience and sometime righteous (or maybe self-righteous) anger at obvious, easily correctable scientific blunders.
It’s therefore very satisfying for me to see filmmakers put in the effort to portray science (and scientists) correctly and truthfully in their work. The upcoming film ANYA, a genetics mystery and love story, takes real science and turns it slightly askew to ask an interesting question — what would happen if we found another species of humans right here on Earth? Not in the way we usually think of isolated tribes deep in the Amazon rain forest, but right here in New York, fully immersed in our culture and indistinguishable in appearance and general behavior, but just genetically different enough to prevent them from having children with Homo sapiens like us.
How would we find them? How would they have stayed hidden for so long? What would happen if one of them fell in love with a regular person?
I spoke to the writer and director of ANYA, anthropologist Carlyanna Taylor, as well as to Ruth McCole, a Harvard researcher now based in Seattle, who served as a scientific consultant for the film.
Bernadskaya: In your own words, can you tell us what the movie is about?
Taylor: ANYA is a story of genetics set in [a] contemporary city, and it’s about a cross-cultural couple who find themselves facing an unexplained infertility, and they reluctantly turn to one of their ex-fiancées because he’s the only scientist they know and he happens to be a geneticist. He determines that the source of the infertility is really unusual, and technically speaking, the guy that she’s with is actually [from] another species. Then it is his decision whether or not, through gene editing, to treat their infertility.
Bernadskaya: How did you and your partner Jacob [Okada] come up with the idea for this movie?
Taylor: It was back in 2014, and Jacob and me were in Florida at the time. He was freelancing for a company that does production for National Geographic Wild. He was watching day in and day out these different surveys and chips being administered to different species and exotic animals, and over breakfast one Saturday, he asked the question, “How do species diverge?” And I gave kind of an Anthropology 101 answer and talked a little bit about how mutations accumulate in populations and what happens if you have genetic drift and the population splits in two, and over time the mutations spread, you end up with two populations that can no longer reproduce. We kind of left it at that.
Then later that day we were on the beach and he asked me, “Would you marry me if I were a different species of human?” This was two weeks before we were married. And I said yes! And during this walk we hit upon the characters of Libby, Marco, and Seymour. I think we even named them the first day.
Bernadskaya: How did you get involved with ANYA?
McCole: I got involved through my adviser, Ting Wu. She met Carylanna at an event organized by Hollywood Health and Society. They wanted to find some geneticist to help them flesh out the science parts of their story. They were just kind of shopping around in a way for some geneticists to help them out.
Bernadskaya: What was the most challenging aspect of telling a very scientifically accurate story but making it accessible to a general audience?
Taylor: The most challenging thing was convincing the festivals and other gatekeepers that the story is accessible. I don’t know if we have the key to talking about it. We worked really hard to make everything accessible to someone with a high school education. We kept experimenting around during the writing process with different folks, including my mother-in-law, who’s also very smart but does not have a science background; she’s a novelist. She would read things on the page during a table read and say, “I don’t understand but this is what I think is going on.” And she would repeat exactly what I just said.
So she did understand, but she didn’t think she understood it. There’s a weird way of dealing with science that we have in this country — we put blocks in our mind when we think we don’t understand what’s going on, when in fact we do understand. It’s just being open and curious to it. Just be honest about what the heart of it is, that’s the hardest part.
McCole: I think for us it was a question of balance, of being as accurate as possible and producing something that was understandable, with flow in the story, and not feel like us stepping out of the story to just explain a bunch of technical stuff. They wanted it to be seamless. Because it is a fiction movie, you have to be wrapped up in the story.
But I’ve always believed that you can tell something that’s almost exactly correct and not lose any of that flow, if you are smart about what you do and how you do it. I even gave some notes to the actor who played one of the geneticists. When he was getting his results, he would come in the lab in the morning and he would see there was a thumb drive in the tray, and the results would be on that. He couldn’t get the right level of excitement.
At first he was super excited and I was like, “Come on you do this weekly; it’s not that big of a deal.” So then he was super not interested in the thumb drive and I was like, “No, it’s nice that they got it back to you.” … He’s a really good actor, so he got it just right. That’s the face of someone who comes in in the morning and sees some results they can analyze.
Bernadskaya: Should films stick to very simple science?
McCole: No, I think simplifying is different than simple. “Simplified” means that you took something that was complicated and made it digestible. It’s just about being able to teach a concept to someone who does not know the concept yet. You have to break it down, you have to make it in simpler words, maybe less jargon, and you have to take it a little slower than if you were just talking to someone who knows all about it, but it doesn’t have to be simple.
This whole concept of fertility and genetics is not simple; we had to work pretty hard to get across what we actually think is going [on], what this fantasy about what’s going on is supposed to be, and we probably didn’t do it perfectly. Like, people are not going to get everything exactly the way we envisioned it, but I think that’s okay.
Bernadskaya: Do you think that film and television have a responsibility to portray science and scientists accurately?
Taylor: Oh, of course. They still have a responsibility to be entertaining and get people’s attention. One of the challenges is finding, kind of, the sweet spot. I think you can be entertaining and accurate, or at least truthful. Stay within what’s plausible and certainly portray scientists as real people. I don’t like it when [scientists] get reduced to stereotypes.
McCole: I think we should try to be something that’s at least connected to reality and how things really are. I don’t think it has to be as correct as you would expect if you were giving a seminar to a department, because you sacrifice people who are actually paying attention and interested if you become so technical that they can’t understand.
Bernadskaya: What are some of the biological factors that determine if two species can interbreed or not?
McCole: There are a lot of fun experiments, especially in [the fruit fly] Drosophila, of which there are many subspecies that you can find. One of the things that’s coming out now is that repetitive DNA [sequences], particularly in the centromeres [dense regions of DNA on the chromosomes], seem to be something that does need to match, to some extent. So I don’t think people totally know why that’s true, but there are super interesting evolutionary effects where certain pieces of repetitive DNA seem to be forming a fertility blockage.
But what we did is, we decided to kind of take it in the fantasy direction and talk about the actual work that I did, with these little strange pieces of the genome called ultra conservative elements, and imagine that maybe the reason these elements are so conserved so that they’re super, super similar between different humans, and also between humans and other species, is because if it changes too rapidly or too much, this produces a fertility barrier.
This is not a proven thing at all. I don’t think that we really think there are two species of humans, but the ultra conserved elements is a real phenomenon that we study, so that’s what we’re trying to mix — real science research with what crazy thing that can produce.
Bernadskaya: Did you feel that the actors got a good insight into what being a scientist is like?
McCole: I think it was a little bit varied. Definitely Motell [Foster], who played [evolutionary geneticist] Seymour [Livingston], was really interested to know what does this mean, is this a big deal, why does he care about it, what does it mean for his career, does it mean that his life is going to change? It’s really the emotional part of doing any job, what effect does it have on the person?
So that was really fun, to talk to him about how people get attached to things in science and attached to theories, and how a new discovery that’s really huge can really change someone’s career. That was a really interesting exchange of perspective.
Bernadskaya: What is the takeaway you want people to have from ANYA?
Taylor: I think it’s gonna be different for every person. I hope if the person is a scientist that ANYA will get them thinking about research ethics a bit more, and putting themselves into participant’s shoes more. Because even as an anthropologist, it still can be difficult in the course of fieldwork or in the course of research to really be walking in your research subjects’ shoes and recognize that they’re not just subjects of study, that they’re also co-creators of your research. I hope non-scientists or science enthusiasts are a little bit better able to talk to them [scientists] and ask questions … and I would hope they’re thinking about questions like, “What is the place for gene testing and editing in our country?”
But I don’t expect any one person to come out with all those. I watched my anthropology advisor watch the film, and she was crying at the end, and her concern and her question coming out of the film was, “Do they have the baby?” .. whereas I was expecting to have a conversation about research methods with her. We can’t expect what each person will take away. I think that’s the beauty of ANYA; it’s always going to be different.
McCole: I think I would like them to understand that science is not disconnected from the rest of life. It’s not a thing that we do in this special siloed place that doesn’t impact anyone, and is kind of divorced from normal life. Science, especially life science, is supposed to be intricately connected with real life, so here we have a story about genetics, which is connected to this love story with this tragic element of fertility, which is such a universal human concern.
It’s a very normal thing, having babies, and when you have babies, and how many do you have. What I want them to see is that genetics is connected to that, whenever you’re doing your normal life and you’re living like other humans, you have science all around you and inside you.
If you’d like to learn more about ANYA, and you’ll be in Brooklyn this Sunday, March 17, you can drop by the Commons Cafe to catch Taylor giving a presentation on the film to the New York City Skeptics.