17 January, 11:52

Wayne Grody: Hollywood's top mad scientist

By Andrew Hiller
WASHINGTON (VR)—Some movies get it right: Jurassic Park, Gattica, Contact; while others are far off the mark.

So when screenwriters, directors, and others in TV and film are looking for accuracy and authenticity they seek the guidance of working scientists. One of the best in the biz is Wayne Grody. He's a professor in the departments of pathology, laboratory medicine, pediatrics, and human genetics at UCLA. Today, he is working both with filmmakers of Hollywood and with the Smithsonian Associates.

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Before working on projects like Life Goes On, Chicago Hope, CSI, Medium, Law and Order, Heroes, and both Nutty Professor films, he got his start in medical school writing as a film critic for MD magazine. The journal was widely read amongst physicians. His articles reviewed movies, but also the science in them. Through this, he fell into contact with many of Hollywood's big shots who slowly began to ring him when they had a question about genetics or DNA. With the bevy of science fiction movies, super hero adventures, and medical dramas being developed today, his type of expertise is in high demand. 

As a consultant, Grody says that he has to struggle with the constant tug-of-war between scientific accuracy, faithfulness and the needs of the story. He says “getting it right” is more difficult in TV and movies than in other fiction genres.

"It's probably somewhat worse than at least one of your genres namely novels where you do have the freedom to expound at length, however you want, and go off on tangents from the plot and then come back. In film and especially episodic television, which I've done a lot of consulting for, the time is very tight... especially in the United States. We have commercials every twelve minutes, if it's on one of the commercial networks and some part of the story must be brought to a conclusion with a little hook right before the commercial so people will come back."

Grody says this leads to compromises at times, but he says the one place he will not compromise is when an idea suggested "was so completely wrong" that it could prove harmful or dangerous.

"One example I could give you and I guess this goes back into the 1980's or '90's, I was working with the US comedy/drama called "Life Goes On", which primarily as you remember focused on a family that was pretty much a regular American family, except one of their children had Downs Syndrome and was played by an actor who actually does have Downs Syndrome. I got more involved in a side plot with the boyfriend of this Downs Syndrome boy's sister who was dying of AIDS and there were some plot developments where he was looking for some alternative therapies and not going to take the medicine which I think was just AZT at the time. This was before we had the wonderful cocktails to treat HIV that we do now. I got fairly adamant that they shouldn't go too far down that track 'cause people were still dying of AIDS a lot in those days and I didn't want viewers to
give up their regular medicine and go and seek these herbal therapies or whatever they were."

That's when you have to be willing to walk off the set. That was a battle Grody won. He's lost others and said for the most part he tries not to be too precious especially if the science being speculated about is in other fields where misinformation could prove less harmful.

He says his consultation is in demand at various stages at the project. Sometimes, it's with the writers in the conceptual stage where they brainstorm together about the how's and why’s of a project. Other times, the director brings him in for a last-minute tweak to make sure the technical language is perfect, but sometimes, he's contacted by the Art Department because it is not the language or the concepts that need to be accurate, but the look of a molecule or gene.

Working in the field, Grody says, has changed the way he sees a movie or television show, because he sees the nuts and bolts behind the fantasy, but most often he admits he can still enjoy his popcorn and spiel that unfolds before him.

In addition to his work in TV, movies, and in the lab, Grody is also working with the Smithsonian Associates on an exhibition looking at Hollywood and Genetics. Below is part 2 of the interview.

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For more information on that project and his speech on January 29th check out the Smithsonian calendars.

Andrew Hiller, science, movies, Prism, hollywood, Wayne Grody, filmmakers, MD magazine, Law and Order, The Prism
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