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Particle Fever Hits VOD: How Indie Cinema Happens

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This summer may pack plenty of silver-screen explosions, but how many of them tell you what you're made of? In the heat of the blockbuster season we find an altogether different kind of explosion: Particle Fever, the definitive documentary on the Large Hadron Collider and our search for the Higgs boson (the "God particle"), premieres today on all major VOD platforms, including Netflix.

For its outwardly complicated subject, the documentary takes a clean, narrative focus, centering on the lives and personalities of its protagonists -- six scientists working in different arms of the experiment -- letting the practical information and tech specs flow from the human vantage point. You rarely find complex science presented in such a compelling, approachable way; we're talking, after all, about the biggest, most expensive, and arguably most important scientific undertaking in human history, a machine that synthesizes the expertise of thousands of the world's leading minds in particle physics. The result is an exciting glimpse into this moment of discovery: our attempts to discover what we're made of, where we come from, and where we're heading.

Director Mark Levinson and producer David Kaplan answered some questions about the Large Hadron Collider, the documentary process, and the impact of good science teachers:

Jesse Damiani: How would you most simply describe the Large Hadron Collider? Why is the LHC important for everyday people?

David Kaplan: The Large Hadron Collider is literally the largest machine ever built by humans. It's purpose is to study a certain type of physics called particle physics, the study of the most fundamental laws of nature: what makes up the atom, why the atom acts the way it does, and even deeper laws of space and spacetime. The LHC is just a step along the way in the history of trying to figure these things out. What's discovered will not necessarily have direct applications -- though there'll certainly be spinoff technologies -- but it will help answer questions about the beginnings of the universe, how matter got created, fundamental questions that most people ask when they were children.

JD: When did you realize you wanted to make a documentary about the LHC? What were your goals in producing it?

DK: It started for me in 2006. I had decided somebody needed to record the events that were going to take place. I'm a particle physicist and I saw what was about to happen, this incredible dramatic event, and wanted people to meet my colleagues and see how it really is. It was something I'd never seen before on, say, Discovery Channel, where science is presented as a documentary just to teach science. We wanted people to experience the process with us as people as we go through something emotional. At some point Mark found me and discovered what I was trying to do and we went from there.

Mark Levinson: I had a physics degree from many years ago, but I had really pretty quickly moved into feature films. I'd always been interested in figuring out some way that I could combine the two strands of my life. In the world of fiction I hadn't seen good depictions of science and the scientific process -- what was exciting to me about fundamental physics -- these deep questions of our existence. When I heard about David trying to get this project made, around the fall of 2007, I put aside a fiction script I was working on and contacted him to see if we could do something that wasn't a typical science documentary, using more of the narrative skills I'd been developing over the years to really tell this story.

JD: How would you describe the pre-production process? How did you plan for something when you didn't know how it would end?

ML: One of the great things about my physics degree is that I didn't have to spend a lot of time learning about the physics, which would be the typical documentarian's first chore. Right from the beginning we started thinking about how we were going to do this and where we'd start. We knew it was going to be character-based, so it became a matter of getting those characters down. In some sense a very practical consideration was that first beam event in 2008, so all of our energy focused on being over there for that event. As with many documentaries, you know your first step, and that was definitive, and we had to adapt as everything else happened. It could've been a very different story; we'd certainly been thinking about what other things could be a dramatic propulsive force if everything had worked smoothly. We thought about looking at competitions between different theorists, but of course, things changed rapidly after the first beam -- there was the accident shortly after -- and from that point things became very improvisatorial.

DK: With the ending, the vision was to keep shooting until there was a transformation. We wanted to see how the data that came out affected theorists; nothing was guaranteed, but we knew the data was going to have a dramatic impact, so it was a matter of holding on tight until that data came out to see how it affected all the characters.

ML: We had to be very practical about what we had at each point. The bigger the transformation the better; we didn't know specifically there was going to be a Higgs, but the theory community would be dramatically affected by something revealed at CERN. Once the ending got better and better, we started going through and structuring the story. As with any documentary, you really may not know the end unless you're covering a trial or something more definite. I was always thinking narratively; I originally thought the first collision could be the end -- it was satisfying for experimentalists and even the theorists, and that was actually the first point at which we started to edit -- we could see we had enough material to make dramatic art, but then of course David started coming back and tantalizing us with, "I'm hearing something, I'm hearing something...." And then it was a matter of when is what we have sufficient, when do we have an ending? When they held the July 4 announcement and Peter Higgs was in attendance, we realized that was the moment we wanted, and it was time to get the film finished.

JD: That character-based focus is evident. There's such a nice mix of personalities in the film. How did you decide which scientists to feature in the documentary?

ML: Of course, we had some built in with David right away, although I always say that he said he didn't need to be in film, but he was clearly, in my mind, a good character, and good on camera. He brought on Savas and Nima; he was always working for people who it was going to have a strong impact on. Savas, he told me, was an inspiration for the film, and Nima's very hot in the field, so they were core. We also interviewed about a half-dozen other theorists in the beginning; we wanted to tell the story of the theorists and the experimentalists. Choosing experimentalists was an even a harder choice. David had enough contact with Fabiola for me to reach out to contact other people to do more extensive interviews. What became clear as the events at CERN unfolded was that there was a lot of drama and action in the control rooms. As I would go back for each of these things, I'd follow the people that seemed interesting, and luckily, those people just seemed to always be around. In some sense those people chose themselves; they were at the center of the action. We were lucky that Fabiola became the spokesperson of the ATLAS experiment after we'd been following her for years. Monica was always there, as was Martin. We wanted a diversity in characters and then we were fortunate that the people who were cooperative were in central roles.

JD: What was it like being behind the scenes and behind the camera for such monumental moments in human history?

DK: I would say that, while I was worried in between events that we were going to get the right footage, when things were happening I was in front of the camera, and the bigger the moment was, the less I thought about the movie and the more I thought about what was happening. I was emotionally affected by what happened; any moment a viewer feels something I felt by a factor of ten or more. In the end these were really incredible physics moments and it was just tremendous. To have something truly tangible happen that we'd been talking about our whole careers, it's hard to describe. I was overjoyed, it didn't even matter what the result was, just to have the chance to see something you'd thought about for your whole adult life.

ML: Meanwhile, I was behind the camera when I was over there, and the practical aspects of filmmaking are very demanding. I was primarily concerned with, you know, "Oh my God, this is a once in a lifetime thing and I better not screw it up. Is the camera there, is the sound there, is everything in focus, is that character nearby?" Of course I felt the excitement, but that almost accentuated the tension for me! It's funny, CERN is unassuming in some ways, and yet there's a sense that the entire world is looking at this place: there was definitely a buzz there, first in 2008 and then again in 2012. Getting up at 3 in the morning to film the people waiting in line in 2012, to see all the physicists running around, I was in a sort of frantic-adaptation-of-what's-happening mode, and it wasn't until I got back to the hotel that night and went on the Internet and saw that it was everywhere that I could sit back and savor it and realize we'd captured it, that we're going to have a definitive film about this.

JD: What are your first memories of wanting to study physics?

DK: When I was 6 or 7, my favorite book in the library was this astronomy book, it was the only book I'd pick out every day I'd go there. After that, I don't remember anything until high school. I was great at physics so I was told I should study physics. I went to college and studied filmmaking, but realized I wouldn't be able to make it in that field, then transferred to Berkeley to study physics. Even then I wasn't sure what my impact would be, so after I graduated, I worked for an environmental organization, though I realized I'd never make it as an advocate because I get angry too easily. So I went back to grad school in physics, where I still wasn't sure, but in the end it just became too much fun. The truth is I met Savas (from the film), who became my mentor. I didn't think I had the right personality for physics until I met him, and I decided, this is where I belong.

ML: I actually really disliked physics in high school, it was kind of a classic thing, but I was good in science and math. I went to school in an MD/PhD program, but I did have this nagging feeling that I should give physics another chance, so I took a physics class for physics majors and had a fantastic teacher, who, on the first day threw the book across the room and said, "We don't care about these books, it's about thinking." I found that extremely inspiring. I was very interested in abstraction, the mathematical representation of things: that's what really excites me. We've come up with this language of mathematics that amazingly has a deep connection to nature -- it's what Savas says in the film -- the most incredible thing of all is that with physics we can describe and understand this connection, and that is something that absolutely pulled me into the field.

For more information, visit the official website for Particle Fever.