Here’s the pitch: A brilliant neuroscientist who can identify psychopaths by studying their brain imaging scans and genetic data makes a startling discovery. After learning there are eight killers among his ancestors — including notorious ax murderer Lizzie Borden, a distant cousin — he finds that he shares their biological predisposition to murder. Mitigating environmental factors such as a happy childhood and stable home life have saved him from becoming a killer, and now he’s using his scientific sleuthing abilities to help the FBI track down murderers.
When CBS executives heard the concept for this television crime drama, they bought it on the spot. One thing that sold them: It’s based on an actual person, UC Irvine’s James Fallon.
Except for the part about the FBI, everything in the pitch is true. Fallon, professor emeritus of anatomy & neurobiology and professor of psychiatry & human behavior, did learn that he has the biological profile common to pathological killers. His real-life story has drawn a lot of media attention, including a profile in The Wall Street Journal, and led producers with Sony Pictures Television to come up with the premise for the show.
“When we gave the pitch to the network, the executives just flipped. They thought it was science fiction, but it’s not,” Fallon says.
He’s not the only UCI faculty member with a Hollywood connection. Some have had their work made into a television show or movie, while others have served as consultants to screenwriters, producers and others in the industry.
Neurobiology & behavior professors James McGaugh and Larry Cahill have seen their discovery of superior autobiographical memory, which they named hyperthymesia, become the subject of an award-winning documentary and a “60 Minutes” segment seen by millions.
The condition, in which individuals have an extraordinary ability to recall specific events from their past, also inspired a recently cancelled television crime drama called “Unforgettable.” Neither he nor Cahill was involved in the series’ production; one of their subjects, actress Marilu Henner, served as an adviser.
“We get our exposure through ’60 Minutes.’ That’s generated a large number of inquiries for us,” McGaugh says.
Fallon will have a more hands-on role in his crime drama. He has a triple bill as producer, consultant and model for the protagonist.
“The main character will be based on me. He’ll play on all my weaknesses and amp them up,” Fallon says. “I’m a weekend warrior; I can get crazy. The flaws are interesting, being a borderline psychopath. And I’m sort of smart, but they’ll punch it up and make me smarter.
“Other characters will be based on my lab team, and the science will be based on our work at UCI’s Brain Imaging Center. The approach to science will be exact.”
A gregarious sort who once portrayed himself on the CBS drama “Criminal Minds,” Fallon can’t reveal who might play him in the new series — which will probably debut in early 2013.
“You never know in this business. It’s even worse than waiting on NIH grants,” he jokes.
Gregory Benford, UCI professor emeritus of physics & astronomy and an award-winning science fiction writer, is no stranger to Hollywood either. He was a consultant on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a host and scriptwriter for “A Galactic Odyssey,” produced by Japan’s national broadcasting corporation.
Benford also has been in talks with major studios about turning one of his successful books into a miniseries or movie, which he writes about on his Adventures in Hollywood blog. “So there I was, having dinner with James Cameron to discuss his TV series and the parallels between it and my novel The Martian Race,” begins one entry.
“Pitching a movie or TV project is humbling,” he writes. “Everybody in the room is passing judgment, lounging back on sofas in their H’wood casuals, wearing the baseball caps and jeans Steven Spielberg made into a uniform. Each got his turn at bat. In my world of scientists, the rule is Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but they don’t have a right to their own facts. In Hollywood, I learned, the part after the comma does not apply.”
Benford has identified “Hollywood’s basic rule, the Law of Thermodramatics. To get more audience, turn up the gain. If you must use scientists as characters, make them odd, nerdy, obsessed, self-important or, even better, quite mad. The Law overwhelms the niceties that scientists would like in movie depictions of them, especially logic or truth.”
Other UCI researchers whose work or stories have received the Hollywood treatment — with varying degrees of verisimilitude — include:
“Numb3rs” expert: Alice Silverberg, professor of mathematics and computer science, served as a consultant on “Numb3rs,” a television drama that ran from 2005 to 2010 about an FBI agent who recruits his mathematical genius brother to help solve crimes. Silverberg, an expert in cryptography, was once asked by the show’s producers to come up with mathematical equations they could reproduce on a blackboard on the set. She sent them formulas containing the letters of her late cat’s name, Ceilidh — which, Silverberg notes with satisfaction, “flashed across the screen and was seen by over 12 million viewers.”
“WALL-E” world: James Hicks, associate vice chancellor for research and professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, was a consultant on “WALL-E,” Disney/Pixar’s 2008 animated love story about robots. The creators sought him out because he has studied the long-term effect of microgravity, or weightlessness, on human physiology. In the movie, humans have literally trashed the Earth, and they’ve been floating around in a spaceship — a kind of zero-gravity Carnival Cruise — for 700 years. Under those conditions, Hicks says, “they would look like blobs.” His analysis influenced the film’s portrayal of humans as bloated babies.
From storytelling to the screen: Faculty and alumni have played key behind-the-scenes roles in true-to-life movies (history professor Jon Wiener, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon”; Erin Gruwell ’91, “Freedom Writers”), and their fictional works also have gone celluloid. (M.F.A. writing program co-director Ron Carlson’s short story “Keith” and alumna Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones were made into films.)
Reality check: Michael Dennin, physics & astronomy professor, has appeared on numerous television shows, including “Batman Tech,” “Spider-Man Tech,” “Star Wars Tech” and “Ancient Aliens.” The reason? He’s an expert on the science of Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and “Star Wars.” Through his class “Science from Superheroes to Global Warming” and media appearances, Dennin strives to make physics fun — posing questions such as “What if Superman really could fly?” “One of the best parts for me is to connect with people about the science,” he says. “The media reach a very large audience.”
Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 4, Iss. 9