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Turk Pipkin: "A matter of knowledge"
By Hannah Eaves
November 20, 2006 - 2:35 PM PST

"People in this country really do care."

When Turk Pipkin, an Austin-based writer and character actor (The Sopranos, Infamous), had to start answering his two daughters' growing questions about the greater world, he began to realize that he just didn't have answers to arrows like, "Why are millions of people in the world starving?" But instead of shrugging them off, he used his Boomer initiative and went in search of some really smart people to help him out. It may be that the smartest people around are Nobel laureates, so after meeting one at a party and seeing that he had a lot to say about issues far beyond his field of physics, Pipkin decided to dedicate a film to asking them the big questions.

Nobelity is framed by Pipkin's personal quest, which will probably draw many empathetic people into the narrative of the film, but will isolate others with its homey American earnestness. Everyone should be able to appreciate, however, his fascinating and important interviews with laureates, from the Green Belt Movement's Wangari Maathai to the nuclear physicist and disarmament activist Sir Joseph Rotblat, who sadly passed away shortly after the interview.

Could you talk a little bit about how you first met Steve Weinberg in Austin?

I was already interested in making something like Nobelity. I hadn't solidified the idea yet but knew I wanted to go talk to some really smart people about what was going on in the world. I was really interested in Weinberg and was reading some of his books on string theory and cosmology and met him at a party at a friend's house. I started talking to him about particle physics and told him my understanding of string theory and he came back with a really famous quote in physics; he said, "Right? That's not even wrong."

He didn't seem too interested in talking to me about particle physics, but shortly thereafter he did come up to me. My daughter had taken a fossil she'd found and given it to the lady that was having the party. It was her birthday, and Steve had asked her how old she thought it was and she said, "I don't really know, but I think it's about 100 million years old." And he said, "Yeah that's right!" He then came up to me and said, "Your daughter's really smart." Well, he was more interested in talking to me about things other than particle physics. It was in talking to Weinberg and discovering how knowledgeable he is on so many different subjects that it occurred to me that Nobel laureates are not just a mix of chemists and physicists and doctors, they're people who have a lifelong passion for learning.

So when you started talking to Steve, you got a better sense that there were other laureates out there who would have other interests to talk about.

I had always been interested in the Nobel prize and laureates even when I was a kid. I had read books by lots of laureates and about different laureates and I had always tried to read the literature winners if nothing else. Archbishop Desmond Tutu seemed like an obvious person to talk to, but I didn't know how to get to him yet. I came across Rick Smalley, who was not that far away and who was already giving a lecture about the major problems we face in the next 50 years.

I knew almost immediately that Steve Weinberg could open this movie dealing with how you solve problems. Whether it's in physics or whether it's in the world. His common sense approach to global warming was a big bonus there as well. As we talked, I loved the idea that he constantly elaborated on the thought that it doesn't matter whether global warming is real or not because if it is real then the consequences are so terrible that we have to proceed as if it is real, regardless. Of course, this was two or three years ago and the evidence has just become all the more alarming. I actually have a good deal of material with Weinberg talking about global warming and with Rick Smalley talking about energy that is not in the film. A lot of it is just about to go up on the website of our non-profit, The Nobelity Project.

Are those the only two interview subjects that you have longer interviews with, or do you have more with all the subjects?

I have longer interviews with everyone. Even in Tutu's case; he invited me to film the lecture that he was giving that evening, so I have an hour and a half lecture that has tons of brilliant material. Education is one of our big efforts and we're trying to build a really substantial streaming video library of Nobel laureates talking about the issues that will shape our children's future. Some of it is in a question form, some of it is "listen to Wangari Maathai talk about the link between peace and the environment." Or, Sir Joseph Rotblat discusses whether the 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world keep us safer than we were, for instance, during the Cold War. A lot of high school, middle school and college kids are starting to watch the movie and it gives them the ability to follow up. They follow along with Jody Williams who says, "Pick an issue that's important to you." So they can pick an issue and they can go and they can learn more and find links to organizations that are working on it.

Did you approach more laureates than you ended up speaking to? Was it difficult to set up interviews? How was that practical process for you?

Just about everyone agreed. There are a couple of people who weren't able to get onto our schedule and I'm actually still talking to a couple of people who were just too busy, and also to a number of other people about a follow-up film. I really wanted Shirin Ebadi to be in the film, a peace laureate, the first woman judge in Iran, and she was unable to get out of the country and then unable to get into the US when I was filming, because the Bush administration wouldn't let her in. I guess they thought she was a terrorist. But that's all changed now and she is able to come to this country and I've spoken with her and met with her and we're talking to her about an upcoming interview. Also Betty Williams from Northern Ireland. There are just so many wonderful, brilliant people out there that most people don't ever hear from. We tend to hear instead from politicians and commentators.

I imagine that at a lot of your screenings you have audience members asking to see the full interviews with the laureates.

People constantly say, you know, you speak to so-and-so about this, but what did they say on another subject? Smalley, for instance, is a great one. Smalley was really dedicating his life, what years he had left - because he was five years into a battle with leukemia when I filmed him, in remission at the time, but when it came back, it came back aggressively [he has since passed away]. Smalley was really dedicating every moment of his life to trying to solve the energy crisis for our future generations and to come up with a new oil or at least an overriding plan, not just to replace oil but wanting to know how you can get out there and find ten terawatts of power to fuel the world. He had really an amazing plan but it didn't fit in this movie. In the film he mentions that solar energy is one of the ways we're really going to have to go, but in this additional material he has a really wonderful segment about imagining when you're flying over this country, as you enter a desert, look at your watch and think about how long you're flying over a desert. He says: "I want that power."

It would have been easy for you to have grouped the interviews by issue like "Environment," "Energy" or "Health." Why did you instead use broader terms like "Decisions," "Challenges" and "Persistence"?

It came together as I was filming; it didn't all happen at the end and it wasn't all there at the beginning. Of course, I didn't know who I was going to interview at the beginning. It really was a process of discovery. Structure in all filmmaking is difficult. I'm a really big fan of Fog of War, which I think has a brilliant structure, and McNamara talking about the lessons that he learned. I think some of it came from my appreciation for how well that worked. You really need to give people something to wrap each segment around and in this case, you know, with Wangari Maathai section, "Persistence," she really is the single most persistent person I've ever met in my life.

The first eight words, which are the majority of the film, talk about knowledge and reason - they all stand alone as things we need to do and accomplish. Desmond Tutu then stands on the other side of that. If you didn't agree with the moral imperative already, or the practicality, then he's there with the message of, if for no other reason, we're capable of love. That's why we should be addressing these problems and caring about what's going on in the world. I think the people in this country really do care and I think that they do have love for other people in the world, and it really is, to a certain extent, a matter of knowledge. I haven't been to a single screening of this film where people haven't been shocked to find out that two billion people on earth have been infected with tuberculosis.

next >>>

"People in this country really do care."
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Hannah Eaves
Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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