How do you transform elusive, scientific research into a fascinating narrative that an audience can engage with on an emotional level? This is the challenge renowned film editor Walter Murch took on in the making of Particle Fever
Particle Fever deals with the huge international endeavour to identify the last part of the smallest physical entity, the particle, which has remained a mystery, better known as the Higgs boson. In an attempt to thus reveal the origin of all matter and solve the miracle of creation, a huge international team of scientists try to recreate the conditions for “the big bang” with the construction of a huge machine: the Large Hadron Collider.
The only people for whom this search actually makes any real sense are physicists because solving this particular mystery doesn’t provide any answers that are intelligible to ordinary people. Rather the “solving” consists in collecting data that can support, if not confirm, one of the strongest theories in physics, the “standard model” which describes the fundamental forces in nature; but the standard model is incomplete. ”The Higgs” was predicted to be the last elusive piece to hold the secret to creation. The answer, or rather, data provided by the identification of the Higgs boson can support one of two contesting theories: super-symmetry or multiverse. Confused?
Well, this is where a great craftsman and storyteller is needed. Walter Murch is one of the most celebrated editors in fiction and has edited Apocalypse Now (1979), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), The Godfather III (1990) and many, many more. He is also the author behind one of the bibles of editing, In the Blink of an Eye, 2001 – the title refers to Murch’s discovery that whenever someone blinks, it’s a sign that they have understood and registered the information at hand, and are ready for the next idea, or as he explained in his seminar at Sheffield Doc Fest: “It’s a sign that the data has been saved to hard disk and the disk is ready for new information.”
The laws of physics meet the mysterious logic of art
With Particle Fever Murch ventured into the world of documentary, and when I ask him if it was scary to work with a scientific topic, he doesn’t actually understand, he explains: “It was a little scary, but then I am attracted to work that brings me outside my comfort zone. And it was a challenge to make a strong, engaging story out of something as complex as the search for the Higgs boson and all the scientific and philosophical implications it brings with it. I was already interested in string theory and Mark (Levinson, director) has a PhD in particle physics and he was sitting right next to me, so I could always ask him.”
Despite Murch’s long career in fiction, the use of documentary material is not completely foreign territory. When he worked on the Unbearable Lightness of Being he integrated archival footage into the scenes from ´68, where Prague is being invaded by Soviet troops. From 40 hours of footage the 35 mm archive footage was comprised into 7 minutes, and through manipulation of the fiction footage, the archival and the fiction footage work as one, very real, intense scene.
In the case of Particle Fever the ratio between rushes and final film was 300 to 1 and Murch started off with 450 hours of footage. When I ask him how the process compared to fiction, he explains: “In fiction the cards precede the shooting and in documentary it is the other way around. Here you start with the data and then you form the theory. It is like churning out butter from milk, getting rid of material, carving out your structure and your story, and after that you use the same strategy as in a fiction.”
In fiction the cards precede the shooting and in documentary it is the other way around
One of the remarkable things about Particle Fever is that despite a complete lack of knowledge about particle physics, the film manages to engage you not only in the search for the Higgs, but also in the dispute between the theories of supersymmetry versus multiverse. This is very much on account of the two main characters: David Kaplan, a defender of supersymmetry and Nima Arkani-Hamed, a defender of multiverse.
The decision to move away from a story based on the scientific endeavour itself, which began, not with the international CERN project in Geneva, but with an even larger-scale American project in Texas about a decade earlier, was made on the basis of test screenings: “We initially had the film start with David going to the abandoned site in Texas, where he was video-recording from. But when we did test screenings, we realised it made the audience read the whole film as a political film, which was never our intention. We wanted to make a strong story about these physicists, their passion, them as regular people with a very particular work, which is difficult for an outsider to understand. So instead we inserted this piece of information into David’s lecture at a completely different time in the film. We wanted the information in the film, but not to be read politically. This information didn’t belong in the lecture, but we inserted it in there.“
One of the obvious challenges when making a character-driven, scientific documentary, where the facts are key, but incredibly complex and need simplification, is how to get this necessary information across.
One of the most charming scenes in the film is the one where the laws of physics meet the mysterious logic of art. David, supersymmetry defender and Nima, multiverse defender, discover an artwork outside their offices. There is a certain genius to putting two people, who see themselves as worlds apart, up against something as foreign to them as art – in this context they look like twins. Both of them are clearly uncomfortable with the indifference to order and randomness in the artwork.
The scene manages both to convey great insight into their characters, and a bridge to scientific information. And all this with a wonderful touch of comedy: “The scene with the artwork came about because the photographer saw it and thought it would be a fun way to put the science and art together. It wasn’t planned and then I came up with this idea to create a finer structure out of the random artwork, like the perfect shape of pyramids, a higher order. It is perfect to illustrate the idea of supersymmetry and at the same time create the link to art.“
The finer structure, the pyramid, which is illustrated in an animation then transforms into another perfect shape, which illustrates the standard model. And in line with the poetry of worlds intertwining Murch reveals: “It came to me in a dream how to solve the presentation of the standard model. The physicists draw it in a square with numbers and I thought it was boring. And then in a dream I came up with this circle shape and the Higgs in the centre.” The connections the film makes between art and physics, our “regular world” and the “world of physics” is the key thing that makes this film powerful.
When I ask Murch about how he handles the balance between emotion and facts in the film he responds: “That is a tricky one. Of course there are facts here we cannot ignore. But in fiction you also have a story that you have to be true to. You can have pure emotion for a short time, maybe 20 seconds, pure emotion is like being in space, suspended in air, like an astronaut, but then you have to get back to gravity. And gravity is the story. It is what makes us understand what is going on. This is how it works with fiction as well as documentary. “
Pure emotion is like being in space, suspended in air, like an astronaut, but then you have to get back to gravity
At the end of the quest, the scientists and the rest of us are also left suspended in air. The result confirms neither the supersymmetry nor the multiverse theory. And, as a storyteller, this suits Murch perfectly: “I thought it was wonderful it ended up just in the middle, just between the multiverse theory and the supersymmetry theory. The question remains unanswered and everything is still possible. From a filmmaking point of view it is perfect to finish with a question. This is a big part of what saves a film from hermetically closing in on itself.“_