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Cosmic Perspective: An Interview with Ann Druyan

by Dale Dobson

The intelligent, articulate Ann Druyan, CEO of Cosmos Studios, graciously gave some time recently to discuss Cosmos, the landmark TV series she co-created with her husband, the late Dr. Carl Sagan. The complete Cosmos series has recently been remastered and released on DVD. Our conversation has been edited slightly for continuity and clarity.

dOc: It's great to see Cosmos back in circulation on DVD.

Druyan: I have a favorite episode—Episode II is my absolute favorite. I just think it's—first of all, it's so amazing that, after twenty of the most eventful years in the history of science, this episode on the search for life and the origin of life and the search for life elsewhere holds up so well. It's such a testament to Carl.

dOc: I watched the series with the "science update subtitles" turned on and was impressed by how little updating you had to do.

Druyan: Isn't it amazing? Every time I think about how much abuse Carl took for being so speculative, I just, like, mentally—I don't believe in the afterlife at all, but I'm saying mentally, in my heart, "Really, Carl—nice work!"

dOc: Tell us about your involvement with Cosmos.

Druyan: We co-wrote the series with Steve Soter, an astronomer with whom I still work; in fact, Steve and I—I don't know if you've been to the glorious new Hayden Planetarium in New York at the American Museum of Natural History, but it's said by many to be the absolutely unparalleled virtual reality site on the planet. Steve and I had the honor of writing the inaugural show [Passport to the Universe] for this three-dimensional tour through the entire visible universe. So we wrote that together, and Steve wrote the Cosmos series with Carl and with me.

The way that we worked was essentially together—although much of what Cosmos is is a distillation of Carl's thinking and writing career, which certainly predates my involvement in the subject, and of course he brought, too, something very special as a scientist—he actually did original work.

But what we did was discuss all of the themes of Cosmos, writing them on a giant board, then went through a kind of thrilling and agonizing winnowing process of thinking of what the most important elements of the series were, and finding the story in all of these subjects, which I think was key to its success. Then we just divvied up the sequences—that's how Carl and I always wrote together. We wrote the story for Contact, which began as a 100-and-something page treatment, which we co-authored long before it ever came to the screen or even became a novel.

And the way we always did this—we also wrote one of the scripts for Contact—was to take the chapters, or the sequences, and put them all up on—usually a whiteboard, which was easy to erase—and put a little A or a C next to each and every one of them. And the idea was that next time we saw each other we'd begin chipping away at the A's and C's until they were complete. Then we exchanged the manuscripts and each of us did our own suggestions. By the time we'd finished any book we wrote together, or television or motion picture project, there had usually been at least 25 separate iterations of scripts or manuscripts. And by the time we were done, it was invariable that one of us would say to the other, "You know, my favorite part is that part you wrote in such-and-suchŠ" And the other would say, "No, no—you wrote that!" And it went back and forth, and we just had such a fantastic, joyful odyssey together on all of these projects.

dOc: One of the things that always comes through is Carl's...Dr. Sagan's—

Druyan: Please, he wouldn't have let you call him Dr. Sagan—he would have insisted you call him Carl.

dOc: ŠCarl's ability to communicate on a deep level with his audience. I have a friend who was 12 or 13 when the series originally aired, and it was a life-changing event for him; he's a teacher now. Do you get a lot of testimonials of that sort?

Druyan: A huge, huge amount. And it never ceases to thrill me, every time. It's worldwide, it's global. It comes from all different kinds of people. There seems to be no demographicŠ women as much as men, which I find—others tell me, it's very unusual for the subject matter.

dOc: Cosmos in many ways took that for grantedŠ

Druyan: Precisely. You're so right. In fact, one of the things I'm most proud of in contributing to Cosmos was that when I came onboard, it was in the very earliest days, before even the "reccies," the reconnaissances, had begun to be done in any of the areas, places we hoped to shoot; in the very beginning, before the bible for the show was written, and it was called Man and the Cosmos. And one of the first things I said was, "Hey, fellas, better get rid of that 'Man and the'—you're gonna feel really stupid in 20 years!" And I'm very proud of the fact that that proved to be correct. And relieved, actually.

dOc: Did you have any idea what the impact of Cosmos was going to be during the production process?

Druyan: I have to say that, from Day One, from the first meeting which involved, I'd say, between thirty and forty people hired to work on Cosmos, from the gofers to the people who were directing and producing and writing it—and Carl, because he was a very religiously non-hierarchical person, and actually was authentic in that regard. He wanted to hear from each and every single person of what their expectations were for theŠ what they most wanted to see the project accomplish.

And that was a religious experience, because what was clear was—first of all, that everyone was sayingŠ everyone who works in television has had the experience of being forced to work on something that they had absolutely no conviction about, and maybe even were a little ashamed of what it was. And here were 40 people who felt an almost sacred sense of the opportunity to be actually doing something that they would do with all their hearts, even if nobody—if they could afford to, if nobody was paying them.

So as we went around this very, very long table which was set up in a perfect square, from person to person, it was clear that everybody really felt like they were participating in something that would really change our civilization in some way. I guess that's a common feeling on lots of projects, and some of them actually do. But with Cosmos, I guess we felt that the need for this kind of consciousness was so urgent and that for us it was—from Day One it was a completely spiritual undertaking. Because when we were reviewing the great scheme of cosmic evolution as revealed by science, which for many of us really is the defining—the fact that we've been able to grasp this to the extent, to the limited extent that we do is for me the defining spiritual event of our epoch. We've reconstructed our past, which is mostly obliterated. That science can do that is such a holy thing.

dOc: I wanted to ask you about the physical production of Cosmos—you used models, and early computer graphics and simulations, and a lot of techniques that hold up quite well today. How on earth did you do, for instance, the Alexandrian Library walk, in 1980?

Druyan: Isn't it amazing? Really—that was actually done in 1979—to my knowledge, that was one of the first, earliest uses of MagiCam. And of course the Library was just a ping-pong table-sized model, with the camera slaved to a computer—the computer probably was huge, and now wouldn't take up all the intelligence of a laptop.

dOc: Was there anything at the time you felt you couldn't visualize?

Druyan: If we were doing it today, the opportunities would be so enormous, and make it even better. One thing that I always hate to see visualized and I feel never, ever, ever is adequate to the task is The Big Bang. It's just better not seen at all, I think. It's like Carl's advice to Stanley Kubrick in 2001 not to show the extraterrestrials. It's just much greater in the imagination than we can possibly create a major special effect of, without knowing that, no matter how great it is at that moment, three or four years from now the cracks and the flaws will start to appear, and it becomes another artifact of local time, and that's the problem. So there are some things that would have been—including the Library of Alexandria—thatŠ just think of what we could have done if we could morphŠ that we couldn't do at the time.

dOc: But you didn't feel a temptation to go back and patch or change anything?

Druyan: Except for a lot of the astronomical imagery, the Hubble Telescope is just glorious.

dOc: What do you find exciting in science and space today?

Druyan: Well, I was absolutely shocked and amazed to read that story in the New York Times a few weeks ago, about the two new extrasolar systems that were discovered that completely defy the physical model for solar systems that the astronomers have been assuming all this time. That was an amazing set of discoveries.

I love SETI at home, for instance, which in fact our company is sponsoring, is actually funding, and the notion of distributed computing, which I think democratizes the scientific experience precisely in the way that Carl was encouraging people to do it. The idea that each and every one of us becomes a SETI researcher—to do SETI at home is a miracle.

It's thrilling, really, and it's just exactly what needs to happen. What Carl was about, and what our work together was about, was tearing down those walls that isolate people from the community of science, and isolate the community of science itself, and really alienate people.

Carl took some heat for that popularizationŠ that idea that science should be everyone's domainŠ from his fellow scientists.

They're territorial, and they're foolish and short-sighted. Because, to me, the biggest single challenge that we face is to develop a different sense of timescale than we have, than our civilization has. Our traditional religious view of the past, of the history of the Earth and the universe is horribly inadequate and much, much too short. If we'd grown up thinking, knowing how ancient the cosmos is, and how ancient the Earth is, how truly ancient, and how ancient the history of life on Earth is. I mean, now we put it at four and a half billion yearsŠ

I hear about drilling in the Arctic refuge, so that all of that natural beauty, which will never come again if we destroy it, would be able to fund six months of oil company profits. Not even six months of our own domestic fuel needs, because it's not going to stay here, it's going to go elsewhere. When I think of that, I think howŠ the people who make these decisions don't really understand how long it took for this to come about. And not only that, but how long our future might be if we're not foolish.

dOc: How does the nuclear picture look different today than it did when Cosmos was produced?

Druyan: I think we've made progress. We were a planet which was infested with 60,000 nuclear weapons. The number of strategic weapons was awesome, and I think we have stepped away from that kind of total, completely unlimited insanity. I'm really worried about the move to resuscitate the 'hydra' of the Strategic Defense Initiative. I think that's going to put us in a lot more danger than we are in now.

But on the happy side—and I am really hopeful and really, really optimistic, more optimistic than I used to be—I really believe that there is a growing planetary-wide awareness Š war has been demystified, which is a very critical step in our development. And the perspective of—it's not the "pale blue dot," people haven't grasped our real circumstances in the universe as starkly as that little one-pixel Earth that we are. At least the Apollo image has begun to sink in, and the notion of being willing to destroy absolutely everything we really cherish. One good thing about the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War is that we realize that these conflicts, these ideological conflicts that we're willing to completely bet the farm on, are really not as eternal as we thought they were.

dOc: What don't we know about Carl Sagan that might illuminate his work and your work with him?

Druyan: I think something that some people don't know, and I think the two biographies a few years ago did a huge disservice in that regard, is that he was—as a human being, he was as authentically who he appeared to be from a great distance as he was if you knew him with utter intimacy. He was the most successfully authentic person I ever knew, the most honorable person I ever knew, the bravest person that I ever knew professionally. The way he faced his illness was really impressive.

A lot of people—one of my favorite stories about Carl is, he was giving one of his lectures—and I saw him give, probably, many hundreds of them—and invariably, at the end of the lecture, somebody would say, "Do you believe in God?" And then he would go into this veryŠ it'd be a series of questions. "Well, it depends upon what you mean by GodŠ if you mean an outsized male with a long gray beard who sits upon a throne in Heaven, then no, I see no evidence for that God. But if you mean the sum total of the physical laws of the Universe, then that's a different story, that's Spinoza's God, and that God I have no problem with," and back and forth.

And at the end of one of these talks, a young man came up to him, and I was standing right there; he said, "You've taken everything from us. You and science have taken everything from us—we're not the center of the universe, we're not the center of the solar system, we're not the crown of creation as human beings," we're not this, we're not that. "Now that you've taken all the meaning from everything, what do we do?"

And Carl looked at the man and said, "Do something meaningful."

Which was pretty much his essential philosophy. It was deeds, not words; it was how you conducted yourself as a human being.

dOc: And we're all very grateful for that philosophy, and for his efforts as expressed in Cosmos. And we're glad it's out on DVD now, so we don't have to try to find a laserdisc copy anymore, and that Cosmos Studios is carrying on the good work.

Druyan: Thank you so much. That really makes me feel so great.