For Mark Levinson, a particle physicist-turned-filmmaker, directing a feature-length documentary is like a scientific experiment. First, you sketch the story you'd like to tell. That’s your hypothesis. Then you shoot the footage. That's your data. Then, you process that footage in the editing room to see whether the story can be told and the hypothesis proved.
The scientists at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) followed a similar process while searching for the Higgs boson—the particle on which our entire understanding of the physical universe is based. The Higgs was hypothesized to exist in 1964, but it wasn't actually discovered until 2012, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) smashed two beams of light together, thereby recreating a version of the Big Bang.
This quest to get the LHC up and running—and hopefully find the Higgs— is the subject of Levinson’s new movie, Particle Fever.
"In art and science we’re trying to represent the world around us," says Levinson, who received a PhD in theoretical physics from UC Berkley before embarking on a decades-long career in movie post-production. "In physics, the language we use is math. But painters and musicians"—along with script writers and directors—"also represent the world in a way that moves you and gives you insight."
Particle Fever follows a handful of theoretical and experimental physicists in the U.S. and CERN over six years. Just as the scientists responded to unexpected obstacles and breakthroughs in their experiment, Levinson was also forced to rethink the movie he’d set out to out make.
Originally, he intended the start of the LHC in 2008 to be the film's climax. Since the scientists had been working on the machine since the late '90s, he would build suspense through the question of whether the machine would even turn on. If it did "and if we were really lucky, there’d be a discovery," he says. "But everyone said, we probably won’t discover the Higgs while filming."
But immediately after the machine turned on for the first time, it broke. "My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh my god this is a disaster. What kind of film do I have if nothing even starts?’" In fact, he'd been handed a dramatic opportunity.
Instead of the climax, he would make the 2008 accident the start of the film. Then, while the machine was being fixed, he could shoot footage of the scientists who’d devoted their lives to finding the Higgs. He’d get the audience to feel the stakes for these characters. "Then there’d be even more drama when the LHC started up again," he says.
"Most documentarians talk about their ‘subjects,’" says Levinson. "I thought of the people in the film as characters." Like the author of all great fiction, he was looking for ways to show the complexity, hopes, and flaws of his protagonists. An example of how Levinson accomplished this involves Nima Arkani-Hamed, a young theoretical physicist at Princeton. One day, Levinson was scouting locations on campus, when he stumbled upon a sculpture garden. The physicist looked disdainfully at what appeared to be an ugly pile of rocks. "Do you like that?" he asked Levinson.
"Something just clicked in my mind," Levinson recalls. "Here’s this guy who deals with absolute abstraction, but abstract art totally threw him."
When Levinson came back to shoot, he asked Arkani-Hamed to show the garden to physicist David Kaplan, the film’s producer. The resulting conversation showed the visceral anxiety that these scientists felt over what then seemed like a fruitless quest. It proved that all of this complicated science affected human beings on a very basic level. Levinson also used the sculpture garden footage as the basis for a series of animations to help explain the Higgs. But this was clearly secondary to what viewers learned about Arkani-Hamed and Kaplan as people.
Because of this character-first approach, the initial version of Particle Fever had almost no science in it whatsoever. "The typical way of doing things would have been to try and explain everything and then take out what we didn’t need," says Levinson. "Instead, our challenge was putting in just enough information, just in time for the audience to need it." Levinson ran a series of test screenings and noted at what point audience members felt confused. Then he’d add in the science accordingly.
Even so, he agonized over balancing the physics with his characters. "They’re what humanize the story, but audiences always wanted to know what was happening with the LHC," he says. Thus, Levinson was forced to cut some secondary plot lines—even the kind of dramatic material that documentarians crave, like competition between the scientists at CERN, a renegade experiment and two weddings.
He compensated for the excised drama with editing and called upon Walter Murch, an Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer.
"In reality, the first collider beam in 2008 took place over many hours of time," says Levinson. Murch, whose previous work includes The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, collapsed time, played up one of the machine's many false starts, and used music to bring the audience to a point of expectation. "Knowing just how many beats of anticipation are needed and then when to satisfy that anticipation is a function of Walter’s editing and music coming together," says Levinson.
"We could have just let the camera run," he adds. "CERN had a camera running the whole time." But simply collecting data doesn't make great art, just like the mere existence of data does not prove a hypothesis. It's how you interpret the data that matters. "Knowing how to pull the drama"—the data—"out and create an emotion that’s symbolic of what actually happened," says Levinson. "That’s where the art is, really."