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Why ‘Fireball’ Producer Sandbox Films Doesn’t Need Talking Heads to Make Smart Science Documentaries
“Name a truly science-focused film that’s ever been nominated for an Academy Award in Best Documentary …There aren’t a lot of them,” Sandbox Films’ Greg Boustead says
In Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer’s “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” the directors show you gloriously colorful images of meteorites containing atomic particles of five-fold symmetry, a geometric shape thought to be impossible in nature. It’s a beautiful sight, but the German auteur concedes that he “won’t torture you” with more testimony from a bespectacled professor about how the math works.
That line captures the ethos for the new production company Sandbox Films, which produced “Fireball” and launched last month at TIFF with a lineup of other science-based documentary films all in development. Sandbox Films’ founders, Greg Boustead (“The Most Unknown,” “Human Nature”) and Jessica Harrop (“Follow This,” “Bill Nye Saves The World”), are determined to make informative, intelligent documentary films about science, but they want to do so with a sense of real beauty, artistry and experimental creativity all driven from filmmakers.
Essentially, science can be awesome, and they don’t want to bore you.
“Science television is great, but there’s not that many opportunities in science television to try new things. So at Sandbox Films, we’re providing funding and opportunities for artists who want to tell stories about science in different ways,” Harrop told TheWrap. “We don’t always need to have a voiceover or host or talking heads or CGI graphics to tell stories about science. We can tell stories just by following scientists in their daily lives or following people who are asking questions about the universe.”
Harrop and Boustead said that in their experience, most films that grapple with scientific subjects in meaningful ways are commissioned for broadcast or television. There are rarely examples of independent filmmakers who are making artful, cinematic films you’d want to see on a big screen.
“There really is a dearth in our view. Name a truly science focused film that’s ever been nominated for an Academy Award in Best Documentary going back almost 100 years. There aren’t a lot of them, and by my count, there are none of them depending on how you count science,” Boustead said. “I don’t know exactly why that is, but for us, we see that both as a gap and an opportunity.”
Sandbox Films was directly involved with some of the writing and editorial on “Fireball,” traveling with Herzog and Oppenheimer on location to some of the craters left by meteorites from around the world. And their hands-on quality has earned them the trust of some impressive names, with Effie Brown, David Byrne and Wendy Ettinger all signing on as advisers who may influence funding decisions or executive produce other projects. Herzog, though, is a “real science nerd,” and his vision on “Fireball” helped define the Sandbox ethos.
“It was really through that work that we saw value in this niche and this gap in the science documentary space, that is to say science films that can also be artful and cinematic and experimental, and Werner more than anyone we spoke to really got that. He got the idea that he can take a sort of bold approach to a ‘science documentary,” Boustead said. “‘Fireball’ has beauty and grandeur and a lot of humor as well through Werner’s narration, so we’re really kindred spirits in thinking that you can make a cinematic experience around big, stormy, esoteric science ideas about where did we come from, etc., and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a lesson; it can be an emotional experience.”
Sandbox Films has a slate of 12-15 films at various stages of development and completion, and they’ll be announcing and rolling out more at upcoming film festivals later this year. So far, however, they’ve announced new documentary films with directors Ondi Timoner, Penny Lane and Theo Anthony, all of which grapple with personal, philosophical and historical themes as they examine science trends related to organ transplants, the effects of physical isolation and technology.
Sandbox is sticking with documentary features for now, but they’re open minded about expanding into shorts or television. And in a separate project apart from Sandbox, the producers are working with Byrne on an immersive theater experience centered around neuroscience that was supposed to premiere in Denver this year but was delayed by two years due to the pandemic.
They do, however, offer additional funding through the Sandbox Fund administered through the Sundance Institute, which offers $400,000 a year in grants to cultivate new scientific voices in film.
“If we’re going to redefine a new genre around cinematic storytelling, we find it’s important to build those collaborative relationships with our filmmakers,” Boustead said. “While it’s still very much artist-driven, we very much want to celebrate and help them show their vision, we’re not overriding their vision.”