Dan Clifton: Directing science on screen
Director and writer Dan Clifton on his new project, Patient 39, and how the human stories behind science inform his work.
I haven't counted precisely, but one way or another I must have made over a dozen documentary films touching on scientific subjects.
Science documentaries are inevitably – and quite appropriately – concerned with their scientific subject matter, with the scientific method, and the process of investigation and discovery. But making those films, I was always fascinated by the individual scientists I met and interviewed – their flaws and desires and what made them tick:
"Where is the human being within the scientist, and how do human values and foibles merge with the exacting cold imperatives of science?"
It is those questions that have informed my short films. My first, The Calculus of Love starring Keith Allen, is about a maths professor fixated on cracking the unsolved Goldbach Conjecture and who is prepared to do anything to reach that goal. It's a story of mathematical obsession and desire, and about what happens when the noble pursuit of mathematical truth confronts base human desire.
For my next project Patient39, adapted from William Boyd’s short story The Ghost of a Bird, the protagonist is a neurologist, a man also entirely formed by his scientific outlook.
Set in World War II, the film follows the story of the relationship between Doctor Moran and a wounded soldier, known only as Patient 39. He enters hospital with a serious head wound, a mystery patient without a memory and a fragmented sense of the world or who he is. Under Moran's compassionate care, Patient 39 slowly begins to recover and begin a search for his identity and past. His fragmented, partial sense of the world challenges us to think about our own sense of consciousness – of what it is to be alive, to be aware, to be 'me'.
As the enigmas of Patient 39's identity start to unravel, a gentle friendship blossoms between patient and doctor. Unlike Moran, who clings to scientific precision, Patient 39 lives in his imagination, moved by beauty and the power of images. Inspired by their friendship, Moran begins to see the world in a new kind of way. But just as Moran is touched by his young patient’s predicament – the fact that despite his injury, his sense of imagination, of beauty, and of self-awareness are preserved – it is not just that Moran learns something about himself, we learn something about ourselves too.
One of the interesting challenges in adapting the story has been to make sure it feels historically accurate, and I’ve been fortunate to benefit from the input of a couple of distinguished neurologists who’ve been able to give me some guidance on the film’s scientific content and period relevance.
The great difference between now and then is that during the war, the diagnosis of brain injuries took place without the sophistication of MRI and CAT scans with their ability to determine with great accuracy traumatised areas within the brain. Diagnosis primarily took place by talking to and assessing the patient with simple tests.
Thanks to the input of my advisers, I was able to make some adjustments to the film's scientific language, but the film is a work of fiction, not a documentary. My rule of thumb is that the story should feel credible and that period or scientific details should be broadly true – getting that stuff wrong is distracting and takes you out of the story, removing the focus from the characters. But unlike in a documentary, the weight of the piece lies in a different kind of truth and I hope that it is at that level that audiences will receive the film.
Ultimately, I hope it will find an audience and stimulate debate on some important issues in science and its relationship with art, but also on the nature of memory, personal identity and how far science will ever be able to capture what it really means to be human.
Making short films is a tricky business in the current funding climate and we’ve launched a crowd-funding campaign to help raise some money.
To watch Dan's appeal film and become a supporter, head over to www.indiegogo.com/patient39.