Science and Diversity In Film: Behind The Scenes Of ANYA

By Eva Amsen, Contributor
Science Writing about the overlap of science and art

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The film ANYA centers on a couple in New York City who are struggling with infertility. When they turn to their scientist friend for advice, he discovers a possible genetic reason, which affects an entire community of immigrants from the fictional island of Narval.

Because genetics is so crucial to the theme of the film, filmmakers Carylanna Taylor and Jacob Okada worked with scientists at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon University to get the details right.

“I looked at the screenplay and what they'd already written, and helped them to make it more realistic,” says molecular biologist Ruth McCole, who acted as science advisor for the film when she was working Ting Wu’s lab at Harvard. She even wrote one of the scenes, where two scientists talk to each other about a scientific experiment. “It was fun to see something that I had written become part of a movie,” added McCole.

Scientific details in fictional films may go unnoticed by most viewers, but the authenticity makes the whole story seem more natural. That’s why many other films and TV shows also work with science advisors to make their labs and on-screen scientists seem more realistic. There are even organizations that help filmmakers connect with scientists, such as the Science & Entertainment Exchange which provided scientific expertise for recent blockbuster Avengers: Endgame and many other films and TV shows.

Besides aiming for scientific accuracy, the creators of ANYA also focused on getting together a diverse cast. One of the places this is reflected is in the film’s lab scenes. As you would expect from a modern-day science lab in New York City, researchers of different ages, genders and ethnicities all work together.

The main scientist character, Seymour, is played by African American actor Motell Foster. This was a deliberate choice, says Taylor, who has a background in anthropology. “Part of it is seeing yourself, part of it is the aspiration of encouraging people who might not have thought of themselves as potentially being a scientist to know that that's an option”

Very few scientists in films are black, and this lack of representation unintentionally influences people’s perception of who can be a scientist.

To make sure Seymour came across as a realistic scientist, Foster visited the Wu lab at Harvard to see what a real science lab is like. Like most people, he hadn’t been in a lab before, and his own image of what scientists would be like was mainly based on seeing them in other media. When he shadowed real scientists for a few hours, he quickly noticed that they were more casual and less formal than he had imagined. Scientists at different career stages address each other informally and their workstations were filled with personality. “We had this huge cardboard cut-out of a pink unicorn in the lab,” says McCole. “I don’t even know where it came from, but Motell was really surprised by it.”

The lab scenes in ANYA were filmed in Andreas Pfenning’s lab at Carnegie Mellon University, where McCole was further supported by PhD student Alyssa Lawler. They kept an eye to make sure the experiments looked realistic. Actions that seem simple and second nature to scientists had to appear the same way on screen. “I was really happy with how the lab scenes look,” says McCole, “Nobody who’s not a specialist would know the difference, but it’s really pleasing if you are an expert, and it’s something you do in your daily life, to see that represented pretty accurately.”

The genetic mystery in ANYA relies on a concept called ultra-conserved elements, or UCEs. These are sections of DNA that have stayed completely unchanged across species and over time. In ANYA, the Narval people’s UCEs are mysteriously different.

Could you really come across a community where people’s DNA is so different from any human DNA ever seen? Not to the extent that it happens in the film, but there really are a lot of things we don’t know about the genetics of some populations on Earth. In fact, the only group we do know a lot about are people of European descent. For everyone else, there is a lack of representation in global genetic databases.

Like genetics, film also suffers from a lack of diverse representation, but ANYA’s filmmakers made a conscious decision to cast with diversity in mind. Only one of the speaking roles (a female scientist) went to a white actor, and all other parts went to people from a range of different ethnicities and backgrounds. “I'm coming at it from an anthropological perspective,” says Taylor. “Just being able to appreciate both the cultural and the biological diversity of our population and seeing it on screen is important.”

The end result is a film with a diverse cast, realistic science, and a compelling story. You can see ANYA at hosted screenings and festivals this year, and from 2020 the film will be available on demand.

jacob okada