In order to push cinema forward, Alexis Gambis is reaching back to the medium’s foundations. 

A biologist-turned-filmmaker, he uses experimental flourishes to reposition science in movies as something to entrance audiences instead of merely a tool to provide explanation. Where most would look at the origins of genetics or butterfly migration patterns and see material for a documentary, Gambis instead sees a way to traverse dreamlike aesthetics through empirical gateways, much like cinema’s earliest pioneers fused art and science. 

He talks the talk, and also walks the walk. In addition to founding the Imagine Science Film Festival in 2008, Gambis is a pioneer of the Science New Wave, which imagines advanced ways of showing audiences how humans aren’t the only ones with the capacity to tell stories. His new movie, Son of Monarchs – which premiered at Sundance earlier this year – puts butterflies up to the task, using a gentle pace and mesmerising imagery to turn the insect into a metaphor for environmentalism, immigration and ancestry. 

JumpCut contributor David Lynch spoke with Gambis over Zoom about his goals with the Science New Wave, giving new depth to scientists in movies and challenging audiences to think beyond strict definitions of cinematic storytelling. 

Alexis, between Son of Monarchs and The Fly Room, you’ve now made two narrative features in which science forms the backbone to these stories exploring real and relevant issues. Were either of those movies approached as documentary works first?

Before becoming a filmmaker I was a biologist, so a lot of my work kind of starts as investigative and research-based, and as part of doing that I kind of engage in documentary work. I do a lot of interviews with scientists, I also explore fictional elements of it. So I make short films that sometimes really stretch the imaginary; I make films about scientists becoming huge fruit flies or two clowns that are played as butterflies. Almost like an experiment, it allows me to kind of test how to take some of these ideas, some of them being scientific ideas, and translate them into cinematic expressions. 

So with The Fly Room there was a lot of that. The Fly Room was my first film, (and) it was also related to my Ph.D. in science. It was coming full circle with that since I was working on insects and fruit flies. And the same with Son of Monarchs; I had made a few short films before that called the Monarch Trilogy and that led me into the feature film. 

 

In your 2019 TED Talk, you talked about how one of your motivations was to break the stereotypes of scientists in films, and particularly to depict them as more vulnerable and fragile. When you envision the potential impact of that goal over the long run, does it reside more in the field of science or with movies?

You know, it’s interesting, because I never really think of my films as being science films. Obviously I have this interest in the scientific world because there’s something about observing life, understanding the origins of life. Especially basic research where it doesn’t necessarily lead to immediate cures; just the idea of studying patterns or studying behavior. I think the idea of the scientist really fascinates me because there’s something really interesting about spending a day kind of examining that world, but also how it connects to personal life—to tragedy, to identity, to spirituality, which is a big part of my work. And I think with the Science New Wave, which is kind of like this manifesto that I started a few years ago, the idea is just to create more of a gray zone between science and film. I feel like there’s a lot of stereotypes, a lot of cliches. 

It wasn’t the case, actually, at the beginning of cinema. When cinema started with the Lumière Brothers or even during the French New Wave, there was a lot more of this fusion between scientists and artists, like Man Ray and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. All those people were very influenced in their work by science. And so in a way I’m trying to come back to the essence of how film and science should come together. Some of the ideas behind the Science New Wave, which I would probably associate to both, is that there are many ways of telling stories about science. Diversity is important, feeding the ecosystem. There are many messengers, whether it’s molecules, animals, humans. Experiments should be more, like in my film, seeing the microscope shots. They should be considered almost like cinematic moments and not only as data. 

So that’s what drives me. But I would say that, more than anything, science, how I envision it, is kind of the music or the background language of my films. At the end of the day, I don’t know, really, what a science film is, and I like that idea of continuously redefining (it). I love people coming up to me and saying, “Oh, that doesn’t strike me as being a science film.” I like those conversations because…”science film” has such a connotation out there that I feel like needs to be removed to some extent. A science film is just a film, you know? I’m not necessarily interested in science communication, I’m not interested in telling people that monarch butterflies are endangered. I’m interested in character, character development, and how people identify with the characters. 

Son of Monarchs is a film of many contradictions. You have the rigidity of the science that the main character is involved in with his work, then you have the metaphysical aspects in exploring his history. There’s the contradiction, also, of him working towards the next discovery in his field while also coming to terms with his own past. Seeing as one of the tenets of the Science New Wave is that science and story never collide but that they harmonize, how do you ensure that harmony in the filmmaking process?

I think they go hand in hand. I think science is oftentimes seen as something being very factual. But talking about science, even in the scientific world, is all about creating stories. When you publish, you have to create a narrative, and it’s not necessarily a chronological narrative. When I publish a paper in the scientific community, I take experiments that were done over maybe five or six or seven years, and I patch them together to create a story about how the butterfly has the colors and patterns that it has. 

I think my goal is that any scientific information that is being introduced in a film feeds into the drama and feeds into the stories that are happening. (Those) oftentimes can be contradictions, it can also be ways of going from, for example, using the microscope as like a portal in time. Or the idea of peeling a chrysalis as a metaphor to speak about memory. I’m hoping, also, that people kind of piece it together. I kind of like that aspect of having these scenes that may contradict each other or may be juxtaposed and having people trying to understand this is a film which is about taking these elements and reconstructing (them) almost like a genetic code. That’s how I wrote the film, made the film and also edited the film. So the scientific data, the dreams, the present time, the science lab meeting—they’re all like data points. They all kind of interlock and create a genetic message. 

Hearing the way you talk about it, it makes me recall your approach of challenging the audience with these metaphysical and more ambiguous elements versus maybe leaning too far into the direction of rigid science to the point they may become overwhelmed by that. 

I think that’s what’s interesting. You may have moments of rigid science where you may not understand what’s happening, but suddenly in the scene afterwards you have a dream sequence where he’s covered in butterflies. So I like breaking the jar as well, going from something that’s factual and then suddenly you’re underwater. I think it’s important in the science world and important in the film world to shuffle these norms. And of course it requires work from the audience to kind of sink in and get these pieces together, but I’m hoping it then reflects on this existential journey of how we belong, who we are. That’s my hope, and hopefully that came across. 

It seems to me that anyone passionate about either biology or filmmaking would find their time almost completely taken up by pursuing careers in either of those fields. To put it bluntly, how do you compartmentalize those interests of yours? It seems lately you’ve been more focused on the filmmaking side of things, but has that gotten any easier?

It’s an interesting question. Oftentimes when people ask me these questions they ask, “How did you go from being a biologist to a filmmaker?” To some extent I still kind of assume both roles, both identities. I never switched. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, “I’m going to leave the sciences.” As much as I crave sometimes to go to the lab and do experiments, a lot of the research I do is through the films that I make. I’m 100 percent dedicated to making films and also curating because I’m very interested in this idea of the Science New Wave. I organize a film festival around science and film called Imagine Science, which is (now) in its 14th year. I also have this platform called Labocine which is also trying to create a space for these types of films. 

But every film that I make brings me into a new scientific field. My next film is about the extinction, about bringing back (dinosaurs), you know, like “Jurassic Park” and going a little bit more into the science-fiction realm. I’m getting really interested in exploring those boundaries. And so, yeah, I really enjoy writing, I enjoy the research involved in making a film. And I really enjoy, speaking of scientists, asking them about their dreams. Not only about their science, but really kind of getting into that world. For example the tattoo scene (came from) me talking to a scientist and asking this guy at Cornell, his name is Bob Reed, who is the inspiration for the character of Bob in the film. I asked him, “What’s one of the craziest things you imagine doing?” And he said, “Oh, I wish I could inject myself with butterfly pigment.” and I was like, oh, as a filmmaker I should enable those dreams. I’m like the dream whisperer, or the animal whisperer. 

We think a lot about how science informs our humanity, about how we come to think of ourselves with new discoveries, and of the world around us. Your movies have me wondering how humanity comes to inform the science we pursue. I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve spent any time thinking about?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely. All my films also kind of go into childhood and why we do the things we do. I remember when I was a Ph.D. student and I’d go out at night with my friends and they’d be like, “What do you do, Alexis?” And I’d be like, “Well I work on sleep with fruit flies.” And they’d be like, “How did you ever even get into that field?” So I wonder quite a bit about (that). And it’s explored a little bit in Son of Monarchs with the grandmother and his interest in understanding how things work, the grana cochinilla and the pigment. But definitely I think there is something also interesting about science because we often talk about fate and about genetic code. There’s the nature versus nurture (debate), right? The behaviors and the characteristics, the traits, the way we look is obviously genetically informed, but also it’s partly the environment that we live in. 

So to some extent I love exploring these ideas of what we end up doing. Is it the environment, is it the genetics, is it our upbringing? There’s something called epigenetics which is (how) the way in which our parents lived their lives affect us because that information is basically passed onto us in epigenetic form, which means above the genes. All of this stuff really informs a lot of my films. That’s why I always have these sequences with the children. I also love scenes where people are in situations where they have to explain what they do, like in the bar scene, so, “What do you do?” It’s like, “Well, I look at butterflies and colors.” And then he says, like, “I’m kind of like God, I’m peering (down).” So definitely, those are things that really (apply). Especially when you have to self-analyze who you are and what you do, it’s a really interesting scene to have in a movie. 

Son of Monarchs is now available in select US theatres and will be on HBO Max from November 2, 2021