Science Tales

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Awards recipients talk about their winning scripts that incorporate hard science in their storylines

By Noela Hueso

Three M.F.A. students from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television have been awarded Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Awards, which recognize scripts that demonstrate examples of real or plausible science.

Todd Goodlett, Mrittika Sarin and Aidan West have each received $15,000 grants, of which they were notified in July, in the 2018-2019 competition to further the development of their scripts. Just ahead of the annual colloquium, in which interested M.F.A. screenwriters and directors can find out more about the next competition, the current winners sat down to chat about their scripts.

Todd Goodlett, Psychedelic (hour-long TV pilot; behavioral science)

In researching material for his Sloan competition script, Texas native Goodlett came across a 2017 Vulture article about Cary Grant’s use of LSD in the late 1950s. According to the piece, “an existential crisis in his 50s” led Grant to take the psychedelic drug (a reported 100 times) in the controlled office setting of his Beverly Hills doctor, Mortimer Hartman. Grant credited the drug with changing his life for the better.

“He went on to make some of his most of his memorable movies after LSD therapy, including North by Northwest and An Affair to Remember,” Goodlett said, adding that “psychedelics are making a comeback today; there’s a lot of research that suggests that there are beneficial qualities in that treatment for depression, alcoholism and terminal illness.”

With that in mind and because of his personal interest in behavioral science, Goodlett, who received his M.F.A. from UCLA TFT in June, wrote Psychedelic, a period piece set in Los Angeles during the very era in which Grant was using LSD.

“This is definitely a story I like telling because it incorporates personal elements from my own life. I’m a big believer in mental health,” he said. “It’s about a leading psychiatrist who is very successful but privately is depressed and doubtful that he is truly helping his patients. He discovers LSD himself and believes it’s the treatment of the future.”

But when the psychiatrist and a UCLA researcher he teams with experience a psychedelic therapy that goes horribly wrong, “they start to weigh the benefits of the drug with its potential dangers,” Goodlett said.

To make the science in his script accurate, he relied on his Sloan mentor Ariana Anderson, UCLA assistant professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “She was the first person I had talked to,” he said. “She read multiple drafts of the script and sent me research and topics such as Ritalin psychotherapy,” which was also popular during that era — and which ended up making an appearance in the script. When it came to writing accurately about the era itself, though, Goodlett was on his own — and out of his comfort zone.

“The language is different, cars are different, things in L.A. are different,” he said. “I had a character driving on the 405 freeway. Then I looked it up and realized the 405 wasn’t constructed at that point. You’ve got to think about all the details of the time. That was a challenge but it was a lot of fun, too.”

Mrittika Sarin, Scarce (feature film script; earth sciences)

“Water, at the end of the day, is life. You need it to do everything,” said Mrittika (Mou) Sarin, a second-year M.F.A. screenwriter, whose concern about water scarcity around the world — a condition that is affecting approximately 700 million people in 43 countries — led to the creation of her script Scarce, a crime thriller that shines a light specifically on the water crisis in Sarin’s native India.

Scarce takes place in the growing tech-centric metropolis of Bangalore, which, by some accounts, will run out of drinking water by the end of 2020 due to years of urbanization and inadequate water management. (According to a recent article, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board can supply water to only about 60% of the city.)

For her Sloan script, Sarin said she “wanted to take on the challenge of dramatizing climate change. When I heard about Bangalore, it all came together. The script is really attempting to bring light to a variety of causes as well as symptoms of water scarcity and asks the question, ‘What do we do about something as big as climate change?’”

In the story, Saras, a cynical, low-level IT worker in the Indian Space Research Organisation reluctantly agrees, at the urging of her idealistic 16-year-old son, to use her resources at work to help an underprivileged community that has run out of treated water. At first, “she feels like there isn’t much she can do about the world and its problems,” Sarin said. As she digs deeper into the issue, “she discovers the complexities of water stress…it’s a cycle where everyone keeps blaming other people involved and nobody takes responsibility for the crisis.”

The government and the so-called “water mafia” — private traders who supply water at a cost — figure prominently in the script. In the end, “she creates a code to find different chemical compositions in water, using satellites and remote sensing technology, based on her algorithm, to find water,” said Sarin, who consulted with Glen MacDonald, UCLA geography professor to learn more about the technology.

Sarin has always had an affinity for writing about science (and science fiction), so applying for the Sloan was an easy decision. At the same time, she likes to write about cross-cultural situations and social issues. “I want to impact the world in whatever small way that I can,” she said.

Aidan West, She Sells Sea Shells (feature film script; paleontology)

Second-year M.F.A. screenwriting student Aidan West, from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, was intrigued when he first heard about the Sloan Fellowship. Though he’d never written a science-based script before, he knew he was up for the challenge.

“It’s sometimes creatively interesting to get pushed into a different direction or to be given restrictions,” he said.

His Sloan script, She Sells Sea Shells, is a period drama based on the true story of Mary Anning, a young 19th century English girl from a working-class family who had a knack for finding dinosaur fossils near the eroding limestone and shale cliffs of Lyme Regis, a small coastal town and popular seaside resort in the county of Dorset.

“This is before the word dinosaur existed, when people still very much believed in the Biblical version of creation,” West said. “The idea that things went extinct wasn’t common knowledge even in academic circles.”

Anning’s dedication to finding fossils led to her discovering the first complete and correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton. At just 12 years of age, she became somewhat of a local celebrity and the subject of increasing curiosity by scientists who came to visit her from Oxford and London to see where these discoveries were being made. Her curiosity in fossils continued into adulthood and she made it her life’s work.

West found Anning’s story to be “endlessly fascinating."

"She achieved so much, when she had basically every imaginable obstacle in her way,” West said. “She was a woman, working in a field that didn't accept women into it. She was working side-by-side with England's greatest scientists when she never received a formal education, living in a town where hardly anybody knew how to read, and the entire time, she was supporting a family that was living on the edge of poverty. It's a great way to tell a story about class — Mary was constantly working with the most-wealthy, most-educated men in the country, even though she was different from them in every conceivable way.”

She Sells Sea Shells (the popular tongue twister from which the script gets its name is said to have been written about Anning) benefitted from the attention of UCLA Professor Dr. Blaire Van Valkenberg, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, and Mary Anning fan, who was West’s Sloan mentor.

“It was a great fit to have somebody who is already pretty aware of this person and why the story matters, read a couple of drafts and give me helpful notes,” he said.

Interested in being considered for the next Sloan Foundation Fellowships? Interested in becoming a faculty mentor? First, second or third-year M.F.A. screenwriters and M.F.A. directors who will advance to candidacy in 2019-2020 and UCLA south campus faculty are encouraged to attend the mandatory colloquium taking place Sunday, Nov. 3, from 10-11:30 a.m. at the James Bridges Theater. Lunch will be provided. RSVP at:

Posted: October 23, 2019