A Conversation With Ann Druyan, Co-Writer and Creator of COSMOS
By Kyle Hill on June 23, 2014
The only science communication effort bigger than Carl Sagan’s original series COSMOS may in fact be the updated series with Neil deGrasse Tyson, which ended its 13-episode run two weeks ago.
To dig deeper into the new show and the ideas driving it, I spoke with Ann Druyan in a phone interview. Druyan was the co-creator, writer, and producer of the original COSMOS, and reprised her role along with animation giant Seth MacFarlane for the new series. Our conversation is transcribed below, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Nerdist: Why now? Was the timing right for a new COSMOS?
Ann Druyan: Well, it took me seven years to get COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey on the air. So when I began, I felt that there was a much greater hostility publically to science than I had remembered from earlier in my life. I felt that it was incumbent upon those of us who cherish the essence and insights of science to make the case for it. Also, obviously many of us care about the challenges we face and the opportunities that can be only really met with science and the scientific approach. Global warming, space exploration, you can’t deal with them, you can’t even see some of these things without science, let alone actually go deeper into these subjects. As with the original series and everything that Carl [Sagan] and I did together, it was a kind of active citizenship for me. I wanted to make the case for science, and Seth MacFarlane provided us with the biggest possible platform. That was amazing.
N: When the original COSMOS aired it really was a pioneering science communication effort. Did you and the other writers/producers want to try for that kind of impact again?
AD: Oh yes. From the beginning my co-writer on the first drafts of all these episodes was Steve Soter. Steve and I had written the original series with Carl. I knew that we knew what COSMOS should be and is. We wanted to tell stories that we hadn’t told in the original series, and then we wanted to take some of the journeys that were in the original series but with a tremendously enhanced VFX capability. We wanted to transport a whole new generation of people around the world across the vastness of space and time.
N: What changes did the new COSMOS make in order to reach new audiences with more access to information?
AD: So much of the greatness of the visual impact of the series is due to Brannon Braga and to Rainer Gombos, our VFX supervisor. And Brannon had the ideal professional collaborator in Brannon and I who were lost in admiration for Rainer, who was willing to really to go through some 20 or 30 iterations of each shot until I was completely satisfied. He was just amazing. When we did the original series, we were among the first if not the first to use what was then called blue screen technology with Magicam. What an idea! We were able to link a camera to a computer, which could then cast a shadow as Carl walked through the Library of Alexandria. When we came back to this process and the way it had matured in the intervening 35 years, it was possible literally to simulate some of the phenomena in astronomy but also to really believe that Neil [deGrasse Tyson] was in that ‘Ship of the Imagination’ and could see what he was supposedly seeing out the window, reflecting on the skin of the spacecraft so dramatically…To do the “cosmic calendar” in impressive, three-dimensional glory… Our dinosaur in the original series were cardboard! Now Neil could jump out of the way of a giant millipede. There were so many things when we just felt the reality of it. So it was really fun to write [the show] for this enormous capability.
N: The episode on climate change, “The World Set Free,” shares its theme with the original COSMOS’ episode, “Who Speaks for Earth?” about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Did you want this episode to have the same emotional/political impact?
AD: For this one, Steve and I ripped off the great H.G. Wells, who had a vision of the Earth liberated from human violence and selfishness. It was both an homage and a theft at the same time because of our great respect for him and because [global warming] is really a challenge right now.
N: It was my favorite episode! It was really refreshing to see a mainstream show tackle such an important issue.
AD: Well my only other writer was Steve Soter. We wrote all of the series’ first drafts together about two years ago and then I carried on by myself. Steve is a real expert on climate change, besides being an astronomer and many, many other things. He’s been teaching a course at NYU on climate change for a couple of years so he has really steeped himself in this information. I sat here in my home in upstate New York during this grueling period years ago when we were writing the first drafts of every episode and I picked his brain. He knew so much about climate change that that was the genesis of that script.
N: I’ve seen every episode of the new show and I loved it; it seemed to focus a lot more on the animation and the graphics than the original, which relied heavily on sustained monologues to the audience with Carl. Was this a conscious choice? I mean Carl was an incredible speaker…
AD: He was. I was so thrilled with how many people online said that Carl doing ‘Pale Blue Dot’ was their favorite part of the series!
N: I have to admit, it was mine too. The COSMOS Twitter account told me that you found the old masters of the audio and you re-mastered it. It sounded fantastic!
AD: Didn’t it? I acquired the original masters, which I don’t think anyone has heard in almost 20 years. The first time I was in the screening room at our offices and sat down and listened to it on a really state-of-the-art speaker system, I had the feeling that it was the first time in nearly 18 years that I had heard Carl speak. Hard to tell he died. The text is spoken online by Carl countless times, but it’s always taken from the audiobooks, which is not Carl. I wept when I heard it because it truly was as if he was in the room.
But Neil though! There was a confidence in Neil because I think he was the best possible human being that we could have had as the face of COSMOS. I think he did a spectacular job. He is magnetic, he is passionate, and watching him with people around the world I find him to be so wonderfully generous, exactly the way I remember Carl being—always ready to connect and to give, never pretentious or snobby or withholding. I think his performance is absolutely wonderful.
We didn’t try to cut down on [Neil’s] part of it; it was that Seth [MacFarlane] had the brilliant idea of animating the stories of the ‘Heroes of Knowledge.’ Until he proposed that to me, I was imagining schlepping through Romania or Bulgaria to film live-action dramatic recreations, which nobody was excited about. The network thought that it would be a turn-off for their audience to see muttons chops and beards and those frilly Seinfeld shirts. Seth said ‘well listen, we have an army of animators here.’ Those animated sequences work so well because they feel like little graphic novels and they capture the emotional tone of what I was going for in the script. We reshot certain parts at the very end of production because Brannon and I and [cinematographer] Bill Pope needed more Neil, and we’re glad we did that because he is so strong.
N: Though it didn’t focus as much on the stand-ups, Neil really does just leap off the screen. And he happens to have the medical condition known as “velvet voice”…
AD: Absolutely! He’s a joy. I’ve known him 25 years and I’m deeply fond of him.
N: COSMOS has to be one of the largest science communication efforts perhaps since the last series. What’s next? Is this the final chapter or could there be another COSMOS for the next generation?
AD: I hope that everything I do for the rest of my life will be reflective of the same values that are in this COSMOS and the original COSMOS and Contact and in the books that I’ve written and that I wrote with Carl. I’m lucky. I’ve never had to work on anything in my adult life that I didn’t have total convictions about—what a luxury that is! Offers are coming in and I’m thinking about them. I have some projects that I have some passion about that I want to get going. I’m taking a little bit of a vacation after pretty much four years of full-time, seven-day weeks. So I’m celebrating with my family, enjoying the beautiful spring in the Northeast and I’m thinking seriously about what I’m going to do next. I don’t have an answer for you yet, but I know that it will be true to everything that COSMOS stands for.
N: I see COSMOS having the same longevity that the original had. It seems to be one of those shows that you point the curious towards—this is what you should watch.
AD: Thank you so much. That was our aspiration from the beginning, and the fact that it’s been received that way is just the first of boundless gratification for me and my colleagues. It took a thousand people to really make this show.
N: Thank you Ms. Druyan so much for your time, I am a huge fan and I think your team did a fantastic job and thank you for talking with me.
AD: “Thank you Kyle! And call me Annie, I’m Annie to you from now on.
Annie Druyan is a terrific advocate for science, and in my mind there was really no one else to bring such a communication effort to the public once again. I was amazed that both Annie and my favorite part of the new series was Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” speech, which has never once failed in making me tear up. It was an absolute joy to hear her express her feelings on hearing Carl’s voice again (and I think we both teared up then).
If you couldn’t tell from my interview, I really enjoyed the new COSMOS. You can read my full review of the show here.
Want to relive the wonder? The Blu-ray/DVD copy of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey is now available. In it you can take in the series’ glorious HD visuals and message once again and even dive into an interactive version of the “cosmic calendar” yourself. It’s definitely worth the space on your shelf. I mean, how much would you pay for the universe?
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.