Science in Sci Fi: Writer Ian Shorr
Hollywood screenwriter Ian Shorr began his career as winner of a Sloan Screenwriting Grant from USC. He has gone on to become a prolific writer with multiple scripts featured on the Black List. His credits include: the new Paramount thriller INFINITE starring Mark Wahlberg and Chiwetel Ejiofor; Warner Borthers’s CRISTO; CBS’s TRAINING DAY; Magnolia’s SPLINTER; Fox’s CAPSULE, and more. We spoke with Shorr from his home in California about his career arc, his interest in science and science fiction, and his latest projects.
Science & Film: How did winning a Sloan grant impact your career and the kinds of films you want to make?
Ian Shorr: My experience at USC would have been very different if not for Sloan. That scholarship coming through allowed me to graduate. The script I wrote was called THE PROFITEER which was a tragi-comic rise and fall story about a fictional mathematician in Prague in the 1600s. He is a gambling, hard-drinking, libertine math genius who figures out the same discoveries of motion physics that Descartes figured out in real life. He uses them to become the world’s first war profiteer. He discovers that his theories allow you to aim cannons more accurately, so he starts hiring the theories out to warring factions around Eastern Europe, pitting both sides against each other and getting fabulously rich in the process, until it catches up with him and costs him everything.
When I was writing it, I wanted to write something that had a fun, propulsive sensibility. I was obsessed with the rise and fall story of GOODFELLAS. I’d never seen a period piece done like that. Because I know very little about science, history, or math, the script was heavily researched. I was so interested in that world, the character, and the moral arc of the story, that it made the research more fun and interesting.
Once I finished THE PROFITEER and won the Sloan prize, I didn’t really go back to that well in terms of writing historical fiction, but it did increase an already existing interest in science fiction. It taught me that if you have a main character that you connect with enough, you can make the story about basically anything. I remember when THE SOCIAL NETWORK was coming out people were like, they’re making Facebook the movie, are we really this out of ideas? But then, because it has this fascinating main character and is done so artfully as a story, something that might be dry or esoteric becomes thrilling. That’s something I learned from working on my Sloan script.
S&F: I noticed that INFINITE, as wild as the premise is, the story has a lot of technical explanations wrapped into it.
IS: I’m glad you brought that up. INFINITE is about as far from a scientific movie as you can get. My Sloan script was all about motion physics, and the original working title for INFINITE was FUCK YOU, PHYSICS, THE MOVIE. Things happen that make FAST & FURIOUS look like a documentary. So, on a visual level those two things couldn’t be farther apart, but one thing I took from working on my Sloan script that I still used while writing INFINITE was doing a ton of research to figure out how to explain the fun scientific concept I’m trying to get across. For example, in INFINITE there is a weapon that can digitally imprison human consciousness, so I started reading about Futurism and seeing what might be possible—the idea of digitized consciousness and putting part of ourselves on a flash drive.
Still from INFINITE
In INFINITE, the bad guy is someone who has been reincarnating since the dawn of man, and it’s essentially driven him insane because all of that repetition. One of the executives at the studio was like, can it really be that bad? What’s so terrible about being alive forever? So, I started delving into some research about what repetition does to your brain. You know how if you go on a car trip, the trip there always takes longer than the trip back? I found out the reason is that our brains go into “skim” mode when we’re going through something we’ve done before. When we’re experiencing a new thing, we are paying attention to details and are more present in the moment; the time we’re spending is more meaningful for us. Whereas, once we’ve already experienced something then time becomes less meaningful and passes more quickly.
S&F: So not exactly, time flies when you’re having fun?
IS: [laughs]. I mean, time flies when you’re having fun and also when you’re bored and waiting to get to the next thing. Using those principles that have a founding in real-life science to explore the otherwise fantastical concepts in INFINITE is a strategy that dates back to that original Sloan script.
READ MORE: Science and Superheroes: Interview with Nicole Perlman
S&F: Even the test about past lives using objects is something they do with Buddhist monks, right?
IS: Oh yeah. My mom is a super devout Buddhist, she’s been studying for decades, and I remember growing up and her telling me about how they would try and find the next Dalai Lama. They would show objects [from past Dalai Lamas] to young kids. That story stuck in my head while I was working on the script, and I was like, let’s set that at a police station and then have a giant car bust through the wall! It’s taking these powerful, sacred, religious and cultural concepts and blowing them up into a crazy popcorn thing.
S&F: Have you ever had the chance to work with a science advisor?
IS: About two years ago, I was writing a science fiction movie for Warner Brothers where the director wanted things based in truth as much as they could be, so I was talking with robotic engineers, veteran marines, people who work in AI, and it was incredibly mind-opening because there are worlds of development happening out there that some of us know so little about. It was one of those things where, any time I would get done talking with someone, the first thing that would go through my head was, I wish I was writing a nine season GAME OF THRONES world-building show where we could devote each episode to one of these concepts, because that’s the minimum it would take to truly explore it.When you write a two-hour movie, you just have to take the info that’s germane to the plot.
S&F: Do you think there’s a benefit to those advisory partnerships beyond fact-checking?
IS: Absolutely. First, it makes you a writer. Second, it makes you a better writer. You can tell as you go into a script, did this writer sit down with an expert, do interviews, read up on this, or did they skim Wikipedia and watch a lot of other movies on the subject? The difference is all in the details. By talking to experts in those fields and bringing their expertise to bear in your script, that automatically puts you at a standard of writing that it’s hard to go back from. It absolutely makes you a better writer and a more interesting person, because once you’ve lived in Hollywood long enough most people you meet, all they talk about is the movie industry. When you get lost in your research on a project, you find yourself having conversations you’d never have with your average executive or producer. As a whole, the point of writing fiction is to find some larger truth within that fiction, and the more you can connect your story to a grounded reality, the more potent that truth is going to be.
S&F: What are you working on now?
IS: I’m writing another sci-fi thriller at Warner Brothers that’s like THE BOURNE IDENTITY with an invisible man as Bourne. Through a piece of technology—that has a couple strands connected to reality—he becomes invisible and goes on the run, and we get to create this entirely new cinematic language. What does a fight scene or a chase scene or even a simple dialogue scene look like when you can’t see one of the characters, when you can only see the effects of their actions? Stories about invisible men usually make the invisible man the bad guy because it’s one of those powers that lends itself to bad behavior. When you’re invisible, it means you can spy and gaslight and torment—not really heroic stuff. Part of the challenge with this script was figuring out how you make someone with those types of powers the hero.
I’m also working on a horror, time travel script that’s about to go into production. I’m not the main writer, they just brought me in to do some last-minute work. It’s going to be super fun. It’s like BACK TO THE FUTURE meets SCREAM. I’ll put it this way, everything I love about time travel movies—the fun, humor, and emotional power of being able to change the past or reconnect with people—exists in this movie. It’s the only horror script I’ve read where I was in tears by the time it was over. The writer did an awesome job and I’m hoping I don’t screw anything up!
Ian Shorr’s latest film, INFINITE, is available to watch on Paramount +.
More from Sloan Science and Film: