Scientist/Screenwriter, Professor Leads Double Life
To get a sense of the double life that materials science professor Keith H. Johnson is leading, consider two press releases: one from the MIT News Office and one from the The Twin Eagle Entertainment Corporation.
The MIT release carried a San Diego dateline, where Professor Johnson addressed the International Superconductor Applications Convention, describing a recently developed theory about the mechanism of high-temperature superconductivity (MIT Tech Talk, Feb. 12). This followed a paper published in the journal Physica C (Superconductivity) with coauthors D.P. Clougherty and M.E. McHenry.
The other press release, distributed from New York City in August, begins this way:
"The tanks were rumbling out of Moscow when Keith Johnson was finally able to get his call out of Leningrad to Twin Eagle's New York office."
Twin Eagle, it turns out, is the sole agent in the United States for co-production and service deals with Leningrad's Lenfilm Studios. And Professor Johnson's call to Twin Eagle president George Capsis was to confirm the signing of the first "post-coup" Soviet-American co-production deal.
And just how does Professor Johnson fit in to all of this?
Well, the deal is between Lenfilm and the professor for the production of his original screenplay, "Natalya's Decision." As described by the Twin Eagle release, the movie "examines the conflict of a young Soviet ballerina who must choose between leaving the Soviet Union for the United States and the pursuit of her personal goals, or staying in her homeland to help restore artistic freedom to the country she loves."
The story is set in the spring/summer of 1991 amid the background of the abortive coup and revolutionary political changes that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Backing up a bit, Professor Johnson first went to Russia in June as a technical advisor to Batterymarch Financial Management, a Boston-based investment and management company. As a personal favor to his friend, Batterymarch chief executive officer Dean LeBaron, he was helping to identify Soviet military technology that could be converted to possible commercial ventures in the West.
"We were caught up in what was happening and I thought it might be interesting to write a screenplay in terms of someone trying to decide whether to remain in the Soviet Union or seek a more stable life elsewhere," Professor Johnson said.
Such choices were presenting themselves to many creative people, both artistic types and scientists, and it was after attending performances of the Bolshoi and Kirov ballet companies that Professor Johnson decided to frame his screenplay in terms of a ballet dancer, believing this would have the most commercial appeal.
Professor Johnson wrote a "treatment," an extended outline of the plot and characters he planned to use, and showed it to some friends. One of them passed it on to an acquaintance at a Hollywood studio, which immediately expressed interest and contacted Professor Johnson.
What followed was essentially a serendipitous situation in which a first-time author-Professor Johnson had never written anything except scientific papers-found someone eager to use his brainchild.
The production company Noble Entertainment Group, in the same building that houses the Hollywood studio, heard about the story. The company already had been contacted by Lenfilm Studios for possible joint ventures, and Professor Johnson's proposed movie seemed a perfect vehicle. He had a contract within a few days to write the screenplay.
"I was in the right place at the right time," he said.
When Professor Johnson returned to Russia in August for additional consulting for Batterymarch and also to sign the production deal with Lenfilm, the Soviet Union's most prestigious filmmaker, he stepped right into the historic events of last summer.
"I was visiting a rocket plant when the tanks rolled into Moscow," he recalled. Later, in Leningrad, soon to revert to its original name of St. Petersburg, he stood in Revolutionary Square as the city's mayor defied the coup leaders.
The turmoil, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, required Professor Johnson to modify his original story line. In fact, he is still keeping a wary eye on events in Russia in case still more revisions are needed.
"I was rewriting even as the coup was occurring," he said.
When he was asked to do the screenplay for the movie, he studied and read some old scripts to get a sense of the form. "It felt very natural, and I love movies," he said, "but you have to work at it. There's a certain form that you learn-I guess you could compare it to learning how to do computer programming."
The Twin Eagle news release makes the point-perhaps unnecessarily-that Professor Johnson "is a unique individual, splitting his time between the development of screenplays and his career as a quantum physicist at MIT."
The San Diego Union, covering the superconductivity convention there, referred to the MIT professor "as something of a Renaissance man."
Both descriptions certainly seem to fit.
Professor Johnson, a Cambridge resident and a member of the MIT faculty for 25 years, makes the point that he is first and foremost a scientist. "I don't want people to get the wrong idea about that," he said.
"It's a left brain, right brain kind of thing," he commented.
But he has found the filmwriting project a welcome change from five years of intense superconductivity research. In fact, he is already working on another screenplay at the request of Noble Entertainment.
While he hopes "Natalya's Decision" will be a commercial success ("It's a good, romantic story"), he also thinks it can serve to depict the former Soviet Union and its people in a positive way and to point out the dilemma the situation there has produced for creative people and for the nations of the former Soviet Union.
"If all of them leave, they'll be left with nothing," he said.
In the meantime, Professor Johnson's film is in preproduction in Hollywood. About 70 percent of it will be shot at Lenfilm Studios in St. Petersburg and the remainder in Hollywood, where Natalya goes before the attempted coup. Ballerina/actress Katherine Healy, a principal dancer with the Vienna State Opera who made her screen debut at the age of 12 with Dudley Moore in the 1982 movie, "Six Weeks," has been chosen for the role of Natalya. Casting is being completed and shooting begins this summer.
Does Natalya stay in Hollywood after her country comes apart?
"I don't think I ought to give away the ending," Professor Johnson replies.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 23).