Based on the autobiography by the same name, Adventures of a Mathematician tells the thought provoking account of Stan Ulam, a Jewish Polish mathematician who fled to the US in the 1930s and helps to build the first nuclear bombs to save his family in Europe. It’s an emotional journey through the times when science lost its innocence and shaped the world we live in today.
When you initially think of the infamous Manhattan Project, key players and events immediately come to mind like that of J. Robert Oppenheimer and World War II. However, the film Adventures of a Mathematician takes a deep dive into the worldview these men lived in, pointedly Stan Ulam and his journey to Los Alamos, the impact he left behind, and the moral impact the project left on him and his fellow brethren. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with writer-director Thor Klein, who adapted the book of the same title, and how his research influenced his screenplay, the importance of paying attention to every detail on screen. Plus, he shares invaluable advice for screenwriters adapting true stories.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What initially attracted you to this story about Stan Ulam?
Thor Klein: I started actually a long time ago, when I was about 13 years old, I came across this book in the library in my hometown, was called Who Got Einstein’s Office? And it was essentially told the story of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. And Johnny and Stan were in that book, because Johnny was one of the first guys who was invited to the Institute. And they were driving fast cars and had parties and it kind of fascinated me because I thought they are way more interesting than the boring math teachers I had in school. I thought about becoming a mathematician myself, but I wasn't really good at math, actually, to be honest, but I thought I might be a late riser. But when I was about 16 years old, I was sitting next to a guy in class who was clearly talented. It kind of depressed me. But at the same time, I had a great literature teacher, and he made me aware of the fact that I might be more interested in the stories of the ideas of these guys. And so, I kept reading about them and was always interested in mathematics and physics.
In film school, I came across Stan's book Adventures of Mathematician. And it had this beautiful friendship at the core of it, because what I realized, obviously growing older is that beyond the parties and the cars, there was the tragedy because they all lost their families. And what they had was these incredible intense friendships with each other because it was the substitute for their families. And so, I asked my producer, Lena, whether it would be possible to maybe option that book and adapt it into a film. She looked into it, and we managed to do it. And then I started to do research. And I went essentially from Stan's birthplace and Lviv, which was back in the days Lemberg, and now it's Ukraine, and to the East Coast and the West Coast and talked to a lot of old mathematicians in their late 80s about their experiences back in the days. It grew and grew and grew and it's developed into this screenplay, but it went through really various stages, because it was very much informed by the research I did. And the ideas I started out with, of course, changed because I discovered all these layers. It was a process that, I would say, about two years until I had the draft that I felt we could shoot this.
Sadie: It's incredible, that's quite the journey. And did you have direct access to any archives through Los Alamos and what he was doing and with his daughter and talking with her about his character?
Thor: Yes, I started my research with his nephew, Alex. He's a journalist in New York. I got in touch with him. And then I met Claire, Stan's daughter, and she was incredibly helpful. When I met her, because she was so similar in a way to Stan in the sense that they look similar and also, she was a very quick thinker, I could see him basically in her and that was incredibly inspirational. And at the same time, I used a lot of great archives, for example, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. It's an amazing place and the Library of Congress in Washington, where I could read the correspondence between Johnny, Edward, and Stan. And also, their way of dealing with each other was quite insightful. I made a made use of a lot of archives while doing research.
Sadie: In terms of adapting a book that’s based on a true story, there's only so much you can put in a movie - what were the things that you're trying to capture and make sure that you were nailing down in terms of character portrayal and thematic elements?
Thor: I knew from the beginning that I'm not afraid of complexity. What was really important for me to capture was, this was a very special generation of men, they were born in the Austrian Hungarian Empire, they had a certain upbringing. There is a certain way of dealing with the world that was very different from you know, from later generations. I mean, they were broadly educated, it was a different way of approaching education back in those days. And also it changed their worldview, it gave them a different worldview, especially when you think of a topic like Russia, for example. When you look at it, from today's perspective, our generation grew up in the Cold War and all of that. It's simple to say, “Oh, how could they do this?” It was clearly wrong. But when you know that they came from Eastern Europe and that a guy like Edward Teller, for example, he experienced Russia invading Hungary, so of course, he saw Russia in a very different way. And all that I wanted to incorporate and get right, in the film and into the screenplay, in order to allow the audience to view the moral question after they watch the film in a different way.
Sadie: There's definitely that moral dilemma for all of them. Tackling this piece as both writer and director, what was that writing process like for you?
Thor: Well, what intrigued me from the cinematic point of view in the first place was that Stan was, so to say, a side character in Los Alamos, he was in the periphery. And that's because usually, when you talk about the Manhattan Project, of course, you talk about Oppenheimer, the famous speech and all of that, but to have the possibility to show it from the outskirts of Los Alamos, and then moving into the center of it, that was something that I could clearly see how to do this. And that informed also the writing process. Also, I was very interested in shooting it in long takes. I knew that it requires a different kind of writing in a way, because you have to keep everything in motion. When you watch the movie, you will see that you cannot afford it if the character stops and sits - you're almost trapped. Also, it can be very powerful when you do it. It's incredibly powerful. But in general, to keep this going, the actor has to move all the time. And then that influenced the writing. So in that sense, the cinematic core of it influenced the way I wrote the screenplay.
Sadie: That reminds me of a scene that still stands out to me is when Stan’s brother is packing up his room to send him off to Los Alamos, and that movement Stan enters the room and their moment of connecting. It's so very rare that you see men who are affectionate and loving as brothers like that and having an emotional moment between the two of them - you know it's weighing on them.
Tell us about your filmmaking journey and what inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Thor: I started as a writer. I was always interested in it. I watched all these films, but I was very interested in literature and I also studied screenwriting in film school. I had this experience in film school that I wrote a screenplay for a 30-minute TV movie - in film school, there was this competition and myself and a director got selected - and I put a lot of effort into the screenplay. I really wanted to get it right and it had a very specific ending and the director completely ruined the ending and this really put me off [laughs] It was painful because I was helpless and I thought, ‘this cannot go on, I have to do it myself,’ I have to make sure this doesn’t happen again. And that led me into directing and then I realized that I felt very comfortable in that position. I love screenwriting but at the same time for me, the screenplay is something intermediate, it's not the final thing. A lot of the film is focused on the screenplay, because it's the only thing everybody can read and judge. But it's just words essentially, it's the film. And this is something that for me it's very important that you have the possibility to translate it yourself and onto the screen and that doesn't mean that I would never ever direct a screenplay that I haven't written myself, not at all, but just from my personal point of view, I see a screenplay as an intermediate thing.
Sadie: Do you have a daily writing routine, especially if you’re writing to direct?
Thor: I write every day. Usually, I start around nine at the latest. In the beginning, I was doing the nine to five thing, but then I realized that usually you have three or four hours where you're really completely sharp and focused and then you know it gets a bit painful. I mean sometimes, it has to be painful but don't press too hard for it.
Sadie: That is dedication.
Thor: Yeah, from the point of view, I also collaborated very closely with my DP and we discussed a lot of the scenes early on and also my producer, it was the three of us, we discussed it extensively. I did two weeks of rehearsal before I shot. Also, after that, I changed things and I also rewrite things on set. There are also scenes in there that I completely wrote that were basically written on set. In the way I approach this, you really have to react to things that you cannot foresee and if it's necessary to change something you should not shy away because as you only have this one chance of shooting this film and there is nothing more horrible than to leave from the set and know you could have done better. In general, I'm not afraid of rewriting stuff on set. It's not whole, it's not the Bible.
Sadie: And then in terms of art direction, which was so beautifully handled in this film, how much of that was from the writing in the screenplay, or mainly conferring with your production designer?
Thor: Actually, when I went to all these archives, I looked specifically for photos. Apart from the conversations, there was one particular photo that showed the prefab road they built back then in Los Alamos, and I knew we have to rebuild this from scratch, this is the thing. And so I told this to my production designer early on, “Go for it, rebuild this as good as you can.” And because we were dealing with a lot of locations that really exist, and that are quite iconic, like the Fuller Lodge, for example, I wanted to put as much focus on detail as I could. It was a close collaboration. And I knew my production designer, from before, so we could start early on with that. In independent films, if you don't have money, you at least need time, because once you enter pre-production, you have to know what you want, because you don't have the resources to change it all the time. I put a lot of effort into the details.
Sadie: Especially when it's a period piece, you can't really second guess yourself on set, you can’t bring a cellphone to make up for a landline phone.
Thor: Exactly. [laughs] And the thing is, we shot a lot of it about 80% in German, so we really had to get it right. Also, when it comes to picture cars, it was quite a challenge to get them all. And I brought also my production designer to Los Alamos so that he could see the place and that he could really take a lot of pictures. It's all these details, I mean, there's a light switch, it's, you name it, you have to be aware of everything, because when you have long takes, you also give the audience a lot of time to look at a particular shot.
Sadie: Any advice for screenwriters who are writing a biopic? What is something they should maybe avoid doing or should really like hone in when going through the writing process?
Thor: It's a difficult question because it really depends on how you approach it. You shouldn't be afraid of taking the poetic license here and there. I'm not saying you should do this all the time. But if you're sure that you can, you know, in German you have this word Dichtung, which is poetry, and it has this word density in it like to make something very dense. And sometimes in order to make something really dense, you have to squeeze things here and there, you should not be afraid of sometimes taking this poetic license. You should not be too afraid of that, "Oh, but what if someone comes and says this or that?" If it's convincing, the audience will buy it. Of course there's a line that you cannot cross if you deal with a real person, and you say the person committed a crime that he didn't commit, of course, this is something you cannot do. There’s a moral. Find a structure for something and you can take a poetic license, even Shakespeare did it, you know, I mean, it's not dogma.
Sadie: [laughs] Don't be afraid to lean into that.
Thor: I like very much what you said before about men showing affection to each other on-screen with a brother. I think that's because of course in the first place when you do a film about mathematicians people think oh, maybe mostly men will watch it. But with my experience, we played a lot of festivals and my experience was that the most interesting feedback also during the writing period, I got from women really, not saying that there was not interesting feedback for men, but I thought that a lot of women instantly got it what this was about. It's one of the most horrible cliches, but I heard it so often during the promo, it's a film for man because of all the bombs and mathematics, and it couldn't be further from the truth. I was glad that you mentioned the emotional part.
Sadie: It's a human story, there just happens to be really fun elements about what this man did for the world of science and math. Thor, thank you so much and I look forward to seeing what you have next for us.
Thor: Thank you so much.
Adventures of a Mathematician will be available in Theaters and VOD on October 1, 2021.