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Rebecca Miller on Novels and Film

Question: Did you intend Pippa Lee to become a film?

Rebecca Miller: Well, honestly, I started definitely with it as a novel.  I started right after I finished a book of short stories “Personal Velocity” and I had a publisher and I knew it was going to be published and so immediately I started on this novel.  But what happened was, because “Personal Velocity” when it came out, and I had not made a film for quite a long time ‘cause I couldn’t get any money for a long time.  And Personal Velocity, in a way, came out of the short stories.  I gave up making films, started to write short stories and decided to write fiction.  And then, was offered to make “Personal Velocity,” made it.  It had some success.  And then all of a sudden, I was able to make this film that I had wanted to make for 10 years, which was “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”.  And so, I got a chance to make it.  And I made that film.  Well, first, I made “Personal Velocity” and then I made that film.  So, that really took me away from the novel for a long time.  And after I was done with the second film, I was so shattered, kind of, that I didn’t have it in me to write a novel.  A novel, you have to be very robust in yourself.  You have to have really good mental health and really good, you know, just health, I think.  And I didn’t have, I just didn’t have the concentration, so I started to try and write it as a screenplay and I got absolutely nowhere, it was a disaster actually.  So I thought, no, okay, it’s not a film, it’s definitely a book and I went back, and then we were in Ireland and I just started to write and I…  and so it took me about two and a half years and I just wrote the book.  And then, about three-quarters of the way through writing the book, I started to see double, like, there’s certain way that I have where I like I start to see it double like I start seeing a film too.  And once I, once that happened, it was really… the book was really finished, fundamentally finished.  But I was starting to kind of add things on and pad things and take things away and that’s when I already knew.  So then I had it more or less finished and I wrote the screenplay.  Then I went back and I finished the novel.  And sort of, at the very end, they start to kind of talking to each other a little bit.  But I find it, for me, the best thing is if I’m going to do it, like I did with “Personal Velocity” too that I, it’s better if I’m not finished…  I’m almost finished with the book but it’s still kind of open like the wound is open and then it’s almost becomes like part of the same thing.  I don’t know what it would be like to write a book and then 10 years later, make a movie.  I don’t know what that would, that hasn’t been how I’ve done it ever so…

Question: What is it like watching actors interpret characters from your book?

Rebecca Miller: It’s really… It’s interesting.  I don’t, I mean, I sort of feel that Pippa in the book is always going to be Pippa in the book.  Like that Pippa will never be erased or substituted by anything else.  Although, I think that what’s…  So for me, I’m not really… I don’t think of it almost like it’s not really adapting the book as much as kind of almost reinventing it from the same knob, in the same idea because the film is actually completely different form than the book.  But I think that Robin Wright Penn who’s playing Pippa actually kind of, she gets this essence of Pippa.  Like what I was saying before about this essence, she really does embody a certain kind of… sort of an acceptance that Pippa has of other people in the world around her and a kind of grace that she has, that’s very, you know, that was really beautiful to see.  And I love working with actors.  I love, actually in a funny way, losing control because then, to me, you know, what the good ones do is so miraculous.  They kind of take it.  They…  It’s just exciting to see them… I don’t know.  You know, make it something else and yet it’s still the thing you made.  And yet, it’s more than what you made and different than what you made.

Question: How do you choose actors for your films?

Rebecca Miller: Yeah, it’s very interesting and I think it always remains.  I think the thing that keeps me hooked into that process is the all chemical, almost an alchemy that happens inside of the actor.  And, you know, in the end, it’s mysterious.  I mean, directing is a very mysterious process because you have to kind of, you don’t even really know how you do it.  I don’t think.  You have to influence almost like the magnetic filings of somebody’s insides, you know, in a way that isn’t, you don’t say it.  You don’t, like, come out and say what it is.  And sometimes you don’t know exactly, you don’t know exactly the result that you would like, but you have a sense of changing direction.  And, so it’s kind of, it’s kind of magic in a way, I guess.  I feel like the whole process has an element of magic to it in a different way than writing, which has its completely different satisfaction, just as profound but different.

Recorded on: 10/16/2008

Rebecca Miller talks about watching her novels become film and what it is like to select actors for characters she has created.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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