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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ann Druyan’s road to 2014 Emmy-nominee status began when she was a co-writer on the original 1980 Cosmos series on PBS, hosted by Carl Sagan, whom she married in 1981 (Sagan died at 62 in 1996). It was Druyan who led the charge to bring the program back to the small screen with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13-part series for the Fox and National Geographic television networks.
The new Cosmos — hosted by lauded astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson — garnered a dozen Emmy nominations, including outstanding writing for nonfiction programming and outstanding nonfiction series. Here, Druyan, 65, talks about her secret weapon to getting Cosmos made, her views on the state of space exploration and the “hard work” that’s necessary to preserve the quality of our place in the universe.
Why did you want to bring Cosmos back to the small screen?
It seemed we were in a period of intense hostility to science; it had been that way since around the year 2000. Something as simple as then-President Bush mispronouncing a scientific word was emblematic of a certain contempt. There was kind of a pride in ignorance. [And] textbooks were under assault for the teaching of established scientific concepts. It was time someone stood up for science and made the case for the scientific perspective. I wanted to remind the world of what Carl Sagan had been trying to teach us, not just the immensity and beauty of the universe, but also the fragility. Also, when was the last time a science show was on broadcast TV in primetime?
When did the project get underway?
Seven years ago, [executive producer] Mitchell Cannold, [writer] Steve Soter, [host] Neil deGrasse Tyson and I set out to explore the possibility, and Steve and I began working on the outline for the 13 episodes soon after that.
How did you get it greenlighted?
Two words: Seth MacFarlane. It was Seth’s absolute zeal to see Cosmos on Fox and [network chief] Peter Rice’s vision of what Cosmos could be. [Former Fox entertainment president] Kevin Reilly also played a big role, as did Allan Butler at National Geographic. But it was after Seth was on board and committed that I secured the creative freedom and budget I needed.
What was the biggest production challenge?
Getting the physics right for the visual effects. [Director and executive producer] Brannon Braga and I would sit with [visual effects supervisor] Rainer Gombos to finalize roughly 1,600 VFX shots. I vetted the script with a group of scientific advisers. The last thing I wanted was to get anything wrong and mislead the public.
Today we are seeing SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and the promise of going to Mars in the news. What are your thoughts on today’s science news?
It saddens me a little that NASA and other government space agencies of the world are not really in the vanguard of what’s happening. The idea of SpaceX concerns me a little because it feels like space tourism. It has its place, but the idea of the very wealthy getting to go places when the rest of us stay home doesn’t feel good. What was so beautiful about NASA is that it was incredibly democratic. It was for all mankind. It saddens me — maybe this is a generational thing — to see the privatization of something that should be a grand experience for the entire species. Even big corporations cannot afford what it takes to do multigenerational missions to other worlds. It requires so much capital that it’s more properly a collaborative venture of governments. It seems the age of these incredibly ambitious ventures by the U.S. are ending. Of course we do have one great mission to Pluto, the NASA mission which will arrive a year from now.
What overall message are you hoping the audience gleaned from Cosmos about space and our future on Earth?
We do have a future, possibly a much better one than our current circumstances. But it will take hard work. We have to roll up our sleeves and start dealing with the problems that science reveals that we are facing right now, as well as the great opportunities to explore and come to know the universe. I’ve often thought that pop culture is telling us: “Why should our kids want to do the hard work necessary to become scientists if our future is so bleak?” If you look at pop culture, all our fantasies of the future are dystopic — we are a ruined planet. In my view, it’s not too late for our planet. There’s still time if we get our act together. The continuity of life is nearly 4 billion years old. And at this moment, the fate of our species and so many other species rests on our shoulders.
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