For filmmakers with science in their stories, theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson has a message from scientists: Talk to us.
When the filmmaking team behind “Palm Springs” wanted to bring a sci-fi element to a premise similar to “Groundhog Day,” they needed help. The movie finds a pair of wedding guests, Nyles and Sarah (Andy Samberg and Cristin Milotti) stuck in a time loop, forced to live through the same day again and again. To explain that, they needed some science — or, at least, a scientific advisor. Turns out, there’s a toll-free number for that.
Dialing 1-844-NEED-SCI leads to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program run by the United States National Academy of Science, which helps connect storytellers with the brainiacs they need. In the case of “Palm Springs,” the answer was swift: Oh, it’s about space-time stuff? You want to talk to Clifford.
That would be Clifford V. Johnson, the British theoretical physicist and USC professor whose input has helped everything from “Avengers: Endgame” to “Star Trek: Discovery” find a measure of scientific foundation. Over the last 15 years, Johnson has found a unique foothold in the industry. Listen closely to the physics chatter in the last big Marvel tentpole and you might hear a glimmer of his voice peeking in.
Johnson doesn’t poke holes in every impossibility. “I’m always looking for opportunities where I can help them tell the story,” he said. “When you’re building a universe as a writer or filmmaker, I can help you build those rules. They’ll be different, but inspired by the rules we have here.”
In the case of the time loop in “Palm Springs,” that required a reality check. “Not only do we have no idea if time travel into the past is possible, all the physics that we currently understand would suggest that it is impossible,” Johnson said. “Traveling to the past is science fiction, but my job was to make it believable in the movie.”
That meant avoiding the device of the “time travel machine” that made “Back to the Future” so implausible. “My suggestion was to have a naturally occurring phenomenon that they just unfortunately wandered into,” Johnson said. Ultimately, that leads to the earthquake that jolts the “Palm Springs” landscape at the same time each day, causing some sort of portal to open up in a desert cave near the wedding. When Nyles wanders in — and, eventually, brings Sarah with him — he’s trapped in a temporal hiccup.
“Perhaps some cosmic scale phenomenon has happened that fractured space and time itself, leaving this sort of defect, this closed loop of time,” Johnson said. He didn’t need more specifics than that. “It echoes ideas in theoretical physics,” he said. “No one really believes that this is happening somewhere in the desert outside Los Angeles, but hey — imagination is a wonderful thing.”
Johnson emphasizes scientific process over accuracy. In his 2017 graphic novel, “The Dialogues,” Johnson captures the way conversations about science can pervade every aspect of life. His top three sci-fi movies involve scientific diversity: He revels in the collaborative process of “The Martian” (“it’s all about problem solving”), the black-hole theories of “Interstellar” (“a lot of real science mixed with fictional stuff”), and precise skillsets necessary to communicate with the aliens of “Arrival.” (“I love the idea that the Jeremy Renner physicist is kind of irrelevant. It’s all about the linguistics.”) Johnson also appreciated the cerebral hard-science discussions of Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” perhaps the most realistic time-travel movie ever.(“He creates this atmosphere of how scientists talk and relate to each other.”)
When it comes to Marvel projects, Johnson said he throws ideas at writers and directors, then waits to see what sticks. For “Thor: Ragnarok,” his meeting with Taika Waititi yielded Thor’s line about forging his hammer “in the heart of a dying star.” When he sat down with the Russo brothers during the writing process for “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame,” Johnson wasn’t allowed to see the scripts for the ultra-secret duology. But he knew they wanted to play around with time. “The idea was to give them a lot of knowledge about what time-travel scenarios they could play with, but then step back and let them choose as writers what they were going to do,” he said. “I saw a lot of what I gave them onscreen.”
The solution to the Thanos snap in “Endgame” — when the surviving characters go back in time to stop the villain’s world-ending act — started with a question. “They wanted a time-travel heist to be the core fo the movie,” Johnson said. “One of their questions was, ‘What flavor of movie time travel do they use?’ I was trying to help tell them about the real science and the need for internal consistency.” That conversation inspired the amusing meta conversation in “Endgame” when Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man tick off a series of time-travel movies that Mark Ruffalo’s The Hulk dismisses as incredulous. “Every physicist I know loved ‘Back to the Future,’ even though the science is ridiculous,” Johnson said. “It’s such a perfectly made movie in terms of storytelling, but the science is silly.”
Johnson’s biggest initiative had less to do with scientific methods than the people behind it. “It’s so easy to put a dude in a white coat up onscreen,” he said. He pushed the “Avengers” writers to look beyond their marquee stars. “I was happy in a number of Marvel situations to say, ‘Hey, don’t have the main Marvel scientists, like Tony Stark, solve the whole problem,’” he said. “It’s always those guys who know any kind of science and solve all the problems. I would tell them to look for opportunities that you have in the real scientific world, where you go, ‘This is my bit of science here and that other thing is not my expertise, so let’s go to that expert.’”
In “Infinity War,” that input was reflected in the role of Shuri (Letitia Wright) helping the Avengers burrow into Vision’s head from the confines of her Wakanda lab. “It was great for them to show they had a big set of problems and needed the expertise of this young black girl in Africa to help us figure out this problem,” he said. “That was the kind of thing I was encouraging them to do.”
In “Palm Springs,” Johnson’s guidance had an unintended outcome. Originally, “it was a standard-looking science guy they go to for advice,” Johnson said. “I said that was an opportunity to show a different kind of scientist onscreen for a change.” The writers responded by asking Johnson to cameo. His scene lasts only a few moments, when Sarah contacts him to help her understand her situation, only to discover that she’s figured it out on her own. “She calls me to have a discussion and I quickly realize that my help isn’t needed here,” he said. “I liked that.”
Currently, Johnson is working with Disney+ on its upcoming “Ms. Marvel” and consulted DC on “The Flash” movie (with an earlier set of writers); he has also taken a very hands-on role as the science advisor for “Paper Girls,” the Amazon Studios adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan’s comic. But his dream gig would be a stab at the Fantastic Four, which was recently brought into the Disney’s MCU after licensing deals kept it at Fox for years.
“That is so my jam,” Johnson said. “Reed Richards was taking his team and they were going off into weird higher dimensions and stuff. That’s stuff we’re trying to understand now in real science, so I would love to have the opportunity to help them make that look great and to weave that into a story.”
More specifically, Johnson would like to see the Fantastic Four introduced into the MCU with Black Panther’s involvement. “Wakanda and the Fantastic Four should connect at the beginning, and I know how to do it,” he said, noting that the African superhero was originally a scientist in the comics. “I think it would be a cool wink to the comics and another way to show diversity in science to have the entry point of the Fantastic Four into the Marvel cinematic universe happen because the Wakandans discover them in some extra dimension and bring them into the MCU,” Johnson said. “If they call me, I’m willing to go to town on that.”
Johnson said he’s been hired for many projects that don’t get finished, and he’s happy to work in the shadows. “On most things, I never get credited. But even in those cases, the work is worthwhile since the people I worked have learned how to better incorporate science into their future work.”
His physicist peers don’t always understand his side racket. “A lot of my colleagues go, ‘Why do you spend your time talking to these Hollywood people to help them get some science in there?’” he said. “This is huge to me. I’m trying to put science back into the general culture where it belongs. It was marginalized, became a special interest group. We can’t run a democracy that way.”
Popular culture is an entry point for his activism. “We should fix high school education and all that, but I don’t have the power to do that,” he said. “I do have the ability — through persistence, and a bit of luck — to help people who occupy themselves with film and TV, to see science there. Whether consciously or not, if you have that in entertainment, slowly but surely that will turn the ship toward a course as a society being more comfortable with science, so it’s less done by the other in secret laboratories by evil men.”
Johnson said he wants filmmakers to know that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. “If you went to film school and never met a scientist in your life, maybe you don’t want to bother them with your movie and want to make some stuff up,” he said. “Don’t do that. We are excited to give you opportunities to talk about the latest ideas out there. Slowly, movie by movie, TV show by TV show, you’re getting better representation in mainstream stuff — and that helps everyone.”
“Palm Springs” is available on Hulu starting July 10.