Other Worlds Interview: Around the Sun

How writer Jonathan Kiefer turned a science text into a romance

Location, they say, is everything. The slightest change has consequences, and each site has different appeals. For screenwriter Jonathan Kiefer, shooting his film Around the Sun in Normandy meant being close to the source material – as well as one bonus. He could figure Calvados, the region's signature apple brandy, into the script.

"Screenwriter’s prerogative!" he explained, and he even wrote a brief essay on the warming spirit. But the real reason for Kiefer and director Oliver Krimpas to shoot in the historic countryside of Northern France was to give geographic resonance to his story of alternate worlds, as filtered through the story of two people walking around a French estate.

The unlikely inspiration for the film (which receives its local premiere this weekend at the Other Worlds Film Festival) is Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds – or (to give it the original French title) Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes. If it sounds like a scientific text – that's because it is. Published in 1686 by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, it's an early version of the contemporary pop science book. Fontenelle, an academic and poet who wrote the book while in Normandy, wanted to explain the relatively new concept of the heliotropic model – that the Earth went around the Sun, not vice versa, and that every star was another sun, and that there are other worlds out there. So he wrote a series of conversations between a philosopher (a proxy for Fontenelle himself) and a marquise (often seen as being based on Madame de la Mesangere de Rouen, his host), as they stroll around the gardens of her manor. So it's no dry tome, but rather a playful and often flirtatious exchange of ideas.

Jonathan Kiefer's script takes the essence of Fontenelle's work – a man, a woman, a French chateau, a discussion about multiple worlds – and contemporizes it in both character and concept. Bernard (Gethin Anthony) is a location scout for a film, sent to check out a French chateau. He is shown around by Maggie (Cara Theobold), a fellow English expat who works for the firm that now runs the increasingly dilapidated house. At least, that's how this begins. There are other Maggies, other Bernards, going through similar situations with micro-differences, each of which add a little more perspective and detail to the characters. Other worlds indeed.

Austin Chronicle: There's a line in the script about the relationship between location and story. So which came first, the script or the place?

Jonathan Kiefer: The place definitely came first! Which is unusual. After another project fell through, I was in a very determined use-what-you-have mood, and what my like-minded director friend Oliver had, amazingly, was access to a French chateau. I came up with a handful of ideas for movies that could be set there. Some of the ideas were lame, some were OK, and even the good ones just seemed sort of conventional. And probably too conventional for our very limited means. But then when I discovered the heritage of the chateau, in particular its relevance to the history of astronomy, that really inspired me. I read Fontenelle’s book, and loved it, and kept coming back to that, wanting somehow to acknowledge and respond to that. Even though it seemed just so ridiculously specific. But then I thought: What the hell, it’s a tiny indie film, what have we got to lose? Specific is good. Thank goodness Oliver got it right away and loved it too.

AC: Further on that point, I've known several filmmakers who said they wouldn't have shot their film if they couldn't film at a particular place. Was that true for you?

JK: Ha, yeah, so: After basing literally the entire project on the assumption that we’d be able to shoot at this one particular chateau, we then weren’t able to use the chateau. Long story. But of course the mood had only become more determined. Ah, filmmaking! It helped to remember that the movie isn’t a documentary, and variation is part of what it’s about. Well, Normandy being Normandy, we were able to find another suitable chateau right nearby!

AC: The other essential element is obviously Fontenelle's work. How do you find yourself making an adaptation, of sorts, of a 300-year-old scientific paper dressed up as a playful exchange?

JK: He dressed it up very nicely. The book is so charming, so amazingly readable, even today. And that was by design: Fontenelle wasn’t breaking the news of heliocentrism; he was liberating it from the rarefied academic realm of the scientific community – writing deliberately for a lay audience.

"Fontenelle’s book has a beautiful spirit of speculation. I love how he remained so receptive to imagination." Around the Sun scriptwriter Jonathan Kiefer on the inherent romanticism of the story, and the original text on which it is based.
Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds was the first literary work of what we now describe as popular science. His insight was to transpose a Socratic dialogue into a kind of courtship, and I am the sort of person who thinks, hey, that’s a good idea for a movie. What I hoped to convey, and I also hope audiences will find meaningful, has to do with the possibility of human connection against astronomically long odds. What I've said is that it's a story about the bittersweet yearning for kindred spirits, which we all feel in the most intimate and most cosmic ways.

AC: From a narrative perspective, you set yourself a very specific challenge – that the characters are both changing and constant. That each parallel iteration is distinct, but that each gives a little more detail about the underlying characters and stories of Maggie and Bernard. What was the process for developing that aspect of the script?

JK: Finding my way through that challenge was my favorite part of writing it. I’ve joked that the movie is so frugal that it even recycles its own scenes. As noted, we’re a very modest operation, and truly had to make do with as few resources as possible. I liked the challenge of that, and wanted to explore variation itself as the main source of narrative tension. Helpfully, there are precedents for this sort of story structure in recent world cinema, and even in recent Hollywood cinema. And it makes sense. Our main characters both actually say something about how in their minds they went through a few versions of how their meeting could go. I think we can all relate to that, and I think movies are good at describing that. It was fun to try.

AC: There's a tiny detail in the exchange about blondes and brunettes, which seems like a very specific nod to divides and similarities between the real Fontenelle and the Marchioness and the characters in his book. How much did the book guide the story, and what was the inspiration behind the more contemporary elements, like the fate of the chateau and the revelations of the connections between Maggie and Bernard?

JK: Fontenelle’s book has a beautiful spirit of speculation. I love how he remained so receptive to imagination. And I hope the movie gives a sense of that. Also the book itself becomes a plot point of sorts, and I take a certain highly geeky pride in the idea of a whole movie about people coming together over some old book. I was interested in the dissonance – and harmony, occasionally – between reality and our representations of reality. That includes the disorientation that must have come from realizing that Earth isn’t center of our solar system … but also the micro-scale discoveries we make in relationships too, like the similarly important one about how we’re not the center of the universe after all. Both characters have some of me in them, and some of those contemporary elements came from variations on my own life experience and feelings, as filtered through wondering what circumstances might bring these people together.

Around the Sun

Sunday, Dec. 8, 11:15am
Other Worlds 2019, Dec. 5-8 at Galaxy Highland. Tickets and details at www.otherworldsfilmfest.com.

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