Making Science the Star
A Cherry Hill resident’s journey to the Cosmos
By Jayne Jacova Feld

During daily commutes to New York City, Cherry Hill resident Steve Holtzman passed the time consuming science books on tape, often pondering cosmic questions as the Greyhound bus pulled into Penn Station. For the father of three who makes a living in TV and film production, scientific exploration was a passion, albeit a hobby.

However, his space/time destiny changed, with an unexpected call in 2012 to meet with executive producers working on a long-rumored update of “Cosmos.”  Expecting a quick interview, Holtzman left the meeting hours later having landed what can only be described as a science lover’s dream job.

He would spend the next 15 months working in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, and traveling around the world producing the remake of astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s iconic 1980 series that launched Holtzman’s thirst for learning about the universe. The 13 episodes of the new series, named “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” aired earlier this year and is now available as a DVD box set.

“It has been amazing; I’ve learned so much more about the science,” says Holtzman, who spoke recently to SJ from “Cosmos” studios in Los Angeles. He was in the midst of tweaking the final episode in the series that, according to National Geographic, was the largest global rollout of a TV show in history, appearing on 220 channels in 181 countries and 45 languages.

As the line producer, whose name appears in the credits at the start of each show, Holtzman’s job was to “translate the vision of the directors and executive producers into reality. It’s my job to break down the scripts and figure out how we are going to make the show,” he explains. “Then I put together the team to make it happen. I’m responsible for the crew in South Africa, the visual effects house in Paris and the set construction in New Mexico.”

To be sure, there were creative challenges. More than 30 years after the original “Cosmos” revealed the universe to a mass audience, the remake takes it up several notches. Thanks to innovations of the last 30 years, the majesty of the universe has been repackaged for a tech-savvy audience. Now more sophisticated, these new viewers are primed for learning about dark matter, parallel universes and exoplanets – even if their curiosity stems from television’s “The Big Bang Theory.”

Some “Cosmos” scenes were filmed in studio

Some “Cosmos” scenes were filmed in studio

From the technical standpoint, the job has kept him busy. The hour-long segments required filming all over the globe, from South Africa to the Arctic Ocean. The team created more than 1,500 high-end visual effects, including the continued use of the “Ship of the Imagination,” which bears resemblance to the deck of “Star Trek’s” Starship Enterprise. Moreover, some 130 minutes of animation included the voices of actors Richard Gere, Patrick Stewart and Kirsten Dunst, among others.

While Holtzman has worked on many hit feature films and reality TV series, the “Cosmos” experience felt more like working on a mission than an actual job. And not just for him. It attracted some of the biggest names in the arts, entertainment and science worlds, including Sagan’s heir apparent: rock-star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who hosts and narrates the show. It showcases visually stunning images from deep space – thanks to the Hubble and Kepler Space Telescopes and the Mars Exploration Rovers – and tells the story of the heroes of science with sophisticated animation.

And from the very beginning, Holtzman says it was apparent that the legendary astrophysicist’s intent would not be compromised, especially since Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan was the driving force for the project.

“We felt like we were doing something important by bringing real science, combined with entertainment, to TV,” he says. “I’ve never worked on a show in which so many people have responded so positively to what we were doing.

“The hashtag #mindblown has been a very common thing to see on Twitter during the show’s commercial breaks,” he adds.

Back in 1980, before the Internet could bring images of the red planet and deep space to people’s smartphones, “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” aired on PBS. Then, like now, decisions affecting the world seemed to be governed more by fear-mongering than scientific reasoning, says Druyan, recalling the global nuclear arms race that employed a large number of scientists and the lack of media attention given to scientific breakthroughs of the day. As Druyan explains it, she and Sagan were convinced the public was hungry for knowledge – and capable of appreciating nuance and complexity.

“We felt that science has a story to tell because it’s been so rigorously tested,” recalls Druyan, who wrote the original “Cosmos” screenplay with her husband and astrophysicist Steven Soter. “It’s like the John Lennon line, ‘Just give me some truth.’ People respond to authenticity when exposed to it.”

They turned out to be right. “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” went on to win three Emmy Awards and become PBS’s most-watched series until Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” a decade later. More than 700 million people worldwide tuned in as Sagan introduced them to the Cosmic Calendar, explained the Big Bang Theory and stopped to admire the desolate beauty of Mars.

Sagan often appeared on late-night television as the voice of scientific reasoning. When he became sick with the blood disorder myelodysplasia in 1994, it coincided with what Druyan calls the “retreat into magical thinking” of the late 1990s into the beginning of the 21st century. These were dark days for science, she says, as creationists were making headway in public schools and calling the study of evolution into question. Meanwhile, researchers tied to oil, auto, electricity and coal industries spread skepticism about global warming. Sagan died in 1996 at age 62.

“Among the infinite pangs I have felt since Carl’s death has been a recurring sense that there was no longer a voice for science and reason on the national scene,” she says. “When Carl was alive, he was a kind of a one-man campaign against all types of foolishness.”

Although there was interest in remaking “Cosmos” over the past decade and Tyson was early to sign on, Druyan says she consistently rejected the offers, which sought too many compromises. The project regenerated with a 2008 meeting between Tyson, whose day job is directing the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Seth MacFarlane, the creative mind behind Fox’s “Family Guy,” at a National Academy of Sciences event intended to connect Hollywood writers and directors with scientists. The event was organized to encourage a more accurate portrayal of science in films and television.

“Seth, who also saw ‘Cosmos’ when he was younger, had such conviction,” recalls Druyan. “We sat down to dinner, and he made all kinds of lavish promises to get Fox to do it right. And he kept every single promise. I am so profoundly indebted to him.”

With Fox and MacFarlane on board, the project snowballed, attracting top names in the entertainment world, including director and executive producer Brannon Braga of the “Star Trek” franchise and “Ted” producer Jason Clark. The star power also included cinematic talent Bill Pope, director of photography for the “The Matrix” trilogy and composer Alan Silvestri of “Forrest Gump” fame.

Holtzman says his experience working on sci-fi shows, including the 2011 movie “When Aliens Attack,” put him on the team’s radar. Although he went to Yeshiva University in Manhattan thinking his path would be spiritual, he says he always knew he wanted to be a producer, even if he didn’t realize exactly what that meant.

He was trying his hand at writing for a living after college when he stumbled into the world of production as a researcher. His first taste of it, he says, was working on a commercial, which called for the use of menus from restaurants but had no budget to pay for them. “I went off and sweet-talked the owners of five different restaurants to let me use their menus, and I was hooked,” he says.

His first major production was 2004’s “Jersey Girl,” a Miramax film that starred Ben Affleck. While most of his jobs took him to studios in New York and Philadelphia, Holtzman, a 1983 graduate of Cherry Hill West, returned to live in SJ with his British wife Suzanne Levy, a writer.

For the “Cosmos” job, he, Levy and their 6-year-old daughter Melissa have lived in Los Angeles. Two older daughters from his first marriage have remained in SJ. While there were many tears at the parting, daily video conferences have helped the bi-coastal situation work.

Host Neil DeGrasse Tyson sits at the edge of Meteor Crater, what was left when an asteroid traveling 26,000 mph crashed into Earth

Host Neil DeGrasse Tyson sits at the edge of Meteor Crater, what was left when an asteroid traveling 26,000 mph crashed into Earth

Holtzman found that even though he was working with today’s great science minds and storytellers, both Druyan and Tyson were down-to-earth.

“Neil will pretty much answer any question you ask him about science,” he says.

Druyan, who spoke from Los Angeles just hours before she was to fly back to her home in Ithaca, N.Y., after two years of production, says Holtzman’s job was to keep everything on track.

“Thanks to his disciplined and unflinching production, we are so proud to be bringing this production in under budget and in a great state,” she says.

While “Cosmos” has generated large audiences and big buzz, it’s her greatest hope that the show does much more to educate the public.

“With ‘Cosmos’ remade, it may just be time that the pendulum is swinging back,” she says. “At the very least, it feels like this has exposed a yearning and an appetite for this kind of entertainment.”

July 2014
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