I’m a Summer Science Screenplay Intern

Attention conservation notice: This is about my new summer internship writing science movies for NEMAC, a science outreach organization based in the campus of the college I attend.

From my NEMAC Student Researcher/Intern Project Description Form:

Jennifer is part of a 10-member team creating a series of all-ages educational science movies about water issues in Western North Carolina. Her team includes two animators, earth science profesionals, the French Broad Riverkeeper, a professional storyteller and an immersive cinema designer. Jennifer is a script intern helping create screenplays for four short films exploring WNC-specific water science and conservation issues including drought and the effects of runoff and impervious surfaces. This film series will be professionally voiced and animated and shown to people and policy-makers all over the area in an immersive half-dome cinema.

Check out the half-dome, yo:

Cool, huh?

The guy who designs these works not far from me. I have followed his career for years; my impression is that he’s really admired among Asheville’s technorati and new media types for running a successful and incredibly cool business involving the ground-up creation of immersive/unusual film experiences.

Check out his company’s amazing client list.

Anyway, he’s the one we are making the movies for in part, to showcase a half-dome cinema like the one above. We’re also educating people about water issues, a growing concern everywhere including NC where drought and record-breaking heat have hit us yet again, after a miserably droughty 2007. (We just went through a beastly bout of 90-degree weather that felt like the worst of August — and it’s still springtime.)

This internship started back in April/May when I was still in school, when I got an email telling me about an Americorps job working for The Media Arts Project, an Asheville new media organization that I have long admired.

But I couldn’t work full-time, much less at Americorps rates; someone with my level of experience deserves better pay. I deleted the email wistfully.

A few days later at school I decided to look over my required departmental competencies, a list of things students need to do or have before you can graduate that largely lie outside of taking classes. Stuff like having a portfolio and getting a two-week gig shadowing someone at work.

Lately my friends Rowan and Heather are really starting up the fascinating extracurricular things college students are SUPPOSED to do, but that older students make excuses to avoid. Heather’s doing medical volunteering and Spanish immersion in Bolivia; the world-famous Rosie is interning as the first person hired by a local hospital’s multi-million dollar alternative healing program, and came within a hair of traveling to Ireland to do research.

Me? I was planning to spend summer working and sitting on my ass in the evenings with a DVD and a string bag. It was time for me to do the things college students are supposed to do. All of them, like exploring new things and not getting paid much for it, all summer long.

An internship, a REAL one not taken to just check a box on my yellow competency sheet, sounded like exactly what I needed. I mean, traditional college students don’t intern so they can graduate. They intern to try something new, to go somewhere new, to see if they like something they think they might want to do forever. Without these experiences you might end up at the mall selling handbags. With them, you might end up blogging from an internet cafe in Bolivia about how now you are absolutely certain that medical outreach is what you want to do for the rest of your life.

I thought of The MAP and how they were hiring. I couldn’t work full-time…but did they need an intern?

I emailed the exectutive director of The MAP and said I was a professional freelance writer looking for an internship, and that my interests were in documentary screenwriting, scientific visualization and science writing. Her reply pretty much boiled down to “Have we got a job for you.”

When we watched the first movie the team had produced, it surprised me with how well-done it was. I had quietly expected local work to be sub-par, but it soon became clear that I was working with Asheville’s cool kids.

When I was in my early 20s a friend auditioned for a band. They were older than him and a lot cooler and a lot more experienced playing music. We called them “the cool dudes.” They tolerated my friend hanging around, but never asked him to play with them. At this meeting I felt like I had lucked onto the cool dudes, and they wanted me to play.

On my second day I met with the primary screenwriter, a professional storyteller. He knew so much about narrative and used intriguing phrases that made my mind explode with curiosity, like “charismatic image” and “involvement device.” At the end of our meeting he asked what I wanted to do and I said that I would just punch up what he was writing and since I wasn’t good at coming up with images, I would just write text.

He laughed. And he pointed out that people don’t do internships to stay in their comfort zone and do what they always do.

So that week I wrote my own screenplay draft, coming up with images, voiceover, the works. It was very well-received and everyone at the meeting loved it.

So of course at a later meeting my work was picked apart! No one was rude; I just got an honest critique of some very real problems with my work and got some serious insight about how not to present screenplay text.

It’s been awhile since I was an inexperienced newbie, and I was down all that day until I realized I was back at the start of a profession again, back to not knowing, fumbling, flailing, learning. And that there was no other way into these new things than to slog through ignorance, listen to others and ask questions, let myself be helped, be unexceptional.

At 39 I am an intern, a proper intern. I am being paid $10 an hour, having my picture taken for a bulletin board, turning in a bio, filling out a timesheet. I am new and I am allowed to be ignorant. It takes experience, confidence and competence to recognize that ignorance can be OK sometimes. This is one of those times.

I welcome my ignorance as part of giving myself a strange new skill in a strange new world where a writer is both robbed of her power by being forced to say less, but given a new and numinous tool: visuals. I am learning to write multiple streams for eye and mind and ear all working together.

I filled out my NEMAC paperwork with an absolutely beautiful tall woman in sandals who wore a long red scarf. She was intelligent and charming and genuinely concerned that I learn and experience new things. My whole intern experience has been permeated with a strange flavor that tastes of kindness and science and other new things I don’t always get to taste at work and had never expected to any more than I expected to find a $50 bill in my shoe this morning.

Walking out of the small NEMAC office it hit me what I was searching to understand, the strange new factor that was making this job so different: This is the first job I have ever had that is not driven by profit.

NEMAC must work to stay alive and thrive but its goal is not to further itself financially but to work with and impart scientific knowledge. The constant tension of money is here, but it’s not in every transaction of word and deed.

I walked down the hall of the chemistry department where NEMAC is housed feeling such a strong attachment to and happiness with the world of academia and nonprofit that for the first time UNCA started to feel like a forever place, like an intellectual base of operations one could base some of one’s life work out of.

I walked back to my car. Outside a summer downpour had begun, complete with crackling lightnings and such wet and pounding rain that it soaks the exposed part of my backpack not covered by my umbrella. The water rushes along the sidewalks and washes over my feet, covered only by flip-flops. As I walk, my pantlegs get wet almost to the knee from soaking up water from rivers of runoff I walk through, flowing over the campus streets and sidewalks.

I cross the street and stand in the middle of the road right on the yellow lines in the middle of a clear, shallow sea of rainwater that rushes at my ankles and thunders down the three storm drains I can see.

I am stilled here because the movies I am writing have let me know that the runoff that rushes down the drains is fast-tracked into my local river, the French Broad. This makes the river’s water level rise far faster than it would otherwise in a storm. Without the impervious surfaces of human life, rainwater falls on earth, leaves and branches and makes its way to the river very slowly.

But storm drains, the ones that choke down those silty orange rivers that flow down your street so deep you can barely drive through them, they send all that water to the river as fast as it can go.

Impervious surfaces and storm drains don’t cause flooding. They just give it a major artificial assist and deny the ground the water it soaked up for centuries before asphalt.

Knowing things I never knew before, I walk back to the car under my pink umbrella and drive home, kicking up orange rooster tails as I plow through the worst of the water, thinking of floods.

All-Asheville collaborators:

Klein Digital


David Novak, kind to interns

The Elumenati

The Media Arts Project


The Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum

4 responses to “I’m a Summer Science Screenplay Intern

  1. heather gourley

    Ooooohhh!! Im so happy for you!! How fun too. I cant wait to see how it develops.

  2. Hi! Laura Sue from Ravelry. I work in the Physics Department down on the first floor of Robinson. I wonder if you will look familiar when I finally meet you!

  3. LOL probably! Maybe you know my friend Heather Gourley, also a former chem student? I know more chem peeps that physics peeps, because it was when I tried to do physics that I knew I could not get a chemistry degree.

    DO come say hey on Saturday!

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