By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 22, 2014 at 5:23PM
The non-fiction series Emmy nominations leader, Fox and Nat Geo’s reboot of "Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey," landed 12 nominations including short-format non-fiction program, documentary or non-fiction series, and both writing and directing for non-fiction programming. Already winning an Emmy at last week's Creative Arts Emmy Awards Show is the show's creator, writer and executive producer Ann Druyan, the widow of Carl Sagan, who reimagined their classic 1980 television show "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." It was no easy feat bringing the science series back in a way that was accessibly entertaining to general audiences as well as accurately informative: she credits executive producer Seth MacFarlane for helping her to make that journey.
With his support, New York-born Druyan managed over many years to mount the thirteen-part television series for Fox and National Geographic networks, which premiered stateside on March 9, 2014 with an intro from President Barack Obama. Fox has also launched "Cosmos" in 181 countries on 220 channels.
Sagan and Druyan co-wrote the original "Cosmos" series as well as collaborating on many books, talks and articles from their home in Ithaca, New York near Cornell University, where Sagan was Associate Director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (CRSR). They also co-created Robert Zemeckis's sci-fi epic “Contact," starring Jodie Foster. Druyan was also Creative Director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project, which created a record of sounds and images to portray the life and culture on Earth. Two asteroids named Druyan and Sagan are in perpetual orbit around the sun.
The outstanding question is whether Druyan can convince Fox, Nat Geo and her charismatic host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (who did not cowrite the show with her the way her late husband did), to return for another season. The global warming show ratings were up 20% from the previous week, and an average 3.93 million viewers is damned good for a smart science show, but may not be strong enough to warrant a return. Fingers crossed that there will be another go-round.
Our telephone interview is below.
Ann Druyan: I didn't feel it needed to be updated. The original series is truly timeless. The fact that people still buy the "Cosmos" DVD in such quantities globally is a good metric. We're living in times of open hostility to science. I felt someone needed to make a case for science, for its perspectives, achievements and methodology. Seven or eight years ago I realized it was time to do a new series. There have been some good science documentaries, but "Cosmos" remained in an untenanted ecological niche. Let's say that there was good science programming, but there weren't any shows that combined the same kind of rigorous skepticism with equal measures of wonder.
Did you hesitate doing it without Sagan?
He was the most inspiring and most alive human being I have ever met. I was working with him, living with him and having a family together for 20 years. I can say with all my heart that up close he was a star even more impressive than as a public figure. He was really unusual. While I wanted to do another "Cosmos," I knew I had to get complete creative control so I could protect Carl's legacy and the work we did together and what "Cosmos" means to people. I had to find enough money so that the production values were sufficiently attractive and compelling, even to people who had no interest or some hostility to science, so they'd be attracted to it. The show had to be a transporting experience.
How did the networks receive you?
We went to the usual suspects like the networks, but couldn't get creative control or money to produce it the way we wanted to until Seth MacFarlane came along. He changed everything. He was committed from the beginning. I felt like we were building a Taj Mahal to Carl Sagan, because I know if Carl were alive he would be tirelessly working to connect and communicate with as many people as possible that we are facing challenges and we can't deal with any of them without science. Someone has to stand up and make that case. Seth MacFarlane and [Fox chief] Peter Rice gave me the opportunity to do it. I met Neil when he gave a talk at the Hayden Planetarium at the National History Museum in New York. I had already approached Neil, who introduced me to Seth, who asked, "What can I do to further scientific outreach?"
He wanted to get "Cosmos" on Fox so badly that he made an offer to pay for half of the pilot. Peter Rice said, "Put your checkbook away. Let me look at the original series." We gave him the "Cosmos" DVD. He called me back and said, "Let's order 13." "You don't want the pilot?" He pointed to the DVD: "That's your pilot. You know how to do this. We don't know how. We have never done it."
He gave us total freedom, with no interference except some instructive input from the network which made it a better show. He never told us to not say anything or to change anything. People were surprised that any commercial network would be so supportive. Fox stepped up. Here and there Seth did make some contributions toward additional things we wanted but couldn't afford.
How important were the production values?
I wanted the show to look gorgeous and I think it does. I wanted to be able to work with Rainer Gombos, our brilliant, disciplined and committed VFX supervisor, the magnificent Bill Pope, director of photography of "The Matrix," producers Brannon Braga and Jason Clark.
How important was finding the right host?
I had known Neil for 25 years. I was looking for someone to present on camera the information in the script that Steve [Soter] and I had written, so people would think it was coming from them. It had to be a scientist, someone who had that charismatic ability to connect with the audience. Tyson did not write a single word. In the beginning we talked about him collaborating with Steve and me, but he recognized that it wasn't happening. Steve and I collaborated on the first draft of all the episodes, went up to Ithaca, locked ourselves in my house for 11 months. It was intense and massive.
Neil is a scientist, which is what I wanted. I adore him. I wanted to make the case for science in the strongest possible way. I can't think of a better living host narrator than Neil, he gave it everything he had, he believed in it. He was willing to work under the most arduous conditions; I really admired his performance and his commitment to it.
It was so grueling. I said, "I can't do this." I had no life while we were doing it. I continued over the last couple of years myself. We did over 25 drafts of each hour. I enjoyed it. I'm lucky that I have never spent time working on projects that I'm not completely committed to, lucky that my family believes in what I do. My children visited me on location in LA, so I felt nothing but constant support from all my loved ones. I also adored the people I was working with.
The writing must have been overwhelming.
Who came up with the animation for the back stories of the scientists?
Animation was Seth's idea. I was taken aback at first, but then I realized that it was a brilliant way to bring these stories of these heroes of knowledge to life. Kara Vallo, who produced all of our animation, assembled the team of artists. I feel proud that each one is like a little graphic novel in different film styles. We were able to attract big voice stars like Patrick Stewart, who plays the discoverer of Uranus (astronomer William Herschel), and Kirsten Dunst (astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, the first person to understand the true composition of the stars).
I was also very hopeful, and one of the reasons I wanted to do this, was to give everyone, especially the young, the sense of the heroism in trying to find how nature really works. We don't tell those stories. Nobody knows Clair Patterson (Richard Gere), the guy who discovered the age of the earth, or that lead gas was poisoning everybody. I wondered what it would do to our culture if we had heroes like that on TV?
Who came up with the vehicle that travels with Tyson through space and time?
The Ship of the Imagination was in the original series. Seth was hurt by a lot of the criticism of the ship. I was not excited about putting the ship in the new series, but Seth was vehement, he felt strongly that it had to be there. I'm so glad he won the day. It really does make it a different kind of transporting experience.
How much material did you retain from the original series?
Safely 99% of the material is new. The cosmic calendar concept is from the original; certain aspects we repeat, like the human evolution sequence which was animated is a drawing from the first one-celled organism to us. We used some passages which Steve and Carl and I wrote together in the first show when I felt it would still be the best way of saying what we had to say.