March 2, 2015

SCA Family Stories: Jon Noble

The Sloan recipient discusses his film

Jon Noble

The Alfred P. Sloan foundation is on a mission to portray science in a respectful, accurate manner in film. To achieve this, every year they provide grants to filmmakers, screenwriters and other media professionals and students to craft stories that will boost the understanding of science.

Jon Noble, a recent grad from the USC School of Cinematic Arts was awarded a 2014 Sloan Grant for his story about a group of Polish scientists who fake a typhus outbreak during World War II – ultimately saving thousands of lives. Jon sat down with SCA Family stories to discuss his process, his time at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and how students can take advantage of the Sloan program.

Let’s start with your name and graduation year. Jon Noble, and I graduated in 2014 in the Film and Television Production division.

Can you walk me through what the Sloan grant is? The Albert P. Sloan Foundation is a huge foundation. Most of what they do – the vast majority – is funding science and technology development. They also work to promote public understanding of science and technology The Sloan grants are aimed at supporting film, television, radio, etc that create accurate and realistic depictions of science and technology in the arts and bridging the gap between the two.

The grant I just received, the Sundance/Sloan Commissioning Grant is a grant to write a feature script. I submitted a pitch and treatment to Sundance for a feature film and each year they usually pick one pitch and writer to support in writing the feature.

When did you hear about Sloan? I first found out about it right after [Advanced Production Course] 508. My 508 SA was editing a Sloan film called Willowbrook and I asked him about it and it sounded really interesting. So what USC has is a couple different grants with the Sloan Foundation. The first are two short film grants, what I recieved, where you submit a short script for consideration and the grant is, I think, $22,500 for production.And you get paired with USC’s Sloan Advisor, Tom Miller who just an amazing person and excellent mentor. And there's also a feature grant which I think is $15,000 for writing a feature film. And I think there's an animation grant as well. And for all of these, the story has to in some way involved realistic depictions of issues in science and/or technology.

Give me a pitch on the film. Okay, so, the film is called Tyfus, and it’s based on the true story of  these two doctors in Poland in WWII, who, by accident, discovered a flaw in the test for typhus, which is a pretty deadly disease, which was scaring the Nazi army pretty significantly. Outbreaks of Typhus were causing a huge amount of death and destruction in the camps and on the battlefront. There was a lot of fear surrounding Typhus. And these two doctors realized they could use that flaw in the test to engineer an entirely  fake outbreak of Typhus. They could make it look like their town had an outbreak of typhus, and over the course of about a year and a half, they used that to scare the Nazi soldiers into ultimately abandoning the town, and ended up saving about 8,000 lives at the end of it.

How did you hear about this story? It was completely by accident. I was actually researching for another film, another topic, and I stumbled upon an article. And the article's headline was really vague or something, you know, about two doctors faking an outbreak, and I thought – I had some background in infectious disease and biology – and I thought, that sounds impossible. There's no way you could do that to the degree that they're talking about.

I was completely blown away by the story. I started researching ,what they did, how they did it, and why they did it, it was utterly fascinating. I couldn't believe it. Not only had there not been a film made about it, but most people that I talked to didn't even know these guys existed. They didn't even know this had happened.

Do you have any advice for students that are looking to navigate the Sloan Grant opportunity? The Sloan grant is an amazing opportunity. I think it is the highest award you can get at USC. But, I mean, the one thing I always recommend to people is, you know, if you're going to go out for a Sloan, the best thing to do is start from a place of: “I have a story that is, based in science, that has some sort of angle in science and technology, and it's something that interests me and it's something that I want to tell” People go into it thinking, “Oh, I have a script sitting around, and if I make the main character a scientist, that will fulfill the criteria.”

Ultimately, that's not really the case. What they're looking for are stories that really do – that aren't just about scientists – but have some kind of dramatic resonance in how we view science or technology that is important to dissect and understand about either the way science and technology has worked in the past, or how it works in the present or might work in the future.

Where can people find more information on the film?

What was your background before you came to the School of Cinematic Arts? My background was kind of two-fold. I had a dual degree in biology and film studies from the University of Rochester, so I had a background in science going in. Before USC I was out in LA for about a year and a half, two years, doing post-production work. Then I decided that where I was in post-production wasn't where I ultimately wanted to be, so I thought USC would be a great place to learn and grow as a filmmaker. So I did have a some amount of film experience before going in, but I also had kind of a completely different kind of experience in the science and research before that.

What did you see your end goal being when you entered the School of Cinematic Arts? When I entered? I think, like everybody, I wanted to be a director. And then I quickly realized that there was much more to filmmaking as a whole than being a director. And ultimately I decided what I really loved was the story process in general, and started gravitating more towards writing, and then ultimately, TV writing. So the feature thing with Sloan is actually  kind of a departure for me, which is fun. But, as with most people, my goal going in changed drastically as I worked through the program, and kind of learned more about not only how the process works, but what I liked about the process, and ultimately where I want to be in that process.

Do you have any advice for either a senior in high school that's been accepted or a person who's coming back for their post-graduate degree? I'd say, you know, it's kind of about what I said earlier about, everybody comes in here and they have this vision of what they want to be, and most of the time it's a director – but everyone has their own kind of vision, and what I can say is, keep an open mind and learn as much as you can about everything. So many of the people that I've met and worked with continuously who come to USC, they all started out wanting to be something, and they all exited with entirely different goals and entirely different passions because they were open to opportunities, and they all go, "Oh! I never really thought of cinematography, or editing or writing or producing, but then it’s utterly fascinating and what I want to do."

That worked for me. I kept an open mind and realized that there was an entire side of the process that I really loved and wanted to be apart of. I think the biggest thing is just to be open to experiences and find out where you want to be.