Sitting Down with the Directors of “Science Fair”

2018 has been a fantastic year for documentaries. From Bing Liu’s personal and beautiful Minding the Gap to RaMell Ross’s startlingly poetic Hale County This Morning, This Evening, we have seen documentaries that not only inform us of the people and places that color our world, but we have seen movies that have given us insight into the human condition.

Added to this list of amazing documentaries is Science Fair, the documentary by directors Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster that details the journey of an international group of high school students competing in the most intense Science Fair ever. It’s funny, quirky, inspiring, and absolutely moving—a sentiment shared by audiences at Sundance, who awarded the film the Overall Audience Award at this year’s festival. The directors were good enough to sit down with Fandor to talk about the kids of the movie and what it was like directing their first feature documentary.

Fandor: Could the two of you speak about how you came to the idea of making a documentary about a Science Fair and its contestants?

Cristina Costantini: So I was a Science Fair kid when I was in high school. I competed for two years at the International, and I really had no idea that the International Science Fair existed when I first did my project, and then I found myself in this incredible world of super inspiring kids; quirky, funny, intense, brilliant children. I became really fascinated by the world and obsessed with it…I wanted to celebrate it and I also wanted to share it with people because I found it so entertaining. All of my life I’ve been telling people about the Science Fair dance and all these funny things about the Science Fair. Darren and I worked together on a very sad movie about the opiate crisis and fentanyl, and we just started chatting and I told him about this idea and he right away fell in love with it, too. In 2016 we went to the fair together and he saw how amazing it is and we knew we had to do it. That’s the inspiration.

Fandor: Could you speak about how you chose the subjects of the film?

CC: We knew that we wanted to capture the range of experiences of the kids who compete in the International Science Fair, so we wanted to cast a wide net and show those kids who come from the very best schools in the world and have the best resources and best mentors…And then we wanted to show the kids who are from under-resourced school districts, or who are out there doing it by themselves in different ways. And so you have the Brazilian team from the very poor town in the center of Brazil, and you have Kashfia, who is at a football high school and has no Science Fair teachers. You have Robbie, who marches to the beat of his own drum. [They are] very different kids who are competing in this world, but all of them have this drive for independent exploration and we wanted to show that range of experience. We cast maybe 15 kids initially and had to whittle down as the year went on.

Fandor: It was fantastic to see so many young women excelling in science, and being encouraged to follow their scientific dreams in the movie. In your experience in Science Fair, and then observing it from a documentary perspective, what kind of extra challenges, if any, do you foresee for these young scientists?

CC: I think the wonderful thing was that at that age, I had no idea that I was a girl doing science. I was just doing science, and I think you see that with a lot of the young women in the Science Fair. But I think there’s something that happens between high school and real-life where these barriers come up. Science Fair is now majority female for the first time, and there is some disconnect there. Something happens, whether it’s systemic, there are barriers that obviously exist…but what’s exciting about Science Fair is that things seem to be changing. There are more and more female scientists and our next generation of scientists will look a lot more like the world’s population than it currently does.

Fandor: This is your first directorial feature debut. Can you talk about what the process was like, and how much Darren and his past experience on documentaries helped, and what the collaboration was like between you two?

CC: So it’s my first feature documentary, it’s also Darren’s first feature documentary. We’ve made television documentaries before, but Darren definitely has a lot more experience than I do and has been an incredible partner. Sometimes we did these shoots alone. It was usually the three of us; myself, Darren, and our cameraperson, Pete Alton, who is kind of the unsung hero. He’s a brilliant, talented, lovely person and the kids love him. So it was either the three of us, or me and Pete, or Darren and Pete, but for the most part, the three of us were always on set. We really like working in a small crew.

Darren Foster: I think before we even started Science Fair, Cristina and I realized we worked really well together. We had done an investigative documentary before this, and it was about a darker subject matter, but then when Cristina proposed the idea of doing Science Fair as a feature, I had always wanted to do a feature, and from the first conversations we had, it was apparent that we shared a sensibility of how we thought the story should be told. To be completely honest, when Cristina was telling me about Science Fair, she was telling me about the quirky kids that were a part of it and the scenes of the dance and stuff like that, we weren’t discussing the depths of these projects or the scientific research…We immediately referenced the same films of the tone that we wanted…like Spellbound and Mad Hat Ballroom and King of Kong; these are all documentaries that we love and that we studied going into this film and so from the outset we had a real vision for the film, and Cristina’s experience with Science Fair really was a roadmap for us about how we would structure it. We were all on the same page from day one and then it was about casting and finding kids that we thought really captured this world the best. We got really lucky with some amazing kids.

Fandor: What was the Sundance experience like?

CC: There was a volunteer screening and Darren and I had never watched the film before with anybody who wasn’t a very close friend or family, and so that first screening was totally surreal. Darren sweated through his shirt. I was a mess too. It was just so crazy to hear people laughing and reacting in real-time to the thing that you had created, and I think we had totally forgotten it was a funny movie because we were so in the trenches. We had been watching it in a totally different way, so it was surreal. We were thrilled to be at Sundance, to begin with, and I think over the course of the week that people really liked the movie, and we ended up winning the overall festival favorite award, it was mind-blowing for us, especially coming from never having done a feature documentary. So, it was really like a surreal fever dream. The whole two weeks, or who knows how long it was. It was wonderful.

DF: I am still sweating from Sundance. First of all, when we were making the film, when we first turned on the cameras in January of 2017, we would joke, because it was such a long shot, “When we premiere at Sundance,” and we would just laugh because we thought it was so improbable. When we got into Sundance, we just couldn’t believe it, and obviously, that first screening is something I’ll never forget. Sitting in a room with 300 volunteers and the reception it got. That whole week I just felt that the whole Sundance thing came to life for me; why people love it so much. They were great to us — from the volunteers to the organizers and the programmers who were just so encouraging from the minute that we met them. It was just an incredible experience.

Fandor: With National Geographic picking up the film, what are your guys’ hopes when it gets out there, and what are you working on next?

CC: We made the film for a few reasons. It was a quirky, weird world that we thought would be funny, but we were interested in getting kids excited about science. So one of our hopes is that as many kids as possible will see it, and hopefully see how exciting Science Fair is, and see the kinds of kids that participate in the Science Fair. And then, to remind adults of the importance of science and the importance of fostering the independent curiosities of our children. For me, Science Fair was incredible because it let me go down all these paths that I was interested in, and taught me the way that I still learn. I hope that we will continue to support Science Fairs. Especially at the local level, a lot of Science Fairs are being cut. Now, especially with how our country is at the moment, adults need to be reminded of the importance of supporting these kinds of activities and supporting kids participating in them.

DF: We couldn’t have been happier that National Geographic bought the film. We think it’s a really perfect fit and through all the things that Cristina said we wanted to accomplish with the film, obviously, we’re going to do a theatrical release, but National Geographic gives us an opportunity to do a bit of an educational release. They have a platform already and they are very excited about what they can do on the educational side of it to get it into schools and schools districts. And also National Geographic is an international brand and this is an international Science Fair, so it just really lines up well. So we’re really excited about their distribution plans for it, and they’ve been incredible with us from the minute they signed on.

CC: It’s an amazing fit. Jack Andrecha, the kid who opens the film, who’s running down aisles and crying, he’s actually a National Geographic explorer and so there were all these overlaps with our movie and National Geographic. We couldn’t be happier that they are our home now. We just finished a short documentary…about the Parkland kids putting on their spring musical that they had set out to make before the tragedy happened, and it’s kind of about how the show must go on. These kids, who are the leads of the play, become really important in the gun control movement and so it’s another story of kids acting like adults at a time when adults are acting like children. So it’s in the same spirit of Science Fair with inspiring kids doing amazing things.

“Science Fair” is the latest in a bumper crop of amazing 2018 documentaries. Follow the links for more on what the movie scientists here think about “Minding the Gap,” “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and “McQueen.” And if you want more of that straight science right from the filmmaker’s mouth, don’t miss our interview with Penny Lane about her new documentary “The Pain of Others,” available to stream right here on Fandor.
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