LIGO: Black holes, Gravitation, Universe and a Great Scientific Documentary

"LIGO" is an important scientific feauture documentary by the award winning Les Guthman. The thrilling inside story of the discovery that topped NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC's list of “The top 20 Scientific Discoveries of the Decade," the discovery of gravitational waves from deep space, 2015-1017, revolutionized our understanding of the universe.


Two discoveries two years apart, first of two colliding black holes and then of two crashing neutron stars and their spectacular light show opened up the 95% of the universe that has been dark to our existing observatories and space telescopes. It's the violent "warped side" of the universe predicted by Einstein -- but never seen until now. Brian Greene, the theoretical physicist and best-selling author, said, "This discovery is the kind of achievement that happens only a few times a century."


Director Les Guthman witnessed and filmed this dramatic and emotional peak in the lives of the 1,000 scientists around the world who risked their careers on a 50-year, $1 billion search for these exquisite messengers from the warped side. The discovery earned the film's three principal characters, including Kip Thorne, also the creator of the film "INTERSTELLAR," an immediate 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.


Les Guthman is a multiple award-winning documentary producer and director, a writer and production executive. He has the distinction of both having produced three of the “20 Top Adventure Films of All Time,” according to Men’s Journal magazine, and having won the National Academy of Science’s nationwide competition to find the best new idea in science television, which led to his film, “Three Nights at the Keck,” with actor John Lithgow. It was our pleasure to interview Les Guthman for the Toronto Film Magazine.

How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?

I was very lucky that my first job in films was as one of the story editors of the great “Visions” series on PBS in the U.S. With funding from the Ford Foundation, we produced 40 feature-length independent films and television dramas over four years, and commissioned 80 screenplays. One of our films won the Camera D'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. Maya Angelou wrote one of our dramas.


What genre of filmmaking fascinates you as a filmmaker and why?

We live in a golden age of science, from astrophysics to the science of climate change, with so many brilliant discoveries and wonderful personal stories of human achievement. So many under-reported stories to tell through documentaries; which are the perfect medium in their merger of word and image to tell complicated stories in detail, but with a clarity that non-scientists can understand and from which their lives can be enriched.



Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?

Werner Herzog, Terrence Malik, Wim Wenders. Herzog has shown throughout his long career, but especially early in his and mine, the raw power of filmmaking and the magnificent thrills of his high-wire risk taking in each narrative and documentary film. From Malik one learns a new world of visual language and its relationship to narrative and personal story telling. “The New World” and his latest film, “A Hidden Life,”are masterpieces. Wenders made so many great films, but his documentary “The Salt of the Earth” is a master-class in framing, each shot is a masterpiece.


What inspired you to work on "LIGO" and how did the film go into production?

I was invited by the LIGO Laboratory to make the definitive film about its upcoming expected discovery of gravitational waves from deep space, the culmination of a 50-year $1 billion search. I was told it would “a year or two” before the discovery would be made, but in fact, it was made during our second production shoot - and we were there! I was on location at the LIGO Livingston Observatory, outside of Baton Rouge LA, the day the wave of warped space from a collision of two black holes 1.4 billion years ago swept across the detector and its twin observatory 1900 miles away in eastern Washington State (within 0.2 seconds!). We filmed with LIGO scientists and engineers across the U.S. for the next five months, while the LIGO Scientific Collaboration kept the detection secret and wrestled with the apparent truth of their discovery: They had made a discovery that would launch a new era in astronomy, seeing for the first the time the violent, “warped side” of the universe. We continued filming, and then they made a second historic discovery: the collision of two neutron stars, which within minutes became the most observed cosmic event in the history of astronomy. Then our three principal characters, Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Our last shoot was an icy magic week in Stockholm with them.



How did you find the cast and the crew of the film? Tell us more about the production of the film and working on the set of the film to create this feature.

I have worked with director of photography John Armstrong for many years on my documentaries, along with my colorist Randy Starnes. Christine Steele, one of the producers, is my editing guru and an accomplished producer and director in her own right, as well as a first-class editor. My wife Susan Kleinberg has produced many of my films, along with being a Venice Biennale-veteran artist. “LIGO” was financed by the National Science Foundation, MathWorks, Caltech and MIT.


What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

I also created an eight-part YouTube series, “LIGO: A Discovery That Shook the World,” and we are still in production on three more episodes as LIGO makes new world-shaking discoveries -- now with a total of 50 detections of colliding black holes and neutron stars and the mind-bending science pouring in. The video series is actually longer than the documentary. It gave me the opportunity to tell wonderful stories that didn’t fit into the documentary, for a variety of reasons, and to use a more free-form style. Lots of fun. I just published a book based on the series, with the same title.

Why do you make films?

Documentaries give you the opportunity to bring people new worlds, or worlds they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to experience. I believe in positive stories about people working very hard to enrich our lives, from one of my first films, “The Hudson Riverkeepers," about the long seminal history of the clean-up of the Hudson River in New York; to Dr. Carolyn Porco’s leadership of the Cassini Mission’s exploration of Saturn and its wild, eccentric moons. In “LIGO,” I chose to take the audience deep into LIGO's world for 90 minutes. And what a cool, affirming world it is. And mind bending, if not terrifying, as they witnessed for the first time the violent, warped side of the universe.


© Toronto Film Mag I 2020