Anthony Lund: Through the Wormhole

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This week I interviewed writer/producer/director Anthony Lund about his work on the Science Channel’s Emmy-nominated series, Through the Wormhole, which is coming up on its sixth season. We discussed theoretical physics, what it’s like to work with Morgan Freeman, the existence of God, and, of course, the Zombie Apocalypse. Here’s what he had to say.

Cat Doss: So, how did you start working on Through the Wormhole?

Porducer, director physicist, Anthony Lund. (Photo provided by Anthony Lund)
Porducer, director physicist, Anthony Lund.
(Photo provided by Anthony Lund)

Tony Lund: Here goes: In a literal sense it was a classic Hollywood story of knowing a guy who knew a gal who knew a guy. Morgan’s company sold the project to Discovery and a production company called “Incubator” won the bid to physically produce it.  They needed a producer with a science background, and so my name went up the people chain.

I like to tell people that I met the first guy in that chain at the Playboy Mansion. Which is true!

CD: Really?

TL: But, being the physics nerd that I am, it was not at some lavish party with models and cocaine …

CD: What were you doing there?

TL: I was playing a drunken frat bro as a favor to a buddy of mine who was shooting a B-horror movie there and needed free background actors. The irony is, I’m not an actor. But if I tell this story to children in the Midwest, I leave that part out. They can use their imaginations.

So, physics.

In a more abstract sense, I think I was destined to work on Wormhole. I excelled in physics in high school because the powers that be told me it was “too hard” and the powers of the prevailing Mormon culture (I’m from Mitt Romney country) looked at science as somewhat of a fool’s errand. So, mastering physics was my way of giving the middle finger to everybody.

I’ve known since I was 13 that I was a filmmaker, but in college I nevertheless paired my film education with my studies in physics because I found it endlessly fascinating. I never had any intention of marrying the two professionally. In fact, I got my career start in feature animation as one of the co-founders and head of a startup company, so when Wormhole came along, it was a total moment of clarity. I have lots to say about the mysteries of the Universe, and Wormhole is the perfect creative outlet for that. And it doesn’t hurt that Morgan can make my shitty writing sound like ice cream. He does have an amazing voice. So, win-win for everybody.

CD: What’s it like working with Morgan Freeman?

TL: It’s a gift. There’s the Morgan Freeman that everybody knows through his immaculate performances and then there’s just “Morgan” who a few very lucky people, myself included, get to experience while we create the show together. The Morgan I know is a hyper-curious 12-year-old who never grew too old to play.

We like to sing show tunes on set. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the stink eye from our 1st AD (Assistant Director).

Morgan Freeman from the episode, "Did We Invent God?” He asks the question, “There are other intelligent creatures on the planet. Do they believe in God?” (Photo is a screen shot from “Through the Wormhole”)
Morgan Freeman from the episode, “Did We Invent God?” He asks the question, “There are other intelligent creatures on the planet. Do they believe in God?”
(Photo is a screen shot from “Through the Wormhole”)

CD: Nice!

TL: You have to be on your toes with Morgan, because his brain works at an inhumanly fast rpm.

CD: So you write for, produce, and direct on the show?

TL: So, a little bit about the structure: Our showrunner* is James Younger — probably the only showrunner* in TV to ever have a PhD in biophysics — he’s the ultimate creative authority. Every season, I will work on early drafts for six to eight of the ten episodes. When we get into production, I will produce and direct three of those.

CD: That’s awesome. Tell me about some of your favorite episodes you worked on.

TL: Oooooooooooooo…..

This last season (which begins airing June 2014) I got really lucky and pitched a show that allowed me to have more fun then I’ve ever had on anything I’ve ever made. A year ago, we were stuck trying to figure out our 10th episode. The series centers around big ethereal questions and cutting edge science, that expands our collective dialogue about the Universe …

But every so often, we get to explore concepts that are taken directly from science fiction. As I was trying to come up with some big new profound idea for the 48th episode of Wormhole (season 5, ep 10), I hit a wall. And for some reason I remembered my friend pestering me about watching The Walking Dead.  But, I couldn’t fire up the old Netflix binge box until I turned in something.

A flash of inspiration. You can probably guess when I’m going with this. My pitch email to James (the show runner) begin with this exact phrase: “Will There Be A Zombie Apocalypse?”

CD: That’s awesome!

TL: Followed by a some ideas about real life zombie viruses, epidemiology, etc. His (James Younger) exact response: “Stupid … But it might just work!”

A week later, we get this email from Network: “WE BLOODY FUCKING LOVE IT!”

And so, for the past year, I’ve been filming with some of the most respected virologists and microbiologists on Planet Earth, having a serious dialogue … about zombies.

CD: That is so cool!

Screen shot from “Night of the Living Dead,” by George Romero and Tom Savini for Columbia Pictures and 21st Century Film Corporation
Screen shot from “Night of the Living Dead,” by George Romero and Tom Savini for Columbia Pictures and 21st Century Film Corporation

TL: The best part was creating a scene of what a real life zombie virus would actually be like and how the infected would behave. Nature already has a zombie virus — it’s called rabies. The infected go through stages of extreme delusional violence, coupled with compulsive violence. However, Rabies mostly incapacitates its victims. So we have not yet had a Rabies apocalypse.

But for the episode, we discuss a rabies-influenza hybrid that disables the body’s “Holy shit, you’re sick, go home and go to bed,” immune response. We don’t ever say this in the show, but I call it “H1-Z1”

CD: Ha!

TL: I even sent out a fake memo from the CDC to the actors who were involved in that scene describing the symptoms of the disease.

CD: That’s amazing!

TL: I won’t spoil anything, but the episode pays a big tribute to zombie fiction staples like Shaun of the Dead, Dead Alive, Night of The Living Dead, and 28 Days Later. Everybody was gracious enough to let me put about eight Easter eggs in the episode.

CD: Very cool!

TL: So, in short, Nerd Heaven.

CD: I can’t wait to see it!

TL: I’m planning on doing a couple AMA’s (Ask Me Anything sessions) on Reddit when the show airs, so this is a good outlet to start publicly chatting about the show.

I say “a couple” because you never know when someone super hot button like Vladimir Putin will suddenly show up for an AMA and up vote 10,000 leagues ahead of you. Damn you future Vlad!!!

CD: So, how did you go from being raised in a Mormon environment to working on a show that questions God’s existence?

TL: Ok … wow. That’s a really big question!

The short answer is that I learned how to read. The long answer is more complex.

It’s important to point out that Wormhole doesn’t question God’s existence so much as it questions our assumptions about God’s existence. In the end, we’re a very God-positive show.

I wrote and produced an episode called “Did We Invent God?” Which investigates how the human brain experiences the divine.

Screen shot from the episode, “Did We Invent God?” The statue of Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Screen shot from the episode, “Did We Invent God?” The statue of Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

CD: So, tell us a little bit about this episode.

TL: For millennia, humanity has looked outwards to find evidence of the divine and we’ve come up empty-handed. We can neither prove, nor disprove, the existence of God by dissecting the world around us. But when you look inwards into the human mind, the concept of God becomes something that can be measured. Scientists can look at your brain or your behavior, as you experience the spiritual and study it. We’ve been looking in this direction for about the past 10-20 years, and what we’re left with is a mountain of evidence that suggests God, the divine, the spiritual, exists inclusively inside our heads.

In that sense, God is almost certainly an invention of our minds. But, there’s a strange and unexpected twist to this story: brain scans of believers during moments of intense spiritual union show that how we experience the spiritual is 100 percent identical to how we experience the real, tangible world around us. In other words, if I pray to God, that experience is, neurologically speaking, indiscernible from a situation in which I am having a conversation with a person in front of me.

CD: Interesting.

TL: In the Buddhist tradition, deep meditation results in a transformative out of body experience. When you look at a Monk in a brain scanner, all of the areas of his brain that tell him where he is in space go dark. He is literally experiencing himself disassociated from his body. And so that leads us to a greater mystery: is God real? Is the divine real?

Discovering this story as I was writing it and working with the scientists was a profoundly spiritual experience for me. It’s not everyday that an atheist is god-smacked by atheistic spiritualism.

CD: How would you define atheistic spiritualism?

Screen shot of a Buddhist statue from the episode, “Did We Invent God?”
Screen shot of a Buddhist statue from the episode, “Did We Invent God?”

TL: It’s experiencing unspoken [profundity] in a Universe where god does not exist.

As an atheist, I am more interested in humans than deities. Spiritualism is part of the natural human fabric.  We evolved it. Or rather, it evolved in us. Just because I have the luxury of not having to believe in a fiction, does not mean I have to rob myself of the beauty and truth inherent to it.

It’s like Yoga — scientifically, there’s no such thing as a Chakra, or Chi, but when you embrace these things in a practice, you come out the other end more “aligned.” and you feel better.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Princess Alice — a brilliant experiment conceived by psychologist Jesse Bering — that showed very convincing evidence that we are all born believers, even the children of atheists. But around age five to seven our concept of God takes a dramatic turn no matter what we believe. Watch the show to find out why!

CD: I’ll definitely be watching. So, before we go, can you tell us what’s next for you?

TL: Wormhole season 6 is a GO, and I’m dreaming of new, thought provoking ideas to explore with this show. In the middle of this, I’m also directing a horror short that, if all goes accordingly, will scare the bejeebus out of you in less than two minutes.

CD: Awesome! Any advice for young free-thinkers out there growing up in an environment where you are discouraged from having beliefs that dffer from those around you?

TL: My advice to young free-thinkers growing up in intellectually oppressive environments: Nothing will ever change their minds, but the way you live and what you create can change their hearts.

CD: Thanks, Tony!

Season Five of Through the Wormhole begins June 4 at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time.

*A “showrunner” is a TV show’s executive producer who runs the day-to-day operations of the TV show.