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Einstein’s Brain, an Interview

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Einstein’s Brain, an Interview, image,
Image courtesy of Hot Docs.

Einstein’s Brain, an Interview
by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent

(May 4, 2022 – Toronto, ON) I spot Michelle Shephard at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto. Bader is one of seven Toronto screens hosting the 2023 Hot Docs. I consider walking over and reintroducing myself; “Hi Michelle, we met several years back in Kingston.” It is true, we did meet in 2015 at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival. I introduced her first film, Guantamano’s Child; The Omar Khadr Story. Until that film, Michelle Shephard‘s name was a key byline in the Toronto Star; an investigative reporter with multiple journalistic awards including the Michener Award, and a three-time winner of the National Newspaper Award. Then, sometime after the Khadr film, Shephard traded in investigative writing (for the most part) for investigative filmmaking.  

I’m aware that Shephard’s film—The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain—is at this year’s Hot Docs. Such a title; one that neither my editor nor I could overlook. I was intrigued, not just because of wanting to follow up on Shephard’s career but also on the draw of that lurid B-Movie title—The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain. It smacks of science and science fiction, of espionage, intrigue, and perhaps a colourful commentary on the state of celebrity by proximity. 

I don’t reintroduce myself to Shephard. I have already submitted a request to talk to her about her film and think it best to see how that pans out. Besides, the theatre is now teeming with filmmakers who all seem to know each other—I feel like an outsider. The documentary world is a tight-knit community, I think. 

I get the interview with Michelle and that’s when I discover just how small and tight-knit the community can be.

Northernstars: I saw you at the screening of Cynara.

Michelle Shephard: Oh, you were there? What did you think?

NS: I shouldn’t say, there’s an embargo (actually…this isn’t what I said, but I am waiting for Cynara’s release before commenting publicly). 

MS: Did you know I was Executive Producer of that film? I gave a few notes, that’s about all. The reporter the in the film, Jim Rankin…

NS: Yeah, he’s good.

MS: He is. Jim’s my husband. But I didn’t know he was in the film until after I’d been approached and accepted to be an Executive Producer. I knew he was working on a documentary, but I didn’t know it was this one. (She laughs)

The Man Who Stole Einstein's Brain, movie, poster,NS: Let’s talk about your film, the title of which, The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain, brings to mind a B-movie title They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Did that B-Movie title influence the title of this A-Movie doc?

MS: It’s so funny because we thought long and hard about the title and I can tell you there was a lot of debate. But I’m surprised that (They Saved Hitler’s Brain) didn’t come up in our discussion. I will look it up now.

NS: Einstein is a name we’re all familiar with. But before your film, I had not heard of Thomas Harvey, the man who took and held onto Einstein’s brain for decades. Was Thomas Harvey a name that you were familiar with, or if not, how did his name come to you?

MS:. (Harvey’s) name came through Caroline Abrams who was a friend. (Abrams) used to work at the Globe and Mail. She wrote a book 20 years ago called Possessing Genius and it was the Tom Harvey story. So, I remember that’s the first time I heard about it. Over the years I kind of forgot about it and then (Abrams) reached out just for some advice about making a film. She said she’s been thinking about optioning the book and having it made into a film. So, we chatted, and then at the end of the coffee I said, “This is not the type of film that I normally would make but if it doesn’t work out with the people you’re talking to let us know, and maybe we could produce it here.” And so she came back to us not long after and said, “You want to try?” So, we had a gift in our lap. It was kind of a shortcut to all the research that we had to do on the story because (Abrams) wrote the book on it. And when we reached out to people to interview, many knew Abrams from years ago. And it was interesting because people were reluctant to talk. After all, over the years (Harvey’s) story had been mischaracterized so many times. He had become this villainous character and the butt of jokes. He’s on the Johnny Carson show as a joke. So, I think the family closest to him felt that his story had not been properly told. There were all these crazy stories out there. But (the interviewees) liked Carolyn’s book. They felt that she had been one of the few people who had done a good job. So, even though they were reluctant it helped to have Carolyn on the phone.

NS: It’s interesting to hear you say of your film that it is not the kind of film you do, whereas I see similarities between Einstein’s Brain and your other works. Not unlike Omar Khadr from your first film, and the mother in Cynara—Thomas Harvey was at the mercy of public opinion.

MS: I guess when I said the film was different from what normally I do I mean in subject matter. For a couple of decades now almost, everything has been a national security story or a civil rights story or just sort of some complex geopolitical mess of a story and this is different in that sense. But so far as he’s a complex character—and that is really what drives the film, trying to figure out exactly who he was and what were his motivations.

NS: Something could be the same as Einstein, no? In your film, someone mentions that Einstein too was a very conflicted and contradictory character. And so is Harvey, the man who took Einstein’s brain. There seems to be a kinship between Thomas and Einstein if only because they share a similar personality. 

The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain, image, MS: That was something we discussed. We have this great editor Nicholas Hector and that had been his idea by going back and forth between (Einstein’s and Harvey’s) lives. It was a quick way to try and give background, but it was also because there were these interesting parallels. I learned a lot about Einstein. This is the funny thing for me taking on this film because I’m not one of those Einstein fans. I’m not that fascinated by him. I’m not scientifically minded. I cannot explain his theories to you or explain the studies that were done. But I learned a lot about Einstein. We were lucky we had Carolyn’s audio interviews from when Harvey was alive. I think he felt at the end that he had done the right thing by keeping the brain and there had been at least this one study that did show anatomically the brain was different. Now you can argue whether it’s a seminal study in terms of having only one brain to compare. I mean there’s only one genius brain so what does it tell us? It certainly doesn’t answer that question of nature versus nurture that is still out there, but I think for Tom he felt he had done the right thing and he had left his mark. Tom Harvey was a character but everybody who integrated was a character themselves. His roommate has great descriptions of him working at the factory. I think that was out of necessity (the factory work) in part because he didn’t die a wealthy man. I mean he had three marriages and was paying support; he lost his medical license by that point but, I never got the sense from anyone we interviewed that he was unhappy.

NS: But it made me unhappy watching it. I kept thinking how would I feel 80 years old, after all those achievements, ending up sharing an apartment with a university student and working at a factory? I mean to follow someone’s life as it slowly drifts into oblivion is heartbreaking.

MS: Yeah, I could see how that would make you feel bad for our future sadness. And Einstein too, not being able to finish what he was working on—that was on my mind. 

(On discovering Thomas’ factory job) 

Our researcher, Erin Chisholm, I always joke that she must work for the CIA, she uncovers incredible stuff. She’s amazing. I’ve never made such an archive-heavy film, so it’s essentially just archives of interest and the interviews. But because the archive is so rich it holds together.

I feel like a fraud being the one doing the interviews because I just work with great people. Like Nick Hector for instance. I don’t know if you know him* He’s the type of editor who we talk the entire time (about the film) before it shoots, during shoots, after—there’s constant communication. But then when you get the material, he’s like “All right, see you in a couple of months.” He crafts together a story, and that’s the way he works. Not all editors work like that. I learned so much from (Hector). And then I bring (the film) to my producing partner (Bryn Hughes) We call (Bryn) the midwife. Then we had Christian Bielz a cinematographer. He also worked on Cynara. (Bielz) just got a beautiful cinematic eye. 

NS: The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain is not a talking heads movie, but it does have talking heads in it. How do you ensure that the interview scenes don’t become static?

MS: What makes it is the background. It took a long time to set up; framing, trying different angles. We tried for a bit of a Wes Anderson kind of vibe to it. I don’t know if we got there, but all that to say, I do the more journalistic stuff. 

NS: I made a film years ago and found the process so difficult that I took up writing. You were an investigative reporter—you wrote. Now, I don’t know if you gave up writing, but you’ve transitioned into making films. Films seem like impossible projects to get off the ground, whereas writing can be as simple as pen and paper. How was the transition from journalist to filmmaker?

Michelle Shephard, film director,MS: People asked me to consult (on films) and then I started producing films and just getting more and more involved, all the time I was still at the Toronto Star. And it was the Omar Khadr story that made me become more interested in filmmaking and understand the value of (film). Forgive me if I’ve told you the story in Kingston, I remember when (Guantanamo’s Child: The Omar Khadr Story) premiered at Tiff and people came up after and said “Thank you I finally got the story. I finally understand it,” and that’s exactly what you want to hear is a filmmaker. But I also had a tinge of, what have I been doing for 15 years? I’ve written 300 articles for The Star, I wrote a book on (Khadr’s) case and now you get it? But it was a good example of understanding that certain stories are (best) told visually and in that case (Guantanamo’s Child: The Omar Khadr Story) because (Khadr) was a character you needed to hear. He’s either Nelson Mandela or Paul Bernardo and so you needed to see Omar himself and you need to see the soldier. It was the best way to tell that story and so it gave me an understanding of the power of the film. 

It’s hard to make a living (filmmaking) and so I hadn’t contemplated going full time and then The Star had a buyout in 2018. I knew that my incredible run there—I was so lucky there with the travel I got to do, and the beat I had—and I thought it would probably not last because of our financial situation. And also Jimmy was still working on the paper. We thought, okay one of us should go and it made sense for me to go. But I’m still writing. I’m co-authoring a book right now and I also got into podcasting. I’m doing a lot of podcasts at CBC. I feel unbelievably lucky that I’ve had a little bit of experience in all of them and so now I try to choose what stories I tell and which medium carefully. I think each medium has its strength.

Michelle Shephard’s The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain has a final Hot Docs screening Friday, May 5, at 5:30pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

Northernstars logo imageThom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.