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NOTEBOOK: Outtakes from the ciLive story


When I had a chance to interview three speakers presenting at the upcoming ciLive! 2020 festival (to be held at Des Moines Area Community College’s West Des Moines campus), I almost didn’t know what to do with all of my notes. Almost an hour of conversation with Kara Cooney gave me a primer on what the economic collapse of the Bronze Age has to do with cultural anxieties in 2020; Jeffrey Morris shared what led him to leave an incredible role working with NASA to develop new sci-fi stories for movie and streaming audiences; and Ken Schmidt pulled back the curtain on some of the same problems leadership at massive companies had been hiring him to consult on over his career. 

Of course I wrote too much, and the design team nicely told me it all couldn’t fit in the preview published on Feb. 28 (view the full story here). Take a look at what else these folks have to share. 

Kara Cooney/Egyptologist, author, producer

You’re working on a project exploring coffin reuse and economic turbulence. What is that about?

It’s become more timely as the years have gone by. I think the one thing that unites the United States left and right, no matter what your political persuasion, is the idea that collapse is nigh. Everyone is worried, everyone is anxious, people have radically different solutions to that potential collapse, but I think everybody feels that something is off. 

That anxiety is exactly what I study with coffin reuse, because I’m studying the Bronze Age collapse. When the Egyptian government failed in some places, and sustained themselves in other places through a kind of mafia-like decentralization. All of the rich people in the southern city of Thebes … managed to keep on showing how wealthy they were and displaying that to people by reusing coffins of their ancestors. 

It’s an interesting question to ask what do people do when governments collapse. … What do people do when a practice is unsustainable? And my answer from history is generally, people continue to do the same thing because that’s people. These Egyptians found a way to reuse and recycle, but they still needed to show their wealth and power to other elite families through this materiality. 

I go around to museums and sit in storage and look at a coffin with a flashlight for hours at a time, and make careful notes. … I’ve become an expert on wood panel painting, on plaster-painted and varnished objects from ancient Egypt, on the craft specialization. It’s a weird set of knowledge to have, that at the same time led me toward a very big answer to a very big question. 

I feel like I’ve made my point if I’ve looked at over 300 coffins in person, and I’ve noted evidence of reuse on over 75% of them with just my eyes and a flashlight. … I think there are other big questions that it’s time for me to ask. 

When you have all this weighing on you in your research, how do you move forward? 

The big questions are always there. Right now I think I’m moving toward how power depicts itself — propaganda, how it convinces ideology and how religious systems get people to do things that aren’t in their best interest for the service of the few. All those big questions are still there, but I think my next book is going to be about authoritarianism and how humans gravitate towards those systems. 

How do I deal with that in my mind? I just get in the weeds and deal with the data, and know that I’m extraordinarily privileged and entitled. I have a wonderful life. I think it’s up to people like me to look at what my consumption and my privilege means for the rest of the world — that’s part of what I feel compelled to do. 

Jeffrey Morris/Screenwriter, director, CEO of FutureDude Entertainment

Your show “Saturn 5” is in development and targeted at younger viewers. What are the challenges tailoring a realistic sci-fi to a children’s audience, versus an adult sci-fi film? 

Kids are hopefully less jaded, they have a different set of needs in terms of what they want to see. My goal with the kids’ show is to have action and adventure, but also instill a big sense of awe — I want kids to be like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” “Saturn 5” is about a group of young cadets who go on this adventure, this secret mission through the solar system. They’re going to real places and they’re going to do real things, things that could really happen. We’re going to use real NASA images and deep data to inform all the science, but then what we’re doing is telling this action/adventure story that’s going to be fun. They have a dog on the ship, for example, that has a jet pack and can fly around. … There are bad guys, and there’s twists and turns. It’s a kids’ adventure with sort of “Harry Potter” energy as well, a ragtag group of kids who are trying to solve problems. 

[The upcoming film] “Persephone” is a much more adult concept where we’re really talking about if climate change keeps going the way it is, and we don’t really do anything about it. … We go to this other place and we start our first colony then, and then we get in the story and they find something they didn’t expect. Do we learn to work with the situation, or do we fight against the situation? Have we learned from our past, or do we go repeat the same mistakes over and over again? … There is conflict, there are huge challenges and a lot of really epic, neat imagery in the film. I’m trying to make a movie that’s much more like what you would have seen in the 1960s and 1970s, using today’s technology, of course, but telling the kind of stories that would have been more like what Rod Serling would have told you in “The Twilight Zone.” 

What is the future of FutureDude Entertainment in the next year? 

A year from now, my goal would be to be in postproduction on “Persephone” and really close to bringing that to fruition. … After that I have another feature film that I’m going to start putting together. I’m actually in the process of rewriting the script right now. It’s called “Venus,” and it’s about the first crewed mission to the planet Venus, which has never been seen before in any movies. It’s a cool adventure with some humans and AIs and some robots that are trying to explore the planet, and they’re led by this kind of Elon Musk tech guy who gets himself in over his head. 

I’m hoping to also be in the middle of putting together the deal for “Neptune One,” which is our underwater series, so we’ll see what happens to that. The bottom line is to be an active production company that’s producing this quality science fiction content. … I’d like for us to be a household name. I’m hoping to reach an audience that’s well beyond “science fiction people.”

I hope they’re excited that there’s still something new out there. … There are people out there like me who want to tell different stories, and I think these stories will be exciting. 

Ken Schmidt/Former director of communications at Harley Davidson Motor Co. 

Why does a story about positioning and business communication fit into a festival dedicated to innovation? 

Most people, when you talk about innovation, think that a cord is required. Somehow we’re doing something digitally, electronically, and the tools and gadgets and apps and programs are what drives innovation. That’s all certainly real. In a lot of ways, we forget that being innovative just means doing things vastly different than others are doing it to make our lives better. Simplifying and being more humanistic in our approach to what we’re doing is as important, if not more important, and helps us to the market that attracts more people, which means more capital that we can invest in hiring more people creating or doing awesome things. 

Too many businesses make what they do about the thing they do. … It’s all really great until three weeks later when they find out somebody else is doing the exact same thing, selling it for a little bit less, and the notion wasn’t really quite so innovative. What else have you got? 

We live right now in fiercely competitive, fiercely commoditized, fiercely price-driven [times], to everyone’s detriment, and it’s only going to get worse. 

Fifteen, 20 years ago it was thrilling that you could order something online and two days later the box arrived at the front door. Now how do we make that better? On Amazon Prime it will arrive the next day. Now same-day [delivery] isn’t good enough anymore, it has to arrive within a few hours. … We didn’t ask for this, we didn’t need this, but it’s just the competitive environment. 

By always focusing on what we do instead of who we are, and where we fit into the lives of people that we serve, we’re going to constantly be on that treadmill chasing whatever the new thing is.

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