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Geneticist Branches Out Into Movies


UCR Geneticist Plays Scientific Advisor to Movie about “Love, Adventure and ... Genetically Modified Rice”

Norman Ellstrand checked and improved the science behind Basmati Blues, a musical comedy set for a 2009 release

(May 7, 2008)

Image credit: Claudio Marcello.Enlarge

Image credit: Claudio Marcello.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — University faculty members frequently get invited to various institutions and conferences to give lectures about their ongoing research. But in January this year, Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside, was approached for his expertise on rice genetics by an unusual caller.

Josh Welsh, director of talent development for Film Independent, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping independent filmmakers get their films made, wanted Ellstrand to check the script of Basmati Blues, “a film about love, adventure and ... genetically modified rice,” for the accuracy of its scientific content.

Welsh explained to Ellstrand that the filmmakers had received the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s first annual Producers Grant to create and develop new scripts and films about science and technology and to see them into commercial production with national and international distribution.

When Ellstrand agreed to play scientific advisor to the movie, Welsh sent him the script and instructed him to contact Monique Caulfield, the film’s producer.

A musical comedy set in India and the boardrooms of Manhattan, Basmati Blues features globalization as its theme and depicts “what happens when a multinational agribusiness company makes greed and profits its only guiding principal.”

Using genetically modified agriculture as a backdrop, the film’s story revolves around a young American woman who works for a U.S.-based company interested in promoting genetically modified rice — rice that is created from plants that have had their DNA altered through genetic engineering — in India. While in India, she gets caught in the throes of a love-triangle involving two Indians (a scientist and a government official) who are drawn to her.

“Welsh asked that I read the script for any errors in its portrayal of the issues surrounding genetically modified rice,” said Ellstrand, who also is the director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center at UCR. “I also was given the opportunity to improve how these issues were depicted in the film. I was pleased and surprised to find the script to be scientifically sound overall, in need of only little fine-tuning and improvement.”

Ellstrand’s research at UCR involves the study of the escape of transgenic or engineered genes, including how such genes can be contained within a crop. The author of more than 100 peer-reviewed research papers, he is one of the country’s foremost experts on plant gene flow, the movement of genes from one organism to another.

“I had never read a movie script before,” he said. “I didn’t realize a script is so skeletal, with so little detail. I’m interested in seeing the film when it’s ready also because I’m curious to see how the filmmakers will flesh out the script.”

Caulfield mentioned that her team is working on finalizing the cast of American and Indian actors. The bulk of the film would be shot in India, she said.

“The film is an American musical comedy that is heavily influenced by the pulsating energy of Bollywood,” Caulfield added. “It is intended as neither a scathing critique of genetically modified crops, nor a plug for unbridled agribusiness. It’s a story about two cultures coming together to save the day, and should inspire audiences in the West and in India differently.”

Caulfield expects the film will be out in U.S. theaters in summer 2009. Basmati Blues, which will be dubbed in Hindi and other Indian languages, will feature five song-and-dance numbers, including one with an Indian flair.

“Our writers paid very close attention to the science in the film,” Caulfield said. “Norm Ellstrand’s detailed research on the scientific points in the film — such as, did we get the scientific names of flowers right, and do these flowers even grow in India? — increased our confidence in what we were putting out there in the script. Put simply, Norm took our script to the next level.”
Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside, shows his playful side.  For the first time, he played scientific advisor to a movie -- Basmati Blues, a musical comedy about “love, adventure and … genetically modified rice.” Enlarge

Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside, shows his playful side. For the first time, he played scientific advisor to a movie -- Basmati Blues, a musical comedy about “love, adventure and … genetically modified rice.”

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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