If science could prove the existence of an individual human soul beyond any reasonable doubt or equivocation, would it change your outlook on life? Moreover, would it change HOW you live?

I caught up with director Jocelyn Stamat, M.D. for a chat about these questions, film-making, influences, what makes a great film, and the other profound metaphysical, spiritual, ethical, medical and existential questions that her latest – a short medical thriller called Laboratory Conditions – presents to the viewer in the dress of a thriller. This very much includes a synthesis between a purely faith-based outlook and a purely scientific based outlook – as Doctor Stamat says below, a rational and caring middle ground does exist between the two.

Doctor Stamat has her medical degree from Duke and a degree from Harvard – a background which lends itself well to the nature of Laboratory Conditions' story. She is also currently adapting the League of Legends online game as an animated series for Riot Games. She also created the web series Turbo Dates, starring Whitney Cummings and Elisa Donovan.

Laboratory Conditions tells the story of an ER doctor (Minnie Driver) who unwittingly stumbles upon an experiment that has the potential to rock the very understanding of the fabric of human life by attempting to scientifically prove the existence of a soul.

This subject matter will obviously lend itself to the most sweeping scope possible in the fields that it brings itself to bear on: physics, neuroscience, biology, psychiatry, existential philosophy, metaphysics and spirituality – not to mention profound questions of medical ethics, including how humans themselves are by far the best instruments for measuring many things and that the art of medicine can never be discarded or minimized.

Yet, its most important question is the likely the one this article opened with: would scientific certainty of an after-life change how you and I live, act and treat our fellow humans? Laboratory Conditions is far from a sterile treatment of all these issues and all this science – it functions exceedingly well as a thriller and kept me entirely enthralled for its roughly 15 minute duration.

L-R Robert Scheid, Paulo Costanzo, Minnie Driver in LABORATORY CONDITIONS.

Laboratory Conditions also stars Marisa Tomei and Paulo Costanzo (Designated Survivor), it was written by Terry Rosio (whose credits include Aladdin, Pirates of the Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Shrek and Déjà vu). Follow it online here and enjoy the interview below.

Hello Jocelyn! Welcome to The 405! I thought I might start by getting a better feel for your history – what got you into film as your art form?

I inherited my love of film from my mother. For most of my childhood, we only had each other, and she took me to see all the films she wanted to see. She used to joke that it was cheaper than a babysitter.

I'm sorry, that must've been rough in a lot of ways. Excellent she passed on her appreciation of film though. Favorite films and directors? Which would consider most influential on you as an artist?

I'm a fan of genre films, from Ford to Hitchcock to Spielberg to Tarantino.

Me too. What makes a great film?

A film that raises more questions than it answers is a great film. A film that makes me think about a topic in ways I hadn't previously considered. I like to think of the central theme as a diamond, with each character's point of view representing a different facet of the diamond. The film then becomes both a character study and a deep exploration of the topic. If done well, the audience can empathize with each point of view, even though each is in conflict with the others.

That was really well said and made me think immediately of your film.

Getting into Laboratory Conditions, I am really curious about the initial inspiration there. There's so much to unpack with the very nature of the subject (not just medicine and neuroscience but theology, philosophy, metaphysics too) but it was done very effectively in the form of an intelligent thriller with horror elements.

The concept came from screenwriter Terry Rossio. Back when he was in college, he came across a newspaper article in which some rich guy offered $100,000 to anyone who could prove the existence of a soul. Apparently a group of grad students in Arizona decided to take him up on the challenge and Terry thought, wow, there's a great concept for a film. So, you can say our film is 'based on a true story.' Interestingly, it was the first screenplay he had ever written, and it didn't have an ending, which only came to him two decades later.

Fascinating. What was the research like for the film?

Four years of medical school and five years of residency, it was brutal!

Were the experiments of Duncan MacDougall a part of the research (The New York Times published them in 1907)? I don't recall ever hearing of other experiments to scientifically detect and measure the soul although they do exist – your film spurred me to research there. That is really what the "quantum net" in the film reminded me of was a high tech version of what he used to weigh the soul.

We were aware of his work, of course. There's even an homage in the film, where the Robbins character says, "Slight change in the weight on the gurney, but within tolerances."

Yeah. I think he's probably the most famous of the experimenters there although I could be wrong. I remember first seeing his story on Travel Channel's Mysteries at the Museum. Even though his methods were flawed, it's still fascinating.


What were some of the challenges in making Laboratory Conditions?

Aside from the typical time and money limitations, we were so fortunate to dodge any major setbacks. The skies opened up exactly when we needed rain, which was nothing short of miraculous for Southern California. Even the post-production technical challenges were not as difficult as I had expected (or feared). Of course our producer, Joe Russell, might have a different answer, having to create a film with studio look and sound on a shoestring budget!

The sort of inventiveness you showed on that small budget never ceases to amaze me. I think "high concept, low cost" is a mark of great film-making.

Another fascinating thing about the film to me was what was implied about science and religion and that they really are not incompatible – science is, after all, really just a way of knowing and measuring the natural world and that perhaps science does on occasion dovetail with what religion says. If I may ask, what are your personal thoughts on that? Did those thoughts change at all with making Laboratory Conditions? I don't ask that to try and bait you in any way, merely because of the film's narrative and nature.

There are shades of gray to any philosophical approach to measuring the natural world, whether purely scientific or purely spiritual, or intuitive. Neither is completely right, nor completely wrong. Science and spirituality are not incompatible…

I couldn't agree more. I've always felt that way more or less – I know it can be maddening to try to explain to some people too.

 …the information gleaned from each can be relevant to the other. The great Father of Modern Medicine, Sir William Osler said, "Listen to your patient, he is telling you his diagnosis." He was the first to bring medical students out of the cadaver lab and lecture hall, to the bedside of actual patients. When I was a student at Duke Medical School, it was emphasized to us that we first listen closely to our patient's story, and tailor subsequent testing to each individual patient, rather than the other way around. For many reasons, medicine is drifting away from listening to the patient, and toward something resembling "one-size-fits-all."

That's sad and something I've experienced first-hand through getting my chronic migraines treated before I found my current doctor who I've been with for years now.

My primary doctor (who taught medicine at Baylor in Dallas) has always said what you just said too. That it's profoundly wrong to try to remove the "art" from medicine. So, I couldn't agree more. It's only rational I think too to adjust treatments based on results – kind of the foundation of the empathy in medicine and also the pragmatism to get done what needs to get done.

What do you hope audiences will take with them from Laboratory Conditions? There’s quite a few fascinating points on medical ethics in it as well.

My hope is that those with a world-view that is science-based might consider human beings as valid measuring instruments, and include their feelings and sensations as valid data-points, though they might fall outside of traditional constraints of the scientific method. And those with a world-view that is faith-based might consider the techniques of science as a valid approach to help define and clarify their intuitions and spiritual sensations.

That's a fantastic synthesis. I hope a balance is found too.

One thing I would've liked to have expanded upon was the back story of Marisa Tomei's character Dr. Holloway, as she obviously has some sort of psychic abilities and knows she does. Do you have any plans to expand upon the film in say a sequel, prequel, or maybe even an expansion of the short into a feature? I think it would be fascinating in any of those forms.

Thank you! We feel the same way, it's very tempting to explore that world in more detail. On the other hand, some film narratives work best as short films, just as some written narratives work best as short stories. There has been a lot of studio interest in creating a feature-length version, but sometimes it's best to zag when you're expected to zig. We have many other stories we'd like to tell.


Cool. I hope you get the chance to do that expansion when the time's right. Last, what is next for you?

Terry, Joe and I are currently working on two features, unrelated to Laboratory Conditions. One is a romantic comedy called Dashboard Jesus and Hula Girl that celebrates the open road and country music. Terry and I have optioned the book "Callous Disregard" by Andrew Wakefield, and I am also working on an animated series based on the Riot Games property League of Legends.