I have been making films about important mathematicians since 1988, and each of the films has presented its own challenges and rewards. With N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdos, I had the good luck to work with one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century over a four-year period and to meet several others whose stature has only grown since that film was completed in 1993. Since then the list of renowned and accomplished mathematicians I’ve been able to interview has grown to include Vaughan Jones, Hendrik Lenstra, Martin Davis, Dana Scott, Yuri Matiyasevich, and now with the biography of S. S. Chern, countless others. In the case of Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, the film’s main subject, Julia Robinson, was no longer alive, but her sister and biographer, Constance Reid, filled in for her with enough energy to effectively convey her presence and spirit in ways I had not dreamt were possible.
When production of Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern started in April 2010, the challenge was to make a film about someone who was no longer alive. But a number of things soon conspired in my favor. It turned out I had actually filmed Chern when he was alive. David Eisenbud, then director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at Berkeley, had asked me to film a discussion with S. S. Chern in 2000. The footage had never been used and the institute still had the camera originals. Then everyone I interviewed in Berkeley, at MIT, in New York and Princeton, stressed two things about Chern beyond his considerable mathematical achievements. He was a devotee of Chinese classical culture, and had deep-seated patriotic feelings for China. This helped prepare me for an appreciation of the reverence with which Chern is regarded in China today, and helped me to cast him as a traditional Chinese sage in the modern world. Now I could get much closer, and create a richer portrait. The love and respect for Chern I’ve encountered everywhere has resulted in an abundance of stills, archival footage, and stories—a real cornucopia that people are sharing as a gesture of giving back to Chern some of what he gave them.
George Csicsery, Producer and Director