Drew Hammond is an English teacher at Eagan High School in Eagan, Minnesota. He’s also an award-winning public speaking coach, a published playwright, and a former stand-up comedian. He is featured in the documentary Figures of Speech, which is out on Netflix.
Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Drew Hammond about the movie that changed his life, Contact. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry. We’re gonna give you all the details to follow along.
But before we get started, a special shout-out to our Minneapolis friends. We’re doing a live recording of This Movie Changed Me with artist, activist, and Minneapolis city council member, Andrea Jenkins. We’ll be at the Parkway Theater on Sunday, September 29th talking about Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Malcolm X. You can get your tickets at theparkwaytheater.com, and because we’d love to see as many of our This Movie Changed Me listeners there, please use the promo code “MovieFriends” to get 20 percent off.
[music: “Awful Waste of Space” by Alan Silvestri]
The first time that I saw Contact in the theaters I was blown away. I think I was even speechless if you can imagine that. And I had never seen a movie that so perfectly captured my faith on film. I had never seen a movie that described all the questions and all of the mysteries I felt around God and science and, even love, in a movie before.
The movie is adapted from the science fiction novel by the scientist Carl Sagan and tells the story of Ellie. We first meet her as a little girl with her dad watching the stars and fascinated by the idea of life on other planets. We see her playing with the radio, trying to make a connection with people from outside her home town. And that curiosity that she has as a little girl will eventually guide her through her work.
[music: “Small Moves” by Alan Silvestri]
Ellie grows up to be this amazing astronomer who works for SETI, this organization that is trying to find aliens on other planets — and many people don’t take her work seriously. Other scientists give her credit for her hard work and for her intelligence and her amazing determination in her projects, but it’s the kind of science that is often equated with faith, the kind of science you can’t prove.
That search is one that takes Ellie directly into the path of Palmer Joss, this kind of spiritual pastor, new-agey seeker, played by Matthew McConaughey.
Ellie is played brilliantly by the one and only Jodie Foster, one of my heroes, and the relationship between her and Palmer is so important because it is gonna kind of demonstrate and play out for us that divide between science and faith, science and religion. And it becomes the guiding light for the movie. How can you be sure that something really exists when you can’t prove it?
[music: “String Quartet No. 16 in E-Flat Major, K. 428” by Mozart, performed by Mozarteum Quartet Salzburg]
The character of Palmer Joss was important for me because he inhabited this religious, spiritual seeker identity, but he also really understood where Ellie as a scientist came from. And that was really important for high school teacher Drew Hammond, although, he related to Ellie. He had never seen a scientist figure like her before, someone who would ask these hard questions of everyone around her and even of herself and the work that she did, and yet felt really comfortable with the idea of mystery and unanswered questions.
[music: “Very Confused” by Alan Silvestri]
Ms. Percy: I want to hear the story behind when you first saw Contact. And this is kind of like a meditative exercise that we’ve found really useful here on the podcast, which is for you to close your eyes — I’m looking at you, so I know you’re doing it. [laughs] Close your eyes, and then, for ten seconds, just think about that first time that you saw the movie.
Drew Hammond: Sure.
Ms. Percy: And then, I will look at a clock, and I’ll interrupt you.
So what memories came up for you then?
Mr. Hammond: It was the summer after high school — high school graduation, I think it was. And about two weeks before the movie came out, my long-term crush that I had had a — I want to say it was love, but it was not, for sure. It was just high-school crush. But for four years, I had wanted to be with her, and then, towards the end of high school, she got engaged to her youth pastor from her church.
Ms. Percy: Whoa. How old was he?
Mr. Hammond: He was a good seven years older than she was.
Ms. Percy: That seems right. Definitely right. [laughs]
Mr. Hammond: Right. But, you know, Jesus was cool with it, so I guess it was all a part of the plan.
Anyway, but so I was crushed, and I remember, I went to the wedding, and I remember thinking, “Oh, if I was more of a person of faith, if I could be somebody that could go to church, this could be me up there,” right?
Ms. Percy: “She could love me.”
Mr. Hammond: And I was depressed, and I felt so alone. And then, a couple of my friends, we went to the movie, just because it was a science fiction movie, because we knew it had aliens in it. And if you go back and look at the trailer, it does not set the movie up at all.
Ms. Percy: No; yeah, unless you knew Carl Sagan’s work, you would have no idea, the kind of dialogue that was happening.
Mr. Hammond: Right. It just looks like a cool action, science-fiction movie.
Ms. Percy: Like Independence Day — I’m like, cool. It’s gonna be like Deep Impact.
Mr. Hammond: And if it had been like Independence Day, I have to say, it would’ve been great, a fun romp.
And we watched the movie, and when it was done, my friends got up and started to walk away, and they were like, “Whatever; cool. Let’s go get some ice cream.” And I was just sitting there bawling. And I could not bring myself to leave the theater for a good ten minutes, because it was just such a profound and deeply personal experience that I don’t think I’ve ever had, in a movie, like that — where I just felt like this movie spoke to something that I could never even put into words. And I didn’t know how to talk about it with anybody; I didn’t feel like it was OK to talk about what that movie brought up for me. You know what I’m saying?
Ms. Percy: Oh, yeah, definitely. It’s one of the things that I love the most about movies and that experience of when you first see one in the theater, is, you’re hit with this impact of the film, and then you’re processing it days, weeks, years later.
Mr. Hammond: For sure. I went back and saw the movie again in the theater, maybe within the next week, and finally started to figure out, Oh, this is speaking to this disconnect that I’ve felt for the last — whatever — at the time, probably eight years of being a young kid who never had a relationship with church and was surrounded by very spiritual and religious people, and always feeling like an outsider because of that.
Ms. Percy: Yeah. It’s funny, I think I had a similar experience to you, watching the movie, as someone who grew up, actually, very religious. My dad’s a pastor and evangelical Christian. But he’s also a botanist, and he also is a man of science. And I think watching this movie felt a lot like, in a lot of ways, seeing a lot of his own inner conflict and a lot of the things that we grew up hearing about from him. But it was also the best example that I had seen, at the time, of my ideal version of faith.
Ms. Percy: That scene where — “Have you heard of Occam’s Razor?” It’s my favorite scene that I often quote to, particularly, folks, when I’m talking to them, who are atheists or agnostics, when they’re like — I’ve heard this often, particularly from men that I’ve dated, who’ve been, like, “You seem so smart. How is it that you believe in God?” And I’m always, like … fuck you.
Mr. Hammond: There’s a lot to unpack there. Wow. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Yeah, exactly, right? But I always reference that scene, because it — and I know it’s kind of pat, but it really does such a great job of demonstrating his point, which is, “Did you love your father? Prove it.” You can’t — there are so many things that you can’t prove that are just substantial parts of our own human experience. And what do you do with that?
Mr. Hammond: Right. And I think that that’s something that science lives with, and a real scientist is going to admit that most of what they are trying to prove they may not ever be able to prove. And this idea that in science, somebody down the line, some other generation, will either build on what you have or prove it or whatever, but that most of what we do in science is about wrestling with the unknown and trying to just take one step closer to understanding something. And how is that not what faith is about? And a lot of my scientist friends will get really upset when I equate the two.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] I’m sure.
Mr. Hammond: Right? And it makes sense, because, obviously, there are some very different heuristics that we’re gonna need to use. But so much of what I think the experience of being alive is, is about, as you’re trying to understand yourself and your role in the world, is knowing that it’s gonna take your entire lifetime to even approach understanding something, and that that, for a lot of people, is very frustrating. And a lot of people are able to jump ahead in that through faith, because faith can offer you some answers that you still, probably, have to rationalize within yourself. But it can at least give you a path to follow.
And if you don’t have that path to follow, then making your own path can be a pretty lonely experience and a challenging experience to know how to even approach. And I think that’s why Jodie Foster’s character in Contact resonates with me so much, is because this is a person who has lost a lot of the things that would give her a path to follow. She’d lost her parents. She’s lost friends in the process of the beginning parts of the movie. But she’s kept this intensely personal goal and focus on finding something.
Ms. Percy: I find it fascinating that the focus of her work is SETI, is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which — as they showcase in the movie, and I’m assuming to be true — is regarded as the new-age of science. [laughs] People don’t take seriously.
Mr. Hammond: Certainly, in the ’90s, it was.
Ms. Percy: In the ’90s, exactly; so it’s fascinating to me that Carl Sagan, when he wrote the book, decided to do that, to tell that story in that way. What do you think he was saying about that kind of comparison to the way a lot of people view religion and people of faith?
Mr. Hammond: Well, I think Carl Sagan was such a remarkable person in the way that he understood how the people’s relationship with science has to be comfortable and has to be something that we can all understand some purpose behind. That’s how we sell it, right?
Ms. Percy: And personal, right? Because that’s how — when he did Cosmos, that’s how he came across.
Mr. Hammond: Right, and since then, we’ve had all these scientists that have kind of done the same. But for Carl Sagan, he was one of the first people to ever do it. And I think that one of — if you’re gonna tell a story about a scientist, there are very few avenues that that scientist can be pursuing that everybody understands, other than, just, “Hey, are we alone in the world?”
Ms. Percy: The quintessential question.
Mr. Hammond: Right, that is both a scientific question, and it is also an incredibly spiritual and philosophical and human question. And I think that the way that Jodie Foster’s character talks about searching for somebody and searching for life out there, is — you could replace everything she says with the way that people talk about searching for higher power or a love or whatever it is. The nouns that she’s using are absolutely interchangeable with any of the other things that we search for meaning in.
[music: “End Credits” by Alan Silvestri]
Ms. Percy: Contact’s such an important movie for Drew and for me, and we want to share it with you. Subscribe to the This Movie Changed Me newsletter today, and you’ll be in the running to get a copy of the movie. And when you subscribe you’ll also get a reflection from me and from one of you — about how a movie has changed your life.
Here’s what María Del Rincón from Rome, Italy said about The Tree of Life:
“Watching that movie made me realize that we are not just lonely creatures wandering this planet, but part of a bigger picture which includes our family and friends, the trees, the fish, the planets, and even God. I never thought a movie could make me feel connected to everything in such a compelling way.”
We’d love to hear from you so visit onbeing.org/tmcmletter to subscribe and join in on the conversation.
[music: “I Believe Her” by Alan Silvestri]
Ms. Percy: In preparing to talk with you, I was looking through — Roger Ebert is a prophet, to me, [laughs] speaking of religious figures.
Mr. Hammond: Wow.
Ms. Percy: And when he wrote about Contact, the first time when he saw it, in 1997, and then, also, he — years later — revisited it again. And he talks about how both times, but especially when he revisited the movie — I think, 14 years later — he was so struck by the fact that it talks about things that are never talked about, like faith and science and politics. And he talks about his own belief in God. He’s like, “When the movie was released in July 1997 I had more or less the same beliefs I have now about the existence of God and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Yet reading my review I find the movie didn’t seem as brave to me then as it does now … Hollywood treats movies like a polite dinner party: Don’t bring up religion or politics.” And in my memory of movie-watching, I actually can’t think of another film that does this. This is the only film that so beautifully allows both science and religion to live alongside each other.
I don’t know if you can think of any others —
Mr. Hammond: No, I cannot.
Ms. Percy: I was really wracking my brain for this, and it seems shocking to me —
Mr. Hammond: Give me an hour, and maybe.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly.
Mr. Hammond: Wow.
Ms. Percy: Ben-Hur. No.
Mr. Hammond: [laughs] I mean, Dude, Where’s My Car? is essentially telling the same story, but …
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Totally — it’s the search for alien life.
Mr. Hammond: In a car.
Ms. Percy: Joke’s on people; it actually is that. [laughs]
Mr. Hammond: No, you’re right. I don’t know. That’s a good question.
And I think that even just — I think there’s lots of movies that talk about politics, and we have an understanding of politics as being a very complicated thing that is ultimately necessary. But what this movie talks about in terms of politics is this very different aspect of what would politics do if we had to move past politics? Does that make sense?
Ms. Percy: Yeah.
Mr. Hammond: And I think that seeing politics in the room with Palmer Joss’s character …
Ms. Percy: Who is this man of God; as he says, he dropped out of seminary, though. He didn’t officially become —
Mr. Hammond: Why? Because he couldn’t deal with celibacy. Classic.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Great Matthew McConaughey line — couldn’t deal with the celibacy.
Mr. Hammond: He’s the perfect person to play that role.
Ms. Percy: He really is. He’s so charismatic.
And he actually — I think anyone else in that role, to me, would’ve felt, actually, more like James Woods’s character, very smarmy and untrustworthy. But I never doubt him and his real intentions, even with Ellie, with Jodie Foster’s character. I feel like he is someone who’s searching in the same way that she is, and that’s why he is so in love with her. He recognizes that in himself.
Mr. Hammond: And he has doubts about his own actions and about his own beliefs. And he has doubts about this person he loves, too. And seeing somebody — and seeing characters that have doubts is also, to me, a fairly refreshing thing, because I feel like writing doubts, when you write characters, is so difficult. And writing characters who doubt some very core elements of their life is hard to do. And then, the fact that they come together in their shared questions — so good.
And what a great relationship that — I think you see them kiss once in the movie, but the rest of it is about them giving each other the space to explore the questions that they have and trying to be there. Man, if that’s not love …
Ms. Percy: I was gonna say, is there anything more romantic than that? [laughs]
Mr. Hammond: Right?
Ms. Percy: So this movie, for me, was incredibly healing in the sense that it portrayed a person of faith as being a seeker and intelligent and equal to a scientist, in the character of Palmer Joss. And I’m so interested in knowing what it was that it did for you as that high school student, when you first saw it. What was going on in your life that the character of Ellie — what did that character represent for you?
Mr. Hammond: I think — her character is — it feels very much like a depiction of all the things that I was struggling with when I was a teenager, which was, how come I feel alone a lot? And how come I can’t feel the things that other people seem to be feeling, at ease? How come I don’t have that same kind of peace that people that go to church on a regular basis feel? And how come I can’t feel that connection that everybody else feels to something? And so, I think the story of somebody exploring their own atheism is — that’s a hard story to tell, in a lot of ways, and it’s also just not a super-common story to tell. And so, seeing her and her strength and her convictions about what she believes — that was one thing.
But then, the other part was that — this idea that we can search for questions. And as long as we are continuing to search for questions, it doesn’t matter what the questions are. The answers are secondary; they’re just not as important as the fact that we are searching. And so, when I saw the movie — I saw it at the absolute perfect age. I think I saw it when I was 18. I got permission to just know that the search was enough and that I don’t have to believe anything that anybody is telling me, which, when you’re a teenager, is the greatest permission …
Ms. Percy: Yes, it really is.
Mr. Hammond: … and that I also will probably spend my life changing what I believe, and as long as I stay curious and as long as I stay active in questioning, then I’ll be OK.
And I think that’s what you see is, you see Jodie Foster — over however much time in the movie, you see her character changing what she believes and, ultimately, being better for it.
Ms. Percy: So as you’ve gotten older and continued to watch this movie, because much like myself, I know, you watch it over and over again …
Mr. Hammond: About once a year.
Ms. Percy: What do you continue to learn from it? What are you learning, as you grow together with the movie?
Mr. Hammond: I think that the calmness that you get as you grow older, as you become more comfortable with yourself and with what you don’t know and with the way that you interact with the world — which is great, right; in your 30s, all of a sudden, you start to accept yourself.
Ms. Percy: The self-loathing gets less and less. [laughs]
Mr. Hammond: But the thing that I didn’t realize is that you actually just get more questions. I think, when you’re young, you think that you get older and you get smarter, and that you understand more about the world. And obviously, it’s a cliché at this point in time to say that you don’t. But being comfortable with not knowing — and knowing that you may not ever know — is such a gift, and I think that movie shows a character arc where somebody gets more comfortable with not knowing, more comfortable with allowing other people’s ideas and beliefs and ways of thinking to mix with their own.
As a teacher, one of the challenges I have is that I have to allow kids to enter the classroom, bringing whatever it is they’ve brought with them. And so, I have kids that believe radically different things than I believe and that think about some pretty important things very differently. And I cannot think that something is wrong with them because they grew up with a different set of experiences.
And that’s been one of the hardest things for me, as a teacher, to wrap my head around, is that all I can do is give them the space to ask questions and to know that those questions are valid and try and encourage them, as much as possible, to question everything that they believe, knowing that if it’s good, they’ll come back to it. And if it’s not, then, they’ll find something better.
And in some ways, that is an incredibly frustrating thought — that we might just not ever know. But if we just embrace that as “That’s what the journey looks like,” that we will just always be surrounded by questions, then, what a cool gift that is, to know that there may be things that happen in our lifetimes that we cannot possibly foresee. We might get a message from an alien race …
Ms. Percy: Using math. [laughs]
Mr. Hammond: … right, that might change everything we know about ourselves. And how great would that be? How cool would that be, if that all of a sudden happened that all the world had to totally rethink everything that we know?
[music: “End Credits” by Alan Silvestri]
Ms. Percy: Drew Hammond is an English teacher at Eagan High School in Eagan, Minnesota. He’s also an award-winning public speaking coach, a published playwright, and a former stand-up comedian. If you want to see his teaching live in action, you can watch him in the documentary Figures of Speech, which is out on Netflix.
Contact was produced by Warner Brothers and the South Side Amusement Company, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. The movie’s soundtrack is off of Warner Brothers Records and composed by the great Alan Silvestri, who also did the music to one of my all-time favorite trilogies, Back to the Future.
Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking about the romantic comedy and ode to hip hop, Brown Sugar. You’ve got a week to watch it before our next conversation, and we can’t wait for you to experience its soundtrack.
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise. Find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.
I’m Lily Percy, and I’m going to go watch Contact again and cry like a baby.