Travelling Salesmen: Q&A with Director Timothy Lanzone

PvsNP

Computer science and math are two fields of study with common roots. Students of either inevitably come across a famous mathematical combinatorial problem referred to as “the travelling salesman problem,” and its associated theoretical problem “P vs. NP.” The Travelling Salesman is also an intellectual pulse-throbbing film written and directed by Timothy Lanzone.  The DC Chapter of Association for Computing Machinery (DC ACM) in partnership with the Washington INFORMS Chapter (WINFORMS), Data Community DC (DC2), the INCOSE Student Chapter, and GWU EMSE premiered the Travelling Salesmen film on Tuesday, October 29th, 2013. The screening was held on George Washington University’s campus in Lisner Auditorium.

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Movie night attendees

The film narrates the ethical dilemma faced by four world class mathematicians who discover the solution to a famed math optimization problem with the potential to systemically transform the technological foundations of the entire human race. When the potential for the discovery is picked up by United States Department of Defense the mathematicians must choose between safety and risk, freedom and secrecy, the potential to change the world forever and the ability to make sure that it is never jeopardized. This is the story of what happens when a solution powerful enough to solve every problem of the modern world is at once dangerous enough to return it to its medieval state.

DC ACM also had the distinct pleasure of interviewing director Timothy Lanzone about the inspiration behind the film, the process for tackling a unique topic in computer science, how he entered film making, and what advice he would give to young luminaries in mathematics and computer science.

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DC ACM: What got you interested in film making?

TL: It’s always been a passion of mine. Since I was a kid, I’d be making movies at any opportunity I had—carrying my passion to the London Film School where i received my MA alongside some truly talented filmmakers. I enjoy the creative freedom and the entire process of dreaming up a story and watching it come to life through filming and post-production.

DC ACM: What other films have you completed?

TL: Immediately out of film school I completed a semi-autobiographical film called Road to Pecumsecah about a film school grad with big dreams struggling to make ends meet. Currently, I do a lot of commercial and short-form creative work for NBC and NBC Sports.

DC ACM: What was the creative process to take a brainy idea, a math problem, and turn it into a film that is exciting and gripping?

TL: After finishing film school, I had the opportunity to make a very small indie feature that was nicely received but had very, very limited exposure. I wanted to make another film but knew I’d have to do it on extremely limited resources. So I began challenging myself to tell a dramatic story that didn’t involve too many locations, too many actors and therefore could be shot in less than 2 weeks.  Film school professors always warn that the hardest and most difficult scenes to shoot occur around kitchen tables–limited shot selection, confusing actor positioning, and overall lack of dramatic punch. That stuck with me. So, naturally, I wanted to see if I could contain drama in one room–keeping most of the activity centered around a table!

I’ve always admired the power of mathematics–and that’s a tenant that we discuss a lot in the film. The ability to take the unknown or the unexplained and to quantify it or simplify it has always fascinated me–so I’ve always had a draw to the subject.

The first draft for Travelling Salesman was about a team of mathematicians who explored the power of factoring the prime number. It was a bit more mythical. I sent the script to my brother (Andy) who is an electrical engineer (he graduated from Univ. of Michigan with a Masters in computer science) and he basically said, “This is great, but have you ever heard of PvsNP?”  After lots of discussion, we re-molded the script into its current form. Coincidentally the original draft focused on the same themes/plot points that ended up being in the final draft of TS–so the re-writing was fairly easy.

I was always fascinated by the Manhattan Project–the successes and failures–but mostly how they achieved something pretty extraordinary by bringing in the best available minds from around the world–and having them all focus on one common goal.

Q: What advice would you give a young mathematician or computer scientist?

TL: Find a niche and be great at it. The digital world, seemingly, is expanding exponentially every day. It’s simultaneously exciting and scary—and mathematicians and computer scientists are at the forefront of it all.  It’s funny that they’re often grouped or portrayed as simply intellectual—”good with numbers.”  However, contrarily, I think they may be the most creative and innovative people on the planet. Use that inherent creativity and innovation and don’t limit yourself—you have the ability and talent to blaze a trail that no one else can.