In an era where scientists are eyed with suspicion and science itself is treated as something to be debated by politicians and industry lobbyists, the last thing you’d ever want to be is the researcher whose findings conflict with corporate interests. You might find yourself followed, your reputation dismantled, your very well-being threatened — all of which happened to University of California-Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes when he discovered that atrazine, one of our most commonly used herbicides, might be causing gender and reproductive deformities in frogs, with potential implications for human health.
Hayes’ research was enough to provoke a years-long war between him and Syngenta, the company that manufactures atrazine; the saga already got the 8,000-word treatment last year in the New Yorker as well as in a 2011 Mother Jones story. But filmmaker Jonathan Demme told Salon he felt there was even more to add to Hayes’ story, which he produced in mini-documentary form for the first episode of “The New Yorker Presents,” a new series streaming on Amazon Prime.
In the film, Demme and Hayes return to the South Carolina neighborhood where he grew up, and through conversations with his family trace his history in a way that provides a new answer to the question Syngenta’s communications manager, in notes that eventually were made public, wrote that she was determined to figure out: “What’s motivating Hayes?”
Salon spoke with Demme and Hayes about the documentary’s creation and about Hayes’ life and work beyond atrazine. Our conversations, which follow, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.