By Suzanne Basra, Content & Internal Communications Manager at Ogilvy UK


Tonight, Ogilvy UK hosts an exclusive screening of new documentary The Divided Brain. Inspired by the book, “The Master and his Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist the film features Iain McGilchrist with actor-comedian John Cleese of “Monty Python”, neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor of TED Talks fame, pioneering neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga plus many more.

The Divided Brain is a mind-altering odyssey about one man’s quest to prove a growing imbalance in our brains, and help us understand how this makes us increasingly unable to grapple with critical economic, environmental and social issues; ones that shape our very future as a species.

Ahead of tonight's screening, we caught up with the film's producer Vanessa Dylyn, who's recent credits include  Into the Inferno (Netflix), to find out more.

What inspired you to turn The Master and his Emissary into a film?

I had already made several films on the brain for the CBC and National Geographic.  One was a very popular film called The Musical Brain, featuring Sting as our main guinea pig. So I had become fascinated with the brain as a subject for film.

I was a third of the way through Iain’s book and realized it was a masterwork that linked how we live in our western society to an imbalance in the hemispheres of the brain.

Though I was fascinated by the science of the two hemispheres and how the left and right had very different ways of seeing the world, I  really wanted to communicate to a large public,  what the implications of left brain dominance could mean to them personally and to society at large.    

What really resonated with me about Iain’s work was  how in western society, the spiritual and the metaphorical were  given short shrift and technology  was seen as the answer to our problems. it’s hard not to be influenced by the scientific mindset that’s so important in today’s world where technology is bringing about so much change and it’s tempting to value  the technological world more highly than anything else and reduce the importance of human values. I realize  that technology has enhanced human existence greatly, but who is going to decide the ethical basis  upon which that technology  is going to be used?  How are we going to make those decisions? That’s the wisdom and deep thinking of the right hemisphere.

The book also  illuminated what I had been so keenly aware of for decades -   the encroaching bureaucracy in our society in all fields.  All our public services from medical workers,  to  teachers to police forces have been sounding an alarm about not being able to do their real or “embodied” work properly because of increasing bureaucracy and red tape.   We’re lawyering up everywhere and this fear of litigation is  widespread and is preventing us from solving problems in a direct and  honest way. 

Our rules and regulations have  dispensed with common sense. We’ve all had the experience of being caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of some sort.  Where you’re caught in a vortex because you checked off the wrong box.

So I was very motivated to make this film because I believe that the value of Iain’s work  crosses disciplines and is much needed in a polarized western world.  My objective was  to make a film that would engage people intellectually but also viscerally.  To give the viewer a stroke of insight about how they  live in the western world.  And ideally the film will  inspire people to take action to improve their lives.  

Is there anything in particular that interests you about Iain's book and the psychology within?

First of all, I found the science of the brain hemispheres  itself fascinating, especially the example  of how many stroke patients, functioning with one hemisphere,  will exhibit  extreme changes in their personality.

On a deeper level  the book has  deepened my insight into certain problems in our modern western world. Before I read the book I had a sense that something profound was changing in our society.  I was aware of trends in our society – the polarisation of politics in western democracies, the rise of fundamentalism, the media reporting of events without context and more alarming, the documented rise of mental illness, including schizophrenia  and the increase in neurological disturbances in young children.

The disturbing rise of political correctness over decades that has led to the use of hyped-up language (eg. the word “survivor” being devalued and used for trivial cases ).  Avoiding offending anyone to the point where  there is no humanity in our interactions.  The rise of political correctness is about avoiding risk.  The possibility that left brain dominance is a factor in these social upheavals and ills, is fascinating to me

How did you retain the essence of the book when creating for the big screen?

That is the million dollar question. That was a great struggle. 

The director, writer and I worked at it for many months – how could  we translate a book that took 20 years to write into  a film ?  The book does not lend itself to the visual medium so one  must create a compelling visual way of constructing the story.  We couldn’t  make a dull science-based film.

There are two parts to the book – the science of the left and right hemisphere – the scientific basis of Iain’s thesis.   And then the evolution of human history and its link to brain science.

So we had to cover both parts and then also a  third part, which was:  where were the clues in our modern world, of left brain dominance?  And could  we can regain some balance in our world? 

Creatively, the biggest challenge was, how to how to  take the thesis of left brain dominance and link it  to some of the problems of our society.  In a nuanced and credible way.

So we revealed the science behind his thesis by following Iain  visiting  scientists who had influenced his work.  In this way, we could tell a visual story and have Iain on the move, instead of always in a sit-down interview.   Iain couldn’t be the only link to each scene so  we used a narrator to link the scenes whenever necessary.

Were there any challenges with adapting the book for film?

Where do I start??  The three- year evolution of the film was extremely bumpy  and as I said to Iain: “This film has more curses than Tut’s tomb!”  

So after trying many approaches , the team and I  finally decided the construct the film around the story of Iain’s journey.  Why did he leave a promising career in literature to embark on the arduous road to psychiatry and neuroscience?   So the viewers are on the road with Iain and in that way,  they discover the scientific basis of Iain’s thought by watching the  evolution of that thought unfold in the film, through Iain’s interactions with the outside world.

So it was all about creating a visual palette of active scenes to tell the story - through footage we shot, archival material, animation and narration. 

The biggest challenge in any essay film, is how to connect the dots in a way that an intelligent audience will be able to follow. And how to  make this watchable and engaging.  

 This was the greatest difficulty we faced – I went through several creative teams to get there and I was fortunate that everyone was committed and engaged. Iain was extremely helpful in areas where we needed  to get the science right.

The last big challenge was how to present a scientist’s work without seeming to endorse it. Especially given that Iain’s work is controversial. As a producer, one is aware that broadcasters need assurance of an objective approach.  So we included those who supported Iain’s work and those who strongly disagreed with his ideas.

And the writing of the film had to reflect that we recognized the controversy of Iain’s work and that we were examining his work for discussion and not endorsement.  

Finally, it was heart-breaking  to let go of some wonderful interviews that we had filmed but that we just had no room for.  This is always a deep regret  when you make a film.

Any behind the scenes secrets from filming that you're willing to share?

Well,  our journey started  off  great style: on the first day of filming, the crew drove up to  Iain’s home on the windswept Isle of Skye in Scotland, and when they got within a hundred yards of Iain’s home,  they proceeded to drive  production van into a  ditch. Iain had to call a tow truck.  Then the next day,  at 70 km winds, the director Manfred Becker,  had Iain step up to the edge of the cliffs, inches away from the plunge into the Atlantic.  I don’t know how the poor man is still with us!

Then over the next few weeks, the crew shadowed and chased Iain through half a dozen countries in Europe and North America. He was exhausted but was a very good sport throughout all of this, UNTIL  we made him drive a car through London rush hour. He was fit to be tied.  He  said he would never drive in London because of his views on the environment -  he used colorful language but  we didn’t put that scene in the film.

John Cleese’s involvement gave a lovely comedic moment in the film.   I approached John Cleese to join us in the film because I found out that he had been inspired by Iain’s book and had recommended it in his corporate training seminars.  He was very kind and helped us promote the film by first being in our trailer and then in the film.

So we decided to have Iain and John  meet in  London’s Hunterian museum in the brain exhibit section!   I wish I had been there;  in his scene he is hilarious  – wise and silly.


Find out more about The Divided Brain here.

Catch Ogilvy UK Vice Chairman, Rory Sutherland, interviewing Vanessa & Iain tonight - follow on Twitter with #DividedBrain