07/26/2013 05:58 EDT | Updated 09/25/2013 05:12 EDT

'Fly Room' about motley crew of scientists who laid groundwork for genetic study

TORONTO - Alexis Gambis was taking his first steps about a decade ago towards a PhD in genetics when he learned about a lab run by a motley crew of young scientists, whose work on the lowly fruit fly in the 1920s laid the groundwork for the modern-day study of human genetics.

So when the French-born Gambis traded in his microscope for a movie camera in 2009, the so-called Fly Room at Columbia University was a subject he longed to explore as a filmmaker, especially as a filmmaker with a passion for science.

Ten years later, he is putting the finishing touches on "The Fly Room," a feature film that centres on one of the researchers, Calvin Bridges, and the conflicted relationship with his daughter Betsey.

But Gambis, who founded Imagine Science Films as a means of communicating the wonders of science to the general public, also focuses on the role of the tiny insect in the advancement of human medicine.

He started his film company because he was frustrated by how science and scientists were depicted in film.

"Not only the stereotypes, the cliches, the misconceptions, but also that people tend to not focus on the right parts about the science," he says, speaking from New York, where he splits his time with Paris. "They always focus on the discoveries and they're not interested in the process of doing science.

"Basic research is totally unexplored in film, the use of model organisms like flies and worms and rats to study important questions about disease. Everything is studied with these model organisms and people don't comprehend that."

To make his film, Gambis had to recreate the Fly Room, which had been dismantled at some point after head scientist Thomas Hunt Morgan moved to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1928. Morgan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 for discovering the role chromosomes play in heredity, based on his lab's fruit fly studies.

By all accounts, Room 613 in Schermerhorn Hall, was cramped, dingy and smelly — in part because huge bunches of overripe bananas were initially used to feed the fruit flies, which were bred in dozens of gauze-stoppered glass milk bottles on every available surface around the lab.

"It was a disgusting space because the bananas were rotting, there were flies all over the place, and the flies were feeding off the bananas," explains Gambis. "(The researchers) were smoking cigars, they were sniffing ether, they were getting drunk on ether.

"It was just crazy, it was not what you would think of as a typical lab."

Even so, the Fly Room was considered a model for egalitarian research. "It was kind of the first time that research was conducted in a very democratic way where there was no hierarchy between the head of the lab and the people working there.

"It was kind of like a Dead Poets Society," he says of Morgan proteges Calvin Bridges, Alfred Sturtevant and (later Nobel laureate) Hermann Muller, who were known as the Fly Boys.

"It was a bunch of 20-year-olds working on fruit flies and they stumbled upon most of what we understand about genes and inheritance."

Gambis decided to hang his film on Bridges after he discovered his daughter Betsey was alive and living in Asheville, N.C. His interviews with Betsey, who turns 95 Sunday, gave him the outline for his human-centric story line.

"He was a bit of an eccentric," Gambis says of Bridges. "He had kind of a James Dean look. There were a lot of stories about Calvin Bridges because in the lab his job was to identify mutations and he was known for having amazing eyesight.

"But he was also known for being a womanizer and he had a pretty colourful life outside the lab. He was somewhat of a sex addict."

"The Fly Room" delves into his relationship with his daughter, played as a child by Zoe Brooks. "The whole film is centred around her. The film is about three stages of her life," starting when she was 10 years old and made her first and only visit to the lab one day in 1927.

"It was kind of a complicated relationship because she admires him for being kind of the father of genetics, but he was a terrible father" who abandoned his family to follow Morgan to Caltech, Gambis says.

Betsey also appears as a 20-something college student, who learns of her father's death in 1938 (of complications from syphilis) in the New York Times. The actual Betsey, whose married name is Black, also makes a short appearance.

"She kind of appears at the end, a bit of an epilogue, a bit of a 'Titanic' ending."

Gambis hopes to submit the movie early next year for possible inclusion in such film festivals as Cannes and TIFF in Toronto.

Meanwhile, a replica of the Fly Room opened as part of an exhibition this week at Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation in Brooklyn, N.Y. The interactive exhibition, which also includes a series of lectures by eminent scientists, runs to the end of August.