Fort Collins native who directed ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ says new series is about tension between science and faith

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13min 36sec
Courtesy of Apple TV
“Lessons in Chemistry” is a new Apple TV+ series.

The new Apple TV+ series, “Lessons in Chemistry,” starring Brie Larson, has an extraordinary Colorado connection. It is based on the 2022 novel of the same name. It’s centered around Elizabeth Zott, a pioneering chemist in 1950s California whose life takes an unexpected turn when she becomes the unlikely star of a hit culinary show.

Fort Collins native and Poudre High School alum Sarah Adina Smith is the director and executive producer of the series' first two episodes. 

Smith says the project came to her through her dear friend, Louise Shore. They worked together on Smith’s movie, “Birds of Paradise.” Though she was eager to work with her friend again, Smith was initially uncertain about this project. 

Sarah Adina Smith attends the Amazon Studios Winter 2019 TCA
David Buchan/Variety
Sarah Adina Smith attends the Amazon Studios Winter 2019 TCA

“To be honest, when I first heard the premise, I was a little bit hesitant, perhaps because I thought, ‘Oh, okay, a show about a white woman experiencing sexism in the 1950s workplace. Like, hadn't we seen this story before? Is this something? Is this a story we really need to tell?’,” Smith said. “But then, as I looked deeper into the story, I read the book, and met with (showrunner) Lee Eisenberg. I heard his vision for the adaptation. I realized there was something resonant and meaningful here, and it was clear to me why this book meant so much to so many people.”

Smith calls this a “universal story about the tension between science and faith.” 

“We often see those things as diametrically opposed, but I think this is a journey of a woman who, when we meet her, she's very controlled, she has everything. She does everything very deliberately and very logically, and she likes everything to be predictable,” Smith said. “And then all of a sudden love takes her completely by surprise and her walls come down and a series of unexpected, absolutely unpredictable events happen in her life and welcomes her into a new hard-fought kind of almost modern faith, which is a faith in love and in open to the magic of human relationships and a faith in each other here on earth. And so I think it's a really beautiful, unique story and something that I know I was craving and I think audiences will really respond to as well.”

Not a rom-com

Though the book cover, and now the promos for the TV series share style elements of rom-coms, “Lessons in Chemistry,” isn’t exactly in the mold. 

“It's so deceptive, right? Because it certainly presents itself in some ways as a romcom but then surprises you by being about so much more. And I had the great joy of getting to work on the first two episodes, which in a lot of ways, look like a rom-com, right? It's these two unlikely people meeting and falling in love through their shared passion for science. And we get to really relish this delicious love story and their chemistry on screen.” Smith said.  “It ends up being about a lot more than a romcom. I think it's one of those projects that's easy to write off at first glance. In fact, I didn't uncover my own hidden misogyny and personal bias as I found myself rolling my eyes about, oh, okay, there's like another story of sexism in the workplace. Do we really need that? I was like, I actually judged the book by its cover, which was really humbling and good for me to realize that actually I'm so glad that I stayed open and actually gave it a chance because it ended up being so much more meaningful than I could have ever imagined.”

A Chemist in a Pink Kitchen

Smith says this project surprised her and became much more personally meaningful than she  ever expected. “I think in some ways I share some similarities with Elizabeth Zott in that she's a chemist whose first love and passion is chemistry, and yet because of the skin she happens to live in and the body she happens to live in, she can't be taken seriously in that profession and ends up sort of finding a way to get her foot in the door and find some success when she's invited to be the host of a cooking show. And sometimes I do feel, for whatever reason, the projects that  are sort of most close to my heart as a writer and director, I sometimes find myself hitting a wall for whatever reason. I tend to more twisted sci-fi philosophical type of projects, but have had a hard time getting those to the green light phase. And then here comes this project,” said Smith,”And I'm so glad I stayed open to it because it ended up being so wonderfully meaningful. So I feel a little bit like a chemist in a pink kitchen sometimes. Like Elizabeth, I'm sort of not where I thought I would be or not where I thought I was supposed to be, whatever that means. But because I stayed open to it, I'm so grateful that I did. I ended up finding this opportunity to connect with some of the most truly talented, amazing collaborators I've ever worked with and created memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

Fort Collins to Hollywood

How did Smith find the road toward her Hollywood career as a director, writer, and producer from Fort Collins, Colorado? She says it's a good example of why representation on screen matters. 

“When I was a kid, somehow I thought, I think it was because the Oscars. There was a best actress award right alongside the best actor. So I thought that's a field where women can be on par with men. So I thought I wanted to be an actor and didn't actually really know much about what went on behind the camera. And it was actually my high school English teacher at Poudre High School in the International Baccalaureate program, a guy named Darren Marshall, who was a very inspiring, wonderfully passionate English teacher. I remember he said to me, are you sure you want to be an actress? You might want to be a director.” Smith said.

Though she admits she initially dismissed it, she later realized he was right. “I found my place behind the camera after college. I was a painter in college, and then I started experimenting with weird video art that thankfully no one will ever see because it was pre-YouTube, so it's on a Hi8 tape in a drawer somewhere, never to be digitized. 

I came at directing films from a more painting, fine art type of path.”

World-class Education at Fort Collins Public School 

Smith says her career trajectory is a testament to the importance of the programs and the educators in school.

“I got the benefit of a world-class education at our public school in Fort Collins, Colorado. I feel very passionately about public school, and I just feel so fortunate to have been able to have the types of teachers I had at that school, really all from elementary school all the way on, and I felt really prepared to I learn. They encouraged me to be curious. They did not discourage me when I was weird. I was a weird kid for sure. And so I think I felt very nurtured. I'm glad that my spirit wasn't squashed in the public school system. It was really, I think celebrated. So I am absolutely deeply grateful for that.” Smith said. 

To go from high school in Fort Collins to where she is now takes that kind of fortitude and perseverance Smith saw in the character of Elizabeth Zott. The director, writer, and producer from Fort Collins has advice for other young people who want to find their own place in the world.

“I would say find something, whatever it is that is so alive for you in your heart that when you wake up in the morning, it's one of the first things you think about. And once you find that thing that sparks, it will give you strength to persevere through any obstacles you might encounter.” Smith said. “And I know that's easier said than done. Sometimes that's not so obvious what that spark might be. But I would say keep looking and look outside of yourself. Look at ways in which you can serve others. If you're not able to find something that may be directly sparking for you, think about what you want to give back to this community of weird humans that exist on this planet, in this cold and vast universe.”

Smith said that finding what that spark is is the first step. “Then it will be your touchstone as you move through all kinds of paths in life. And again, as the lesson of the show is stay open to the ways in which you get knocked off your path. Stay open, and you might be surprised. It might actually help you find the thing that ultimately is the most meaningful for you.”

Lessons in Chemistry” premieres on Apple TV+ on Oct. 13.