The Love Competition

Adam Westbrook
May 13 · 7 min read

How a filmmaker turned a morning in an MRI scanner into a powerful love story.

Image © Adam Westbrook

On a Saturday morning, seven volunteers gathered at a hospital in San Francisco, California. One by one they removed any metallic items and then lay down inside an MRI machine. Their job was simple: love someone as hard as they could for five minutes.


Filming everything was director Brent Hoff. The result is the compelling science documentary: The Love Competition It’s been viewed more than 4 million times and celebrated for its approach to communicating science.

From an Irish pub in Ghent in Belgium, Brent talked to me about the story design of The Love Competition and the principles of communicating science through story.


Where did the idea for The Love Competition come from?

I had made a crying competition film a couple of years earlier: nine people at a table, whistle blows, first tear to hit the table wins — go! We had about 4,000 people come out and this girl cried on camera in 11 seconds. It was pretty amazing.

I was interested in these emotional competitions because of what they reveal about people more than whatever the competition is about. A couple of months later, at a screening in San Francisco a girl came up to me and said “I’m a neuroscientist and I have an MRI machine if you ever want to use one” and I was like “Yes I do!” She was at Stanford and so I got together with her and with Bob Dougherty who was the other neuroscientist in the film and figured out a way to actually pull that off.

They were kind enough to donate their time and frankly their money because it costs $5000 every time you turn on an MRI machine, just for the electricity alone. So we were able to do it that way.

Am I being too simplistic to say it’s using a love story to make science more digestible?

No that seems right. We’re at this point in science where we are able to see the physical manifestations of emotion, not necessarily the emotion. It’s sort of tricky to talk about at this point, but the experience of pleasure or of love or rage, of any emotion, does generally generate something in various parts of the brain. Through MRI sensors we can see that now, and that’s just amazing to me. As you know from the film, Peter went in believing he was in love with his ex-girlfriend and now realising he wasn’t just by trying really hard and knowing that it was going to be seen. It was really interesting.

I was hoping to tell a very human story around a very edgy scientific topic.

[Scientists] are in a very tough spot, because they can’t suggest opinions or anything like that without being torn apart by other scientists who want the funding instead of them! It’s a good place for me to be because I can tell the stories that they can’t.

Is this something producers should be trying to do more?

Yeah I think it’s always something that scientists want to do. For years I’ve done projects with scientists and every single one of them, from the marine biologist studying squid to these neuroscientists studying memory and emotion, I find that they’re all extremely passionate humans and they want to share their love for their stuff. They’re in a very tough spot, because they can’t suggest opinions or anything like that without being torn apart by other scientists who want the funding instead of them! It’s a good place for me to be because I can tell the stories that they can’t.

How did you find the contestants?

Definitely looking for different types of love and different types of people. There were no auditions, we just needed people we thought could survive the obnoxious experience of being in an MRI machine. So I asked the neuroscientists who had been in recently that were able to do it, who they thought might be good for it — that’s how we got the older couple, for instance. I knew a couple of people, like the girl who was going to love her gut — I thought that was really important and I also thought it was really important to have a kid, I wanted the age range to be different.

In terms of the structure was there anything going on with how you designed the story?

It was sort of a tough thing to do without making it repetitive. After we shot it and found everyone had had sort of a profound experience, I wanted to keep that together so that could really hit and you could see how just the act of people thinking about who they loved had such a transformative effect on them. That was something that the neuroscientists were really interested in, and were surprised by.

So I wanted to keep those elements together so it really hit home how profound it was for everyone.

One of the most interesting characters, Peter, has his own journey through the film.

And actually became a different person! He was actually happier at the end; he was not as miserable as he thought he was. Which is so very disturbing to think that we can believe something so deeply that we actually don’t believe, that we are fooling ourselves in some way. And he came out just overjoyed and to this day is so overjoyed that he did that. He’d been miserable, he hadn’t been working, practically crying at the interview, and within five minutes he was completely cured of that feeling that he had.

Narratively does that have an impact?

Absolutely, and you’re wondering how you would do. How would you be in there? Who would you love? And if every single person is coming out having a surprising experience, what do you think your surprise would be?

Two other characters — Kent and Marilyn — the magic is in the way you’ve set it up. You don’t reveal they’re a couple until the end.

It was just an editing decision. I thought it would be nice for all the contestants to compete on their own terms and not create any extra focus on who would win, husband and wife. Because it is quite a worrying thing to go up against your own wife in a love competition! I think the weight of that was threatening to overshadow what was really important about it, which was that it is a super personal experience.

It makes me wonder whether by withholding information then dropping it in later you can create this reveal. It almost goes against what many documentary film makers might think you should do.

They didn’t know who won — it takes a couple of days to figure out the winner and we ended up showing the film at their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

There was a whole party and the entire room burst into tears. Marilyn was probably even happier than Kent that he won, which was really nice.

But it works because it’s a dramatic reveal.

It’s a dramatic reveal — it was done as much to keep the emphasis on each persons individual story as it was to make a nice surprise at the end.
It makes me wonder whether by withholding information then dropping it in later you can create this reveal. It almost goes against what many documentary film makers might think you should do.

I guess linearity on one level seems more honest but I don’t necessarily think it is.

In film making and even in non-fiction documentary film making, what’s more important is to get the heart of the film correct. Replicate the emotional experience of us being there. I wanted people to feel like we felt, I wanted people to have that feeling that I felt when I learned that they were married, cause I didn’t even know initially when they walked in. I only realised when they signed their names on the release form.

I really think as a filmmaker you should get the heart of something out more than necessarily be a slave to the linear narrative.

Is there a running theme behind what you do?

There has been a theme with these, which is using a silly premise to get people to reveal themselves and share themselves. The idea is that we all really want to connect and we’re such a hyper competitive species and I was interested in how those two aspects of our lives converge.

Every day of our lives we’re competing in some way. We all have this built into our lives yet on the other hand we’re seeking to do the opposite, to connect.

I’m really interested in seeing how those two things come together.

Beyond that I’m just taking ideas that I love and am fascinated by and making films about them. I’m just curious about life and science and whenever I find something amazing I want to make a film about it and share it with people.

Are we in a renaissance for science storytelling?

I think there’s a dated notion that says people aren’t interested in the world, that they’re just interested in celebrities. I just don’t see it. I can make a silly film about squid being good mothers or about drunk bees and these things are fascinating for what they tell us about ourselves as much as anything else. I find people have a real hunger for it, all over the world. It’s nice to be able to share it.


This interview first appeared in Issue #1 of Inside the Story Magazine.

Adam Westbrook

Written by

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/

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