Exclusive Interview with Directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado for ‘The Immortalists’

– by Gig Patta

Juan Ponce de Leon searched America for that fable Fountain of Youth. Alas, he never found it.

In this millennium, there are scientists seeking out the Fountain of Youth in the form of the stop-aging gene. Through their research, the aging will stop and humans will live on as immortals. In fact, they even predicted the anti-aging cure is within reach in a few years.

The documentary “The Immortalists” follows the personal lives and stories of the famous anti-aging scientists Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey. The two experts have opposite theories on their approach, but their lives of these radical biologists reveal their personal reasons for the quest of immortality.

Lation-Review had an exclusive phone interview with directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado on this ambitious documentary. The duo discussed about the lives of Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Gray and the philosophy and science behind their research.

“The Immortalists” is currently in limited release in some theaters including at the Laemmle Noho 7 in Los Angeles. It will also premiere on GaiamTV, VOD and North American digital retailers next year.

Read the interview below.

Latino-Review: How did the idea of this documentary first came up with you guys?

Jason Sussberg: Sure, David and I are attracted to big ideas of human progress. We’re into huge philosophical quandaries and hug fans of science. I was doing a short film in graduate school. We both went into the Stanford documentary program. I ran across these fascinating people or these so-called futurists. These are the people who are technologists and interested in novel ways of looking into the future and humanities. I learned that there are actual scientists who wanted to live forever. They were going to try to cure aging. David and I were working on a job and the discussion led to one thing to another—and the production started that fall.

Latino-Review: Was it difficult to find both Bill [Andrews] and Aubrey [de Grey] together for this project?

David Alvarado: Well, Aubrey is a super famous person in this field. So we found him really quickly in research. He had a unique personality and the way he looked was amazing to be good for the film. Bill actually found us. He called us once after we were doing a Kickstarter. “Hey, why am I not in your movie? I’m the telomere guy.” I wasn’t sure on what to make of that. We were down to his laboratories in Reno, met him in person and concluded that this guy is pretty interesting. He was so bold in his ideas and so sure of himself. Even in the impossibilities of his task, he feels like he’s going to do it. There was something about that attracted us to his story.

Latino-Review: Rather than just making a documentary about their research, this film actually went with a more human approach into their lives. Could you talk a little more about that and the decision to go with that route?

David Alvarado: There’s a million different ways to tell a story and make a documentary. We believe strongly in the diversity of approaching a documentary. We knew we didn’t want to make an encyclopedic explanation of all the different science involved in it. For us, we wanted to explore the different questions. We wanted to try to discover on who these people are and what motivates them. What are their day-to-day lives are like? They imagine themselves living 300 years from now and so how are they living their lives today. Plus that’s the really fascinating thing about these two characters. We believed that’s what the film set out to do.

Latino-Review: How did you try to balance the film to make them appear in the good light rather than making them appear to be a couple of eccentric theorists?

Jason Sussberg: That was an interesting balance that we had to decide during the production and while we were editing it. On one hand, they are these out-of-the-box radicals revolutionary thinkers who are unconventional on their approaches. On the other hand, they could fall in line with the nineteenth century snake oil salesmen or people who said they could do spiritual cures. We wanted to present a film to focus on their personal lives, but on the same sense to show them as radical thinkers who can change the world forever.

David Alvarado: And not to mention, we didn’t film anything that they weren’t okay for us filming. We were kind of surprised on how extreme they were. We Bill and found out he ran [marathons] in the Himalayan Mountains.  Aubrey is a proud nudist, in a polyamorous relationship and very open about it. For us, it was an exciting journey to get to know them more and more.

Latino-Review: So both scientists were fine with showing those lives for the film and even their families?

David Alvarado: For sure. Everything we shot was with permission for the film. For Bill, his father has a very saddening case of Alzheimer’s disease. Bill wanted us to film the evidence that his father is deteriorating and he’s not happy with this world that people he cared the most will fall apart both mentally and physically to eventually die. For us, that’s the essential motivation for their personal quest to live forever. We were happy they allowed us to show that side of them.

Latino-Review: What about the science part of this documentary? It’s not only scientists will be watching this documentary, but the masses. How do you try to make it understandable for the rest of us? I’ve noticed you’ve tried to use animation to go along with it.

Jason Sussberg: That’s right. Our approach is not necessarily to explain every facet of aging visually. We wanted to take the audience behind the lab to meet the scientists. The science is obviously a huge part of that.

First half of the film is front loaded with science explained through our characters in front of a black screen. We had them articulate on their theories on the cure for aging. We used simple line drawing animation. There was a duo of animations who did an incredible job in explaining it. Our goal was to have it easily explained in a couple of sentences and give us a visual language. All along, we wanted to make it entertaining and easily digestible for those who may only have one class of biology in high school. It will give them a functional understanding on what their theories were.

Latino-Review: Do you have science backgrounds yourselves?

David Alvarado: Jason and I are both science enthusiasts. If you look at our Twitter feeds, we are mostly following science groups and philosophy. We love the old Carl Sagan series, the Cosmos and even the new Cosmos. We’re big fans of Bill Nye too. All this is mostly amateur interest.

I, myself, took a lot of philosophy courses in college and graduate school. We’re just non-professional scientists trying to help other people take a look at this world of science that may be life changing and potentially undesirable for some people.

Jason Sussberg: I do not at all have a science background. In fact, the last science class I took was back in undergraduate about the physiology of dinosaurs. My understanding of science is purely based on reading of periodicals and popular science articles. I am no mean a scientist.

Latino-Review: How did you guys take on this project?

Jason Sussberg: We started on this about four years ago when we first conceived of the idea. We didn’t really start production until January of 2012. In the pre-production, we read every book imaginable. We watched a bunch of films. We met with a bunch of scientists. We were hoping to find the story and that took about a year.

It was two years of production. In all the while, we were editing along the way and didn’t finish until winter of 2013. And here’s an interesting story—we inserted the last scene we shot, not trying to be a spoiler, but someone ends up passing away who was close to one of the scientists. We actually filmed that about eleven days before we were about to premiere it at South-by-Southwest. We had to shoot, edit and print the film in days before it premiered.

Latino-Review: Wow, that was some quick thinking on you guys.

Jason Sussberg: [Laughter] Yeah, it was definitely a quick turnaround. That actually happened around March of this year or about eight months ago.

Latino-Review: Since it took you guys a long time to research, to film and getting to know these two guys—what would you guys you learned most importantly throughout this entire process?

David Alvarado: For me, personally, I came to the idea much more skeptically than I feel these days. Originally, I came to think that these are all snake oil salesmen. For the most part, I say that they mostly are in this field. The thing that changed in me was that in principle—there’s nothing magical about the aging process. Our bodies are physical machines that are very, very complex. With the aging process and the available process, it was something that could be very possible. Now it’s whether it’ll happen in 15, 20 or even 200 years. I have no idea and I’m pretty skeptical about that. So what shifted for me was that it realized that it was possible.

Jason Sussberg: My biggest takeaway was just how incredibly intelligent on how Aubrey and Bill were and also how deeply philosophical thinkers they were. I presumed in the beginning that these scientists were myopic and didn’t think necessarily on a macro holistic perspective. That was completely wrong. They were these deep thinkers and wrestled with these topics. They came to their own conclusions on what they think. They’re grasping with the larger philosophical and societal implications.

Latino-Review: Now philosophically, this is controversial on whether we should actually pursue a stop aging process altogether. Do you kind of agree with the scientists or otherwise?

Jason Sussberg: This is a really great question. These debates should be opened to the public. There should be medical emphasis and with presidential commissions to decide on what to do with the aging problem. It is definitely a problem. We have a society with a baby-boomer generation who is greying with massive implications on our economy. There could be a great loss of productivity. We should be debating it similar to on what our film had like the debate between two scientists of Aubrey and Dr. Colin Blakemore, who was against it. They had [this debate] for a good hour. I think that debate needs to continue.

I think it will be great research into aging if it stops cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It’s a good thing. As far as the overall goal, I think stopping death has more serious implications on the class and environment.

Latino-Review: I understand both of you guys directed the project. So how did you handle the cooperation of the directing job?

David Alvarado: It was very fluid. I don’t think there were any problems and we saw things eye-to-eye. We both brought unique talents to the table. It was a very positive, cooperative experience. We’re ready to work on the next film together.

Jason Sussberg: It’s also one of these things which are an incredibly difficult endeavor. I think Orson Welles said that a painting needs a canvass. A filmmaker needs an army. I think it’s true that you’ll need a whole army of people to do it. So having two people at the helm was very helpful.

David shot the whole thing and had a very artistic vision on how the shots were composed and what the pictures would look like. I was helpful in other ways like producing. We really did share everything more or less as a two-person crew. I cannot imagine doing it alone.

Latino-Review: So what was the greatest challenge for you guys?

David Alvarado: Funding was the biggest challenge. It’s such an extensive movie to make. We had very little grants for it despite having two grants from great organizations for it. It was a very small percentage of the budget so it was all us and our money. Both of us totally going for broke. At one point, I had $17 in my bank account and totally stripped of all…..I had to move out of my apartment for a while. [Laughter] It just got really ugly. It just cost so much money to make a film and take so much of your time that you can’t go off to make other money.

Latino-Review: Could you talk about your future projects after “The Immortalists?”

Jason Sussberg: I don’t want to be cagey, but we do have seven different proposals in negotiations with some people for new projects. I think it’s illegal and in bad taste to say it out loud. I don’t want to jinx it. We will be committed in telling science-based stories and in following people who are larger than life and compelled to change the world of science.

Latino-Review: Let me wrap this up with one philosophical question with you guys. If they did discover the stop aging gene—would you want to be immortal?

David Alvarado: It’s funny. For me, I wouldn’t want to be immortal. The word immortal means if I got hit by a bus and continued living in a perfect state. It’s more like do I want to be healthy as long as possible. The answer would be yes. There’s nothing attractive to me about the pain of old age or the eventual demise of your mind and body. I say I would go for it if it was safe and effective.

Then again, if everybody does then there’ll be all these problems. It’s difficult to answer this question.

Jason Sussberg: Can I throw the question back at you? What do you think?

Latino-Review: No, I like the permanent sleep myself. I lived a full life. [Laughter]

Jason Sussberg: [Laughter] Then that’s that.

Latino-Review: Thanks for this conversation. Good luck with this film.

“The Immortalists” is currently in limited release in some theaters including at the Laemmle Noho 7 in Los Angeles. It will also premiere on GaiamTV, VOD and North American digital retailers next year.

Source: Latino-Review

Interviews, Film, LRM Exclusives The Immortalists, Jason Sussberg, David Alvarado