An Intimate Portrait of an Eccentric Sci-Fi Doc: Behind the Scenes of 'The Immortalists'
How many dimensions do you need to tell a story about the most potentially life-altering breakthroughs of the future -- science that might let you live forever? After shooting about a third of production in 3D, the filmmakers behind The Immortalists decided to scrap a stereoscopic shoot and opt instead for the intimacy of DSLR, a cerebral world of animation, and an experimental sound design based on water, clocks, and the internal organs of a fish. Below we interview co-directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, along with their sound designer Peter Albrechtsen about their film that premiered at SXSW and is showing next week at HotDocs. Hit the jump to hear about anything from the schizophrenic nature of editing to recording bugs in windowsills.
Take a look at the trailer for The Immortalists, the story of two eccentric scientists -- Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews -- struggling to create eternal youth, and then dive in to the interview with the filmmakers below.
NFS: How did you the two of you meet, and how did you come up with the idea to make The Immortalists?
David Alvarado: Well the Stanford program is really small, it's eight students per year. So Jason and I became friends pretty quickly. We both love science and technology and the future. He made a few interesting docs that led us into the community.
Jason Sussberg: I made a short film about this community of libertarian transhumanist futurists -- people that wanted to live on the ocean in autonomous countries. It turns out that some of the same people that wanted to live on the ocean also wanted to live forever. So I was like, okay, that’s interesting. And I kind of banked that idea. David and I were working on this project, we were spending 12 hours a day this close to each other.
David: For weeks!
Jason: So, we just started talking about it, and it was so interesting, it touches on all these philosophical issues -- literally everything is tied to it. It was sort of these thought experiments. And so we decided to go into production pretty much immediately after.
NFS: Did people question how you were going to visualize these things? Were people skeptical?
David: Yeah, definitely. You know, what is the film about? It's about these guys who want to live forever. Well, they are not going to achieve that during the course of production, if ever. So, what are you going to show? It really became a mostly vérité experience of their lives. What they look like, what they love, and where they go with their relationships, begins to be the focus.
Jason: We were cautioned not to start the story, because there wouldn't be any scientific breakthroughs -- or there was a good chance there wouldn’t be a scientific breakthrough. In the absence of that, what was the story going to be about? But we settled up pretty early on -- no, this is about the scientists, not necessarily about a breakthrough.
NFS: Did I hear correctly that you guys started filming in 3D, then switched to DSLR?
David: Yes, absolutely.
NFS: Please explain!
David: The Panasonic AG-3D had just come out, and it was a prosumer level 3D. In our minds at the time, we thought the medium would match the message. Like, these guys are talking about the future, sci-fi concepts, so the idea was to show them in 3D interviews and animate in 3D what they were talking about. But it turned out that the restrictions of 3D weren’t really working with documentary. We knew this at the time, but after a while the technical limitations became so severe, we thought, maybe the world they live in isn’t 3D.
Jason: About a third of the way through we switched to DSLR. All of our principal interviews were shot in 3D. I always see them come up, and say, “That one’s 3D.”
David: Me too. In the end, we just used the left eye of the 3D camera. We sold the camera, made our money back. It might work better for a sports documentary.
NFS: What did you switch to?
David: First was a Canon 7D. 80% of the film was on that, then a 5D, and then our pickups were with a C100.
NFS: And how did it compare?
David: The 7D was so much better!
Jason: Our film is really focused on the personal lives of the scientists -- so we wanted to get intimate, and the 7D just allowed for a completely different production style that allowed for that intimacy.
Photo Credit: Erika Kapin
NFS: How was the process of working as co-directors?
Jason: David shot the whole movie. We both wore so many hats. I don't know if it could be done any other way. It takes a village for sure. It really just worked out very well. We were friends first before being co-directors. I think we both really trust each others style, trust each others sensibilities. And the things that I suck at, David is excellent at. And the things that David sucks at, I'm okay at. So it allows for some symbiosis. I should mention that we basically travelled as a duo, so we did all the production: David shot everything, I did all the audio. Then we both produced and directed the characters. We kept a really light footprint and operated super small. And there's actually a lot of stuff that was shot and directed all by David.
David: Theres a few one-man band stuff but -- what would you say -- 90 percent of that stuff was just me and you?
Jason: Yeah, if not more.
NFS: How did things go during post-production?
David: It was interesting, because we worked remotely, since we're on different sides of the country. A lot of it was us building sequences on our own, and reviewing each others' scenes and then building from there. But we also worked with editors on top of that. One editor at first, Greg Synder in Portland. He worked for a few months. Did some excellent early structural decisions on some of the scenes and then we ran out of money -- pretty quick! And then we hired another editor [Annukka Lilja] who later became the main title editor on the movie in New York. How long would you say Annukka worked?
Jason: I think four months solid. And it was supposed to be two months.
David: There was twice when we took the whole team -- the producer, who was also Jason's wife, myself, and Annukka, the editor -- we would go to the cabin in the woods for like four weeks at a time and just edit nonstop all day. We would only stop to run, or to eat or sleep -- and a little bit of drinking. Basically, nothing but work the whole time.
Jason: We did get to the point where we had a rough cut like December of 2012. We started being like, "The bones of the film are here." It took us essentially another year to get that final 10% finished. We had an 80-minute film in December and our film ended up being 80 minutes, but obviously way more teased out and had way better, new scenes.
David: It took that much time to remain the same length of time but just actually work. And money.
Jason: It was money, too, but you have to marinate it and sit with it. The worst thing that would have happened would have been if we had gotten into festivals in 2013, because it would have been an awful movie.
NFS: So that last 10% -- what comprised this magical 10% that suddenly made the film complete?
David: We had to lose the things that weren’t essential and nurture the things that were essential. That just takes time. Especially, when it's so hard to retain your prospective. We're so far in there, we're looking into a box for a while and you can't see anything. To get some critical distance and come back to it and show it to colleagues that we trust and go back to it. Also, trying to maintain life, you have to make money.
Jason: I would also add that pacing and structural stuff. We scrambled the film a bunch of times, put scenes in certain places, but really Annukka was like the third director on the movie. Shes a musician, so she has this incredible sense of timing, flow and structure. I think a lot of the time we were thinking about it from an empirical sense, like does it make sense to put this scene here next to that, and Annu really made it feel as though it was musical score so to speak. So she really paced it out.
NFS: So in your opinion, is it better to wait and know the film is done before you start submitting to festivals?
David: It's hard to say. I don’t know if I have any advice for that, except that it worked for us to keep our egos in check and say, yes we've worked really hard, yes we've spent all this money, but the film is not yet complete so we have to be patient and wait another year. That was the best thing for us. But who knows, other people probably have different experiences.
Jason: I think we were really an exception to the rule, because we actually applied to SXSW in 2013 and got rejected, or it was in 2012. I wrote Jared the programmer and asked, "Do you ever accept films the following year?" And he said, "Well, if it's substantially changed, if the titles changed and it's an entirely different movie, then yeah." But that wasn’t the case for us -- the title had changed -- but the film, if you scrubbed through the rough cut, was still pretty much the same. But it did have a different feeling.
David: They had the same scenes but we did spend a lot of time changing a lot of it.
Jason: If you were to watch [the first cut] it would look schizophrenic.
David: It would look insane. That’s the thing, when you work so hard and push it so far and it starts to look like something -- it was beginning to look like something -- you're just like, "That’s wonderful! That’s the thing we were trying to do!"
Jason: "My child is beautiful!"
David: We've pushed it so far since then, that looking back it looks like we were a couple of sketchy drug addicts standing in an editing room, like "What if this happened next?" It's good that we had that time.
Jason: But I know that doesn't work out for everyone. We are totally fortunate and so happy that Jared and Janet gave us another look because they could have easily been like, "Sorry, rules are rules and we're not looking at this movie again." But they did.
[At this point, the sound designer on The Immortalists, Peter Albrechtsen, met us at our table on Congress Street in downtown Austin, and joins in on the interview.]
NFS: So how did you rope Peter Albrechtsen into doing the sound design on your project?
Jason: I had heard a master talk that Peter had given in Copenhagen, no wait, London. The way that Peter talks philosophically, and his approach to sound -- he showed clips with footage he got before, and then what he was able to bring to it after. I was like, "This is the guy! This guy is amazing." I sent the clips to David, and we were like, "We've got to get Peter."
David: I'm not very good at sound design, but I love playing with sound, and I always have in all my other sound projects. When we heard him say during that lecture that sound design can be equal to music, we said, "This is the dude."
NFS: Peter, what was the process like coming up with the design for The Immortalists?
Peter Albrechtsen: Just process wise, the great thing was that David and Jason got in touch before they were picture locked, which meant that I could see the film, and provide some feedback, some ideas for sound before they closed the picture. This meant that they could change the timing of scenes, talk about ideas for how to approach the elements in the film. And then I just started collecting sounds for them, for the different elements that needed sound. We really worked with having some key elements of the sound, like water. Water was a big thing -- and clocks -- clocks ticking. And then there were all the animations. So, these different elements, we collected sounds for them, and one of the things was, "How should these animations sound?" They were such big part of the description of all the science in the film, and I had this idea that I rely wanted to use organic sounds. And actually, I preferred that it was internal organs almost. We had this idea of getting -- well we couldn't use the sound of human internal organs. Then we had this idea of getting ahold of a fish, and then using the sounds of the internal organs of the fish. So, we recorded different sounds of this different fish, which is actually a lot of the sound you hear in the film, just treated and synthesized.
Jason: I have to say, I didn't know this until yesterday!
David: I knew about the bugs, because he had recorded bugs in the window sills.
Jason: And your grandmother's clock. I knew all these details, but not the fish mashup!
Peter: The clock in Bill's father's house is actually the clock of my grandmother, my late grandmother.
David: Part of Bill's quest is he's trying to save his 80-year-old father who has Alzheimer's disease, and one of the opening scenes is about being there with him and experiencing his father's longtime disease.
Jason: And the sound design is really rich in that scene with a clock ticking. It's almost like death knocking at your door.
Peter: The whole clock thing -- this idea seems like destiny coming, but its also like the race against time. It was this great process because I was working in Copenhagen and sending things over to them, and there's a 9-hour time difference between California and Copenhagen. So, usually I could work during the day and then send over sketches, and the next day when I got up, there would be a lot of really good feedback. So, we were sending things back and forth all the time. And then at the end, David came over to Copenhagen for a week and a half to mix. So, it was a really nice process. It felt like we were very close during the process even though we were thousands of miles apart!
David: And sometimes with me in NY, Jason in San Francisco, and then the Executive Producer in Los Angeles --
Jason: -- the graphics guy is from Sweden. It was a global story for sure!
NFS: When you talk about getting in to do the sound design before picture is locked, what do you mean? Like, do you ask to extend a clip so you can put sound in there, for example?
Peter: It's very much about timing, and it's very much about when you add sound to a scene, it suddenly feels like the scene is going faster. Because the sound is filling out all the spaces. There's a lot of moments where there wasn't any production sound -- apart from all the talking, of course. A lot of the more atmospheric images were without sound, or very, very little sound. And then when we added sound, it just felt like we could keep an image a bit longer. So, a lot of the atmospherical sequences were extended to make space for sound.
David: And also, this is the first time I've worked on a film where we had a foley artist. And, literally everything -- somebody puts down a cup or moves their arm, there's a sound produced in the studio in Denmark.
Peter: Actually, produced in the studio in Finland! My foley artist is from Finland. But yeah, it also created a lot of intimacy -- I really loved it -- there's a moment with Aubrey where he's in an interview and he's just sitting quietly, just creaking in the chair. Small, small sounds can make quite a big difference.
Jason: It got a laugh line, too! Nobody would say, "Hey that squeaky chair scene is hilarious," but it got a laugh. And that's all sound design.
David: All subconscious sound design. People are like, Aubrey is crazy, and just trying to deal with that I guess!
Jason: The squeak is a release.
NFS: What would you say in your opinions is the value of making independent films?
Jason: I mean, it's the core of my existence! I think it's the core of David's existence. It doesn't make sense to not do it independent and not have creative freedom and to bring thought experiments to life that wouldn't otherwise exist. I mean, this is not a very marketable idea -- a bunch of people thinking they're going to live forever. It doesn't have social value necessarily, it's not a justice angle, it's not an activist angle. But, I guess these thought experiments are important to have because we are talking about issues that very well might be the future. If anything else, if people leave the theater and then have a beer afterwards and contemplate the meaning of it all, the great hereafter, or whatever, then that's successful.
David: And if they had a good time. What we really want to do is give an experience. We're not trying to push issues, we're trying to make a badass movie. And we hope that we achieved that.
Jason: And going back to independence, doing independent film, it's great having no bosses! No film school, no bosses!
David: I've been fired from essentially every job I've ever had! So, being an independent person, I have no other option. I dropped out of high school because I just couldn't be told what to do.
NFS: So independent film is the refuge for people who --
Jason: Can't get hired!
David: If you have a lot of energy and ambition, but can't get hired, get into film.
Jason: Obviously we do commercial work, and I teach and stuff. So, we obviously have a way of paying the bills and whatnot, but I think this is living the dream. Making an independent feature. Hopefully one of many!
NFS: Peter, as far as being a sound designer, what's the good part about working with independent storytellers?
Peter: I feel with David and Jason, they are passionate about they are doing. That creates the whole vibe. I had a handful of people working with me on this film, and the energy and enthusiasm that they had put into the film inspired us to do better work. So, as a filmmaker, as a director, you're both making a film, but you're also taking care of the team. You're inspiring your team. And that's one of the great things about you guys and independent filmmakers.
NFS: What would be your advice to yourself if you could send a message in time back to the start of making this film? And, I guess, advice in general after making your first feature?
Jason: I would tell ourselves when we started -- do more pre-production. Don’t whip the camera out immediately. Get to know people -- get their trust. Give it a minute. In general, don’t settle on a short, don’t settle on getting a job. If you want to make independent films, it’s a hard slog. You’re gonna go into debt. It’s going to suck. You’re not going to know how to live. It’s a slog, but stick it out.
David: I’d agree with that. Pre-production: find your characters and your story first. Don’t do too much of that in post -- although that’s really where the magic happens. But that’s what you are looking for when you start filming, not just trying to capture footage.
Peter: A great thing for me as a sound designer was that you evidently spent a lot of time focused on the recordings on the shoots. The quality of that work was really rich. That was very important for the rest of post production.
David: Jason and I were very careful about sound and picture. We put that above all else. We knew we had to get the story and the characters, but you'll never see a mic in the whole thing. All the sound was the best we could get, using a couple mics per set. We would shoot some scenes three times because the light wasn't right!
David: There's one scene at the end where we literally drove back. When we drove there, we didn't have the right kind of daylight, so we came back the next day with all the characters again, and it still wasn't good enough. We came back the third day, and finally got it. And it's a great scene. The technical quality was paramount for us.
NFS: We know what you shot on, but as far as achieving that high quality sound, what did you use during interviews?
David: Wireless mics, a really good shotgun, and a backup mic on the camera. And then the post production media management making sure everything's organized.
Jason: And then on the cinematography side, we didn't use a single light the whole time. It was all practical lights. But, that said, we really cared about lighting. We opened up windows, we'd leave doors open, we'd get the characters out into the sun and stuff. We were very careful about it, and nothing was artificial.
David: There was a lot of directing of the characters in a way. And they were game. They knew that we wanted to get the best film we could make, and so we just made it a team effort.
David: We raised so much money, but not from any grants. The movie was so expensive -- we never had enough money or equipment. We shot most of this film on a $60 tripod, and yet we raised more than $200K. I just can't for the life of me figure out how this all cost so much money -- and how we can be so broke! That was a lesson for me. It's expensive to get this kind of production off the ground. And it takes everything out of you. Hopefully it's worth it!
NFS: I'm sure you could have spent a lot more, too!
David: We could have spent a hell of a lot more! It would have been hard to do a lot of it for any less without knowing the future. We followed some characters that we had to just jettison. And that cost a lot money to go down the wrong routes. And post production is just expensive.
Jason: A vast majority of our budget was for lodging and airplanes, because our labor was free.
David: And beer.
Jason: Yeah, and beer.
Peter: That's also what makes the film so rich, all these different locations in the film.
Jason: The film takes us from places like Reno, NV, to the Himalayas, to England, to Hong Kong. We go so many different places.
David: Films cost money! But the DIY approach is the only way to do it for people like us. Do it yourself, figure out modifications for your equipment, and always be upgrading as technology advances. So for our next projects, we're looking at the landscape of cameras and figuring out how to build out those platforms to tell the next story.
Jason: Lean on your community of fellow indies. No Film School is a great resource, and finding other independent filmmakers. There's a really good chance that someone has done what you're trying to do, so lean on them since you might not be the first person to try to solve a problem. You have to be part engineer, part hacker, and part director!
Thank you, David and Jason!
Want to see The Immortalists on the big screen? If you are headed to HotDocs -- the largest and one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in North America -- be sure to catch one of its screenings, which are listed below. If you're waiting for the small screen, stay tuned to find out when the film will get a wide release, and keep up on progress by following The Immortalists on Facebook.
- April 27 at 7:00 PM
- April 29 at 3:30 PM
- May 2 at 9:30 PM
- May 4 at 9:30 PM
What do you think about Jason and David's process as two-man-band co-directors? What are some of the best ways that you've seen films deal with futuristic ideas and scientific concepts in a creative way?