I first sat down with David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg during my first year covering SXSW for No Film School. They were premiering their first feature, The Immortalists, a doc profiling a group of eccentric and obscure scientists searching for the cure to aging. There was no bidding war over the film. No splashy Variety headlines for it. But it was a thought-provoking, well-told story.

I was thrilled to see them again at SXSW 2017 premiering their second film, Bill Nye: Science Guy (playing San Francisco International Film Festival this week). Their second film is bigger in every way: it's a hero journey about scientist-cum-celebrity Bill Nye, it had the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a documentary to date, and it screened to sold-out crowds in huge SXSW venues. 

"Boil your film down to one sentence, and every scene that you shoot, every scene that you edit, the whole macro story has to go back to that one sentence."

Alvarado and Sussberg sat down with No Film School to explain the process of scaling up their filmmaking career.  

No Film School: Bill Nye: Science Guy seems to be a bigger version of everything you did on your first film. Did it require a bigger version of your filmmaking strategy and your directing approach? 

David Alvarado: We did a Kickstarter for The Immortalists and successfully raised $30,000. We did another Kickstarter for Bill Nye: Science Guy, but this time raised $860,000. You have the same lessons from the past Kickstarters we've done, but the scale just made it a different kind of task. For that reason, we built a bigger team. Jason and I had the same core team as The Immortalists, but with many, many more people. We had the same editor and sound designer, but we also added a great mixer, Pete Horner, for example. We found all the right partners to make this thing work in under two years, which was faster than the last one.

"This was not going to be a life-caught-unawares documentary. We were going to have to push Bill to do things."

Jason Sussberg: As far as directorial vision, and growing it, we did have to think bigger. With The Immortalists, it was our first feature. We found the movie in the edit room. We didn't necessarily have a game plan going into it. We had some idea of what the film should be, but we stumbled, guessed, and failed our way through it.

For this film, we really tried to find what situations to actually put our voice and stamp on. This was not going to be a life-caught-unawares documentary. We were going to have to push Bill to do things, and then we're going to follow him. He's a larger-than-life personality, so we knew plugging him into these situations is going to get great material. That's what happened with [a scene involving Ken Ham’s $100 million Noah’s Ark theme park]. It took a bigger idea. Ultimately, David and I were lucky to have a character who could take it the extra way.

Bill_nye_science_guy_0A production still of David Alvarado on camera and Jason Sussberg on sound capturing Bill Nye looking at ice cores in Greenland.Credit: Bill Nye: Science Guy

NFS: Did you write a script? People think it’s weird to talk about the script in documentary, but there’s lots of writing involved.

Alvarado: It's a documentary, but plans are written. I have to admit it was a No Film School article about Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots about how plot structure is made throughout time that inspired this. I read the article, loved it, and bought the book immediately. I've been obsessing over the idea ever since. You can look at Jaws, you can look at Beowulf, and it's essentially the same kind of plot structure.

"We thought about this film as a hero's quest."

We very much thought about this film as a hero's quest. When Bill sees there's something wrong in the world, he leaves his comfort zone and goes into this strange place such as the Ark encounter and Joe Bastardi. Can he battle the monsters and succeed? For us, from the beginning, tried to ask ourselves, "How can we produce these scenarios where we're going to be having that journey with Bill?"

Sussberg: We were lucky enough to collaborate with an incredibly talented Academy Award-winning producer, Seth Gordon. He gave some really great advice and told us, "Boil your film down to one sentence, and every scene that you shoot, every scene that you edit—the whole macro story has to go back to that one sentence." It was great advice, and I think it comes from his storytelling prowess and how good he is at crafting a narrative.

NFS: With a bigger budget, you hired more people. Did you guys still shoot yourselves?

Alvarado: Yeah. It's still a two-person team.

Sussberg: You’re looking at it!

Bill_nye_setAlvarado and Sussberg capturing Bill Nye in, and out, of his element.Credit: Bill Nye: Science Guy

Alvarado: The production didn't grow, except we gave ourselves the benefit of having a production assistant. With The Immortalists, we were breaking our backs just carrying gear while shooting, making directing decisions and even while booking hotels. Even with our big Kickstarter, we were as bare bones as possible. We didn't waste a dime, but our one sort of luxury was a production assistant that we had on those shoots, who could carry some of the equipment for us, make coffee runs, and take care of releases. We're coming up in the world, I guess. We could grow more.

"Having a small crew allows for a certain level of intimacy. When you grow too big, people become self-conscious and it can make characters uncomfortable."

Sussberg: At the same time, having a small crew and a small footprint allows for a certain level of intimacy. I think that when you grow too big, it changes. People become self-conscious and it can make characters uncomfortable. It draws attention and you can feel that. There’s a palpable sense of a certain level of insecurity that you can feel. If you keep it small, it tends to sort of block that insecurity out.

NFS: You kept it small, but did you get new tools?

Alvarado: Totally new stuff! The. We shot this thing in ultra HD or 4K sometimes, on the Canon C300 Mark II.

Sussberg: The lenses were a big improvement, the L-series. We shot The Immortalists on, like, two lenses.

Alvarado: A 24 Prime L-series and a 24-70, and that's it on a 5D. Now, we have two Cinema Primes, the 50 and the 24. We had a totally different tool set.

Sussberg: Lenses are boss. Anybody who is a filmmaker knows this, but I don't think that non-filmmakers can appreciate how much the camera really doesn't matter and the glass is everything. That was a big step up.

Greenland_bill_nye_wideShooting "Bill Nye: Science Guy" in the sub-zero temperatures of Greenland.Credit: Bill Nye: Science Guy

NFS: What was the biggest challenge you faced on this project?

Alvarado: Maybe just Bill.

Sussberg: Yes, Bill.

"The camera really doesn't matter. The glass is everything."

Alvarado: We love the guy. The thing is, when you're a documentary filmmaker, you want to get access. You want the person to be their authentic self. Bill is a professional actor, but the person that he's acting as is himself. So when you put a camera in front of him, he puts the actor version on instead of the real version.

There's moments between all that, over two years of filming, where he'd let that guard go down. He stops becoming the Science Guy host and just becomes Bill. Those moments were the ones that we made sure that we could thread the narrative with—those very intimate and personal moments that we worked so hard to get.

NFS: What’s your advice for other filmmakers?

Sussberg: I guess I have to say that it's important to be humble and modest at times, but in certain areas, you have to just ask and be full of hubris and tenacity. We found Bill Nye's email, emailed his assistant, got to his agent, got a note, went back to his agent, got a producer onboard. I guess the advice would be: Don't presume you are nothing, and try to be as bold as possible.

sxsw 2017 sponsor bannerNo Film School's coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Vimeo.