"We might be making the wrong call."
Filmmakers Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado have crafted a spine-tingling new documentary, and they are navigating the release of that film in this surreal COVID-19 landscape. Their third feature documentary follows up on a unique brand of cinema they have created for themselves, chronicling the world's most eccentric and mind-bending thinkers. Here they follow Stewart Brand, a leader in the movement to de-extinctify all the lost species of Earth. We Are As Gods is an exquisitely provocative film that is as cinematically well-crafted is it is ideologically complex.
At No Film School we’ve covered Sussberg and Alvarado in their careers from first feature to their meteoric rise into Kickstarter record-setting with Bill Nye, and now to being in limbo after the cancellation of SXSW. Sussberg and Alvarado sat down with No Film School virtually to talk about making their latest film and how we need to take filmmaking in the pandemic, one day at a time.
NFS: How did you decide on the topic of We Are as Gods and get access to [the main subject] Stewart Brand?
Jason Sussberg: We’re drawn to extraordinary scientists and technologists at the leading bleeding edge of fields. The topic of de-extinction (bringing animals back from extinction) is so fascinating and loaded with practical questions (how do you bring back a woolly mammoth?) and ethical quandaries (just because we can, should we do it?). The idea of doing a feature film on Stewart’s remarkable life, and controversial de-extinction project, seemed so cinematic, interesting, and urgent: we’re losing (and have lost) keystone species causing impoverished ecosystems, and humans are to blame. But, if we act as good gods, we can be part of the solution.
"...practical questions (how do you bring back a woolly mammoth?) and ethical quandaries (just because we can, should we do it?)..."
Sussberg: We both discovered Stewart in college: David through the community THE EDGE, where Stewart was written about and participated in EDGE events, and Jason stumbled across a ragged copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog, in a used bookstore. To a 20-year-old, it looked like an artifact from the 60s, but it felt strangely futuristic. What resonated for both of us is that Stewart embraced a technological worldview that worked harmoniously with the preservation of natural systems and the environment. Paraphrasing Brian Eno, Stewart believes that technology is not ruining the environment, it’s the way we can save it!
"Stewart originally passed on granting us access to his story, but we were persistent."
After reading Stewart’s book The Clock of the Long Now, we became philosophically engaged in concepts of deep time and humankind’s obligation to maintaining civilization. Stewart makes a refreshing ethical and optimistic case for being a responsible futurist. Around 2012 we started casually thinking about making a film on Stewart... Then came the big de-extinction announcement. Our idea of making a film on Stewart took on a new urgency.
Stewart and his merry geneticists started to wonder if biotech could be applied to conservation, and even bring back extinct species. The idea is right in our wheelhouse of profiling extraordinary people at the leading, bleeding edge of science. We contacted an editor at TIME Magazine who commissioned a piece about de-extinction. We convinced Stewart to talk to us for a video in 2013, dipping our toes into the waters before diving headlong into a feature documentary in the fall of 2017. Stewart originally passed on granting us access to his story, but we were persistent. After Bill Nye: Science Guy came out, we asked Stewart and his partner Ryan to come out to Skywalker Ranch to watch the film. They watched the film and liked the story we told. After that, it was off to the races.
"We got to collaborate with the genius musician and rockstar legend, Brian Eno."
NFS: How do you describe the shooting style that you adopted for the film, and was this style something that builds from your previous docs (following sometimes controversial figures in science) or did you take a new approach?
Sussberg: Stylistically, the film shares a similar aesthetic to our other two feature documentaries, The Immortalists and Bill Nye: Science Guy. The perspective inhabits Stewart’s point-of-view and the storytelling is from his interviews and from observational scenes constructed around his life today. Stewart directly addresses the camera as he muses about his ideas; this film has a playful and philosophical tone. We’re not allergic to drones (we love drones!), but only use them to explore the beautiful landscapes of our film with cinematic aerials in places like Siberia, West Texas, and the Great Northern Woods.
One of the archival discoveries we have made during our research is Stewart’s own journals going back to 1955. He is a prolific diarist with drawings and jottings. We worked with our long-time animation collaborators to develop a style of motion graphics that comes straight out of Stewart’s journals, in his voice, handwriting, and aesthetic. We leaned heavily on The Whole Earth Catalog’s design aesthetic. The layout of the catalog is chaotic, informative, and dense with stunning illustrations and photographs.
Music plays a significant role in our style. We’re so lucky that we got to collaborate with the genius musician and rockstar legend, Brian Eno. He built a timeless ambient film score to accompany the poetic visuals.
NFS: Did your past documentary films lead to this film naturally, career-wise? Considering your path, how easy or hard do you find it to make a living as your kind of documentary filmmakers?
Sussberg: In retrospect, there’s a pretty clear line from The Immortalists to Bill Nye: Science Guy to We Are As Gods, but it didn’t feel like it when it was happening! We dream about the “next project” and are constantly developing films while we’re in the middle of any number of concurrent productions. Some of them turn into the real thing, others fizzle out.
We’ve been really lucky to make documentaries for a living. It all feels so fragile in the pandemic world we live it right now. The documentaries that we make are developed, funded, and produced outside of Hollywood. The Immortalists is a micro-budget indie film and Bill Nye: Science Guy was funded almost entirely by Kickstarter. We knew that we wanted to produce this film in a similar fashion in order to have directorial freedom. We met a smart designer and marketer at Stripe Press who was exploring adding film and video to the press’s current offering of printed matter. We partnered with Stripe Press, who were fantastic to work with, so we’ve been unimaginably lucky.
It was hard to earn a living making films outside of traditional Hollywood before the pandemic, and it’s only going to become harder and more unpredictable. Let’s check in in September...
"This was a tough decision to opt out."
NFS: Why did you decide to pass on the SXSW/Amazon option to stream on Prime?
Sussberg: This was a tough decision to opt out. We feel so bad for the programmers at SXSW who curate an amazing goddamn slate of films every year, and this streaming solution is a way to make some version of the festival happen online. And Amazon Prime is a hero and saved SXSW for a portion of SXSW filmmakers and cinema fans.
However, the details are kinda fuzzy. We don’t know what Amazon is offering as compensation; there is some concern about the length of the streaming window; and whether competitors of Amazon would rule out acquiring any films that participated in this online version of the festival. Ultimately, there was too much uncertainty. We’re taking our cues from our sales agent and from other filmmakers who advocated to opt out.
This is an unprecedented moment in indie film and we might be making the wrong call, but we’re doing what’s best for the film hopefully.
Thank you, Jason!