Two extraordinary scientists struggle to create eternal youth with medical breakthroughs in a world they call “blind to the tragedy of old age.” Bill Andrews is a lab biologist and famed long-distance runner racing against the ultimate clock. Aubrey de Grey is a genius theoretical biologist who conducts his research with a beer in hand. They differ in style and substance, but are united in their common crusade: cure aging or die trying. They publicly brawl with the old guard of biology who argue that curing aging is neither possible nor desirable. As they battle their own aging and suffer the losses of loved ones, their journeys toward life without end ultimately become personal.
Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘The Immortalists’ at 2014 SXSW Film, we profile the film’s Directors Jason Sussberg & David Alvarado. ‘The Immortalists’ screens as part of the Documentary Competition on Saturday, March 8, Sunday, March 9 and Saturday, March 15 in Austin, Texas.
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘The Immortalists’ at SXSW Film – HERE
How were you first introduced to the subjects featured in ‘The Immortalists’? Why did you feel their story was an important one to develop a feature documentary around?
I made a short film about seasteading (building autonomous countries on the ocean) and learned that the very same people who wanted to avoid taxes (mostly libertarian futurists) also wanted to avoid death! I met some of Aubrey’s colleagues at a seasteading event that was kind of like a floating Burning Man and thought there was a story there: serious scientists trying to defeat aging. We reached out to Aubrey over email and he agreed to participate in a documentary.
We originally had no plans to make a film about Bill Andrews—he found us! Someone forwarded Bill a link to our Kickstarter campaign and called David. He said, “You can’t make a movie about living forever and not talk about telomeres. I’m the telomere guy! Why am I not in your movie?” David talked to Bill for a long while and heard the passion in his voice. On a lark, we drove to Reno (where his lab is based) and conducted a lengthy interview. He was a larger-than-life scientist who ran 100-mile races monthly. He also spoke candidly and wasn’t afraid of saying ideas that other gerontologists wouldn’t declare publicly.
When we started production, the first of the baby boomers were starting to retire and going on Medicare. The greatest generation is slowly withering, so we knew this is a topical story that affected literally everyone. Aging is truly universal. It wasn’t really evident that this could be a feature documentary because the story originally centered around potential scientific breakthroughs in aging research. But once we realized that the story wasn’t just about the science, but a character study of the personal lives of the scientists (who are they, what drives them, what medical breakthroughs are they dreaming up?) we realized we had a film.
As documentary filmmakers, what do you feel the role of the documentary medium is? Personally, how to you approach the construct of a documentary narrative? What are some of your documentary influences?
We are storytellers trying to tell an emotional and entertaining story—we just happen to focus on real people going through real events. We’re interested in getting a backstage pass to people’s lives, whether it’s Aubrey and Adelaide going on a naked birthday picnic or witnessing Bill run a 138-mile ultramarathon at 18,000 ft. We operated as a super small team, just David on camera and me on sound, so it allowed us to access intimate moments and just be present with the characters. We’re also not afraid to interact with the people we’re filming with and talking to them throughout the process. All the construction of the narrative happened in the editing with our talented editor (and 3rd director, basically) Annukka Lilja. Life doesn’t happen in acts, so we (like all filmmakers) weaved the narrative of two characters in the edit room.
Our influences are pretty diverse. We both are influenced by the interview-driven style of Errol Morris and the verite filmmakers like the Drew Associates and films like “A Time for Burning.”
In your experiences, how prominent is the scientific community interested in eternal youth? Consequently, is eternal youth the ultimate goal? Ideally, where does the aging process cease?
The scientific community is careful about embracing life extension research. The anti-aging industry is still full of “quacks and charlatans,” according to Bill. A lot of that is changing. Aubrey’s SENS Foundation is very mainstream now, working with Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and the Buck Institute. The scientific community is interested in ameliorating the diseases and suffering of old age. They want to research and eradicate heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Aubrey points out the absurdity of wanting to cure all the diseases of old age, just not aging itself.
And yes, our subjects absolutely want to keep people eternally youthful, so that people have an indefinite healthy life.
What was the most difficult part in developing/producing ‘The Immortalists’? Additionally, was there any aspect you anticipated as being difficult which ended up as not being so?
Well… We’re first time filmmakers so everything was a difficult surprise! Once we settled on the characters and chose the format (we originally started out in 3D!!), we cruised through production. Going from a rough cut to final cut in the editing was the most challenging. We knew we had a fun entertaining and emotional film somewhere in the cut, but it took a year to tease it out.
Why is SXSW a relevant place for ‘The Immortalists’ to enjoy its World Premiere?
SXSW is the best possible place to share this film. We know that Janet Pierson and the programmers are taking a risk on us being young 1st time feature filmmakers with a strange story, so we have them to truly thank.
SXSW is like the world’s fair for nerds— A wonderful mix of futurists, technologists, artists and hackers, which is the exact same group of folks who would appreciate our film. SX is at the cultural vanguard of everything significant for us. When we dreamed up an audience of science/tech enthusiasts, the SX audience is what came to mind. It’s ideal. We’re humbled.
David lives in New York City and obsesses about science, philosophy, and the bizarreness of religion. He believes the intersection of science and society is the landscape that will shape the future of humanity.