Guest blogger David Alvarado is a New York-based documentary filmmaker focused on science, technology and the future. He was born and raised in Dallas, attended the University of North Texas and later received his MFA from Stanford University. He founded Structure Films, a documentary start-up that aims to make science storytelling accessible, artful and entertaining. (He’s also a former KERA intern!)
What would the world look like if human beings didn’t grow old? How would being ‘forever young’ alter the human condition, economy, environment and religion? Is it possible, and if it is, is it desirable? As co-directors, we (that’s me, Dallas native David Alvarado & California based Jason Sussberg) first started thinking about these questions in the basement of Stanford University’s CCRMA (computer music center), where we were hired as editors to work on an experimental music performance immediately after finishing graduate school.
As we talked together, the film was born out of a mutual love of science, philosophy and strange new ideas. I was intrigued with the scientific veracity of these eccentric scientists and Jason was interested the politics and science-fiction-style ideas that they espoused. Human lifespan has more than doubled since the 19th century. Biology and technology are merging and the results are entirely new fields of study, alongside novel medical therapies, that could extend life beyond the current limit of around 120. This is a reality that we should be talking about and preparing for– radical human longevity.
The idea for the film was to pair the intimate observational footage of these scientists’ personal lives with interviews shot on a black backdrop, which became a space where we could animate the scientific ideas being discussed. We filmed with two top biologists in aging, Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews, as well as a handful of other subjects. Our philosophy was to center the narrative around our two subjects, only filming with people directly associated with them. We wanted to articulate their shared mission while highlighting their differing scientific approaches to biological ‘immortality.’ More important, we also wanted to show the personalities of these two brilliant scientists living unconventional lives.
They are both larger-than-life figures: Bill Andrews is an ultramarathoner (that means running races longer than 50 miles) racing against the biological clock; Aubrey, with his long red beard, punts down the river with a beer in hand. We are lucky that they shared two years of their lives with us. This film is a record of what happened to them and what we learned during that time. In making it, we hope Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey become immortalized, even if their goal of indefinite youth is never realized.
So far, the press and the film festival audience seem to love the film (and sometimes they hate the film, we like that too!). The reviews are mixed, we believe, because as a documentary, the film doesn’t do something that most people expect these days. The film does not reveal an obvious perspective from the filmmakers’ point of view. It doesn’t attempt real journalistic ‘objectivity’ either. In my own personal view, the film gives viewers an intimate and transparent look into the world of these would-be warriors for eternity, but then leaves the heavy lifting to the viewer: who are these guys? Is their science for real? Why are they really trying to accomplish this goal? So as far as I can tell, the film has become a sort of Rorschach Test for audience members and critics alike.
For example, I remember during the London Film Festival we received two separate reviews from different critics- both negative. But one said that the film “lionized” these “charlatans”, which was despicably irresponsible. Yet the other critic from the same day said that we made a “freak show” of these “very credible scientists”, which he claimed was a perverted way to look at science. Now… you couldn’t be more on opposite ends of the spectrum than that, and they are watching the same movie. So it has been a great source of discussion for Jason and I to consider how our style of filmmaking has both an objective-like style but subjective impression on those that watch.
For the record, we’ve received positive reviews as well, also for opposite reasons. Please see critic response below.
If you are still reading, then I hope you are interested in seeing the film. The film will be playing on January 29th, 7:30pm at the Angelika Center in Dallas, Texas. I personally will be there for a Q&A after the film, and I am more than happy to talk to you further about this project or the ideas here. Please reserve your tickets. The Immortalists screens Jan. 29 at the Angelika. Reserve tickets. Hope to see you there!
“The fountain of youth is engagingly appraised in The Immortalists, a lively documentary focusing on a pair of very different biomedical scientists who are equally obsessed with eradicating the ravages of time.”
– LA TIMES
“This sly documentary rises above its speculative hook by shifting to show the very human, and very mortal, sides of these would-be warriors of eternity.”
– NEW YORK TIMES
“The Immortalists is a brilliantly bizarre, endearingly quaint, and fascinating
“A very well-mounted film, with outstanding contributions in Alvarado’s cinematography and Eric Andrew Kuhn’s subtly expressive score.”
– ROGER EBERT.COM
“An absorbing documentary… top ten most anticipated films at SXSW”
“thought-provoking topic with enough screen appeal to draw audiences beyond the fest circuit.”
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
“Essential Festival Viewing”
-TORONTO FILM SCENE
“It’s beautifully constructed… very reminiscent of Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Yep, it’s that good… The Immortalists is fascinating from start to finish.”
-PRETTY CLEVER FILMS
“The Immortalists is really a film about death, not life, which is what makes it so fascinating.”
-Christopher Mims, QUARTZ