“The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin” begins in a haze of green, not the paper dollar bills that have been exchanged by Americans since the Civil War necessitated such currency, but instead the emerald glow emanating from the large processors required to mine the burgeoning digital currency. The mega-computer belongs to Dan Mross, a firm believer in the technology that would transform physical dollars and cents into ones and zeroes, shifting financial power from government treasuries and banking institutions over to individuals and adhering to a standard set out by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 that insists only 21 million Bitcoins will ever be in circulation.
Although the film made by Mross’ brother Nicholas will undoubtedly be enjoyed by the proponents and developers of the peer-to-peer payment system, many of whom like Bitcoin Foundation scientist Gavin Andresen, BitInstant founder Charlie Shrem and Bitcoin investor Roger Ver put in appearances, “The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin” should be equally intriguing to skeptics of the currency as it provides insight into how the money could go mainstream. With filming commencing in May 2012, the Mross brothers left Dan’s humble home in Pittsburgh to uncover a global network of Bitcoin miners undeterred by the volatility of uncharted territory, filming as if taking the advice of a BitInstant employee who says in front of their cameras at one point, “When someone offers you the seat on the rocket, you don’t ask where your seat is, you just get on.”
The wild ride wasn’t over when “Bitcoin” made its world premiere last week at the Tribeca Film Festival where Shrem appeared, even though he’s currently under house arrest as he’s being investigated for alleged money laundering, and the market for the digital currency fluctuates between boom and bust. However, true to its title, the value of what the Mross brothers have captured is only bound to go up in the years ahead and while in New York, the two spoke about how they worked together on the project, turning the virtual currency into something visual and what it was like to tell a story where the fortunes of those involved literally rose and fell every day.
Was there an interesting dynamic between you as brothers making this film where Dan was a great Bitcoin enthusiast and Nicholas may have been less knowledgeable about the world?
Nicholas Mross: There’s no question about it. The fact that we’re brothers made it a lot more real because my brother could be comfortable being himself. He was just so genuinely excited. Nothing was fake when we were filming and we didn’t realize that [the film] was going to evolve that way.
Daniel Mross: Or that quickly. We didn’t expect that Bitcoin would grow so rapidly during the time that we were filming. Once we realized that was happening, we just doubled down with our team and tried to take advantage of it as much as we could.
Because Bitcoin is still in its infancy, did you think you had enough perspective on it to capture it properly?
Nicholas Mross: 2013 was one of the craziest, biggest years for Bitcoin. It went from being this fringe thing that computer scientists and programmers were playing with to now, something [where] there’s a lot of finance and Wall Street interest and it’s really making an impact around the globe. Of course, there’s always concerns with what’s going to remain relevant for the long run, but what we can say is that 2013 was an amazing year when a lot of things happened with Bitcoin. We captured a lot of the people that were involved directly with helping it grow and helping making that happen.
Dan, were you as calm as it appeared onscreen, with the markets being as volatile as they were with your skin in the game?
Daniel Mross: Yes, just because I’ve been through it a few times now with Bitcoin. A lot of the frenzies in the market are driven by news cycles or hacks or things like that. But I always just look at the technology itself. Is there an actual problem with the Bitcoin network? And in every case, it was always no. I’ve been through the spike at $31, I’ve been through the spike to $266, I’ve been through the spike to $1200 and I’m holding strong. I’m very bullish on Bitcoin financially and I also think as a technology, it is not going away. This is a new idea. It’s a new invention of an entire class of technology. It’s going to give birth to a whole range of different technologies and software projects, so it’s just getting started. It’s easy for me to be confident that Bitcoin is going to stay around.
You actually visited the headquarters of Bitcoin exchanges such as BitInstant and Mt. Gox in times of turmoil. Were those difficult days?
Nicholas Mross: Yes and no. Since Bitcoin hadn’t really fully boomed yet, most people were actually really excited for the exposure and because my brother was involved, I think they just trusted us because we were independent filmmakers, not like a news station.
Daniel Mross: Mark Karpelès at Mt. Gox in Tokyo is very, very hard to reach, and they were really hard to get in touch with, but I think that they saw that I was somebody that had been involved with Bitcoin for awhile and I had genuine interest. We were actually really fortunate that they let us in because after we were shooting with them, we found out that a lot of other people had tried and were turned down.
There have been many attempts to try to find Satoshi Nakamoto, the person or entity who created Bitcoin. Did you actually ever consider doing that for the film?
Nicholas Mross: No, we decided early on we didn’t want to go down that road. We didn’t want to waste time with something that could’ve just been a path that led nowhere – there really is no answer still, right? — but, to be honest, that’s not really the thing that’s important when it comes to Bitcoin.
Daniel Mross: There’s some intrigue certainly for the story and mystery. But at the same time, the nature of Bitcoin is being open source. Satoshi had this idea for the program that implemented it, but then he said, “It’s free” and released it to the world. There’s nothing hidden anywhere. It’s basically Satoshi shared their idea with the community and that is what stands on its own. That’s what’s growing. While fascinating, I think whoever Satoshi was, they valued their privacy and obviously wanted to be left alone. As somebody who very much likes Bitcoin, I wanted to respect that.
The section on Casascius coins was particularly interesting because it solved a dilemma for Bitcoin overall that you probably had as filmmakers, which was to make a digital idea tangible so that it could be represented for the mainstream. Was that an issue in making the film?
Daniel Mross: Yes, we had a hard time. Bitcoin is a very complicated topic to get your head around and we realized we had to put some educational pieces in there to tell what Bitcoin is and at the same time make a movie. That was a bigger challenge for my brother.
Nicholas Mross: One thing that really helped is that the characters that we chose to highlight just happened to also be very interesting people. We didn’t know the people like Charlie Shrem, Erik Voorhees, and Jared [Kenna] were going to be that interesting and have such just history and great stories, and work so well on camera. That really played in our favor and helped us tell a compelling story that hopefully educates people about Bitcoin.
Yet there’s a considerable amount of Bitcoin enthusiasts already out there and I understand they played a part in backing the project. Was it informative to actually have first-hand experience of how powerful the Bitcoin community can be now?
Daniel Mross: The film is self-funded, but we did receive some donations and absolutely, the Bitcoin community has a lot of momentum. Whenever people get involved in Bitcoin, they start to really like it and they want to use it. If you look at some of the vendors that are now accepting it, like Overstock.com and Tiger Direct, I think Overstock.com did something like $1 million in sales in their first few weeks just from Bitcoin sales. It’s just because people want to support Bitcoin, they want to use it, and want to help it grow. Once they look into it and start using it, and realize what it is, and just see all the potential that’s there, it’s easy to convince yourself to want to further the technology.
Was it a crazy experience to be finishing up the film as all these story lines were coming together at the beginning of 2014?
Nicholas Mross: Absolutely. We thought we had a pretty good ending, then we actually went back and changed a few things around. But it actually worked out well because, even though some of it’s negative, it’s super interesting to see what’s happened to certain characters in the film and overall, we still leave the film with a positive message [in terms of the] bigger picture. And the story’s going to continue for a long time. For us, this a great time for us to finish up our film and get it out there for the world. We really feel we’re showing the story of the birth of Bitcoin as well as how it all boomed.
Daniel Mross: We used to joke early on in the film like, “Can you imagine by the time we’re ending the film, if [the value of a] Bitcoin goes all the way up to $100? There might be some interest when the film is finished.” [As of the film’s April 23rd premiere, one Bitcoin was worth $448.) Of course, that’s happened in an order of magnitude greater than even our best guess of how cool it would be if that were to happen.