SXSW 2021 Interview: David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg on Searching for New Frontiers with a True Pioneer in “We Are as Gods”

In following Stewart Brand around the world for “We Are as Gods,” David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg were already thinking about time a little differently after venturing to the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range in West Texas where the visionary writer’s nonprofit had been financing the development of the 10,000-Year Clock, offering up a different chime for every chronological milestone it passed and designed to outlive its creators’ great-great-great grandchildren to serve as a testament to long-term thinking. Recalling the project built from titanium to withstand anything the future could throw at it could come as a comfort, even a small one, when the directing duo’s latest film was scheduled to premiere at SXSW in 2020 before the coronavirus derailed their plans, but knowing their own film was made of pretty strong stuff as well, they took the long view and committed to waiting until the following year to premiere at the festival they always wanted to play at first, hence its debut this week virtually as part of SXSW 2021.

“We Are as Gods” is a biography of Brand, but in other words, that means it’s a chronicle of technological achievement in the past half-century when it profiles the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of assorted interests and DIY tutorials where people could follow their passions through its pages, much like the Internet today, from the consciousness-enhancing trips he’d take with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on LSD to his travels today pursuing de-extinction, bringing species back with advances in DNA technology such as the Woolly Mammoth that could help alleviate environment issues on Earth by influencing its ecology. Like their previous films in the scientific realm “The Immortalists” and “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” Alvarado and Sussberg aren’t afraid to challenge the bold ideas put forth by their subjects, but in Brand, the two find a man whose convictions run deep, inspired to search for answers by his mother’s love of passenger pigeons that were eradicated with the disappearance of chestnut trees at the turn of the 20th century, and occasionally is caught between a personal contradiction of what he believes can be accomplished through genetic modification and his desire to see nature take its course.

Whether or not one agrees with his ideas about the future, “We Are as Gods” leaves no doubt we are living in the world he predicted today and his continued clairvoyance remains inspiring at a time when it can be difficult to have hope. On the eve of the film’s truly long-awaited premiere at SXSW, Alvarado and Sussberg spoke about the wait being worth it, not only for the film’s release but to even pursue the project after taking years to secure Brand’s participation, as well as how they landed Brian Eno to compose the film’s score and organizing a story of a man whose led such a remarkable and varied life.

How did this come about?

Jason Sussberg: I had long been interested in Stewart Brand, ever since I came of age in the California that he helped build. I was fascinated with him since college, when I ran across the Whole Earth Catalog at a bookstore, but what really sparked this was his announcement of De-extinction Movement in 2013. David and I contacted him and said, “We want to do a movie on you and de-extinction”, which was eight long years ago and he passed. But we ended up going back to a friend of ours at Time Magazine and pitched him the idea about doing a short video on De-extinction, and to our surprise, Stewart said, “Yeah, I’ll participate in that.” We did this short and lived online and we didn’t think anything about it, but then we set out to make our next film “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” and when we finished, we circled back to Stewart and said, “Hey, we tried to make a movie on you in 2013, what do you say?” And to our great surprise, he took a flyer on it and the rest is history.

You get the impression he only looks ahead, so is it difficult to get him to take a walk down memory lane?

David Alvarado: It was the right time in Stewart’s life because he never really wanted a lot of media attention about his own life, which is probably why he turned us down originally. But he’s in his eighties and John Marvkova, the technology writer at the New York Times, was starting to write a book about him and his life, so I think he was just starting to open up this idea of well, “Maybe it’s time to start sharing my story with the world.” John Markova actually was looking through his old diary entries and his photographs, so [Stewart] was in the process of looking back at his life and trying to figure out what it was all about and I feel like we were just lucky to talk to him at a time when he was ready to share and explore those things with us. I think that comes through he’s really trying to get a grip on what he’s been through and we were grateful to be there.

Was there anything that surprised you or changed your ideas about what this could be?

Jason Sussberg: In introspect you look back at where you started and where you ended up and you can see what you learned along the way. We set out to make a movie that was braiding Stewart’s past of being with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and starting the Environmental Movement and the Personal Computer Revolution, along with his present day journey on De-extinction. The film that got made is the one that we set out to make, but we definitely caught by surprise on a lot of things, namely, we didn’t expect Stewart’s story to have such a rich, personal, revealing story because he’s been so cagey about his own personal life. A lot of people who follow Stewart know about his professional life, whether it’s his adventures in the ‘60s and beyond, but not a lot of people knew that he suffered from depression at multiple points in his life or that he’s had personal struggles. That was something he was willing to share with us and we really wanted to capture because it’s always interesting learning about the struggles that everybody can relate to. Depression is one of those things that you feel so alone when it’s happening, so to know that Stewart also struggled with that is something that we wanted to put forth that made him human.

There are allusions in the film to the Whole Earth Catalog as an organizing device visually, but I wondered was it in the back of your mind as you’re putting this sprawling story together structurally?

David Alvarado: I didn’t even think about it like that, but you’re totally right. If you open [the Whole Earth Catalog] up, you’ll see in one page, it’s just like “Here’s how to have safe sex” and you turn it and “Here’s how to build a computer.” Then you turn it again, and “Here’s how to build your own septic tank if you’re building your own society in the woods.” It’s just incredible and [the subjects] don’t seem connected, but they are — its approach to using tools and technology and sharing information, so in the same way, the film is like that. If you follow Stewart’s life, all these things that seem disconnected actually come together through a central idea and that’s one of the things that we’ve been thrilled about in the film.

Jason Sussberg: Critically speaking, the film probably lacks focus because he’s lived such a storied life and when we show it to Stewart’s friends, they’re like, “Oh, you left out the chapter on this, that and the other.” But when people on the outside look at it, it’s like, “Whoa, this is sprawling.” And that’s just the nature of Stewart. He’s a guy who starts a project and then after a couple of years, he’s onto the next and you’re right, it actually has this decentralized Web feeling that you get from the catalog about different chapters. Stewart’s very much lived that life and we wanted aesthetically to live in the world of the catalog. That’s why all the graphics look like the catalog, and even if there are new ideas, we put it on the aged paper because we wanted it to inhabit the aesthetic features of the catalog.

Something else that’s been really impressive throughout your films, not only this one, is when there’s a strong interest in science, you’re not afraid to have voices of dissent offer respectful challenges to either your central idea or subject. Is that difficult?

David Alvarado: Yeah, our last one was about Bill Nye The Science Guy, and we told him from the outset we’re going to push back on you if there’s something that we see that needs to be pushed back on. To us, it’s in service of his portrait to be as honest as we can about what we see. There are voices out there who are very much opposed to what Stewart Brand is doing and are raising some great questions about some of his efforts. From the beginning, we told him we want this to be a conversation. We want to show your worldview, but how that worldview interacts with the world. There’s always going to be people who disagree and that’s actually a good thing. And he was on board — Stewart was just incredibly gracious and understood that was our process and that he had no hand in it. He didn’t see the film until it was done, and could have hated it for all we know for all the pushback, but it turns out that he did enjoy it, so that has been really great.

You appear to travel a lot of places in the film – was this a situation where you’d have to pick up and fly somewhere at a moment’s notice?

Jason Sussberg: Stewart is a very hermetic guy. He reads a lot and is a big thinker and a philosopher, so when we started making this movie, I was really attracted to it because I live in San Francisco and had just had a kid and Stewart was in my backyard in Sausalito, so I [thought] “Awesome, an 80-year-old who doesn’t like travel a lot. This is going to be perfect to tell a story,” [after] we had just gotten off “Bill Nye” where we literally went to Greenland and all over the world. So I was really excited about not traveling frankly, and just taking a car across the Golden Gate Bridge. But Stewart lives an incredibly active life for an 82-year-old. [laughs]

He was a great collaborator because he kept us involved in his life. Anytime there was something he was thinking about doing, he would run it by us and be like, “Hey, I got invited to go speak at a blockchain conference in Prague. You guys want to come film it?” We were the ones who planned the Siberia trip, and we produced the Clock of the Long Now [shoot] that took a lot of cajoling because there had never been a documentary crew documenting the Clock, so that was a great privilege to go. But Stewart was a great collaborator — it might say “Directed by David and Jason,” but Stewart’s fingerprints are all over that movie not only because he allowed his life story to be told, but was also very open to sharing ideas. Like “Do you want to come back to the cabin to see this, to see my life where I grew up?” He was like, “Yeah, let’s book a flight. Let’s go.”

My other curiosity is whether you actually knew Brian Eno would compose the music for the film before doing your interview with him or whether you might’ve snuck in a request while you were there? Because that seems like the impossible dream.

David Alvarado: We knew from the outset that Stewart and Brian Eno were friends, so from the beginning, we were like, “Well, wouldn’t that be cool if Brian Eno did a score for us?” But did we ask after the interview, Jason?

Jason Sussberg: We planned it a lot. In fact, when we did the demo to raise money for this, we used Brian’s music — I think any filmmaker anywhere uses Brian Eno music [as temp music for] whatever they do, because he’s the god of ambient film score. So it was our plan all along, but we went and interviewed him, [which] was a crazy experience because he only gave us 30 minutes, and you could play the whole interview [and it would be interesting]. It was just perfect. But we didn’t ask him [about the score] until afterwards. Stewart actually asked on our behalf because they’re very good friends and initially he just said, “No, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you my catalog of unused songs and you can pick and choose and throw it on there.” Then to our great surprise, he ended up doing way more than that. He thought deeply about Stewart as a character and what songs that would evoke, and it was a really collaborative back and forth. Initially, he was not going to work as much as he did, and maybe David and I are charming or Stewart convinced him — we don’t know what happened — but he definitely signed up for a little and gave a lot.

David Alvarado: Brian released his latest album about a month or two ago, [which was] “Film Music: 1976 to 2020,” and Jason and I were lucky enough where one of the tracks [for our film] is in that album, so that an album like that has our names on the back of it is just mindboggling.

That’s immortality right there. You actually did something really amazing before this even premieres when you’ve been holding the film a year after it was originally intended to debut at SXSW. What’s it like to finally see it resurface?

David Alvarado: Talking to you, it’s just coming back to us, that idea that we finished this film a year ago and today’s the first day that we’re really talking about the film publicly again, so we’re just really excited to actually share it. It’s been on ice this whole time, and now it’s ready to come back alive. We’re going to de-extinct our own movie. [laughs] So it feels like a success, but we’re just getting started. We’re really excited.

“We Are as Gods” will screen at SXSW beginning March 17th at 2 pm CST.