When Mario Furloni and Kate McLean were classmates at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, McLean had become fascinated with a community in Humboldt County that had turned to illegal pot farming when the logging industry left town, and with it, much of the local economy.
“This was a subject I had been obsessed with for awhile, and I dragged Mario in to it with me, and then we both fell in love with the people and the place,” says McLean, whose adventure into the small town of Garberville ultimately became the 2011 short “Pot County.”
Although that positive experience gave Furloni and McLean enough warm and fuzzies to continue to work together, their second collaboration “Gut Hack,” premiering this week at SXSW, will make your skin crawl — in a good way. Profiling the biohacker Josiah Zayner, you’re introduced to the former synthentic biology research scientist at NASA by way of bacteria dancing around feverishly that we soon learn is causing him great gastrointestinal pain. Rather than swigging some Pepto-Bismol, Zayner has other ideas, searching for someone “hopefully really athletic and attractive” to swap out bacteria with to see if it’ll improve his health.
Whether Zayner lives up to his credo, “Create Something Beautiful” is up for debate as he tests out his ideas on his own body, but there’s no question that Furlong and McLean have in documenting his grand experiment, turning this messy bit of science into art. Taking cues from the biohacker’s own mischievous nature, “Gut Hack” has great fun in punctuating each twist and turn in the unorthodox procedure with tangy music cues and ironically straightforward explainers of what exactly is going down in the hotel room that Zayner has rented out. The short doesn’t only have the effect of seeing bacteria activated but neurons as well since “Gut Hack” opens up the mind to all kinds of possibilities, including the ethical consideration of what Zayner may or may not accomplish.
Just before the filmmakers head to Austin to debut “Gut Hack” as part of SXSW’s Documentary Shorts program, Furloni and McLean were reached by e-mail to answer a few questions about going into the breach with Zayner, how they achieved such a vivid depiction of microorganisms and the anxiety that comes with a film built around a scientific experiment.
How did you get interested in this?
Kate McLean: A friend of mine was speaking at an event about synthetic biology, and I came along to support her. There were academics, and industry people there, as well as artists and enthusiasts. During a rather dull presentation from a biotech company representative, someone at the back of the room by the bar began to loudly boo the speaker. I remember he shouted, “Biohack the planet,” which is riff on a line from the ‘90s movie “Hackers.” He had a mohawk and I knew I needed to speak to him. It was, of course, Josiah, who would become the subject of our film.
Is figuring out how to shoot this a challenge? There are moments where it looked like Josiah had to be responsible for the camera, like when he needs to use the bathroom, and yet throughout it’s shot in a tasteful yet evocative way that suggests a professional’s eye.
Mario Furloni: Josiah was already planning to self-document a lot of the process, and had no problem with us using the material, including the very intimate footage in the bathroom. For everything else, we tried to do a combination of observational shooting sprinkled with a few set-up shots that enhance the story. We used available lighting for everything except the interview. Later, in the edit room, we decided to cut some of the scenes in a way that would reference the sci-fi/horror genres, like in the opening teaser. Sara Newens, who edited the film, has an fantastic sense of rhythm, and kept the pulse that drives the entire film.
There’s a playful quality to the infographics and the musical score – did you have that tone in mind for the start or did it evolve over time?
Mario Furloni: That was a decision we made in the edit room. The idea was to contrast the serious, heroic tone of some of the scenes with a slightly self-mocking commentary. This is very true to Josiah, by the way, who is a very smart, self-reflexive guy and constantly wavers between these two modes. So the soundtrack follows this idea, with some of the themes borrowed from action/sci-fi films and others that go directly against that mode, like that circus-like piece that comes up again and again in the film and ends up being a theme. None of this would be possible without composer William Ryan Fritch, one the most prolific, daring and intelligent artists I know. For the titles and graphics, we worked with Ale Borges, a great designer who transformed our crude title ideas into the polished final titles while keeping a hint of a punk aesthetic.
There’s a podcast from The Verge that’s referenced throughout that seems to ably express the skepticism Josiah would encounter from the outside world. How did that become the counterpoint?
Kate McLean: We wanted to keep the story as centered on Josiah as possible, and to really explore his motivations and his experience, as well as the way that he experienced criticism of his experiment.
There’s a “microcinematography” credit. How do you even go about getting that?
Mario Furloni: One of the main reasons to do this film was Kate’s long-term obsession with making visible this hidden world of bacteria. We tried some macro shooting of bacteria on our own, with rather poor results, and were despairing when I ran into a delightful web site called Exploring The Invisible, run by a scientist named Simon Park from the University of Surrey. In his free time, Dr. Park makes video art using bacteria and other micro-organisms and he was kind enough to allow us to use some of the incredible micro-cinematography he took of microbiome bacteria.
Is basing a film around a scientific experiment nerve-wracking?
Kate McLean: I worried about Josiah’s safety during the experiment. Taking antibiotics like that puts you at risk for infection, and you can also get sick from using untested stool. We had a conversation about what warning signs I should look for if he became ill, so that we could stop filming and get him to the hospital. That was scary.
You’re also currently working on a narrative feature “Freeland” – was this actually shot during a break from that?
Mario Furloni: For the past couple years, Kate and I have been developing a fiction project titled “Freeland,” alongside our producer and creative collaborator Laura Heberton and like “Pot Country,” it explores the secretive world of pot growing in Northern California. Last year, while “Freeland” was stuck in the packaging phase and moving rather slowly, we made this short, which did come as a much-welcome diversion, showing how important it is to have a few irons in the fire at once if you don’t want to go crazy. Thankfully, now things are picking up steam quite nicely with “Freeland,” and we plan to shoot that film in the late summer/ early fall of 2017.
“Gut Hack” is now available to watch as part of the New York Times’ Op Docs series.