David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s (The Immortalists (2014), Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)) documentary We Are As Gods (2021), explores the life of Stewart Brand. Creator of hybrid catalogue/magazine, The Whole Earth Catalog, an influential member of author Ken Kesey’s ’60s group, The Merry Pranksters, he’s an advocate of resurrecting extinct species to counter climate change and preserve the life of our planet.
The ideas raised in We Are As Gods, specifically the moral questions over the restrictions we should place on our ambitions through science, may be familiar, but it’s necessary that we continue to interrogate such questions. The film also contextualises the urgent need for foresight towards the preservation of the planet and exposes the difficulties we must confront in any preservation effort.
In conversation with PopMatters, Alvarado and Sussberg discuss creating a cinematic journey out of a rich human story that intersects with culture, science, and technology.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Alvarado: When I started film school I was interested in fiction films, and what drew me to documentary specifically was I watched a film called A Time for Burning (Connell and Jersey, 1966), about a minister who was trying to integrate a black and white Lutheran church.
It was when they were starting to get the technology to put a camera on your shoulder and have another person follow people around with a microphone. Instead of it being a television news-type programme, it was like a fiction film. There were characters and antagonists, events unfolding that were set up earlier, and a result you were invested in.
I was blown away that you could do that with documentary, and at that moment I was all in. It has informed a lot of our work and We Are As Gods is about an idea, but it’s expressed by following this person on his quest with these crazy projects.
Sussberg: I set out to make fiction movies like David, and there were two things that set me on the documentary side of things. It was during the Bush years (2001-2009) and there was a fervent political moment that we were witnessing with the Iraq war and torture. I wanted to deal with real topics in the real world. It seemed frivolous and stupid to be making movies about fantasy and fiction, when the real world seemed to be wide with ideas.
The other thing I realised about documentary early on was the entry barrier was so low that if you had a good idea and access to a character and a camera, the ability to make that movie was your own will power. I was looking at my friends in LA who were PAs [production assistants], holding bagels for directors. I didn’t want to do that and instead I thought, ‘I’m just going to make short documentaries.’ Those fiction people are now wildly successful and I wonder, ‘Did I make the wrong choice?’ [laughs].
Documentaries can create a relatability on a human level in a way that news reporting struggles to achieve. It’s not because it has a topical dimension but because of the intent to ‘report’ the story. We Are As Gods is an exploration that invites us to watch and listen, engaging us in the discussion rather than talking at us.
Alvarado: A documentary where the filmmaking team has decided what they want you to believe, tilting everything and then proving that for an hour and a half is the opposite of what we do. We’re taking Stewart’s worldview because it’s interesting, but we also articulate the views of those people who have an antagonistic point of view. We explore through the character’s story, hammering you on the other side of the head with the other opinion. It’s a process that takes a long time to craft, to make it feel natural and interesting, but all of our films are very much like that.
Sussberg: I feel that a certain segment of the population wants a documentary that David and I refer to as, “Was it a magazine or a film?” If the documentary reads that it would be a great New Yorker article, 3,000 words, and is just a talking head menagerie, then I may have enjoyed that hour and a half long magazine, but it wasn’t a film.
Not to rip on other filmmakers, but what we try to do is to take the drama of ideas and to make it cinematic through the lives of our subjects. To us, that’s what cinema is and honestly, we’re not purists, we’re not vérité, we’re not interview purists.
Information is important, and it’s about where that line is. How much of this is a portrait of someone’s life caught unawares? It’s weaving in information contextually where it’s necessary. It’s a fine balance.
People who go to the film and just want to hear about de-extinction are going to be disappointed. People who just want to hear a biography of Stewart’s life are also going to be disappointed. But people who want to watch a cinematic journey are going to be excited about what they’re getting into.
The film’s cinematic aesthetic makes a strong impression, specifically the way in which you synchronise footage with the words to create a feeling of self-reflection on the person and the ideas.
Sussberg: The idea is people are always at the centre of it, particularly with science and technology. We set out to make a rich human story and one of the great surprises was Stewart’s depression. It was an entry point to talk about something other than bringing back the Woolly Mammoth or building a giant clock on the side of a mountain. It was something that everyone could relate to because everyone has either had a spell of depression or knows someone who has. This was something where we could show the human side of this extraordinary philosopher and thinker.
If you go into a film trying to get it from a subject point of view, people will be disappointed because they’re always going to bring their own bias and baggage. Coming at a story based purely on the person is a better entry point because if your gateway drug is the person and their life story, it makes you susceptible to understanding the subject better.
Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez (Stern, 2021) offers an insight into the underground comic book movement of the ’60s. We Are As Gods explores another side to the decade. It’s a diverse time period, and what interests me is how films work together to paint this rich portrait yet have a strong individual identity.
Sussberg: The ’60s are not a monolith, and as you said, everybody has their own take on it. Everyone’s interpretation adds to what is a kaleidoscopic view of this period. The interesting thing from our perspective is that we’re not fetishising the ’60s. Those portraits always bug me. Maybe it’s my own latent, screw the baby boomers, fuck you dad attitude that David shares with me.
Our perspective of the ’60s was a little more nuanced. What we were interested in is, of course, LSD and the psychedelics Stewart participated in, but we were also interested in how Stewart broke away from Ken Kesey because he thought he was this cult-like figure who had a destructive charisma.
We were always looking for the dissonance and the hegemonic story of the ’60s being a period of rare exuberance. Not to say we wanted to throw shade on the ’60s or undercut it, but that story has been told. The ’60s happened 25 years before we were born, so what do we have to contribute?
Hearing Stewart’s dissonance was something where we thought, ‘Okay, let’s find the breaking points and explore those.’ The mother’s milk of the documentary is that tension, and we wanted to talk about where the ’60s didn’t work and why Stewart went in the direction he did.
Alvarado: We could have made a separate film about the ’60s, and people have. There’s no doubt we had a little snapshot, and it served the purposes at that moment in the film.
This may be too much to the side, but interestingly, the new left and the labour unions were starting to argue for in the ’60s was black, brown, and indigenous rights. In the cities, other people were running away to the woods to start their own cult-like, or less cult-like communities and communes. The branch of the new left moved out and tried to recreate civilisation. That was their solution, instead of engaging with municipalities in the cities to try to get rights for people.
Depending on where you look you’ll see something different and Stewart’s story was about being in those communes and trying to see how he could service this part of the movement. It’s fascinating and deserves its own film. We’re going to do a podcast about the same subject because there’s so much in there we couldn’t include in the film. We can have two or three episodes just about the ’60s.
As much as the documentary is a look back, it’s a forward-looking film that reminds us of the urgency of climate change and the complicated moral questions that arise through proposed solutions.
Alvarado: We can’t just ask everybody to stop emitting carbon. We’ve been trying that, and we’re not getting the levels of support we need to prevent a disaster that’s happening in front of us. Stewart’s approach to this is a systems-level and engineering-based approach, which for those of us who are willing to do something about this, what if we were to willingly and actively try to take down the carbon by carbon scraping?
In Stewart’s case, what if we were to prevent the methane from being expelled into the atmosphere by reintroducing the animals we made extinct? What if we de-extincted them, reset the ecosystem back to its original form, and thereby tampered down the methane and carbon production?
It’s an engineer’s approach to the problem instead of just a political approach of getting our politicians to stop allowing people to pollute, which is not working fast enough. Whether or not you agree with that, it’s the conversation that we as a species need to have to move forward and to make a better world. If our film does anything, we hope it can at least get people to have that conversation, even if we’re not trying to convince you of one thing or the other.
Sussberg: Stewart calls himself a futurist, and the Earth Catalogue, which was made 50 years ago, is a futuristic take on the past. In 1968 that was a view of the future, and we show archival footage of the Merry Pranksters who were trying to destroy the present and create a new world and take things back to the land. It’s weird to look at a bunch of ’60s hippies running around or long-haired baby boomers playing with computers and thinking about the future.
We wanted our film to have that retro-futurist perspective. As David said, climate change ain’t going away and so it’d be better if we were having conversations not about if climate change is happening (half of our country denies it), but instead, shall we buy Teslas or bring back the Woolly Mammoth? That’s a better debate to have.