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Bill Nye Comes to Hot Docs 2017

Directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg discuss Hot Docs 2017 official selection Bill Nye: Science Guy, what it’s like to work with one of the world’s most beloved scientists and the man behind the persona.

Hot Docs: Bill Nye is very beloved; many of us grew up with Bill Nye. Why did you feel it was important to know who Bill the man was. What did you learned about him that surprised you?

David Alvarado: Jason and I are science and technology filmmakers; we want to make documentary films about interesting people doing cool science and doing cool tech, so that’s what we’re drawn to. We grew up on Bill but didn’t know anything about him or his personal life: Was he a science educator, or was he a hired actor? So our curiosity drove us to contact him. Once we did start to get to know him, and spent a lot of time with him over the years, you learn that he is an actor, acting that role of Bill Nye the Science Guy, but he also IS that role in his everyday life. He’s just that excited about science. If you sit with him over dinner, he’ll start talking about the engineering of the building around you, he’ll start waxing philosophical about science—he is authentically that person. It’s interesting that he never really left that role of science educator, even in his personal life.

HD: Was there a lot of pressure in taking someone who’s very beloved and nostalgic, and exposing flaws about them and exploring who they’ve become over time?

Jason Sussberg: We set out to make a realistic portrait. We really wanted to make a film that was honest and true to form. I think the films that David and I really like are films that get to the essence of a person, or the essence of a subject. There was no point in making the movie if it was just going to be a fawning fan portrait that didn’t have any depth. From the beginning we had a very frank conversation with Bill that we weren’t making a piece of propaganda, but a deep dive into a character, and he was really down for that. In fact, he was the person who suggested that we go film the session with him and Dr. Berlin, the neuroscientist. He was very understanding that this wasn’t going to be a puff piece. Ultimately, I think we did tease out the essence of what drives him, and we hope that the viewers realize his true desire to communicate science and true desire to make the world a better place

HD: You see Bill trying to educate people by hanging out with creationists and climate change deniers. Why was it important for you to portray him being in the trenches with people like this?

DA: We were asked that question a lot in the beginning. We had the same questions, and we were doubting ourselves. But this is a really interesting time to be releasing the movie, because, apparently, our country is now run by creationists and climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. But at the very beginning of shooting Jason and I were equally concerned, and we said, “Well, we want to see Bill talk to these people, try to see why they believe what they believe.”  A lot of people rightfully questioned that, and said, “Well, isn’t that just giving them a platform to do more damage?” It was a good question at the time, and it’s still a good question now, but we live in a time where, apparently, ignoring the other side can’t be the only way. We have to talk to them, and listen and engage, and that happens to be what Bill’s doing in this film, so it’s really interesting.

I think the film is going to be a space for that conversation to happen. You know, what’s interesting about this film is that we don’t pretend to offer any answers; there’s no call to action at the end of the film that says, “And this is how we should handle the situation!” It just lays it all out there, and you watch the character deal with all of the different issues involved. The audience has to decide for themselves what the right action to take is.

HD: You will be doing a world premiere at Hot Docs, as well as a Docs For Schools screening. How do you want kids and young people to engage with the film that goes beyond just the film?

JS: That’s a great question. We are millennials who grew up on Bill, and we think that the core audience is 18-35. We kind of made the film for adults, for voting age young people who grew up on the show, who are now able to take Bill’s message of climate change and evolution, just science literacy writ large, and do something with it. We didn’t think about how the film would go over with school-aged kids, because Bill is transitioning from a children’s educator to somebody who takes on adult themes, writes books for adults, makes a show for adults, and this film profiles his transition. It’ll be really interesting to see what the kids’ reactions are to Bill Nye. It would be great if the schools incorporated this into their curriculum, and people were doing community screenings if this. We’re more than happy to let them have their own screenings, bring out people, discuss this stuff, because this isn’t going away. Our climate is just going to get worse: Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, is a creationist and advocate for privatization of public schools. So we are game to help.

I hope people walk away with a newfound appreciation for science literacy. This liberal bubble that many of us live in is real. There are communities that teach kids that the earth is 6,000 years old, and that there’s no climate change. There will be serious consequences if 50 per cent of your electorate in your country believes that. Hopefully viewers will walk away from the film at least thinking about that.

HD: It looks diabolic in the film, to indoctrinate children with false information.

JS: David and I both grew up in very religious households, and I think David would agree with me that it’s abuse.

HD: Do you think that perspective influenced why you thought it was so important to show how dangerous parts of the US education system can be?

DA: For me, it was definitely part of my thinking. I was raised in Dallas, Texas, by people like creationist Ken Ham, believing in a young earth under 6,000 years old. This was definitely like reliving my childhood. Everything I was hearing around me was stuff I remember being taught to me in Sunday School, which at the time seemed very normal.

HD: What was pitching at the 2016 Hot Docs Forum like for you? At the time, you were in production for the film. What were your preparations like? There was a lot of interest, and how did you follow up on what was said around the table?

JS: Our approach was actually to be very formal. We knew we only had three minutes to speak, which is a short amount of time, and we had three people talking, so we knew we were going to have to be super disciplined and controlled with our messaging. As far as responding to the broadcasters, we were kind of in listening mode; we weren’t defensive.  

DA: One buyer said that she didn’t think it had potential, and we would have wanted to address that. In the public forum, we didn’t really get that opportunity, but we also don’t want to take time away from the buyers, we wanted to hear as many as possible, so it makes sense, given the format.

It’s been an interesting project because we were in an extremely lucky position to have been fully funded from the outset with our Kickstarter campaign (the highest funded documentary film in history). You can’t finish a movie without money, but we didn’t have that holding us back like 99% of projects have. So were interested in talking to the different buyers, and seeing who was interested and taking our time. I think that the financing on this film is pretty unique, or different from most, so it’s given us a different path than most.

HD: Do you have a particular takeaway you want to share about making Bill Nye: Science Guy?

DA: I think a huge interest for science as philosophy. I think people fear science because of a bad chemistry or physics class they took in high school. But there is incredible interest in science as a methodology and as a philosophy. I think people who are in the liberal arts don’t have much exposure to it. It was really heartening in the film to see how respected and how interested people were in pure science and science as philosophy. We have a quote in the beginning of the movie from Carl Sagan and you can trace the direct lineage of what Bill is trying to do: “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge It’s just the best we have.”




Interview by Madelaine Russo. 

Categories: Director's Notebook


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