Directors David Alvarado (pictured, right) and Jason Sussberg (left) discuss their SXSW world premiere The Immortalists, which looks at two scientists chasing eternal youth and raises questions about life, death and the possibility of living forever.
When director David Alvarado (pictured, right) turns 30, a week after his first feature documentary The Immortalists premieres at SXSW, he will officially begin a self-described march towards the grave.
According to the film, this is when the aging process truly starts, and it’s a grim road to the bitter end. But if gerontologists Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews – the protagonists of Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s documentary – have their way, the filmmaker could stay 30 years old forever.
The Immortalists, which premiered Saturday (March 8) as part of SXSW Film’s documentary feature competition, follows the pursuits of two men trying to create eternal youth using complex scientific innovations. Though they employ different methods and theories, both share the goal of achieving immortality.
“Hundreds of years from now, we’re going to look back and be shocked by this horrible world we used to live in, where people used to get old and die,” says Andrews in the film.
Sussberg and Alvarado met while working on an experimental music project on Chopin in the basement of Stanford University’s computer music center. Sussberg was working on a documentary about Silicon Valley’s libertarian futurists who’d been raising questions about immortality, and began discussing the topic with Alvarado. When they started The Immortalists in 2010, they wanted to make a film about scientists, not just science.
De Grey’s eccentricity and prominence in the field made him a prime candidate, and when Andrews contacted the filmmakers after hearing about their Kickstarter campaign, it was clear they had found their match.
Andrews is a 61-year-old ultra-marathon-running scientist based in Reno, Nevada. His research focuses on telomeres – the caps at the end of chromosomes that fall apart as we age – and telomerase, an enzyme that reverses the effects of cellular aging. In the next three years, he’s hoping to develop a drug that releases more telomerase in our bodies – hopefully in time to save his 84-year-old father’s life.
Meanwhile, in Cambridge, England, the heavily-bearded, occasional nudist De Gray believes people should live rich, carefree lives, doing whatever they wish to their bodies, and then use anti-aging therapies for damage control. The 50-year-old says he’s not interested in slowing the aging process, but rather reversing it completely.
Over the course of The Immortalists, the men must doggedly defend their beliefs, whether to secure important project funding, or to reconcile their research with loved ones who struggle to understand their lifestyles.
For Sussberg and Alvarado, the challenge was making De Grey and Andrews’ highly complex ideas accessible to a layperson.
“In order to know these guys, you have to know just a little bit about their science, and you have to track those ideas and try to understand them if you’re going to decide to believe them or not,” says Alvarado.
To do this, the pair relied on a “black box” set in which the scientists’ interviews could be superimposed with whimsical animation illustrating their commentary.
But even with explanations, immortality is not easily entertained by those who argue that a finite life cycle is natural and necessary to human evolution. The directors traded off in their opinions – each doubting immortality at different points – but they’ve come on board with De Grey and Andrews.
“They say that life is better finite, and that death is something that takes people we love away from us and that’s somehow beautiful,” says Alvarado. “Now, I just totally disagree with that. You still have the preciousness of life because even if grandma doesn’t die of old age or cancer or diabetes or heart disease – all those age-related illnesses – she could still get hit by a bus, so life is still finite.”
Sussberg adds: “I started out a sceptic and I thought it was not possible and full of hubris and potentially damaging. But I’ve come around to thinking it is possible these scientists are up to something. I think it’s sort of a foregone conclusion now that eventually it will happen, the question is how soon.”
Not soon enough, it turned out, for one of the film’s characters – a colleague and high school friend of Andrews’ – who passed away just weeks before the SXSW premiere. As the filmmakers scrambled to rework the doc, the death added urgency to the scientists’ cause, and Sussberg and Alvarado’s own journey to SXSW after years of work.
“After three years of working for free, of throwing tens of thousands of dollars each into this movie and not getting any grant support along the way, here we are about to launch the film,” says Alvarado. “It’s a pretty exciting moment for us.”
And they’re not missing a beat. The pair is already working on a feature on “de-extinction,” the phenomenon in which extinct species are brought back to life, as in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
A fitting topic for filmmakers who have contemplated life and death far longer than most people.
- The Immortalists screens in Texas Saturday (March 15) at 11 a.m. at the Topfer Theatre at ZACH
- Check out the trailer for the film below: