SXSW ’17: The man behind the bowtie

Bill Nye is a television icon for the millennial generation who grew up watching him on PBS children’s science show Bill Nye the Science Guy in the early 90s. The impact of ...
March 14, 2017

Bill Nye is a television icon for the millennial generation who grew up watching him on PBS children’s science show Bill Nye the Science Guy in the early 90s.

The impact of Nye’s fun approach to serious stuff was enough to hook both David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg on science.

“I can’t say I use science on a daily basis, but it’s a worldview that I use to frame reality. Science teaches us to be humble and interrogate the world for truth,” said Sussberg.

The two friends decided to approach Nye on a project after they wrapped up their 2014 The Immortalistsabout two biologists looking for immortality. The filmmakers were curious where life had taken Nye, after seeing his name mentioned in the news.

“We asked, ‘what is he up too? ‘Who is the man behind the bow tie?’ That set us on this journey,” said Alvarado in a joint phone interview with Sussberg for realscreen.

The story of Bill Nye: The Science Guy follows the scientist as he continues the work of his predecessor and mentor, Carl Sagan on a new form of space travel technology. The doc also focuses on Nye’s work to push against claims from climate change-deniers and creationists who refuse scientific truths like evolution and the age of the Earth.

Production on the feature picked up in summer 2015. Alvarado and Sussberg raised $860,000 from 16,500 supporters on Kickstarter, making it at that time, the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever.

The decision to use crowd-sourcing was due to the reality that raising funds as indie filmmakers can be timely and inconsistent. By using Kickstarter, Sussberg and Alvarado were able to have a full production budget upfront. The filmmakers were thrilled to reach their funding goal from an audience they knew they could tap online.

“Bill has a large online audience, people like ourselves. Jason and I grew up watching him on TV, and we’re the same people who are already logged onto Kickstarter,” said Alvarado.

While raising money for production was as easy as logging onto the internet, Sussberg said their production shots proved to be more challenging. Alvarado and Sussberg had to trek to Greenland, where it was -25 Fahrenheit (-31 Celsius), for a shoot. The crew spent a week in the frosty climate which led to their audio cables breaking and gear components becoming loose and brittle.

Back in the U.S., Alvarado said a shoot involving Nye and Ken Ham, a Christian-fundamentalist and creationist, hit home for Alvarado. He grew up in Dallas, Texas to a family of all young Earth style creationists, like Ham, who believe in the literal version of Noah’s Ark.

“This is making a future voting population. This is the electorate of tomorrow, being told that scientists can’t be trusted. If we are wondering how we got to the place we are now, it’s because we have people training children to not trust scientists,” he said.

Working as a two-person team also proved to be a challenge for Alvarado and Sussberg, who often had to make directorial decisions in the field.

“It’s a juggling act we are trying to perfect. It has its faults for sure, but we also love how close you can get to the subject, and how such a small your footprint can be left. People don’t even notice us and yet we are doing this big production with two people,” said Alvarado.

On the technical aspects of their production, Sussberg and Alvarado decided to shoot Bill Nye in 4K resolution. Most festivals show films in 2K, and the filmmakers have decided to show their doc in HD.

“It comes down to future proofing the project. Sure, we don’t stream things online now at 4K, but things move so fast. Perhaps at the tail end of 2017 or the middle of 2018, it will be commonplace,” said Alvarado.

He said he hopes that having the film shot in 4K will increase its value and viewer experience.

The filmmakers know millennials and young children will be the primary audience for their doc because they grew up with Nye’s show, but they hope it can also reach the portion of the American electorate who is suspicious of the science community.

“We really want to reach out to the half the country who put Trump in power, because they have a vested interest in making a scientifically literate society, along with the rest of us. We are a stronger society when we believe in reason and evidence and scientific principles. It’s the reason country is strong to begin with, because of our innovation has made our world a better place,” said Sussberg.

  • Bill Nye: Science Guy premiered on March 12, and again on March 14 and 15. Visit the SXSW website for further information on the screening. 
About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.