Filmmaker—and Grass Valley native—Jason Sussberg is back home this September to screen his most recent documentary, “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” at the Nevada City Film Festival. Find out what motivates the men on both sides of the camera.
By Matthew Bieker
Photography Submitted by Nevada City Film Festival
How did you get started with filmmaking in Grass Valley?
I had a video camera and my friends and I, when we were in middle school, we would make little shorts or comedy skits—basically re-enacting what we would see on “Mad TV” or “Saturday Night Live.” We ended up just falling in love with filmmaking and falling in love with our camera.
From there you went to study film at UC Santa Cruz; how did that develop into your documentary work?
I majored in film mostly because I needed to pick a major in order to go to Spain and do a year abroad. It just made sense to choose film even though it didn’t seem like a real, serious major—it seemed like something you did for fun. It wasn’t something you do academically.
(But) I went to school during the first Bush administration, 2000-2004, and I was radicalized by what I saw to be a runaway terrible regime that started wars based on lies and stole one, maybe two, elections and I wanted to make movies that mattered, make movies that dealt with reality as documentary evidence. I kind of got pushed into nonfiction based on our administration.
Who were some of your earlier influences when you first entered that vein?
I was a huge fan of the Drew Associates, who I think were employed by Time magazine. They did, like, cinema verite stuff. Also Errol Morris was a huge influence on me. I saw “Fog of War” in college and “Mr. Death” and I was completely mesmerized by them. Also, it’s an obvious thing, but I actually ended up reading Michael Moore’s book, “Downsize This!”—and I was a huge fan of his writing—not his filmmaking. But then I ended up watching some of his earlier work like “Roger & Me,” and all the other Michael Moore classics, and that made an impact on me.
It definitely seems like those influences might have galvanized your political sensibilities in your own filmmaking. How did the idea for “Bill Nye: Science Guy” come about?
David (Alvarado) and I went to graduate school together—we went to Stanford together—and we graduated in 2010 and we made this movie called “The Immortalists” about two scientists who were trying to live together—and that ended up premiering at SXSW and had a great life in festivals and had a theatrical run.
After we finished it, we were thinking about the next project, and it came up during that time there was the Bill Nye debate (supporting evolution theory) against (creationist proponent) Ken Ham. On a lark, we were like, “We should make a movie about Bill Nye.” Just sort of not taking that too seriously, but then we found his agent’s email address and got a meeting with him to pitch our vision as to what that documentary would look like, and he accepted the pitch.
The movie ended up being the highest funded Kickstarter campaign for a documentary ever at that point; was the campaign essential for the movie to be made? Would it not have happened without Kickstarter? Or was it something that just reflected how much interest there would be in the film after it came out?
We definitely could have done it the more traditional way—in fact, we were pursued by traditional broadcasters and streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. We could have done that. However, we knew that this was an opportunity for us to fund it ourselves and we could own the movie both financially and creatively if we did it through Kickstarter.
We just felt that our audience was online, and we wanted to make a movie that we wanted to see and we were kind of hoping that other people were as interested in Bill Nye and his story as we were. It turned out that there was this real hunger for this person who helped capture the imagination of a generation of middle schoolers and high schoolers. So we made the film at the right time, with the right audience.
It makes sense that the audience who really wanted to see the film would also be the audience willing to pledge five dollars here and there to see it happen.
We had 17,500 backers—some of them for a dollar, some of them for a lot more—but it just showed that there was the real hunger and they were willing to take a risk and believe in the project.
As far as the subject of climate change in the film, was this a subject that Bill was involved in already? Or did you and David feel any personal stake in exploring this matter?
Well, the film actually takes on four different scientific topics—climate change is just one of them. We also did space exploration—Bill launches this solar sail that was Carl Sagan’s dream—and…we take on evolution and the creationists that want to teach creationism instead of evolution in schools. The film is really about science literacy at large and you can’t really understand climate change unless you have a basic scientific literacy. So it’s one of myriad topics.
So the point is encouraging scientific literacy as opposed to pushing a specific agenda?
Exactly. Bill’s life is much more complicated than merely one topic, one issue. It happens to be the enduring issue we face. In the 1940s, we faced fascism and totalitarianism—our major problem that we’re facing in our lifetime is climate change and Bill is injecting himself into that fight. At the same time, the story is really about his legacy and his overall life’s journey of trying to educate people on the fundamentals of science, and trying to get people excited about science. So it diminishes his life if you just look at it through the lens of climate change.
The film debuted at SXSW this year, and it will be screened at the Nevada City Film Festival early this fall. Can you tell me a little about your experience with the NCFF and the culture of an increasingly popular small-town festival?
The NCFF is my hometown film festival, and they are incredibly supportive of local filmmakers. Not just myself but Miranda July, Patrick Bryce and Mike Mills and all these other amazing filmmakers that are coming out of the area. They really support local innovation and filmmakers. The festival was started on accident, or with sort of smaller intentions, and it has grown up into a serious film festival. They put filmmakers first, and it’s really exciting to go there as one.
You and Bill Nye will both be in attendance at this year’s NCFF—what else can people expect from the festival and the surrounding town if they decide to go this year?
It’s in Nevada City, but Grass Valley is a very similar town. They’re right next to each other and one’s like 8,000 people and I think Nevada City is like 3,000. The town is naturally gorgeous, it’s in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the South Yuba River flows through it—it’s an absolutely gorgeous place. It’s a place where you can not only escape and experience nature, but it’s also a place where you can watch great movies and hang out with filmmakers who are excited to share their work.
Going forward, what will your future projects look like? Do you intend to keep science and STEM in the spotlight or are you looking to branch out?
The films that David and I make are focused on science and technology. There’s just a lot of interesting things going on in this space and it’s what we’re passionate about and it’s what makes our films unique and different—our dedication to an empirical, scientific worldview, which seems to be very important right now. Especially when we have a runaway, scientifically illiterate president who’s hell-bent on the destruction of humanity. We’ve got to do what we can—Resist.
We’ll be watching for the next installment. Thanks, Jason.