May 10, 2021

The Legacy of Stewart Brand in We Are As Gods

Anna Keizer
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Human beings and technology have a curious relationship---often characterized by excitement of what could be, or fear of what could go wrong. 

Because while new tools have the power to make humankind smarter and more adaptable, even the most technologically minded individuals fear the worst from time to time. 

And they might have reason to.

What if I told you there was a group of activists and scientists who want to bring back extinct species? More specifically, scientists who believe in bringing back the woolly mammoth? 

One of these activists, also known as the founder of the modern environmentalist movement, is a man by the name of Stewart Brand, and he is the centerpiece of the feature documentary, We Are As Gods. Co-directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg of Structure Films, the documentary explores the topic of de-extinction through Brand’s unique life story. 

The film premiered at SXSW in March 2021 and follows the incredible—that word not intended lightly—life of Stewart Brand. Brand first entered the public eye in the 1960s as part of the era’s counterculture movement, and throughout the next few decades, found himself in some of the most important rooms in history. 

You can watch the film’s trailer below.

Stewart Brand’s story is that of a devout futurist. But this film sees him looking to the past to fix the inevitable problems of the future. Brand’s mark on the world is uniquely his and We Are As Gods makes you wonder why he isn’t a household name. 

Alvarado spoke to Wrapbook about the inspiration behind the film and the challenges to getting it made.

Where it all started: inspiration & developing the idea

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it” reads the first line from writer and photographer Stewart Brand’s most famed creation, the Whole Earth Catalog. He began publishing the catalog in the late 1960s, and in many ways, it served as a precursor to the Internet with its collections of articles, essays, and product reviews. 

Subtitled: Access to Tools, it was a kind of manual for life. Steve Jobs described it as “one of the bibles of [his] generation.” You can see the catalog below.

But it was Alvarado’s producing partner, Jason Sussberg that had the good fortune of picking up an old copy of the Whole Earth Catalog while still in college. Sussberg eventually shared his curiosity about Brand with Alvarado, who was not yet acquainted with him.

Both producers share a passion for all things science and technology, which is the driving force behind their projects. So after discovering the catalog, it only made sense that Brand would be on their radar.

“We’re interested in who’s thinking about the future.” 

And there's no question that Brand fits that description. He’s lingered in the background of some of the most monumental moments in history, spending much of his life figuring out how to help humanity with the latest technology of his time. 

Legacy of Stewart Brand - Whole Earth Catalog Image - Wrapbook
Brand first became known as part of the 1960s counterculture during which he started the Whole Earth Catalog.

He's partially responsible for convincing NASA to share the first-ever photograph of Planet Earth and created the first Hackers’ Conference in the 1980s, working alongside Steve Wozniak, long before Apple was even close to being Apple. 

But while he did a ton of incredible things in the ‘60s, probably all worthy of notoriety, the producers soon realized Brand’s next endeavor was on a different level. 

They discovered that Brand’s latest interest in climate change had him joining forces with those in the scientific community who advocate for de-extinction, believing bringing back certain species can slow the deterioration of the Earth. More specifically, this group is hoping to see the return of the woolly mammoth to Pleistocene Park, a nature reserve in Siberia. 

Much of Brand’s belief in de-extinction stems from his stance that at some point, humans need to take responsibility for what they’ve done and use biotechnology to try to reverse the damage caused. 

This was the impetus for making We Are As Gods.

Listen and watch Brand’s TedTalk on de-extinction below.

We Are As Gods does not take a side in Brand’s quest to bring back the woolly mammoth. The filmmakers spend a good portion of the film highlighting respected scientific figures who take great issue with de-extinction.

“We present the ideas as we see most fairly, and then we really do try to leave it to the audience to judge for themselves.”

Because Alvarado and Sussberg did not cater to Brand and instead push backed, is in large part why Brand is so taken with the film. 

But Brand’s enthusiasm to collaborate wasn’t always there. 

It took four years for Brand to agree.

Getting Brand to say yes

Brand was not initially receptive to getting a film made about him. In fact, he’s notoriously known for turning down press opps. 

Once very comfortable in the public eye, he now lives on a tugboat off the California coast with his wife, where they mostly keep to themselves. 

But Alvarado and Sussberg were undeterred. They continued to broach the documentary with Brand over several years, even as they worked on their other projects. 

The team’s first feature documentary, The Immortalists, came out in 2014. And their next project, in 2017, was Bill Nye: Science Guy. But before either film was ever completed, Brand was still on their mind. 

Brand agrees

It wasn’t until Alvarado and Sussberg wrapped Bill Nye: Science Guy that Brand began to warm up to their potential collaboration. 

Both producers invited Brand to Skywalker Ranch to observe their post-production process. Alvarado says that was the moment when Stewart recognized the quality of their work, as well as the unbiased nature of it. 

How the film came together 

Once Brand gave the O.K., the producing pair needed to start fundraising.

“We knew that a lot of people in the tech world were interested in Stewart because of his influence and his effect on that world.” 

Sussberg also happens to live in San Francisco, which helped to facilitate some of those connections. 

Eventually, they partnered with Stripe, an online credit card platform. The company was interested in adding to its culture and had created Stripe Press, a publishing house that finds great books and republishes them for audiences. It was a perfect fit between the filmmakers and the Stripe brand. 

But this didn’t just happen by chance. Alvarado believes “each film wants to be funded in a different way,” and sometimes it requires becoming more business-minded to see what that way is. 

He learned very quickly that if you don’t know how to take care of the business side of things — things like how to get funding, how to manage that funding, how to do payroll, taxes, who to partner with —  you’ll have a hard time sustaining a successful artistic career.

The duo’s first documentary, The Immortalists, was funded with a few grants and their own money, leaving them with barely enough cash to pay rent. And in order to continue making documentaries, that was no longer sustainable. 

So for their next project, they knew they needed to think more strategically. Scientist Bill Nye already had a ton of fans—so they tapped into that. They created one of the biggest kickstarter campaigns for a documentary to date where fans actually funded the film.

So when it came time to look for funding for a film about a guy who is tech obsessed, a man who inspired Steve Jobs, Silicon Valley was a smart place to start. 

Legacy of Stewart Brand - We Are As Gods Filmmakers - David Alvarado - Wrapbook
Filmmakers of We Are As Gods, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg.

Alvarado tells us that a big part of his growth as an artist comes from his growth as a business person.  From nearly breaking the bank in 2014 to working on Skywalker Ranch just a few years later, it seems business prowess and successful artistry are inextricably linked. 

Getting to Siberia

Alvarado notes that while Brand was already immersed in the de-extinction world and communicating with the individuals behind Pleistocene Park, it was because of the film that he was able to make the trip to Siberia.

Legacy of Stewart Brand - Getting to Siberia - Wrapbook
Brand during his travels to Pleistocene Park in Siberia.

And while this, undoubtedly, made for a much more compelling documentary, it required more coordination. Traveling with a large crew would likely overcomplicate things. 

So they didn’t.  

The crew? Alvarado shot the film, and Sussberg did sound. They both directed and produced the film. While they did bring on a third person when they traveled to Siberia, that was their entire film crew. 

“It’s mostly just us and then a few people whom we trust and like to work with,” Alvarado notes.

Once they moved into post-production, the pair then brought on two editors along with a handful of assistant editors and interns. They also were fortunate to have acclaimed musician and composer Brian Eno score the film.

Because the producers have such a tight-knit team and hire based on recommendations, they did the same thing with onboarding and paying their hires. They heard of us through a friend of a friend, and Wrapbook was grateful we had an opportunity to see our software working in real-time for these creatives. 

The filmmakers could have easily made several different movies about each facet of Brand’s life. Maybe one entitled,  “The Da Vinci of Cyberculture,” digging into his inspiration and creation of The WELL- one of the first virtual communities to ever exist, or another film exploring his years as a Merry Prankster with Ken Kesey, organizing acid tests. 

But the two stuck to their passion. 

When discussing what makes a compelling documentary film, Alvarado says, “thorny science with a complicated person in the middle. And for there always to be a tension of ideas. I’m so fascinated with ideas, but I’m not really interested in making films about ideas. The way that those ideas express themselves through people and the people who disagree with them…to me, that makes a good movie. Those are the movies that Jason and I make.”  

And aside from making the film more engaging, the trip to Siberia is now officially one of Brand’s favorite life experiences! 

Alvarado confirms that Brand has also seen the film in its entirety and gave it a two thumbs up.

What lies ahead

Another project in the works? Probably.

“When I wake up in the morning and I brew a cup of coffee, if I don’t have a science project, I get antsy and try to start one.” 

To that end, Alvarado and Sussberg typically have between five and ten projects in development at any given time, which means that audiences have plenty of future projects to keep on their radar. 

And as for We Are As Gods

The documentary is still running the festival circuit, so be on the lookout for it this spring and summer. The producing duo is currently setting up a podcast version of the documentary that touches upon the same topics. 

Given the timely subject matter of the documentary, as well as the captivating figure at the center of it, it’s not hard to believe We Are As Gods will find its way into every home across the globe soon. 

Many thanks to David Alvarado and the rest of the We Are As Gods team! Learn more about the film here.

Check out our next post, if you're interested in learning more about how to make your own documentary.

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Last Updated 
May 10, 2021


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About the author
Anna Keizer

Anna Keizer originally hails from the Chicagoland area. After receiving her B.A. in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago, she moved to California and finished her M.A. in Film Studies from Chapman University. She has also graduated from UCLA’s Writing for Television Professional Program and is currently in post-production on the short She Had It Coming, which she wrote and is executive producing.

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