On “The Immortalists”…

January 23rd, 2014

The title of our film did not come easy. The film was born with an imperfect name (The Methuselah Generation: The Science of Living Forever), in an imperfect format (3D!). After finding our subjects and story, we canned the 3D for the more practical and cheaper Canon 7D (and later the 5D), and changed the title to Long for this World. We never fully committed to the title because of the book, by the same name, penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Jonathan Weiner.

After temporarily calling the film Live Forever or Die Trying (a riff on Bill Andrews’s motto at Sierra Sciences, which sounds a little too much like a Die Hard or James Bond flick), we settled into the title The Immortalists. This is the lesser of many evils. The title has its flaws (for one, it isn’t a real word) and it shares the name of at least two books and a short film.

Aubrey de Grey isn’t a fan of the title. This is an excerpt from an interview where he explains that calling the film The Immortalists trivializes the seriousness of the science and the urgency of curing aging. He fears that it will make the quest to cure aging more about entertainment, jeopardizing his ability to raise money and be taken seriously. Aubrey says as much in an article on Slate (which is publishing an on-going series on longevity),

“I do not like to use the word immortality. It gives a very bad, a wrong impression about my work. I work on health. I am interested in ensuring that people will stay completely youthful, like young adults, for as long as they live.”

There is a fundamental difference between aging and mortality and we don’t want our film to confuse and conflate. Obviously cellular immortality won’t stop a visit from the reaper if you wander in front of a bus. We thought long and hard about this, but stuck with the title because it captures the essence of the story we wanted to tell. We want to make the subjects seem like mythological larger-than-life figures on a timeless quest to slay a mortal enemy: aging. Which is why we titled the subjects as “The Crusader,” “The Marathon Man,” and “The Alchemist.” We want to treat the science with elements that recall the human interest across culture in stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh . This is what science fiction always strives to do– and we wanted to apply that idea to the craft of documentary. One of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” lurked in our minds when animating the science portion of the film.

We set out to make a timeless film that is not just about the science of curing aging, but about the personal lives of the scientists. In doing so, we hope Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey become immortalized.