A conversation with the producer and director of the film “Transcendent Man”.
Question: How did you react to “The Singularity is Near”?
Barry Ptolemy: Well, I was absolutely floored as a lot of people are but also I was reunited with ideas that I actually had as a teenager and these are ideas that I had put away as I approached college years because they were ridiculous on the face of it and when you talk to someone about living forever, they just dismiss you out of hand. When I came into contact with “The Singularity is Near” I felt like I was reunited with my long lost brethren or something. It was very emotional because I saw in a moment that these ridiculous ideas I had as a youth were actually possible and not only that but Ray was actually clearly articulating how they would become possible.
Question: How did you come across Kurzweil’s book?
Barry Ptolemy: I went to USC Film School for awhile and I had always been interested in the Sciences, particularly the physical science of physics. So after film school, I went back and I attended UCI for awhile and sat in a lot of classes with people like Professor Gregory Benford who actually wrote the book review that actually hooked me up with “The Singularity is Near” as it were. But studied Physics and Astrophysics and Astronomy and the Life Sciences and I had always wanted to merge cinema and physics and so again, when I came across “The Singularity is Near”, I saw this as an opportunity to do that.
Question: Do Ray Kurzweil’s ideas scare you?
Barry Ptolemy: Well, I think man has used technology for primarily good for most of human history. In fact, for the lion’s share of human history, and the majority of people do use technology for good and you see that everywhere you go. Now, events like 9-11 or such do get all of a sudden a lot of press for obvious reasons but everyday people are using technology for good. I mean, look at this conversation we’re having right now using technology and so obviously we should be concerned about the peril and the consequence of these technologies because if they’re misunderstood they could fall into the wrong hands and that’s one of the things that Ray talks about and we do discuss in “Transcendent Man.”
Question: Do you take Ray Kurzweil’s vitamin supplement?
Barry Ptolemy: You know, I’ve talked to Ray [Kurzweil] about that. I don’t. Ray had a father that died at 58, and he’s 60. He had a grandfather that died at 41. My grandparents have lived to a ripe old age and my parents are aging quite well. So I don’t have some of the same needs that Ray has. I’m now 40 years old and I seem to be in pretty good health so I’m hoping I’ll be able to cruise into the singularity unaided and we’ll see if that is the case. I would certainly use whatever technology is available if I need to, that’s for sure.
Question: Will you and Ray Kurzweil do another project?
Barry Ptolemy: Well, we have a few films out. We’re in development of narrative films and we’ll be releasing to the public at large soon. Ray and I will be in collaboration on another film, a science fiction film and Ray will be there to help guide us through some of these future technologies, making sure we get them right in the film.
Question: Have you always wanted to live forever?
Barry Ptolemy: It wasn’t that I’ve always had the desire although I guess you could not say that I did not. But really I think that having been around computers all my life—my father had brought home personal computers at a very early age in the ‘70s—so being around computers from a very early age perhaps I had even subconsciously seen the exponential progression of what was happening with computers. But then later on with the Commodore 64, VIC-20 Commodore 64, and then the Apple and then the PC and on upward. And so you internalize what’s happening and you can see pretty clearly that technology is increasing and I thought that I could get to a point where technology would be so great it would extend my life longer and then I would get to another bridge where I would be able to extend it longer and so on and that’s what I revealed when I was about 14.
Question: What do you like about Stanley Kubrick?
Barry Ptolemy: Well, I think one of the thing that makes a Kubrick film a great experience is the fact that he bends reality to his will and is so confident that he ends up creating something that is the island in the stream of pop culture and he takes a stand that’s so firm and so confident and unyielding that it can’t be ignored and I appreciate that. I don’t know why. I can’t exactly explain it except that I’m mesmerized by it like a lot of people are and I just adore his work and enjoy watching his movies over and over again and I usually always take something else from them.
Question: Were you influenced by Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”?
Barry Ptolemy: Well “2001”, I have a great experience for “2001” because I was in 7th grade at Lorner Bern Middle School and I remember my art teacher, Karen Jones, had created the screening of “2001” and everyday she was going to play every 20 minutes of it in the library and she had set up all these chairs and she had set up the VCR which was going to play it and we had to give 10 cents everyday. And I went in there and I was the only person in the school that went to go see it and that’s how I saw “2001” and even seeing it disrupted day after day like that for the week, it was still the single most profound experience up to that point in my life and I just was really moved by it.
I think “2001” was so powerful because it was a departure from science fiction that came before that. If you look at science fiction previously, just even to the previous decade, you would have seen spaceships that looked smooth and archaic and for the first time someone was really taking space travel and making it realistic and he was also doing something else, he was taking a look at what the future of artificial intelligence was for the first time in the personification of Hal and that really rocked my world. I thought that that was pretty cool but also just the human journey overall starting with these early Homo sapiens and fashioning the first tool which was again what Ray’s ideas come back to is that we’ve always leveraged our self with technology from the very beginning and these early Simians took a tool, extended their reach and we do the biggest jump cut in cinematic history from this bone being thrown into the air to a spacecraft. It jump cuts to a spacecraft if you recall in the film and I think that kind of metaphor speaks for itself and I think that it’s a wonderful metaphor for all of human history.
Question: What future technologies do you look forward to?
Barry Ptolemy: I think that people talk about radical life extensions as if it is just one linear kind of journey, when actually what’s going to happen is we’re going to radically expand our lives billions and billions of times in every way, in every dimension and so I’m looking forward to things I can’t even imagine yet. This conversation becomes so moot because how can we entertain these technologies that haven’t even come about yet but we’re confident will come about. I’d love to live nonbiologically and move about at the speed of light and be in communication with a million people at once and create works of art that are grand and sophisticated and very human at the same time so all these types of things.
Question: Which documentary filmmakers do you look up to?
Barry Ptolemy: Well, obviously Errol Morris is someone that we look to and has shaped really probably more than anyone else the style of our film, “Transcendent Man.” And there’s so many, even Ken Burns. The way he goes about detail, his research is very impressive. But also, I really look to narrative filmmakers to help guide us because our film is a documentary at core but is also very much a narrative film in the sense that it does tell a story. So once again, we did look to storytellers to help guide us.
Question: What are you favorite documentaries?
Barry Ptolemy: Sure. Again, Errol Morris, all of his titles, “Fog of War” is particularly brilliant I think. There is a film called—that also actually had the hero’s journey involved in it—it was called “Dot Com” that came out, I think in about 2001, just after the “Boom and Bust,” the “Dot Com”, “Boom and Bust” and that was quite extraordinary. “Hearts of Darkness” was a film about the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola that honors what Coppola had made and I thought that that was extraordinary. Of course, I’m forgetting so many wonderful documentaries that I just watched recently, they escape me now but they’re just such a contribution to our society. Some of them just tell things or talk about things that we don’t often, sometimes want to hear but they should be heard.
Question: How accurate are films that predict future technologies?
Barry Ptolemy: Steven Spielberg made a movie called “A.I.” and another called “Minority Report” where they do try to extrapolate what the future would be like. The problem is that those futures never really bear out, and obviously for obvious reasons, it’s hard to do so there’s a part at the end of “Minority Report” for example where he picks up, he takes a phone call with a little device and he puts it in his ear and in 2001, that was futuristic but we already have in 2009 those devices. We have bluetooth controllable headsets and so it wasn’t seen, and that film was supposed to take place in 2050 but we already have that now in 2009. So again, like what Ray points out, we mistakenly underestimate what will happen over a decade or two.
Question: What discoveries did you make while filming?
Barry Ptolemy: Probably the most astonishing revelation was the one regarding his father, the relationship that Ray had with his father and that’s something that we’re kind of able to tease out of Ray and we’re able to reveal it and we really, it became a story about a father and son story I should say and that’s what the film really is as a core, as a father and son story. Now, the film also happens to be about all these ideas, but they take place in the diagesis of this father and son story. And that’s probably what was most interesting and I think it’s what adds the human element to a story as well.
Question: How did you develop the storyline of “Transcendent Man”?
Barry Ptolemy: That’s a great question and I don’t know exactly how to answer other than to say I knew I wanted to have these ideas articulated clearly but in a very entertaining way. We wanted to make a film not just for the intelligistas but for mass audiences. So how do you do that? How do you take these ideas and do that? Well, one of the things to do is to create a story that reveals a hero on a journey trying to achieve his or her goal and so we set the film up in that type of framework and so Ray does have a goal in the film. One of the goals is to bring his father, his late father, back as we reveal.
What is the organizing principle for making a film like this? Again, it’s to get these ideas out but what we knew we had to do is to shoot a lot of footage, overshoot as a matter of fact which is what we did. We shot about 200 hours for about an hour and a half final film. So you end really having enough footage to where you can craft and take the film wherever you want to in the editing process and that’s really what we did. And so as it got later in the game and we started to narrow what we’re trying to do then of course we could go out and continue, and shoot more for specific things. And that’s kind of what we did. For example, we needed, at the end of Act Two, we needed a crisis to take place and so knowing that we were able to acquire footage of that kind would help us get or take our hero on that journey right there.
Question: Was it difficult getting big names for the film?
Barry Ptolemy: Not at all. In fact, we left many of the biggest names on the cutting room floor as it were just for time’s sake. So these individuals, people like Colin Powell for example, they really were very generous with their time and they were happy to help us out. I think happy to help be responsible for helping get Ray’s ideas out and so we’re very thankful to them.
Question: What was the funniest thing that happened behind the scenes?
Barry Ptolemy: Oh dear, there were certainly several. Ray is actually a funny guy, believe it or not. He’s a very serious man but he’s also remarkably aware of things that are funny. And one time, he was giving a very serious speech at a venue called TransVision in 2007 at the Field Museum in Chicago and a question and answer session had been provided for and people were lining up to ask questions. This young chap stands up and he said something to the effect of, “Ray Kurzweil”—and this is in front of a huge audience and William Shatner’s there and all kinds of celebrities are there—well, he says, “Ray Kurzweil, post human this,” and he just flips Ray Kurzweil the bird right in front of everybody and I’m filming of course and Ray, just so calmly and coolly, just says “I don’t think I will transcend my humanity but I will transcend my biology”. He just kept on going and that was pretty funny I have to say. And unfortunately, it didn’t make it into the film for various reasons but it was pretty funny.
Question: What were the biggest challenges of the filming?
Barry Ptolemy: Well, the obvious ones: we had to get financing, we needed to figure out the kind of story we were going tell, which we talked about, finding the kind of organizing principle, what would guide us through, and once we found the story I think things flowed a lot easier. There were some tough nights for myself, when I felt like I didn’t know what the story would be so I was very happy when I finally came to terms with that. I think gaining Ray’s trust—he’s now revealed that I always had his trust but I wanted to make sure that he knew that he could trust me so that he could take me into his confidence and reveal things that he wasn’t revealing to anybody else because I knew I needed that confidence if I was able to tease out some of these nuanced ideas and some of his personal beliefs.
Recorded on: April 27, 2009