Science, God, and Rock ’n Roll (Part 1) An Interview with "The Unbelievers" Director Gus Holwerda

The American Humanist Association will be screening The Unbelievers at our Annual Conference on Thursday, May 7! Read our March 28, 2014 interview with director Gus Holwerda below. Click here to read part two of this interview with Unbelievers co-star (and 2015 Humanist of the Year) Lawrence Krauss.

A physicist, a zoologist, an imam, and a priest walk into a debate about origins…

It’s no joke. Rather, it’s a glimpse into a documentary on the quest of two scientists to confront religion head-on. Zoologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss, each a bestselling author, have been traveling the world together to champion the virtues of science and reason and shatter the pretensions of religion.

The new film, titled The Unbelievers, follows the pair—backstage, onstage, and aboard limos and trains as they journey from Australia to London to Washington, DC, and points in between. If you think this sounds like a rockumentary, you’re not far off the mark.

The Unbelievers was made by brothers Gus and Luke Holwerda, who sprang from a rock-n-roll background to become filmmakers. (Their band Smokescreen describes itself as an “alternative / experimental / indie / sci-fi / rock band with a long list of influences.”) Their documentary premiered last year and had brief theater runs in New York and Los Angeles. Now, a release on DVD and other media looms. Here, our Science and Religion Correspondent Clay Farris Naff interviews writer and director Gus Holwerda.

Click here to read his interview with the film’s costar, Lawrence Krauss.

(The interviews took place by email and have been lightly edited for stylistic consistency.) Just reading the credits, it appears that several related people are involved in the production, and that Lawrence Krauss has a stake. How did this project come about?

Gus Holwerda: My brother Luke (director of photography) and I got our start making music videos and touring the world with different bands. We attended a science lecture by Lawrence Krauss in 2009, with Richard Dawkins also in attendance, and the event was mind-blowing to us. It was a 3,000 seat venue packed to the rafters with science enthusiasts. There was something very special about it—like a “Woodstock” for science and reason. It really had a rock-concert feel to it, and we decided that we wanted to try and capture that in a film. So we approached Lawrence about it, and he informed us that he and Richard had a book tour planned for later that year.

Before we knew it, we were traveling the world with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. Lawrence pulled a lot of strings to make the film happen and took us under his wing—The Unbelievers would not have been possible without him. You’re part of an under-forty generation that is leaving religion in droves. Do you think the documentary has an audience among those who have left, or those who might be teetering, or both?

Gus Holwerda: I think the film appeals to anyone who’s curious about the ideas that Richard and Lawrence are famous for discussing. But the film itself takes no point of view. It simply attempts to document this moment in the lives of these great men. While they’re well respected for their various contributions to science, it’s certainly true that they’re probably best known for their current endeavors to encourage others to cast off antiquated ways of thinking, specifically about religion. But I think the arguments they present are fascinating to believers and non-believers, alike.

At a test screening in Phoenix, we asked audience members their level of religiosity and how likely they would be to recommend the film to a friend. Amazingly, the people who were most religious were also most likely to recommend the movie. I think The Unbelievers appeals to anyone who’s ever thought about ultimate questions and isn’t afraid to ask them. What hopes do you have for its influence?

Gus Holwerda: The biggest compliment we receive after screenings is from viewers who tell us that they left the theater and spent the evening talking with friends and thinking about the ideas posed within the film. That has been the most rewarding thin—to have had some small part in inspiring others to start these conversations, often for the first time. What’s your strategy for getting into theaters and making the film known outside New York City and Los Angeles? I imagine you don’t have a huge publicity budget.

Gus Holwerda: Publicity budget, no. We’ve had amazing support from the social media base. We did have a limited run in LA and NYC, and the film has played at festivals around the world, to great response. But beyond that, there are no more plans for a wide-scale theatrical release. Sadly, (in the United Sates, at least) the demand for documentaries in movie theaters is dwindling at a breathtaking rate, let alone a film centered on atheistic ideas. It’s just not something that most mainstream theater chains are willing to get behind anymore.

We have, however, found world-wide distribution through Content Media Corporation and the film will soon be coming to DVD, iTunes, Netflix, and so on. We’re still waiting on a firm release date from them—but it should be coming very soon. A pretty big chunk of the film is set in Australia. Any special significance to that location? Will it screen there?

Gus Holwerda: The reason for the predominance of the Australian backdrop is simply circumstantial; the book tour that we followed them on happened to be mainly focused on Australia at the time. No real significance beyond that.

We have shown the film a number of times in Australia to sold-out audiences and the reaction has been nothing but positive. We played at the Sydney Opera House as part the 2014 Festival Of Dangerous Ideas and it was extremely well received. It was also somewhat surreal to return and show the film on the same stage where part of the movie was shot only a year before. The film opens and closes with cameos mainly of celebrities from the film & television industries, from Cameron Diaz to Werner Herzog, commenting favorably on the importance of understanding science. Why is that?

Gus Holwerda: To be honest, we hoped that the inclusion of some celebrities would encourage those who might not know much about Richard or Lawrence (or those who might otherwise be apprehensive about these topics) to think about the questions they raise. Lots of people know where Ricky Gervais stands on these things (and he is hilarious in the film), but to see someone like Cameron Diaz talk about how much she loves the awe and mystery of science—we hope that as a role model to a different crowd, she might open up a few eyes to these ideas. Although Krauss and Dawkins are clearly the stars of your film, in roughly the middle you include some brief cuts of talks by Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and others of the same ilk. What was your thinking in doing that?

Gus Holwerda: Harris, Dennett, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as well as all the folks at the Reason Rally (Penn Jillette, Adam Savage, Eddie Izzard, and so on) are out there doing the same thing as Lawrence and Richard—promoting a new way of thinking. We wanted to show that it’s not just two guys. There is a huge movement underway to encourage people to look at the evidence, question religion, and think for themselves. There is no sign of any family members on this wide-ranging tour. Is it lonely work for Dawkins and Krauss? Do they get along all the time, or do they occasionally need time away from each other and from the public?

Gus Holwerda: I think it can be very lonely work. In many ways, they are like rock stars or celebrities. They travel from place to place, make their speaking engagements, get a few hours of sleep and a quick bite, and then they’re off to the next town. They work extremely hard and put in incredible hours. But that is why I think the camaraderie between Lawrence and Richard that appears in the film is so fascinating. They are out there sharing this adventure together. And you can tell they have a genuine friendship. Even when they’re off-stage, they spend all of their free time talking about science and religion. It’s really fascinating to be a fly on that wall.

Of course, they do sometimes need a break from the bright lights and the fans. But mostly they are just the most generous and warm people you will ever meet. It was really quite a treat to spend time with them on this project. You’re headed to Las Vegas next, right? Surely, you can’t top that! Where does the tour go from there?

Gus Holwerda: After Vegas (April 3) we head to Columbus, Ohio (April 7). That’s our last stop. Well [laughing] until we add more.

Read part two of this interview here.

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