John Sullivan, partner in Premise Media and a producer of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, is a philosopher who explores his ideas through the medium of film. John’s natural curiosity and interest in documentary filmmaking lead him to film school at San Francisco University and then to a partnership at Premise Media.
When his partner Walt Ruloff considered investing in a biotech company, the two set out on a journey of discovery about science and its general attitude toward Intelligent Design. The prejudice and animosity they found among the academic community inspired the unscripted documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
What was the beginning of the Expelled project?
John: There are three partners in Premise Media: Walt Ruloff, Logan Craft, and myself. Walt and I had a very strong interest in the conversation between science and religion, the state of where it had come from and where it currently was. We were very interested in some of the new questions that were coming out of the biotech area.
At one point, Walt was looking to invest in some biotech because he’s an entrepreneur and has started several companies. So he was looking at that technology and had some questions he asked that people would say, “You can’t ask those questions.”
That seemed odd that you couldn’t ask questions like “Is life designed?” My background is in philosophy, and I found that very interesting. That was the genesis of the project.
How did you go from studying philosophy to filmmaking?
John: I went to film school at San Francisco State, then I made a bunch of short films and some commercials, as well as corporate projects and things of that nature. I was interested in how documentaries work and thought this would be interesting if we could get the right person to take this journey and examine it.
We found the right person in Ben Stein and set out to make an interesting film.
Were you involved in the writing of the film?
John: In the ideas and concepts, yes. It’s an “unscripted documentary,” so from that standpoint we didn’t script out any lines or anything for anybody. We really didn’t do any re-takes or anything of that nature. We really kind of captured people as they were discussing issues or as we talked about them.
How long was the complete process from idea inception to theatrical release?
John: It was right about two years from concept to making it to the big screen. We spent quite a bit of time filming, about 18 months. Then we spent another seven months editing.
We cut down about 150 hours of film (probably more of “B” roll). A number of interviews didn’t make the film because they were saying the same thing someone else had, and we chose the one that was more poetic or emphatic. So there was a lot of coverage with some duplication of information that we cut down to make the final edit.
Did Ben come up with his own questions, or did you give him guidelines?
John: No. It was a very collaborative process with Ben. We’d go in and try to read as much as we could about whomever we were interviewing. If they had a book or a number of books, we tried to read as many as we could. Myself, Walt, the screenwriter and Ben tried to do as much comprehensive research as we could. Then we’d have a conversation with Ben about what we thought was interesting about this person, or why we were interviewing them. Then we worked with Ben to come up with some interesting questions.
Ben usually had a few of his own that he would throw in impromptu even as we were filming. As people were responding to various things, he would follow the line of conversation and new information would emerge. Nothing was scripted to it flowed very normally.
There has been a lot of criticism voiced that the film was edited to show the anti-Intelligent Design scientists in the worst light possible. How do you respond to that criticism?
John: It’s patently false. We did not edit anybody out of context. In fact, I think we allow people with their own words to hang themselves. The Richard Dawkins interview, for example, is fairly lengthy and you can see that it’s not edited. He reads from his own book, he makes his own points, and we’re not inter-cutting or cutting away or cutting back or anything like that.
When you see the film, you can tell that we’re not having out-of-context conversations at all.
How did you personally prepare for some of these interviews? It seems like it would feel a little like entering hostile enemy territory?
John: Not so much. We just thought it would be interesting to interview both sides of the argument, so any time we went in to talk to them, we prepared beforehand. We read any books they had written, or articles about them, and then just asked them questions we thought were interesting.
With Professor Dawkins, he gives some very interesting answers that we did not expect him to give during that interview. We didn’t really go fishing for those.
I found everybody we interviewed to be very intriguing as we spoke to them. Actually, I liked meeting Professor Dawkins, so it didn’t feel at all like hostile territory.
As someone in on the project from the beginning, what were some things that surprised you, and where did you reach the artistic level you were aiming for?
John: I think the place that surprised us the most was actually the interview with Professor Dawkins and then at the end at the British Museum of Natural History. I think that really kind of surprised us as to what that would look like. We really had no idea going into it how the conversation would turn. I think that element right there is a very strong element in the film and I think it relates a lot to people about the ideas and attitudes that are out there about Intelligent Design, and what people in academia face.
The other would be the German footage we got going to Hadamar, which is still operating as an insane asylum today. It’s the first place the eugenics program (selective breeding to strengthen a species) really took off in Germany. The interviews there with the director showed how much the idea of Social Darwinism had permeated the ideology. That really shows how long-reaching ideological consequences can go. I think those were some of the most interesting moments we were able to capture on film.
This film did extraordinarily well at the box office. How much of the success can be attributed to grass-roots marketing, and what were some of the most successful tools?
John: When we did exit polling, people mentioned the television commercials the most. They saw Ben playing a student in a prep school. The grassroots level is really important in the whole faith and family film market right now, which is really blossoming.
A number of films have come out that have done very well in that space. We saw it happen with Expelled, both theatrically and as the DVD release is unfolding. Now with Fireproof doing so well, I think you’re really seeing the whole faith and family market becoming one that’s more recognizable.
What has been added to the DVD to pique the viewers’ interest, and what aspects of it will continue the discussion you’ve started?
John: One of the big things we’ve heard about the film overall, which I think is true of documentaries in general, is that there’s so much information in Expelled that it does take almost a second viewing of some of the elements to grasp the depth of some of what’s being talked about.
From that standpoint, people will be able to watch it again for more understanding. We also have some new footage related to Intelligent Design being used within medical research and I think that will be very intriguing to people. We really hope this does lengthen and encourage more discussion of the film.
We didn’t make the film to answer questions, necessarily, but raise questions so that people would think and discuss and talk about this. So we’re hoping that people will take this into their home, church or synagogue, wherever they gather in places of corporate spirituality. This is very much a faith-based movie in that it reaches across many faiths.
Every major world religion believes in Intelligent Design at some level, and has some questions there. What we’ve seen is that it is raising a lot of questions and people are having a dialogue around it.
We’ve also seen it have an impact on legislation, which has been very interesting. This wasn’t something that we drove, but we saw it happening. There’s something called the Academic Freedom Petition that’s circulating, and we’re asking Congressmen and Senators and local politicians to pass legislation that will allow people to question scientific theories openly without fear of repercussions against them.
Louisiana is the first to pass that and we hope to see that start moving across the country. There’s also a movement within Florida to get this going. Michigan and Missouri have both had discussions about it. Texas is re-visiting their science standards. It is something that’s moving around at the grassroots level.
Something else that always helps films at the box office is controversy. There have been accusations about using John Lennon’s music illegally and using CGI work copied illegally. Also there was a little ruckus at one of the screenings. Are any of those accusations true?
John: You know, this issue is controversial enough without adding to it. No, these accusations are not true.
We were doing by-invitation-only screenings, and had some people register for screenings who were not invited. P.Z. Myers, who we did interview in the film, tried to come to one in Minnesota, and our associate producer Mark Mathis made a decision not to allow him in. He also decided to allow Richard Dawkins into the screening, but Myers had taken some personal swipes at Mark, and Mark said, “You know, if you’re going to come see it, you’re going to pay ten bucks.”
He made a big deal about being Expelled, and said we should call it “Delayed” because he was delayed from seeing the film. After his comments, I thought it was an appropriate action that Mark took.
As to the other questions, recently Yoko Ono dismissed her lawsuits against us. We had used ten words from the song “Imagine,” and criticized that worldview that John Lennon is promoting there. We had a fair use defense under the First Amendment, and were represented pro bono by Stanford University Law School’s Fair Use project, that works with documentary filmmakers. We were victorious in that.
It was alleged that we had infringed on some animation someone else created. Originally, they sued us, but we ended up turning around and suing them to take it to court, but we both agreed to drop the case and it was settled.
We saw this film get attacked, including by some reviewers that, after reading their reviews, I wonder if they even saw the film. A lot of people who came out and attacked the film didn’t talk about the stories being told. They didn’t question what did happen to Rick Sternberg or Caroline Crocker or Guillermo Gonzalez. They didn’t try to talk to any of these scientists or research any of these situations. They just came out and said, “Oh, it’s creationist right-wing propaganda,” and followed that whole line.
Well, that’s not a film review, that’s a cultural battle. None of the reviews I read dealt with any of the issues that were raised in the film.
What projects are you working on right now?
John: We’re entertaining doing something that would be more of a fictional narrative film. We have some scripts we’re reading right now. We’re also looking at a couple of television projects. One would be based on the military and follow Congressional Medal of Honor winners.
We’re also looking at another project with Ben Stein. It would be a TV project based on the economy, and explain the economic meltdown and why it’s happening. It would connect Wall Street to Main Street, and vice versa. We want people to understand how these decisions made in the glass towers on Wall Street affect them, and when the government does a $700 billion bailout, what that means to people living in the suburbs. That’s a very intriguing project we’re working on.
What kind of advice would you give younger filmmakers who might want to follow in your footsteps?
John: Know what you want to do. The movie industry is a fairly specialized industry, and it’s very collaborative. Figure out what your place is in that, and do whatever you want or can do to figure that out.
For instance, if you want to be a cinematographer, which is a very important job, or a director, go and really learn what it means to do that.
You also have to understand story. I think we’ve really lost reading the classics, which helps us understand how to tell good stories. So I think the most important thing is to really be able to tell good stories and understand the whole storymaking process.
I came into reading the classics in my 20s. I went back and read about 60 of the top 100 books of all time. I realized I didn’t have that in my high school education, and had only a little of it in my college education. That really informed me on my personal odyssey to discover storytelling.