Barry Ptolemy Takes Us Behind the Scenes

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

The filmmaker shares the trials and tribulations of movie making.

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