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Tim Maupin on Art and Longevity at EARD2021

Art can change how people view important issues.

EARD2021 Art and LongevityEARD2021 Art and Longevity
 

At Ending Age-Related Diseases 2021, Elena Milova of Lifespan.io interviews Tim Maupin, an NYC-based filmmaker, about the way art can help change the way society views longevity research.

Script

Elena: Greetings to the participants of Ending Age-Related Diseases 2021. This conference brings together thought leaders and researchers working on rejuvenation biotechnology with the goal of extending healthy human life. Before we can see large-scale implementation of rejuvenation biotechnology, we will have to convince people that greatly extended lifespans can be a good thing. It’s rather hard to do, because the very idea of breaking what we know about the ordinary cycle of human life, decades of presenting compelling knowledge didn’t actually lead to a change of perception just yet.

Maybe it only proves that humans are emotional rather than rational beings and our approach should rely on visceral feelings rather than data. Today, I’m speaking about it with Tim Maupin, a New York City-based film director, visual effects artist and Emmy award-winning cinematographer. Tim has directed multiple short films that have played in a variety of festivals, including South San Diego Film Festival, Indie Memphis, Atlanta Short Fest, the 3D Film Festival in Sundance, and he has won multiple awards for best dramatic short film, cinematography, and visual effects.

Tim is currently working on the movie The Last generation to Die as part of his effort to achieve public acceptance of the idea of healthy life extension. Hi, Tim, happy to have you with us.

Tim: Hello, yeah, happy to be here.

I was reading many definitions of art when I was preparing for this interview. All of them are very different. Let me begin with a very general question:

Elena: What is art, in your opinion? And why did it come into existence as part of human culture?

That’s sort of a classic. I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer or perfect definition for art. I think people probably have different ideas about what it is. There was actually a point where I tried to assess that personally, what art is, because, again, it’s sort of like, what is beauty? That sort of question.

On a simple level, probably the most simple level, it’s just human expression of creativity. For whatever reason, some of us or maybe all of us at different levels, have this need, and it’s certainly apparent across history. It’s been with us for as long as we can tell. There’s just something that needs to get out.

It’s an output, but it’s also an input. It’s a way of communication at a pretty nuanced and advanced level. That’s core level, and things I look for when I look at art, or what might be art, does it have a historical or cultural aspect to it? Is somebody talking about their experience in their time, where they’re at? How they feel about their culture? What’s happening? Is it good or bad? That could be an open-ended question.

Also, looking for multiple meanings, like something that can be interpreted by different people in different ways usually represents something that’s pretty complex and sophisticated in that regard. Maybe one way to look at it from our current standpoint, or where we sit in human history, and wherever we go is, does it stand the test of time? There are certain pieces of art that people seem to keep coming back to. Why do they work? Yhat’s one aspect that I look for.

That is just a really simple level; you can look at the more formative qualities of it; you can judge it from a sense of craft. If it’s a visual art or painting or something; you can take a look at the different techniques that were used, things like that.

Finally, how does it make you feel? It’s a combination of all those things, but it can also make you feel something viscerally. That can even be mixed feelings, you might not even be sure why you’re feeling a certain way. It’s a lot of things, and oftentimes people say you don’t know until you see it or that sort of thing. I had to make a checklist, those are what I would say, but at the same time, there is something intangible about it as well, something you just feel and know.

I see, very interesting. Funny fact, in a report published by the World Health Organization a couple of years ago that aggregates around 3000 studies, it said that arts contribute to extending healthy lifespans and prevent diseases. One possible explanation is that arts are by nature very close to something like multimodal therapy that has major anti-stress effects.

I wonder if making movies feels the same way?

I can certainly see why. Some art might have that feeling or might have that reason behind it. It’s sort of funny in the sense that most people who make movies think it’s very stressful. It’s a great challenge and some people think we’re crazy trying to make a movie, because it’s a nearly impossible task. There’s so many different layers: you’re finding the funding, you’re putting together this enormous, difficult project with tons of people involved.

In a weird way, some of the things surrounding filmmaking can have that effect where it might release stress, but the actual process itself, I feel like the stress release is probably more at the end after you’ve made it, and you can see it, and you feel you’re watching it with people. That’d be my answer there.

The craft part of the process is absolutely something that requires a lot of effort, it can be stressful, especially since it requires a lot of brainstorming and trying to understand how exactly to put those pieces of the puzzle together. I personally think that art has such a strong aspect of communication in it, because whenever we put something outside, we present ourselves to someone, and that someone looks at the products of our activities, it’s something different. It’s new information that they get out of the business of our art, whether it be music, paintings, or even text. They perceive reality with the eyes of someone else.

In this regard, I think it will be accurate to assume that art has this very strong aspect of breaking stereotypes and introducing something new. In fact, it’s even acknowledged as one of the functions of art. It probably makes sense to see art as a way to get rid of the rigidity of thinking that may actually be contradicting the very idea that society must progress and society must change, or even one particular human must progress and change.

When you have something that makes you change your mind or see things differently, or take another angle, or take another side, definitely, it improves your own flexibility, it allows you to evolve, and develop some new vision, new opinions, new knowledge. Do you agree with that?

Absolutely. There is a structure to society, and that’s changed over time, but there does seem to be a certain rigidity, as you said, to the daily grind that we go through daily, the building up and the progression of society. I do think art is of a separate part of that; you’re not really opposing it, but it can make you break away from that sort of thinking for a bit.

Actually, I would argue, it can help you come back to that sort of structure with, like you said, new ideas, new thoughts, you can break the status quo. I think it’s a very powerful form of communication, as you said, that probably has actually shaped society in ways that would be hard to trace.

Maybe not always, I think sometimes you could trace certain art to different movements and things like that, but, for example, sometimes I’ll come back after a day of walking through an art museum, looking at paintings, or photographs, or whatever it is, I get a little upset, why don’t I do this more often? I try to go to museums fairly frequently. Every time, I’m like, I should be doing this at least once a month, or whatever, and because even myself as a creative, I come away with new ideas and thoughts. You literally begin the day and you had no idea that you’re gonna wind up with this kind of interesting thought that you didn’t have before. I think it does really open up your brain.

I think you’d have to be a little more open to it at different times. This is maybe going back to the definition, I think great art can sort of arrest you without even fully being ready for it. If you feel something just from a work that you see, and you weren’t expecting it, that could be a very powerful response that can literally be life changing, I would argue.

I agree with you. It seems to me that even looking at other pieces of art created by other people are a lesson in creativity in a way. For instance, there are studies that indicate that human creativity has several stages while it’s developing over the course of human life. The very first stage is observing examples and incorporating examples first, then playing with some aspects of those examples before it comes to creation of something purely original. I think it’s just an organic part of us trying to learn more about the world and then trying to do something ourselves.

I would agree with that assessment. I think it is inbuilt in our human nature. I think we build upon it as we go on in life.

As it was said in Dune, without change, something sleeps inside. The sleeper must awaken. Let us go to my next question. Cinematography grew into such a huge industry, and it’s now extremely competitive. If a movie doesn’t make money in the very first days after release, it can be called a failure regardless of its educational or artistic potential. 

The goal is to tease our senses, and no surprise that 9 out of 10 movies picturing life extension represent it in a negative way and shows some form of catastrophe, and there is a turning back to status quo in the end. Anyway, there is some drama. Is there still any good movies for people who like to think and not feel, and if yes, where to find them?

I would definitely say so. This gets into a discussion of what movies might be art, what movies might be more entertainment? I think they fit on some sliding scale, regardless of what movie. There’s the term arthouse movies, cinema, where these types of films are probably closer to the art side of things where I would argue they do make you think more, they’re not as easy to parse or understand, it’s something that might wash over you. You might watch two or three times before you really get a sense.

I think the Criterion Collection is a pretty great starting point for that, it’s a mix of classic cinema, arthouse cinema, but I would argue most of the films in that canon, definitely a more thinking-type film, but there’s also a really healthy indie film world that’s going on.

Even a movie that I saw recently that made me think quite a bit and parlays into the life extension realm is a movie called The Father with Anthony Hopkins. This is where I think the film works on multiple levels. because it certainly makes you think it’s about a man who has dementia. It kind of operates as a low-key horror film in a way, where you see the horrors of this play out, this is a horrible condition once you see it.

I don’t want to give anything too much away, but the film is done in such a way that the structure of the film itself makes you think about how it might actually feel to to have this disease or how it might be to be a caretaker of someone with that disease. Of course, it’s a film where the performances are really great and everything does build up to an excellent structure.

I would argue maybe most recently, for me, that was a thinking film, I would say, but also a feeling film; I was definitely moved during the film as well, but also it does relate to some of the ideas of longevity and potentially what we’re setting out to do in terms of slowing aging and slowing those age-related diseases.

Good to know. Thanks for the recommendation, I will put it on my watch list. The movie that I liked recently is the movie Old by M. Night Shyamalan. It has the same flavor, it makes you think a lot, and also I what I like about it, without giving out some spoilers is that the producer makes you follow his thought process.

He makes a lot of metaphors about everything, but mostly about how people perceive the importance of certain things in their lives and how this feeling of importance changes depending on the circumstances, and how basically you move back to the most important things, the ones that only matter if you are put in a scenario where you have a very, very limited time.

That’s a very interesting movie. Once again, it’s definitely recommended especially for the life extension community because the movie speaks about a form of scarily accelerated aging.

Tim, let’s talk about your movie now. Tell me more about it. The name is pretty intriguing, “The Last Generation to Die.” What is this about?

This is a film I’ve been working on for a few years, I made a short film a while back; we had a successful Kickstarter. Some of the community might remember it. The film is called the Last Generation to Die. It’s a quote from Gerald Sussman from MIT, who said something to the effect, paraphrasing, but “I’m afraid I might be in the last generation to die.”

When I first read it, I wasn’t really involved in the longevity community at that time; it was just a very interesting, intriguing thought. If these anti-aging technologies are going to come down, there will be sort of a quote-unquote last generation of people who died in a natural sense, who don’t have the choice to do so.

That was just an intriguing idea for me to set up a short film in, so we have a 15-minute short film that exists online that you can watch right now. That serves as a proof of concept for the full-length feature film that we’re working on. But the general story is, it’s about a scientist, Lilly, who is basically responsible for a new anti-aging technology that’s supposed to be one of the strongest in terms of de-aging you.

At the same time, her aging father, who’s in his late 70s, has a major heart issue. And so she’s forced to choose to put him on the trial. There’s a bit of an ethical question mark of whether she should do that or not; it’s her own trial, her own company. There’s a bit of a philosophical back-and-forth between them; he believes in the natural progression of life, so to speak.

That kind of encompasses the short film. The feature film, we’ve taken that further, and Lily’s mother, Julia, is also part of the picture now. I’m giving a little bit away, but about halfway through the film, as Oliver, the father, is actually getting better from the therapies, we’re actually seeing a true sort of reversal of aging, he’s feeling better, his heart is working better. The mother actually has a stroke.

At that point, you begin to see this interesting, dynamic shift where she’s getting worse, and he’s getting better. He’s feeling guilty about being on the trial. Side by side, we’re literally witnessing here’s what, here’s the effects of aging happening on her, here’s the effects of aging happening reversing on him.

The whole time, Lily is met with some sociopolitical issues going on about aging and disease for companies trying to push that forward. She’s met with a lot of challenges in that regard, and I won’t get into the ending. I’ll leave that as a bit of a surprise.

I think with this storyline, we’ve really fleshed out a lot of the narratives in longevity, and it looks at some of the arguments, for and against, that people have, and is a strong conversation for it. I would argue there’s many movies in the future realm or anything anywhere near longevity that are dystopian, and this film does not take that angle.

It’s a very realistic film; it’s of the conversation, we’re not making the company inherently bad. A lot of times, you see in movies, the corporation is the evil thing or whatever. It just takes a much more realistic look at how the future might actually play out. In the film, reversing aging is a positive notion, it’s shown to have a positive effect on society. The drama comes into play with the family of the characters.

That’s actually fascinating. I really like the plot that you have in mind. I also find it quite interesting that you would like to expose things that normally stay hidden. We don’t really speak much about the sufferings of old people, don’t speak much about the struggles of the families of people with age-related diseases, especially if those people are bedridden or have severe limitations concerning their daily activities.

All of this stays behind the scenes, not just in the cinema but also in our real lives. I mean, the fact that old people rarely go for a walk just because they’re feeling frail, and having problems with their balance or something. We don’t see them much we see younger people, we see adults, we see children who play around, but not so many old people.

That is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to discuss the problems of rejuvenation research, because the problem itself seems hidden from your eyes, all the time. It’s interesting that you decided to bring this up, because it’s indeed much more realistic this way. Maybe this way, people will really feel connected with the older generation, and we’ll see that it makes sense to help them and to reduce human suffering.

A quick addition is the idea of putting the drama as the this sort of gulf that will occur between two generations, because once these technologies do come into play, there will naturally be sort of a divide between people who just missed the cut-off, so to speak, and then people who are able to take part of the technologies. That’s a perfect spot for interesting drama.

Where can people find more information about your project? Do you have a website?

Yeah, the film’s website is just lastgenmovie.com. You can reach out to me via email, just [email protected]om, but we’re getting the ball rolling, we’re in the funding phase right now; we do have a commitment so far, we’re about a third of the way funded from our budget. We’re just at the very beginning processes of starting to look into casting and that sort of thing. If anybody out there wants to help fund a longevity movie, reach out.

Wonderful. That sounds amazing. What do you think will be the public perception of this movie when it comes out? We will really know what happens when when similar movies come out that speak about the problems like that movie Father that you just mentioned.

So, what do you think? How do you plan to change public perception with this movie?

At large, it will get the conversation started in a bigger way. As far as I’m aware of, there aren’t that many longevity movies out there in general, and then specifically talking about these things in a very realistic light. Most of the time, it’s heightened, it’s very, very sci fi, it doesn’t feel that realistic, it feels like it’s 100 years away, which maybe it will be, but I think the film I’m trying to set is it within the next 20 to 30 years, so it has a more realistic, more palpable, something that we can all foresee.

My take is that it’ll start a conversation. There’s enough psychological aspects of the film that people will not inherently think that if we can slow aging and reverse aging, that’s a bad thing, I think they’ll actually begin to look at it as a positive thing as a result.

I definitely believe that the idea of presenting it in a realistic way is a good one, primarily because normally, when we deal with newcomers to our community, when we speak to new people who know nothing about rejuvenation research, typically what we hear are the examples that they take from some sci-fi movie. I mean, people learn this way, this is where they grew up, those examples and those stereotypes about life extension, a lot of public concern comes directly from those movies, because in most of the movies somehow touching upon the topic of life extension, it’s presented in a negative way.

There are specifics, there are some crazy people who are immortal, some dictators or some criminals, there is extreme vanity, there are some other problems related to it, there is an equality, it is only for the rich. It’s great that one can take it in another route and basically present something that people can use as a reliable example, because it’s very close to reality.

I can see why filmmakers do that; it’s easier to draw from that sort of bigger-stakes conflict. I would argue that it’s a little harder to make something that’s more realistic and more nuanced like I’m doing with this film, but I think that the payoff in terms of the realistic impact of how people are going to view life extension is better. It’s just literally treated more real.You walk out thinking, if this were possible like that, it would actually be really interesting. I could do this or that.

It’s gonna make people consider things in a way that’s far more realistic. Grand sci-fi definitely has a good place in making us consider potential bad outcomes or scenarios; I think that’s important too, but I think in this case, it’s kind of a slightly refreshing take.

There will be some things that I think are kind of fun sci-fi, we have these future technologies like augmented reality, there’s ecological stuff like solar and things like that; all this stuff will be a part of the future world that we’re building.

We’ll have to begin with convincing people that this is a good thing. When we will be doing so, it will be really important to find a way to communicate the new ways and connect it to the possibilities of life extension. For instance, whenever I’m thinking about my life, there are those normal stages of human life like childhood education, career, family, kids, retirement, travel, hospital, funeral, right? We’re all familiar with it.

I felt that something was wrong with the cycle when I started the studies for my third degree. I think that I have already had at least three different careers. It made me realize that what I truly want from life extension is the possibility to keep learning because to me, it seems like learning generally, knowing new things about the world is something that is important.

I get carried away with my curiosity, and I want to follow my curiosity. Sometimes, I have to put some limitations on myself because I just don’t have time. I realize that to get another education and another one, and then to go in this direction, and that direction, all of this requires time. Sometimes, I have to make very painful decisions in abandoning one activity just to be able to master something else.

To me personally, the possibility of living longer is strongly connected with the possibility of intellectual growth. If you think about it in concrete numbers, there were studies about how many books a person can read during their lifetime. It turns out that it’s only around from five to eight thousand books. Well, I really want to read over 20,000 at the very least, I’m very curious about what other people think about life, about scientific research, even if the last ones are going to be recorded into my brain, via Neuralink directly, I’m fine with it, I just want this information and want those experiences.

I wanted to ask you, and maybe it can also be a question about the movie, what kind of added value of life extension are you trying to communicate? At the same time, what’s your reason for life extension?

My own subjective views that I’ve formed, one of them, to be honest, is there’s something kind of a touch tragic about life expectancy over 100 years ago or so was around 40 or 50 for developed nations. Now we’ve extended that for about another 30 years, roughly speaking, and I feel like we’re in a weird middle ground in health care for that regard. Evolution is more or less done with you by the time you’re 40 or 50 from a reproductive standpoint. That is how it plays out, but we’ve now extended that further.

However, those years aren’t exactly, in many cases, healthy years. By the time you get into 60s and 70s, your health is failing. Not always; there’s exceptions and things like that, but statistically, that’s largely the case. I feel like we’ve gone halfway: we’ve moved life expectancy forward, but we haven’t really made that those years that much better. It feels like we either need to just forget about the whole thing and go back to what evolution thinks, or we should just keep going and extend that to much further healthier life. For me, that’s a logical viewpoint of where we are in medical history. That’s an observation.

As part of that, I’m approaching or just entering middle age, and you accumulate all this wisdom, and you start to understand yourself on a really deep level that would have helped you out a lot 10 or 20 years ago, and then that’s about the time that again, as they say, you’re over the hill, and so you start moving down, so that also seems a bit tragic.

I think that there’s something kind of profound about the idea of retaining the wisdom that you have and being able to put that into a much more practical use. I think people would have much more refined lives living on and carrying that wisdom with them and being healthy at the same time. Those are pretty strong personal reasons. Similar to you, I don’t get bored too easily, and I don’t see myself getting bored. Sure, you can get occasionally bored, but it’s very temporary. For a night, I’m like, “I don’t know, what do I want to do”, but that lasts for about one evening. The next day, I’m back working on this project or that project.

I also started out in computer programming, moved to filmmaking, I could see myself, I’m really interested in science. The notion of getting bored, maybe after 500 years, I don’t know, even then. I don’t see it happening any time soon for me. Also, just kind of an excitement of what technologies will come into the future. Not to not acknowledge some of the challenges that we do face as a civilization, climate change, inequality. I think there’s just so much to do there; the more people we have that are intellectually engaged in trying to work through those problems, the better. There’s more reasons, but those are kind of the key ones I think about a lot.

Thank you for sharing. Personally, I think longer lives can contribute to solving global problems in another way, because if you are supposed to live very long and stick together with other people who will live much longer than that, you are supposed to think about the future.

You are supposed to think, to care, about those global risks, because you are the one who is going to be affected by them if something goes wrong. It’s not that we can just put it aside and say “Oh, that’s not my problem, that’s someone else’s problem, maybe my children’s problem, maybe my grandchildren’s problem,” and then just do nothing about the problem that society or the planet is facing.

It’s a catalyst of many positive changes if we will be able to achieve longer lifespans. So far, it still remains a dream. We’re optimistic, but we must let science take its course, we must wait to have those clinical trials and the results from them, confirmation that those therapies work and they are safe, then we must work on distributing them equally, I hope, and only then can we actually enjoy this kind of scenario. Really working forward to working on it.

Tim, do you have a take-home message for our audience?

I think I would reiterate what you just said, I think if we do want to live longer, it should be a grand, holistic mission. Anybody, in my opinion, who is interested in longevity should also be interested in the health of the planet, the health of society as trying to get along better with each other. That might sound utopian and grand, but the more that we can project towards that direction, the better. I believe in longevity, but I also believe in working on those problems. We have to, I don’t think we have a choice. That’s just part of it as we go forward. That’s my final thought.

Thank you very much for joining us today, I look forward to your movie.

Thank you for having me.

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