Secular VIP of the Week: Gus Holwerda

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He's not Bono, but when he takes the stage his fans love to howl. Richard Dawkins, with internationally known physicist Lawrence Krauss, has toured the world to smash ideas instead of guitars. How would you like to go backstage? What if you could join the intimate moments and overhear what they say while they are traveling? Now you can, thanks to a new film, "The Unbelievers", which Richard and Lawrence are touring across the United States this April. The road trip movie features cameos with Woody Allen, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Colbert, Cameron Diaz, and dozens of other celebrities who support Richard and Lawrence's fight for reason and science. (You can buy tickets here and help promote the tour here.)


It's all thanks to filmmakers Gus Holwerda, Luke Holwerda, and Jason Spisak
of Black Chalk Productions, which has produced award-winning music videos,
commercials, short-length and feature films since 2004. They lived the dream
and did follow Richard and Lawrence from Australia to New York, ending up at
the 2012 Reason Rally, which was the largest gathering of atheists of all
time, in Washington DC. Gus agreed to speak with us about his adventures and
the launching of the film.

RDF: Thank you for speaking with us today! You have put so much heart into
this film. Have you always been an atheist yourself? Do you consider
yourself part of the secular movement?

Gus Holwerda: I grew up in a very conservative, fundamentalist,
Baptist/Christian background, but I was the kid that used to sneak out
during church into one of the practice rooms and play piano while the church
services were going on. So I wasn't interested in religion, but wouldn't
have considered myself an atheist until my twenties, when I read books by
Richard and others.

RDF: So you've gone through quite a transition. Was that difficult for you,
personally or socially?

Gus Holwerda: Internally it wasn't that much of a transition. I never was a
true believer, but my family was very into religion. My uncle on my mom's
side is actually a missionary in Ethiopia and elsewhere, he's out there
spreading the gospel, so as you can imagine my family is pretty hard core
and they don't see anything wrong with that. So when my brother Luke (who is
the Director of Photography on the film as well as one of the producers) and I
decided it was time to show the documentary to our family,
we didn't know what their reaction would be.

Gus Holwerda: We invited our parents over for a screening, but had not told them
anything about the movie up to that point. They knew we were making a
documentary with famous scientists involved, but had no idea what it was
going to be. We sat them down and watched the whole movie. When it was 

over, we looked at their faces and it was clear that they didn't have
anything to say. I think all they could muster was, "The photography was nice" and 

"The music was good", but that was about it.

Gus Holwerda: However, they took some time to think about it, and in later
conversations my dad told us he felt that one of the film's strengths is that it 

doesn't have an actual agenda.  According to him, 
it could have been made by a religious person – because the movie itself is
not a Michael Moore-style film where there's an statement or message pushing
a position. It's really just capturing what's happening in the lives of two
great scientists. So, from that perspective he thought the film could've been
made by anybody, religious or not.  A compliment, after a fashion.

RDF: Did you set out to be a neutral observer?

Gus Holwerda: Yes and no. The original idea came when I met Christopher
Hitchens after an event in California at which he debated William Lane Craig
Afterward, he was signing books and we started chatting.  He was the kind 

of guy that if you had questions he'd just invite you out to drink after the show. 

So my wife and I ended up joined him and some other people, and we chatted 

for the whole evening. He asked me if I knew Lawrence Krauss — at the time we 

were based in Phoenix, where Lawrence is also based — and Hitchens said 

"You should meet him. He's doing great things."

Gus Holwerda: Lawrence had a symposium going on at that time — I believe in
2009 — a huge event for 3,000 people, sold out for the entire day. The
guests were Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, and Neil deGrasse
Tyson, among others. To me it felt like a kind of Woodstock, like a rock and
roll concert for science, and the guys that were on stage were the rock
stars. That's what sparked it in me. I thought, "Wow, I don't think anyone's
captured this." What it's like to be a popular icon of science, doing these
big shows in front of massive crowds?

Gus Holwerda: I approached Lawrence afterwards and he said, "Yeah, let's do
something, sometime," but a lot of time went by. Later on I found out that
he and Richard were going on a book tour, and even though we only learned of it at
last minute (the event was happening 3 weeks later!), I asked if he'd let us
follow them on this tour. He spoke to Richard, who was all in favor, and we hit the road
with them –  following them all around Australia, England and part of the
United States: New York, D.C., and Phoenix.

RDF: You brought in dozens of celebrities for cameos in the movie. How did
you get them involved?

Gus Holwerda: Lawrence is friends with Woody Allen, Cormac McCarthy, and 

Cameron Diaz. That definitely got the ball rolling: once we had Woody on board, a lot
of people were much more interested in contributing. With other
interviewees, Ricky Gervais and Sarah Silverman for example, we knew they
were fans of Richard and Lawrence, and so friendly to the cause. When we
reached out they were extremely receptive and it was surprisingly easy to
get them.

RDF: What's your big vision for the film?

Gus Holwerda: It was always our goal to make a rock and roll tour film about
science, reason, and unbelievers. We didn't want it to just be a collection
of YouTube videos, and we didn't want it to be just a bunch of event
footage. We wanted to show the personal side of Richard and Lawrence and
show their friendship. As a fanboy myself it was definitely a dream come
true to spend weeks at a time riding around with these guys.

RDF: A lot of us would have loved to be in your place! What struck you
especially that you would like people to know?

Gus Holwerda: One evening we were taking a train from London back to Oxford
where Richard lives. It was around 9 p.m. and the sun was just starting to
go down. After a whole day of Richard running everywhere, we captured him in
time lapse falling asleep on the train. To me that's one of the best moments
of the movie. He's been working so hard, he's out there doing his thing from
dawn 'till dusk, and it's just a tender and personal moment. You can see him
trying to keep his eyes open while he's working on his laptop, unable to
keep going.  I think moments like that help people to understand how hard these

guys are working.  Moments like that inspire me.

RDF: So he literally had worked himself to exhaustion! I get the sense there
are a lot of funny moments in the film, too.

Gus Holwerda: While making the film, we traveled with Richard and Lawrence
to venues around the world, from the Sydney Opera House to the National Mall
in Washington D.C. to The Royal Society in London. Whenever Richard was
asked to do a sound check, he would recite poetry. It became one of the
highlights of each event to hear what selection Richard would surprise us
with. Richard's rendition of "The Great Panjandrum" (by Samuel Foote) was
one of my favorites, but we were also treated to his rendition of the famous
"Slough" poem (by Sir John Betjeman) as we passed the Slough station on the
train one night.  As exhausted as we all were during the filming of this
movie, it was impossible not to listen and smile when Richard began one of
his recitations. While none of that footage found it's way into the finished
film, some of Richard's sound check poetry readings can be seen in a short
"making-of" documentary that will appear as a bonus feature on The
Unbelievers DVD.

RDF: Do you think that people are going to come away from the film feeling
differently about Richard?

Gus Holwerda: I think so. We had a test screening in Phoenix to a large
audience and the feedback on it was surprising and uplifting. The thing they liked
most about the film was the personal side of Richard and Lawrence, to see them
bonding on the road.

Gus Holwerda: On our questionnaires we asked how religious the viewers were,
and the people who were most religious were also the
ones most likely to recommend the film to their friends and family. The
comments indicated that wasn't for any negative reason; it was because
they thought it was interesting to see what it was like to be a
non-believer.

Gus Holwerda: Hanging out with Richard and Lawrence, being on the road with
them… I think what you learn from Richard particularly is that he's just a
normal guy, but he is also every bit of the guy he is on stage. When
Lawrence and Richard hang out, they talk about science all day long and it's
fun! I think that's the best part about it. You get so inspired listening to
them have such a great time talking about the Universe, life and all of the
mysteries and questions that you want to engage in that conversation too. You
want to learn, and that's what makes them so brilliant as science icons,
writers and speakers — they can encourage that in other people.

RDF: Thank you for speaking with us today! I have to ask: what can we tell
the people who aren't going to be able to attend the screenings in San
Diego, Las Vegas (hosted by Penn Jillette), and Columbus, Ohio?

Gus Holwerda: The film will be on Netflix, iTunes, DVD and available for purchase very
shortly but we are still waiting on our distributor for the official release date. So

in the meantime, we just have to ask people to hang in there with us and wait until it gets released.

RDF: We'll be sure to mention it on the Richard Dawkins newsletter and I
know you have a newsletter too that fans should join.

 

 
You can sign up to the Richard Dawkins newsletter at www.RichardDawkins.net and sign up for The Unbelievers and see the trailer at www.UnbelieversMovie.com.
 
See the tour and buy tickets here and if you love reason and science, please help promote the tour on the How to Help page.

Written By: RDFRS

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