Archival shot of Jim Allison on a beach, wearing hat
Filmmaker Q&A

Making a Film About the Necessity of Science and Commitment to the Truth

April 23, 2020 by Craig Phillips in Behind the Films

Bill Haney brought all the hats he’s worn into play in making the documentary Jim Allison: Breakthrough. The award-winning filmmaker (he counts a Silver Hugo, an IDA Pare Lorentz Award, as well as a Marine Conservation Award, Genesis Award and awards from Amnesty International and Earthwatch in his multifarious collection of awards), Haney has also been an inventor and entrepreneur, and found some of that inventive, entrepreneurial spirit in his film’s subject, the Nobel Prize-winning, Texan immunologist Allison.  

Allison “may not initially look the part of a superman,” wrote Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post. “But by the end of this absorbing, gracefully constructed and deeply moving documentary, he will have audiences wanting to join the fan club and get the T-shirt. This is a ‘just see it’ movie, as in: Forget flowery language, redundant synopsis, clever paraphrasing or hyperbolic praise. Just see the dang thing.”

The heartening film is even more inspiring at this pandemic moment we’re all living in. I asked Haney about searching for medical truth in the age of COVID, as well as about his other life as an inventor of green and medical advances, how he first met Jim Allison, and how Woody Harrelson lent himself to the film.

What led you to want to make a film about Jim Allison? How did you first learn of his work and come to know him?

Given the polarized nature of American society right now, and the complex challenges we face, I was looking to make a film that united us all – and by example, inspired us to see how we can accomplish the extraordinary if we work wisely together. Tyler Jacks, who is a good friend, heads the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, introduced me to Jim Allison. Everyone working in Cancer research knows about Jim and his work – and his blessedly irreverent spirit!

Filmmaker Bill Haney
Filmmaker Bill Haney

Cancer, sadly, has touched almost every family, including my own, and curing it has been the grail of man for thousands of years. The paradigm-shifting insights of Jim Allison put that cure within grasp.

Jim’s generosity of heart, his creative thinking, his relentless commitment to using facts to solve problems, and his talent for inspiring a team of other talented and committed scientists, led to a revolutionary solution to one of humanity’s most bedeviling problems. 

In this sense, Jim’s given us two gifts – the treatment for curing cancer he invented, and the example of how we can solve other of our most pressing concerns.

How did you gain his trust and those around him in order to tell his own story so intimately?

My strong conviction is that people are smart.  Not all of us have the same knowledge but all of us have had to learn whom we can trust.  So the way to gain people’s trust is to be worthy of it – to be trustworthy.

Jim and his wife Pam, could see that I had done the work to be well prepared, that I was committed to doing my work with as much integrity as they demonstrated with their work and that I cared about getting the story right.

What sort of discussions would you love to see PBS audiences have after they watch this film?

What a fun question!

I’d like them to discuss the role of science and the scientific method in building a country we can be proud of living in, and sharing with our children.  What does this mean for them?

I’d like them to ask themselves whom they imagined are the most creative figures in our society – before they saw the film.  And then ask if they see creativity differently afterward. 

To the extent they are children, have children or grandchildren or influence children – I’d like them to ask how they saw the idea of a life in the sciences before the film. And then, how they see it afterward.

Jim Allison as younger man in lab with mouse
Jim Allison in the lab at MD Anderson Smithville, circa 1983.

The drug companies are common villains in our political culture – and some of them have been egregiously misguided at times. But I’d like them to ask themselves how they see the pursuit of new medicines after seeing the film – as opposed to beforehand.

Folks often think of gifted scientists as studious and dull. I’d like audiences to ask themselves if they see scientists and a scientific life differently after seeing Breakthrough. 

Finally, Jim journeyed from the pain of seeing his mother die, being essentially abandoned by his father at age 11  to winning the Nobel Prize. What attitudes helped him on his way? What does this teach them about the journey they can take?

Given everything going on right now in our world, with the COVID pandemic, this story is obviously timely. What are some lessons you think people can take away from Allison’s journey to find a cure for cancer that relate to the current quest for a COVID vaccine?

COVID certainly brings home to us all the urgent necessity of inventing novel life-saving drugs, making Jim Allison’s story especially powerful.  And the FDA, global universities and major pharmaceutical companies which helped Jim on this path will also play critical roles in solving COVID.Jim’s advances were also built on a culture of truth-telling, fact-based work, selfless leadership and a commitment to purposes above the narrow, the greedy and the personal.

But Jim’s advances were also built on a culture of truth-telling, fact-based work, selfless leadership and a commitment to purposes above the narrow, the greedy and the personal.  Jim didn’t care about how he looked, whether he made any money or what people thought of him. He cared about doing the right thing in the right way.

How does this compare and contrast with the culture of leadership we see before us?  Who has focused on the truth? Who has used facts to form conclusions, relied with humility on cooperation with others, and genuinely put the public interest ahead of self-interest? 

My own sense is that the drug companies are racing vaccines into clinical trials and inventing new treatments for those already infected.  The health care workers on the front lines are acting in the most heroic possible ways – as are millions of workers in America and elsewhere who truly keep the lights on and the food flowing.

And some political leaders have inspired us with their forthrightness and leadership.  Governors in Ohio and New York – one Republican and one Democratic come to mind.

Whether the most senior leaders in Washington have done as well at telling us the truth they knew in December, in keeping the public’s well-being as the first priority and using science and the integrity it demands as to do so, audiences will have to decide for themselves.

What we do know is that scientists predicted a pandemic like COVID would happen – which is why there was an office of pandemic preparation established by a previous administration – and were racing to develop vaccines that could have saved thousands and thousands of lives and avoided agonizing social and economic disruption. 

And we know these trials were stopped and the office to prepare for COVID was shut by folks uninterested in the scientific forecasts.  And we know Americans who believed they lived in the most technologically sophisticated country in the world, cannot get the millions of tests that were promised – and would offer so many needed peace of mind – even as we watch other countries with a fraction our wealth and national scientific resources manage the challenges far more skillfully.

Now drug companies the world over are doing extraordinary work to try to make up for lost time.  And we are all hoping they succeed. But should they have been so handicapped?  Would it be reasonable to expect more insightful, composed and thoughtful leadership?  

Right now more Americans are on track to die from COVID than died in Vietnam. And many of those deaths can be laid at a single door – beyond which science was ignored.

You’ve mentioned that you’re not just a filmmaker but also an inventor — can you tell us about anything you’ve invented or created? Was it also medical in nature? And how did having that spirit of innovation make you relate to Jim Allison’s own journey as a creative problem-solver? 

My very first invention – or more accurately, co-invention – was for a system to reduce air pollution from power plants.  This system and its technological offspring are now on power plants the world over. 

My most recent work focuses on inventing novel medicines to cure various forms of Bladder, Breast, Ovarian and Hematological cancers as well as other drugs for neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.  And here too, I am a co-inventor, grateful to be a part of gifted scientific teams.

For these and other reasons, Jim and I have been able to connect at a level that’s been very rewarding for me.

Jim Allison playing on stage with Willie Nelson
Jim Allison (at right) playing on stage with Willie Nelson

How did you get Woody Harrelson involved and agree to narrate the film?

Woody Harrelson is one of the most generous-hearted folks I have ever met. Put simply, I asked Woody for his help, explained why I thought he and his talent would add resonance and impact to the film and outlined why I believed that Jim’s story was an important one.

Woody listened deeply, asked a series of penetrating questions over several discussions, and agreed to help. 

Woody was always focused on issues bigger than his self-interest. He asked for no money, no credit, and no reward.  He helped because he thought helping was the right thing to do – and he thought Jim was pretty cool!

Are there any other unheralded science or medical characters you think make for a worthy film?

Thousands. Truly. I am not aware of anyone ever making a narrative documentary about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist before, so there is a lot of material!I’d like them to discuss the role of science and the scientific method in building a country we can be proud of living in, and sharing with our children.

In researching and making this film, did you find the medical research world was becoming more diverse and inclusive, or does it still seem to have a ways to go in that regard?

The scientific community generally speaks a language of facts, testable theories, and long term progress. In these regards, it is inherently less connected to issues that trample on true diversity than many other fields.

As an example of this, in parallel with making Breakthrough, my colleagues and I also produced a companion book titled This Is What a Hero Looks Like.  We went to the annual meeting of American Cancer Researchers called AACR, set up an Avedon style photo environment, and photographed the first 300 folks who came by. We offered no money and asked nothing save a few personal details.

The 300 researchers couldn’t have been a more vibrant celebration of diversity. Almost equally men and women, widely diverse in age and ethnicity, they had been born, for example, in cities, towns, and rural villages in 80 different countries on all six continents.

Is the medical research community perfect on diversity? No. But it sure is diverse in ways that we can all celebrate.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Errol Morris’s Fog of War, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Kevin McDonald’s One Day in September.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

Telling the story of an inspirational way to shift the path of climate change.


Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.