Jim Allison hadn’t been back to his hometown of Alice, TX, in 40 years when Bill Haney asked him to return there during the filming of “Jim Allison: Breakthrough.”
“I think, as is often the case with people who I make films with—it’s a voyage for discovery for them too,” said Haney, director, writer, and a producer of the documentary. “I think that Jim walking the streets where he was as a child, and where his brothers lived, and the school that he had been in, and the challenges he had at the school… reconnecting to it, it turned out, I think, to give Jim something, as well as I hope, the viewers something.”
Haney is a filmmaker, inventor, and entrepreneur.
Jim Allison’s personal connection to cancer, in losing his mother to lymphoma when he was young, as well as a brother to prostate cancer—a disease Allison has also survived—made the scientific aspects of “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” shine, Haney said.
“That determined individuality—and in Jim’s case with a sparkle of fun—creates a character that you can spend a lot of time with in Breakthrough,” he said. “That you feel a sense of care and you feel empathy not only for, but you feel empathy from. And so, I don’t think we could have made Breakthrough without Jim and I don’t think we would’ve wanted to.”
Why film a documentary about the development of immunotherapy in cancer?
“At a time when there’s a lot of pessimism about global climate change and income inequality, and immigration challenges, and the nature of democracy in America, for goodness sakes, here’s a really optimistic tale, where something we’ve been trying for 5,000 years to work on we’ve been succeeding,” Haney said.
There aren’t many documentaries about Nobel-winning scientists out there, Haney said.
“I think part of the reason for that is, where do you pitch the science? If you ask Jim—just make it a little simpler—he goes from genius to post doc with 12 years of experience,” Haney said.
Jim Allison helped make “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” work, in part, because he wasn’t concerned with his image on camera, and came across very naturally throughout filming.
“I’ve filmed a lot of folks, and some fantastic people, when the camera shows up, they freeze, they’re not emotionally open, they’re not comfortable in a conversation,” Haney said. “We need to have a journey of common humanity, and, and so when we really decided we were going to stick with this was after we filmed him for the first two, three days.”
On the day Bill Haney wrapped up filming of Jim: Allison: Breakthrough, it was announced that Jim Allison won the Nobel Prize.
“That made us want to accelerate finishing the films, including going to Stockholm and putting this thing in. We made the movie in about a year and that’s a fast schedule for a [documentary], especially for somebody like me, who’s got a couple of other jobs,” Haney said. “We are really happy that we were the number one film on PBS last year in terms of viewers, and I think that’s a good example where Jim winning the Nobel helped. It didn’t change the filmmaking, but it probably changed the footprint of the film.”
A podcast of the interview with Bill Haney appears above.
“Jim Allison: Breakthrough,” a documentary released in 2019, tells the story of 2018 Nobel Prize Jim Allison’s quest to cure cancer and the development of ipilimumab.
The film’s maker, Uncommon Productions, has been a contributor to the Cancer History Project since early 2021, and has published interviews from the documentary as well as an educational guide on CHP.
Bill Haney: I’ve been interested in environmentalism for a long time in part because we need it. I mean there’s a hundred billion known galaxies.
We know one planet that sustains life and we’re running a giant experiment on it right now, with unfortunately, in some cases devastating consequences. There was that, then I grew up at a monastery. I grew up on a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island where my father taught chemistry on this 500 acre campus that was, or is actually—the monastery’s mission was education. The Benedictine ethos, which is a lot about man in harmony with nature, I think also crept into me. This combination of an interest in science and the interest in making sure that our great grandchildren inherit a natural world similar to the one we inherited from our great grandparents.
Those two things, I think ,started a lot of this for me. I did, as you say, I began because I was poor. I started in business, partially, because I think of capitalism as a powerful engine, not a moral force unfortunately—but a powerful engine that can be directed toward constructive and principled outcomes.
The combination of this powerful force and the social need and the chance to use science in a constructive way, I think motivated me then, and kind of does now. If there’s a through line for me, it’s what you’re describing.
I’m interested in finding ways to develop using the inventive tools, and kind of discipline, and constructive community of science—ways for society to be healthier for individuals, communities, countries, starting with the air pollution control stuff that you described, and the eco-friendly housing approach.
Could we transform housing so the carbon footprint would be lower? And the indoor air toxics would be lower, and it would just be healthier for mom to raise your kids in. And led me to the biotechs I now run where we’re trying to cure breast cancer and lung cancer and Alzheimer’s.
BH: I think that they’re two halves of the same coin.
One of the ways I think about it is that the U.S. Constitution, the blessed force that reinvigorated modern democracy 200 and almost 50 years ago, it only codifies one right for Americans. It’s not freedom of speech or freedom of religion or the right to bear arms. Those come later, in the Bill of Rights.
The constitution itself protects one right. And that’s the right of a creative individual to the intellectual property that is the result of their imagination—copyright and patent. I think if you ask, when you’re up in New Hampshire, you ask the next 10 people you talk to to name 10 creative Americans, I dare say that they will name singers and actors, directors and playwrights, theater directors and novelists, poets.
I wonder how many will name the scientist. For me, these are just the same creative minds. Ideally, purposeful, structured, capable, muscular—affects each of these things the same. I’m interested in both. I find both fascinating. I feel like to not be doing creative work isn’t really emotionally sustainable. Once it’s in creative work, I think to think only about science or only about poetry would be like going for a run with only one leg. They influence each other completely. They form, for me, one holistic life view. I’m kind of interested, like that old GE expression, bringing new ideas to life. And whether the new idea is a screenplay, a play, a nonprofit, an invention, a company—those are really just the tools of the moment.
BH: It is.
Jim, Allison was something like my 15th or 16th movie. A couple of things affected the decision. Maybe let’s just say four. The first was the world around me that I see. So, if you took some of my earlier documentaries, not narrative films, I lived for part of three years with the poorest people in the hemisphere where Haitians worked to death in the sugar king plantations.
I spent time with a Catholic priest who had moved down there to campaign for their human rights and to improve their working editions and under, threat and challenge, watched what he did. You can imagine, there’s the very wealthy plantation owners, and there’s the impoverished, highly vulnerable, people who will live on average to 40 years old.
I made a movie called The Last Mountain in Appalachia. There was a fight for the last great mountain in central Appalachia between the mining companies who had been using the explosive power of a Hiroshima bomb every week for a decade, and had blown up thousands of mountains in Appalachia. It left rubble in the streams. There’s a fight for the last big mountain left between them and the locals who wanted to build a wind farm.
That of course was both explicitly a story and metaphorically a story. Different people would think about that differently, but you can imagine who feels like the good guy in this David and Goliath tale. Those kind of films—in a way that I didn’t intend because they reflected, to some extent what I just discovered before me—they were playing into an increasingly polarized America where stories started to fall on this left, right, Black, white, red, blue, north, south divide all the time. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the United States of America and the keyword there to me is the United part. I started looking for a story where the enemy wouldn’t be one of us.
Part of what drew me to the story about Jim is that the enemy, the bad guy, is cancer. One thing the beautiful diversity of America can agree on, is that there’s nobody who’s pro cancer. By having a common enemy, we could find our common humanity, maybe, through the film.
That was part of what drew me to it. The second was that, in a 3,000 year plus history, there are paintings inside temples in Egypt showing humans trying to cure cancer 3,000 years before Christ. Let’s call it the 5,000-year history of cancer. There have essentially been no cures up until immuno-oncology, but here we are at a moment where, not for all patients and not for all cancers, but for some patients and some cancers, there are really cures.
At a time when there’s a lot of pessimism about global climate change and income inequality, and immigration challenges and the nature of democracy in America for goodness sakes, here’s a really optimistic tale, where something we’ve been trying for 5,000 years to work on we’ve been succeeding.
Then there’s the tale of teamwork, because when I was a kid, the idea of curing cancer was kind of a joke. My mother would say to me, if I was late to dinner, what were you—curing cancer? Get to the table, because nobody was expecting that somebody was going to cure cancer.
And yet, Jim Allison and his extraordinary band of colleagues, because it’s ultimately a story of teamwork, showed how with resilience, and perspicacity, and imagination, and verve, and courage, and luck, and fortitude—you can actually solve big problems.
It’s both a tale and a metaphor. And then finally, of course, there’s just Jim, who is an extraordinary creative force, a true Maverick. If you read about Einstein, if you read Walter Isaacson stuff on Einstein, for example, what he talks about is that he was, irreverent, that he was a Maverick, that he, even as a child, was interested in the subject matter—but not in the bureaucracy that surrounded the subject matter, and willing to think differently, willing to be ostracized, willing in his case to go years and years and years. I mean he becomes a Swiss patent clerk because he can’t get a job as a professor, because they won’t give him a PhD, because he won’t write on the subjects they want.
That determined individuality, and in Jim’s case with a sparkle of fun, creates a character that you can spend a lot of time with in Breakthrough, and that you feel a sense of care and you feel empathy not only for, but you feel empathy from. And so, I don’t think we could have made Breakthrough without Jim and I don’t think we would’ve wanted to.
BH: I think I had the fertilized ground.
I made a bunch of movies. I knew what I thematically was interested in, but absent the seed, there is no plant. First it was Jim’s willingness…to be in a documentary as central as Jim is in breakthrough, there’s a lot of exposure. You either have to, and I think in this case Jim did both, have a great deal of trust in the director, and that their goal is ultimately constructive and accurate representation, and not gaffs and silliness.
You have to care about something bigger than yourself. If you read Aristotle’s rhetoric, the journey of a hero is about things bigger than themselves, right? That they take risks, increasing risks, for something bigger than themselves. That is the story of Jim Allison.
And because the story isn’t about him, and how do I look on camera, and did I say something and are you going to ask my mother? And then she’s going to say something, and I’m going to look bad, and people at work are going to give me grief. He had no interest in any of that because he wasn’t concerned about that, because he wasn’t concerned about himself.
That’s what got me to know I was interested, but of course I didn’t know how he’d be on camera. I’ve filmed a lot of folks, and some fantastic people, when the camera shows up, they freeze, they’re not emotionally open, they’re not comfortable in a conversation. You can tell immediately in a conversation who’s stiff and who’s not.
So we went to Texas and set up the system and began with Jim, and had the first two days gone badly, I would’ve thrown it all away and done something else. He proved to be as emotionally transparent. We need to have a journey of common humanity, and, and so when we really decided we were going to stick with this was after we filmed him for the first two, three days.
BH: Well, it’s a very complicated tale.
The first challenge is story structure, narrative structure. Essentially, we have four stories going forward in time, as master plots and subplots. And then we have one story going backwards in time. Finding a way for that to feel like an integrated whole was important and challenging.
I thought it was important to do it that way, in part because I wanted to get to the human benefit, and I wanted to give the viewer a chance to participate in the story as you might, if you had cancer, or somebody in your family had cancer. That required the courageous Sharon Belvin to be in the film, and then us to film her story in back order to the other story. That was a challenge. Narrative structure was complicated.
Then, of course, there’s what level of science are you going to represent? I’m fortunate in a lot of ways because I fundamentally make the movie I want to make, and don’t fret too much about if the movie industry doesn’t give it six rounds of applause because it doesn’t fit some traditional rubric. Bizarrely enough, the number of narrative feature films, documentaries on a Nobel Prize winner, ever, in the sciences, I think is zero before this. I don’t think it had ever been done. I haven’t found one. I think part of the reason for that is, where do you pitch the science? If you ask Jim—just make it a little simpler—he goes from genius to post doc with 12 years of experience.
Identifying who I wanted the audience to be. I kept saying, Jim, imagine you’re talking to a 12 year old girl, imagine that she wants to have an honorable, creative, purposeful life. And imagine she’s interested in the sciences, but thinks it could be pretty dreary.
We want to talk about it in some way that’s welcoming. How to do that, how to do the animation, how to cover this obviously complex biology, but in a way that is available to viewers who aren’t scientists. That’s a thin line to walk. Be accurate, but representative, and do it in a narrative way, not an expositional way, so you feel it more than you think it. We made it very quickly.
Jim won the Nobel Prize—literally we did our last day of filming on a Sunday in New York, and on Monday morning at 4 a.m., he won the Nobel Prize. That made us want to accelerate finishing the films, including going to Stockholm and putting this thing in. We made the movie in about a year and that’s a fast schedule for a doc, especially for somebody like me, who’s got a couple of other jobs. To make the schedule fit the unique circumstances of his award was also hard for me and the team—and the team did great.
BH: Very frankly, it didn’t influence the arc of the documentary, the filmmaking at all, other than how it extended it. The story had opened in the same way. It closed in the same way. Obviously we had somewhat different footage.
I think it amplified the footprint of the film. Our intention was not the most money for the film. Our intention was the most viewers for the film. Partially it was for some of the work you’re doing. I was down giving a talk at MD Anderson recently, and I sat next to a cancer survivor who decided to do immuno-oncology because he saw Breakthrough. And thank God, this poor man, was in terrible straits and has actually been in remission for five years now, or four years now.
Our intention with the film is to get it out, get it to schools, get it to patients, get it to clinicians, get it to scientists who are explaining it to their family, what they do, so they can work long hours on the next generation of immuno-oncology or, or some other discovery.
Lois Lawson at PBS was very interested in the film, and PBS is not the most lucrative place to screen your movie, but it does have a very big footprint because they screen it for free. We are really happy that we were the number one film on PBS last year in terms of viewers, and I think that’s a good example where Jim winning the Nobel helped. It didn’t change the filmmaking, but it probably changed the footprint of the film.
BH: I don’t think so. As I said to you, I was surprised at how extraordinarily uncommon films in this environment are. So that surprised me
BH: Films about the sciences, and of course cancer.
There are films that have a cancer person who’s more of a victim. That surprises me, the relatively little amount of films. The reception of the film has been very—I’m grateful for. We were in the middle of COVID, so all kinds of weird things happened or didn’t happen. More people may have seen it streaming than they would’ve. It wasn’t in theaters in America.
It’s opening in theaters in Germany this week. That’s a couple years after we finished it. There were moments of great generosity that I saw that I don’t know if they surprised me, but I found it really heartwarming.
Woody Harrelson narrates the movie, he does it for free. He couldn’t have been more spectacular. He just did it because he loved the movie and he believed in Jim and the story, and the reasons we wanted him were not his celebrity. We wanted him because he was from Texas—and Willie Nelson and because, Willie Nelson, Jim Allison and Woody Harrelson kind of represent a view of Texas and an ethos of Texas that probably isn’t the same one that Governor Abbott presently represents.
We saw a lot of generosity in that way. I think the number of people who really connected to the other scientists in the film was very heartwarming. That they saw a good example, for example, Jim’s extraordinary wife, whose own individual journey is an an utterly remarkable one, from fleeing, Guyana at night under political threat because she was from a Muslim and Hindu family—and under ethnic cleansing pressure, and her journey into America to become a gifted MD, PhD, and clinician, and work on the trials with Jim. These things were heartwarming, but I wouldn’t say surprising.
BH: Well, thank you.
I’m shooting a new movie right now, two new movies actually, but in the movie I’m shooting a documentary in the world of science now, and it’s more complicated to build the emotional connection. Not every not every documentary has the same degree of heart. I still watch “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” and I cry every time.
BH: I’m glad to tell you about it.
We’re shooting two movies right now. One is a cross country road trip movie, and it’s a coming of age story with actors, and kind of in a different world than this. The second movie is really an extraordinary tale that starts with the broad rollout of the mRNA-based vaccines, and then tracks back to the science and roots of both those drugs and the entire biotech revolution, which has gone, in my lifetime, from no employees in the world, to millions, from no drugs for patients to, every American taking biotech-derived drugs, essentially every year.
All play through the prism of another astonishing scientist, entrepreneur, thought leader, named Phillip Sharp, who grew up in the tobacco fields of coal country Kentucky, and in a long and circuitous route, won the Nobel Prize for discovering how mRNA works, and then trained the next generation of scientists and started biotech firms and is kind of the godfather of the mRNA revolution. We’re having fun with that and we’ve been filming for a month or two. We film again next week.
BH: I have a lot of reasons to thank Jim. He was very good with me, and he is very good with me. I’ll just say as an example, Jim Allison, by the time I’m filming him, has had a journey from his roots in rural Texas to a storied position at the university of Texas Austin, to Berkeley, to Memorial Sloan Kettering, to winning the Nobel prize, etc., to back to MD Anderson, where he is at the center of pioneering immuno-oncology. He has kicked off a revolution that’s going wildly beyond his initial ideas as science does. He kicked off a revolution and now there’s evolution everywhere.
He had not been back to his very small hometown where he had a very complicated adolescence in 40 years. When I asked him to drive, I said, but it’s only a couple hours from here.
He said, “Yeah, I haven’t been in 40 years.” And I said, “How would you like to go? And he goes, “No, I’m not sure I really want to go.” But he very generously did come with me, and we went back to Alice, Texas, and I think, as is often the case with people who I make films with—it’s a voyage for discovery for them too.
They discover who they are in a different way than they understood before. I think that Jim walking the streets where he was as a child, and where his brothers lived, and the school that he had been in, and the challenges he had at the school. This was a creationist Friday Night Lights, no evolution kind of place, as you know, and reconnecting to it, it turned out, I think, to give Jim something, as well as I hope, the viewers something.