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Awareness: Get to know ‘Beating Superbugs’ filmmaker Bill Mudge

Bill Mudge has had tremendous success in multiple fields. He earned an MBA at the Stern School of Business at NYU and spent 16 years as a financial analyst for Merrill Lynch. Despite his lucrative position, Mudge felt compelled to push further. He attended the San Francisco Film School to cultivate his passion for documentary filmmaking. In the decade plus since his graduation, Mudge has gone on to helm documentaries on topics as varied as cancer and paratroopers.

Mudge recently made his feature film debut with Beating Superbugs: How Can We Win? The film explores the real-life bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics, and the potential threat they pose to society. We had the pleasure of talking with Bill Mudge about his career, his new film, and his desire to spread this crucial information.

Here’s what he had to say:

Tell us about your history in filmmaking. How did you start your journey? 

I started, as many do, as a production assistant for a documentary while I was in high school, and then again over the summer between college semesters. 

You spent 16 years as a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch. What inspired you to change career paths and pursue filmmaking? 

I was always interested in the visual arts. I majored in Art History at the University of Chicago but I also studied Computer Science, mostly because I was fascinated by both subjects. Predictably, one interest led to quick employment yet the other helped in indirect ways when, as part of my duties, I designed complex user interfaces for financial software. But ultimately, I needed to shift my focus mostly to making films instead of software.

Did your time as an analyst and software developer influence your approach to filmmaking? 

Outwardly, my experience in designing software interfaces and internal components help clarify the need to layer complexity in a manageable way for large numbers of users, as well as other software engineers. Your phone will never stop ringing until you grasp that essential fact. The other extreme is that your phone will fall silent if your audience finds a reasonable alternative. 

Effective visual storytelling in filmmaking is very similar to leading viewers through a complicated subject in a software program. The big difference is maintaining focus on engaging characters and their challenges along the way rather than delivering a specific end result. This emphasis has been true since ancient Greek dramas were written — technology has not fundamentally changed that.

Inwardly, many technological concepts, including object-oriented programming, actually helps manage a feature-length film timeline to help maintain consistency and contain complexity. 

It’s not that you necessarily have a better film per se but these techniques can make changing things much faster, less error-prone, and save you from needing to hire an assistant — a key consideration for a small team like ours. Regardless, there’s still a great deal of work involved.

You attended San Francisco Film School to study documentary filmmaking. What was the most difficult part of the process to master? 

No one thing qualifies as the single hardest thing to learn in film school. Here are my top five:

1) Balancing Rapidly Changing Technology and Visual Storytelling. No matter how good your production quality is no one will care unless you’re telling a great story. There are always newer and better cameras and post production software with a blitz of marketing campaigns to brainwash you into thinking that your films can be fundamentally better if you buy them. 

Ex-technology people like myself need to be very selective about the latest gear hype — sometimes from other film school classmates. Instead, you must find an equilibrium that lets you do justice to your story in ways that your audience will notice and care about, but not too much more. Your computer-driven filmmaking tools are like fresh eggs; the best film you could make could be timeless.

2) Recognizing What Matters. Learning to distill detailed scientific source material into key characters and conflicts that work in film, which is poor as a comprehensive medium, is vital. Scientific documentary films like ours are far more effective when they concentrate on a few memorable key facts and their emotional impact on strong personalities and their experiences. Trying to say everything effectively says nothing.

3) Being Clear the First Time. Pacing, as well as limited detail, throughout the film is important so that most viewers will understand and remember your core messages in a single viewing. Also, some artful repetition and paraphrasing helps to compensate for how distracted modern audiences have become.  

4) Accepting Frank Criticism. Sometimes brutal yet well-reasoned feedback is actually saving you from spending large amounts of time, money, and energy on a bad film idea. Other times, you are just hearing someone whose tastes and interests differ from yours. Always ask how you could be better, knowing that only a few of the better critics can answer those questions really well. Finally, you must learn to balance a range of feedback with the understanding that you can’t please everyone. 

5) Understanding that Good Films Stand on their Own. You cannot be in everyone’s living room to explain why your film is not entertaining or clear to them. Almost no one cares what you meant to say if your film falls short. A better movie is only a few clicks away.

Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them? 

It helps enormously to take an interest in the projects that your potential mentors are doing. Your initial efforts can help them concentrate on their core film ideas and you will get the opportunity to start meaningful conversations about the content, and eventually influence the final product.

What makes documentaries more compelling to you than fictional narratives? 

At their best, they inform as well as entertain. They can share a distinct point of view and enlighten people very rapidly. They are also comparatively inexpensive to produce which means you’re more likely to get them done.

Your new film, Beating Superbugs: Can We Win?, focuses on bacteria that is resistant to most antibiotics. What was the inspiration behind the topic?

When I made a short film about basketball star Grant Hill and his repeated encounters with resistant staph, or MRSA. Injuries to Hill’s ankle during play led to a series of operations which spawned his recurring infection. Portraying Hill’s case piqued my curiosity about superbugs in general, and from that moment, the idea was born for this encompassing exploration of how to deal with them. 

In the handful of other films on this subject, none known to us explores, as does this one, the global economic, political and pharmaceutical forces now aligned to help science mount a successful superbug challenge.

Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has made the public more receptive to learning about Superbugs? 

The pandemic has forced keen awareness of a topic that most people would rather not talk about. Most importantly, we emphasize real solutions rather than feeding an all too pervasive crisis fatigue. Regardless, there’s nothing quick, cheap, or easy about containing superbugs but it definitely can be done.

You have several first-hand accounts of Superbug encounters in the doc. Which accounts stood out to you as particularly unnerving? 

Grant Hill’s near-death experience was perhaps the most unnerving because he’s someone who has access to the best of everything. It was also an early example of how a seemingly routine ankle surgery could have life-threatening complications. In short, his ordeal shows that superbugs can threaten anyone.

What did you learn about Superbugs that you did not know prior to filming? 

The sheer variety of different superbugs is astonishing and how a similar range of countermeasures is vital to combat them. I now understand that finding and deploying solutions has as much to do with politics and economics and cultural norms as the underlying science.

The doc features animated segments in addition to live-action interviews. How closely did you work with animators on getting the look you wanted? 

Rather than work closely with animators, I decided to become one. As someone who has always been intrigued with the combination of aesthetics and technology, it struck me as a natural fit. That said, our film uses the combined work of hundreds of 3D modelers around the world whose work helped to tell our story. Being “hands on” in this part of the film helped me enormously in working out the visual details that I would never have considered unless I sat down to both imagine and realize them myself.

Beating Superbugs: Can We Win? is your feature debut after several shorts. What was the biggest difference between directing a feature and directing a short? 

Interweaving multiple stories is a major issue for both the writing and directing of a feature-length film that rarely exists in a short. Another challenge is revising a complex story over time about a subject that’s a moving target. At one point early in our work we had to consider whether we still needed to create yet another problem awareness film vs. one about solutions, we found, went well beyond science.

Did the pandemic affect the production or post-production process at all? 

We filmed in Boston in mid February 2020 just before the public knew about COVID-19 in the US, although in retrospect, it was already here. We were very lucky to have finished our last interviews  just before COVID-19 limited travel and most other film production. Our team, however, has been working remotely since the beginning of the project so we had minimal disruption. 

Would you consider doing a follow up documentary when more information about Superbugs comes to light?  

We would need adequate funding and demonstrated interest in our existing film to consider that. Also, the essence of our story does not depend on any particular scientific breakthrough. 

What is the most important thing you want viewers to take away from Beating Superbugs: Can We Win? 

We can contain superbugs. It will take global coordination but there’s no good reason why we can’t stop the next pandemic. There’s no single “magic bullet” that will save us. Individual behavior like simple handwashing and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics in their own health care and food choices make a huge difference. 

Governments, universities, and corporations must also work together to manage existing drug use and keep the antibiotic pipeline stocked with enough new treatments to contain superbugs. Always remember that natural evolution guarantees we’ll never be done, just better prepared.

What has been your greatest success? 

In the film world, I did a short promotional video for a World War II-style aerial demonstration team that recreates the experience of training for parachuting into enemy territory. It was a production designer’s dream because everything from the uniforms to the airplanes are completely authentic, except for modern safety improvements that don’t show up on film. At one point, more than 1,000 new people a day were watching it.

What about your biggest failure? What lesson did you take away? 

One of my early film school projects was a complete disaster. Everyone agreed that it was beyond salvaging. What I learned was that my own sense of humor in a particular story did not translate well to film and that comedy is one of the toughest things to do well. It’s ironic because some of the funniest things on film seem effortless.

Is there a topic you still want to explore in a documentary format? 

Yes, but I’d need to keep the idea under wraps for now. Like our current film, it’s also a scientific subject.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers? 

Make sure you choose a truly important topic that you can handle in a reasonable amount of time. What you consider reasonable is up to you but know that most documentary filmmakers look back on most of their projects and find it hard to believe how long it took to get the result they wanted.

What is your favorite documentary of all time? 

Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. I admire it because it’s a great example of how a film can actually change the way people think by engaging them in the most artful yet significant way.

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