Considering the whimsical iconography of Bill Nye, a documentary on him should only expect to have the lighthearted charm of the zany, perpetually bowtied educator whose PBS show Bill Nye the Science Guy inspired a generation of kids to explore the sciences.
That was the original plan for the upcoming film Bill Nye: Science Guy, an engaging documentary portrait of Nye premiering in the Bay Area this Friday, Nov. 17.
“But then Donald Trump got elected president, and everything got readjusted,” Nye said recently while backstage at the Marines Memorial Theatre before a public discussion with the environmental nonprofit Climate One.
“We focused on his beginning as a comedian in Seattle on a show called Almost Live. We actually saw Bill do stand-up in present day,” San Francisco filmmaker and co-director Jason Sussberg said of the film’s early focus. “We had to cut all this levity out because all of a sudden it felt wrong given the state of affairs, the state of science.”
Instead, the film shifted toward Nye’s current efforts combating the growing anti-science movement, whether through his battles with influential climate skeptics and creationists, or his efforts with The Planetary Society, the space exploration nonprofit that Carl Sagan (once Nye’s college professor) founded and for which Nye serves as CEO.
“Science has always been political. What you want is not have it be partisan,” Nye later said on-stage to applause from the visiting audience.
In the years since his PBS show ended in 1999, Nye, now 61, has ascended into a sort of cult hero status among millennials and eventually become, as his friend Neil Degrasse Tyson says in the film, our “science statesman.” Just this year, Nye has released a new book, Everything All at Once, and another science education show on Netflix, Bill Nye Saves the World.
Yet Nye remains somewhat perplexed when scientists the world over credit his Science Guy show as the inspiration for their careers.
“I still am overwhelmed by it,” Nye said. “And understand, we made the thing in a warehouse in Seattle! And we did it there because the rent was cheap.”
The fame, though, carries its own scrutiny with it. Political pundits, and even scientists, have levied criticism at Nye as the spokesperson for concerns some claim he is untrained to deal in. Sussberg’s documentary partly chronicles these frustrations, along with the motivations and at times vulnerable personal history of Nye the person, under the weight of his icon status.
Nye, who signed away creative control to the film for the sake of an honest portrait, squirms at these peeks behind the curtain. At one point in the film, a neurologist appears to psychoanalyze Nye, digging briefly into his personal life.
“None of your business, man!” Nye said with a laugh in reaction to seeing these moments on-screen.
But he still relishes the job — in spite of, if not because of, the heightened exposure. In another instance in the film, a friend tellingly explains that Nye’s desire was always to become famous, an assumption Nye takes slight issue with.
“I like being on television. I like it! The same way you’ll meet people who like being on stage,” he said. Backstage at the screening, Nye was noticeably more grounded than onstage, where he tilted answers with comedic add-ins for a readily indulgent audience. “But what I really wanted, I tell everybody — it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be famous. I wanted, still want, to be influential.”
Nye sees his influence as perhaps more urgent than ever amid the politically and culturally fraught moment surrounding climate change and science as a whole. The personal attacks are peripheral baggage to Nye’s concerns over the currently dubious treatment of fact and truth.
But Nye remains optimistic, especially on the response to climate change.
“I think it’s going to turn around like that,” Nye said, snapping his fingers. “Climate deniers are almost all of a certain age, and when they stop being influential, people who are young right now are going to take over and turn the whole thing around. The question is, will it be fast enough?”
While Nye and The Planetary Society look to revolutionize space travel with their solar-powered LightSail spacecraft (a large focus of the film), Nye sees an incoming wave of change, from none other than the generation who grew up watching the "Science Guy."
“I think when they get to be captains of industry, the world is going to change for the better. People will respect facts again,” Nye said. “I think that’s coming, but it’s 10 years away.”
'Bill Nye: Science Guy' opens Friday, Nov. 17 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, and Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley. Director Q&As will follow select showings. For tickets and more information, click here.