Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, public intellectual and bestselling author of books including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion and The Magic of Reality.
During a world tour advocating reason and science over religion, Richard and American physicist Lawrence Krauss were followed by a documentary film crew. The result is The Unbelievers.
We caught up with Richard whilst he was signing copies of the newly-released DVD at HMV, and asked him about his experience making the film.
Richard, tell us a bit about the genesis of The Unbelievers. Whose idea was it and how did you get involved?
It wasn’t as far as I knew, carefully planned, it rather kind of came together. Lawrence met the two brothers [Gus and Luke Holwerda], who are the producers, and was very impressed with them. They had already filmed both Lawrence and me, and I think the two of us together. I don’t know who then had the idea to make a proper film of it, but Lawrence found financial support, and then it was underway. The Holwerda brothers came with us to Australia, to Britain and so on. By then they knew they were making a film, so they did a lot of filming of travel shots – getting on and off planes and trains, and things like that – but I must say they were marvellous, because they were very unobtrusive. It was almost fly on the wall.
That surprises me in a way, because the Holwerdas were known prior to The Unbelievers for music videos.
Yes, but they were so discreet about it I was hardly aware to begin with that filming was going on (laughs)! Then it became clearer that it was definitely going to be a film.
This is a different sort of project for you. You’ve filmed many documentaries, of course, but The Unbelievers is almost like a ‘rock stars on tour’ kind of film.
I think that was the atmosphere they were trying to project. They edited it very skilfully. Naturally, since we were answering questions from different audiences all over the world, there was a lot of overlap, and they managed to cobble it together so that the overlap wasn’t obvious.
The atmosphere is appropriate –after all you get thunderous receptions from big audiences around the world: a bit like a rock star?
Well, in a minor way, in my own very limited circle, I suppose so.
Your book, The God Delusion, and up to the film The Unbelievers, has created a zeitgeist. What is it about the science versus religion debate that’s caught the public imagination so much in recent years?
There were four or five books that came out at pretty much the same time, and pretty much coincidentally. There was no concerted plan. I guess that had an impact.
You have a good rapport with Lawrence Krauss, your co-star.
Yes, I think he’s very amusing, we do get on very well.
You catch up with him in the States?
Well… the States is a big place! If I happen to be in Arizona, then certainly. I’m on a board of the institute that he runs, so I go there from time to time.
Are you hoping the film will reach a wider, or different audience, than your books?
Of course. Let’s see what happens. This event was very encouraging, with a few hundred people.
Let me ask you about the 30,000 like-minded people who came together for the Rally for Reason in Washington DC, which is seen in the film. Can that be topped?
I would hope it would be topped at another time in fine weather. It was raining – rather horribly, so it was a pretty good achievement to get that crowd. It got very, very little press coverage: that was extremely noticeable.
If you’re aiming to top it, might there be an Unbelievers 2?
I don’t know about that, but another Reason Rally is certainly possible.
Finally, can I ask if you’re worried about any backlash from the offended? I’m thinking of the residents of Slough, after you quote John Betjeman’s poem…
Did I quote that poem?
It’s on the extras. You’re on a train passing through Slough, and you’re presumably explaining about it to Lawrence…
Oh no, how awful! I’d completely forgotten that. I haven’t seen the extras at all. But did you know, the Mayor or incorporation of Slough or whatever it is had a very nice reconciliation with John Betjeman. I don’t think they actually presented him the freedom of the town, or anything like that; but he was a good sport and went along for a civic reception!
That’s a lovely note to end on. Thank you for talking to us, Richard.
Thank you very much.
The Unbelievers is available on DVD now through Revelation Films.