South By Southwest 2019 Interview – BREAKTHROUGH director Bill Haney

“Rebel. Pioneer. Cancer survivor.  Nobel Prize winner. Musician. Texan. Jim Allison. Breakthrough is the astounding, inspiring, true story of Jim Allison’s stubborn, visionary and extraordinarily successful quest to find a cure for cancer.” Director Bill Haney on BREAKTHROUGH which screens at the 2019 edition of SxSW Film.

I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favourite aspects of the city.

The Price of Sugar was my last film at SxSW, and I had a blast in Austin!  The music and old Texas scene at The Broken Spoke, the crazy beautiful tacos and Maria’s Taco Xpress, the bar at the Driskoll and, dare I say it, the handmade cowboy boots at Heritage Boot seem to all have stayed in my memory somehow!

So how did you get into this movie-making business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I was camping on the shoreline of the world’s last undisturbed grey whale nursing lagoon – in Baja Sud – working with the environmental group the NRDC to try to stop Mitsubishi Chemical from building a petrochemical plant there.  Whales were breeching by day and night, and the sounds of their bellows filled the air.

My partners in the effort and I were having a drink by the fire late one night, spitballing about how we could spread the word about the destruction Mitsubishi was going to bring to both the whales and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, when someone suggested we ought to make a film.

Everyone else agreed, and then demurred for themselves.  Not me, not me.

I was slow on the draw – too much tequila – and the last to reply.  So I was voted to become responsible for the film that became A Passion for the Wild.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Honestly, as I only direct documentaries, I am largely driven by my conscience pounding at me to honor the people who trust me with their stories.  But I do listen to way too many baseball games …
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?


BREAKTHROUGH tells the story of an extraordinary man’s bold, irreverent and blessedly successful quest against all odds to cure the disease that has savaged his family – cancer. To honor his accomplishment, three months ago, he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Sharing the scientific details of his work, in a way that is both accurate and non scientists find engaging and compelling, was a core challenge for the film.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I love the audiences in Austin – which happens to be where Jim Allison, our film’s lead, got both his BA and PHD!


After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

BREAKTHROUGH will be both in more festivals, and in theaters around the US after SxSW.


If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

BREAKTHROUGH highlights the astonishing benefits, for who among us wouldn’t like to see cancer cured, when a gifted team uses facts to form conclusions, makes bold and socially constructive plans to share what they learn, and has the courage and selflessness to supports one another on the difficult journey to making the world a bit better. Seems like we should be screening the film in Washington.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

Their behavior tells more about them than I ever can.


We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Do it for the love of storytelling.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

An unexpected, unheralded and largely unknown delight that I saw at Telluride one year is the documentary CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. I have never met the film maker, but his artful, humble, humanistic eye and pragmatic, scale appropriate, style has stayed with me.


This is one of the many film titles playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to http://www.sxsw.com/film!

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