EXCLUSIVE: Filmmaker Trains His Lens on Unconventional Cancer Scientist
Jim Allison is the subject of filmmaker Bill Haney’s documentary JIM ALLISON: BREAKTHROUGH. ©Wyatt McSpadden.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Award-winning documentarian and business entrepreneur Bill Haney lost his father to cancer, which in part inspired him to make his newest film about a remarkable scientist who is leading the way in developing a cure for the deadly disease that has impacted most people on the planet or at least someone they know.

“Jim Allison: Breakthrough” profiles the titular scientist, who in almost every way—from his scruffy appearance to his groundbreaking ideas in the lab—is an unexpected hero. For the past few decades, the Texas native has inched closer to a viable way to defeat cancer, which not only has claimed some of his loved ones but also has afflicted him. (He has had three bouts with cancer, and has successfully fought it all three times.)

Allison won the Nobel Prize in 2018 for discovering the immune system’s role fighting cancer. It wasn’t an easy journey. He had to fight skepticism about the new field of immune-oncology from the medical establishment and resistance from Big Pharma. In the film, Allison’s tirelessly work in the lab pays off as a young woman fighting cancer is able to overcome the disease thanks to an experimental treatment process that Allison devises using cells from her own immune system.

Haney mostly has delved into topics involving social injustice including “The Last Mountain,” and “The Price of Sugar” but decided he wanted to make a film that would bring people of all political and economic stripes together against a common enemy: cancer, and to show how scientific study is an area where creativity is essential.

He phones from La Jolla in Southern California where he is meeting with a drug company on a matter related to one of his businesses that is developing drugs to cure cancer and neurological diseases.

Q: How did you and Jim Allison first cross paths?

Haney: I was determined to do a film about cancer, or at least to use cancer as a prism through which to see how people solve problems, and how they do it particularly with regard to science.

My historic films have been about injustice—how ordinary people react and find extraordinary things within themselves when faced with injustice, whether it’s environmental injustice, civil rights injustice. In the state our country finds itself, where the bonds of commonality seem to be shredded and polarization is the norm, I was looking at something that would unite us, and would be a way for us to work together to solve problems. Whatever the ugliness about cancer, one of its blessings is it’s something every American agrees on. Not a single American is pro-cancer. Sad to say that virtually all of us have been touched by cancer in some way. I was kind of determined to use cancer and this ground-breaking revolution for thousands of years without determinative effect.

This magical revolution in cancer treatment has been going on over the last decade. So, there’s sunshine coming out of the labs of the U.S. with regard to cancer. How did a group of people make this happen and how can we learn from that? Then there was the question of who would be the central character, and what would make this story human, joyful and inspiring, not just in this particular tale but in the life of the sciences generally, and that led me to Jim. In particular, it was his humanity and partially his essential role in this revolution of science.

I met him in person of 2017. I was aware of his work and his papers and I’d heard his speeches, but hadn’t spent time with him. Basically, I wrote to him that I’d like to make a film and do it this way. As another piece of it, I’d like to explore the notion of creativity in America. We think of actors, poets and playwrights as creative, but we don’t think of the scientists who reinvent the world around us as creative figures. And he wrote back that nobody makes films about that and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do it. We just gambled that he would have the emotional transparency and everyman qualities to go with his scientific credentials. So, the first time I met him was as we began filming together.

Q: Were you aware of him being a larger-than-life character, who enjoys playing the harmonica and has a fondness for Willie Nelson? He’s not your stereotypical lab scientist.

Haney: I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of Nobel Prize-winning caliber scientists and almost none of them fit the studious, head down, pocket-protector wearing, image that we see from pop culture. Certainly, there are engineers and scientists that do fit that type. I knew that Jim’s reputation was as the renegade that he is. I definitely had hopes that the fact that in the same week that he did Nobel Prize-caliber science and played harmonica with Willie Nelson on “Austin City Limits,” would play out as something that an audience could relate to.

Q: How much time did you have with him? And how was it getting his colleagues and those that are most familiar with his work to speak to you?

Haney: Jim was extremely open with me. I can’t say I understand every aspect of the scientific work he does, but I understand a lot of the science that he does, made him more relaxed. We got along pretty well. You can tell from the film, he’s an easy guy to go have a beer with. He gave, essentially, unlimited access, and so I didn’t have any scheduling challenges getting the people we interviewed in the film. The ones you see in the film are a fraction of the ones we spoke with. Everyone was very generous with us.

Q: Two things you’re able to convey in this film: one is how frustrating the process of conducting the clinical trials is for researchers and the minutiae of bringing new ideas forth so they can turn them into solutions, and the urgency of Jim’s own loss and his battle with cancer.

Haney: For the scientists and drug developers, this is very personal to them, just as it is with all of us. In Jim’s case, it’s especially personal because the cycle that he resolved by helping Sharon (the patient in the film with cancer) live and have a child was important to him because he lost his own mother to cancer as a child. So, he feels a keen sense of urgency. When it’s going badly, it’s more than academic frustrations.

One thing I have to say is that the FDA has gotten better. We don’t know what will happen with the recent change but the approval cycle that took 15 years for Jim would now take 10. Of course, it’s still longer than we would like but it’s still better than it was.

Q: There are success rates that researchers and drug companies have had to achieve with the clinical trials to meet the FDA requirements for approval. Has that changed?

Haney: Yes. The leading drugs were all chemotherapy and no one had invented an immuno-oncology drug before. Not surprisingly, with all paradigms about to be broken, (the FDA) had the guidelines of the previous paradigm. It was up to the drug companies to decide. Because it’s so expensive to run these trials—it’s $100 million a year, so every extra year is more. And because they themselves often have family members who are struggling with, for example, cancer. So, because they have the same human instinct to get the drugs to market faster, they’re allowed by the FDA to use one of two benchmarks to have their drug judged. One is the short-term survival data, where you show immediate improvement, and the other is the overall survival criteria Bristol Myers Squibb moved to. The FDA has offered companies the choice, and the companies have historically chosen the faster choice, for all the reasons you can imagine.

The FDA did, in this case, let the drug company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, change the choice, and agreed to the longer trials that led to this tsunami, where 10-15 years ago there were 10 people working immuno-oncology drugs, BMS was doing it, and now there are hundreds of thousands.

Q: Are there companies outside of the U.S. working on this that may not be subject to FDA regulations?

Haney: Yes, there are. The U.S. wrote most of the guidelines post-World War II for the west and the world followed. You can see that in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the language of all airlines in the world is English. You can see changes in drug development so there are big European, Chinese and Japanese drug companies. The biggest market in the world has been the U.S.  In order to sell here, they have to get along with the FDA, and most of the countries they’re in have learned how to regulate drugs from the FDA, so the U.S. explicitly and implicitly sets the guidelines, mostly. But that’s changing.

In immuno-oncology, there are a number of Chinese drug companies racing drugs to market. They have a different set of standards whereby time will tell if those are better or worse. I don’t actually know.

Q: How is Jim Allison’s health?

Haney: He’s genuinely doing very well. He has made it through the third bout of cancer successfully. Each of these treatment protocols leave a mark but he and I were together in New York this week and he was thriving. We talked again on Sunday and I’m meeting with him in San Francisco tomorrow. He’s well and scientifically as engaged and passionate about the next generation of work as he was about the first.

Q: How did you get Woody Harrelson onboard to narrate the film?

Haney: I feel very lucky. Having worked with Jim Allison, Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson, I feel like I’ve worked with the holy trinity of Texas. It was really Woody’s generosity. He had come to a previous film that I’d made and was favorably impressed. That one didn’t have a narrator but the previous movie that I had where I had a narrator was Paul Newman’s last movie. Woody’s just a generous spirited guy and he cares about these issues so I wrote him and told him I wanted somebody who could follow the emotional context of this in the role of the narrator but also someone who reflects the Texas background of Jim. He’s close with Willie Nelson so there’s a natural kinship. He did the film for free. He didn’t ask anything of us except to understand the intention of the movie.

Q: What’s your goal with this film?

Haney: What we’re trying to do now is how to make it different for our kids. That’s partly why I made the movie. I’d like to inspire the next generation of youngsters to become scientists, and understand that the life of a scientist can be joyful and inspiring. The target audience to me is a bright, 14-year-old girl who wants a creative, purposeful life. I want to give her more choices.