Interview: Adam Savage

The star of the phenomenally successful Discovery Channel show MythBusters, Savage has years of experience in special effects and industrial design, working on blockbuster movies such as Star Wars and AI.

How It Works: Tell us a little about your latest series of MythBusters. Was there a particular moment that stood out when filming?
Adam Savage: Yes, sure. The very first episode of the new series is a special Mission: Impossible show. You see, every now and then something shows up on our radar that we can’t believe we have never thought up before. A lot of the time people ask us if we have exhausted the well of good ideas for the show, but then something shows up and we are astonished that we hadn’t thought of it.
The upcoming Mission: Impossible episode is no exception. We were looking into whether or not it was possible to wear a mask and trick someone into thinking you were someone else, in order to engineer a security breach like they do in the film. In the film they take a photo of someone, sculpt a mask and make a whole pull-over head appliance, where they do that hilarious reveal at the end where they supposedly pull off the mask to reveal the real person. We wanted to see how possible it was, so we hired these fantastic mask makers down here in Los Angeles, who took really detailed photos of us. We wanted to use the exact techniques as Mission: Impossible, so they photographed us and then sculpted these very scary, scarily accurate masks of Jamie Hyneman [fellow MythBusters host] and me. In some ways they look really strange as they don’t have us in them, but they are fully haired with a couple of days’ growth and all of our idiosyncrasies put into those masks, right down to skin blemishes. We tested them out on both members of the general public and on Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci [co-hosts on the show].
The question people ask us all the time is whether we are surprised with the results that we get. At several moments during the episode – and I don’t want to spoil anything – we thought that one thing would be the case, when in fact the exact opposite was the case. We were surprised at so many points during this episode, in every stage from the planning through to the execution. We were super-excited about what was going to happen, and consistently surprised about what we did. I know it sounds like the thing you would expect us to say, but honestly, as executive producers, Jamie and I get excited about everything we film.

HIW: President Barack Obama made a guest appearance in the last series. Can you talk about that experience and the myth he helped bust?
AS: It was a pretty amazing thing that happened last year. We were contacted by the White House about a year and a half ago, as the President was a fan of the show – he watches it with his daughters. He was giving a policy speech on the STEM initiative (science, technology, engineering and maths) to get children more interested in those fields, which he considered us key players in. He thought we made science cool and interesting, which is something we never set out intending to do. So we went there during his policy speech and he gave us a shout out and then started a conversation with the White House, who asked whether we would be interested in doing an episode in conjunction with them, and what that episode might be.
We bounced back and forth loads of ideas, before settling on the ‘Archimedes Solar Array’. First of all, that was the first ever project I tried to bring to the show, when I was just hired talent. I found the myth in a strange old book of mine and we tried to test it, and then test it again, but we never could do it the way I had imagined with soldiers on the shore. The White House wanted to figure out a myth that we could do that could involve middle-school and high-school students in our story, because that is who they wanted to reach to show how science is an excellent endeavour. Anyway, in a lovely bit of serendipity, the perfect location for filming was right across the bay from us here in San Francisco, and also right next to a public school where Jamie’s wife has being teaching science for the last two decades. Worlds collided in every way.

HIW: That’s very interesting, as one of things we wanted to ask you was how you see the current state of scientific tuition in America and the rest of the world. Is this an area that you feel is being neglected currently?
AS: I think the figures speak for themselves in terms of America’s placement in the world of science among students. It’s not great right now, it’s solidly in the middle. Our success as a nation, as with other countries, is absolutely dependent on innovation, and it is critical that we get more students interested in science. In addition, we have to be wary about the current onslaught of dilute science, with false debates about religious ideas. While I have no problem with religious ideas, I don’t think they need to be debated against scientific ideas. That debate is important, as at least it is helping to make the idea of science more available to people, but it is still something that needs to be guarded against.
Jamie and I work very hard to promote the idea of critical thinking as a creative endeavour, so we get a lot of complaints from people who write on the internet that we are idiots and we don’t know what we’re doing. Now while that may be true, it is not the point. While our experiment may be pitifully small and sometimes really rough and inconclusive, we are demonstrating critical thinking and creative process. A process where you may spend the entire day spinning a wheel, only to realise you’ve been asking the wrong question. Science is not guys in white lab coats clicking stop watches and endlessly timing tedious things; it is a vibrant and exciting field. Jamie and I – who have no scientific training – are thrilled every day from what we build in order to test things, and I think our audience are too.

HIW: You have years of experience in industrial design and special effects. Was this something you always wanted to do?
AS: Yes actually, it is something I wanted to do from a very young age. I saw Star Wars when I was 11 years old and it totally changed my life. From the time I was in late high school it was absolutely something I knew I wanted to do, and it took me about six years out of school to find the right intersection into the industry. I tried working for several different special effects companies in New York and San Francisco but it never seemed to pan out, as I have the inability to work in an environment where people are unhappy. You know, you go to a lot of work places and everyone is unhappy or in a bad mood, and I used to joke that I had every job I have ever had for either an hour or a year. If it was a crappy atmosphere, I would go and get a soda and never come back. But then Jamie gave me my first job in special effects, and it turned out to be like going to school for five years. I became his head model maker for four years before moving on, and it was a tremendous education.

HIW: We were going to ask you about that. Didn’t you go on to work at Industrial Light & Magic? How awesome was that?
AS: I had always wanted to work for ILM, George Lucas’s company. While I had been with Jamie I must have worked on about 200 commercials, one thing after another. It was completely varied, a hell-for-leather pace, and a great trial by fire. Then I left and began working for a toy company, but after a year I realised I didn’t want to be management, I wanted to be hands-on as a necessity. So I began to hammer away at Industrial Light and Magic, calling every contact I knew for three or four months, and eventually they brought me in to work on a small commercial – in the end, I stayed for five years.

HIW: Is there a particular project you worked on that our readers might be familiar with?
AS: As a place ILM is an entity all on its own, and as a place that made films like Star Wars, it fulfilled every fantasy. It is full of innovated, incredibly excited, aware and engaged people who, if you come up with a new way of doing something, would all come and crowd round to see what you were up to and add to it. Everyone was helping everyone out, so every film I worked on was some of the most fun I have ever had. I worked on Star Wars: Episode 1 and 2, AI, Space Cowboys, Galaxy Quest and Terminator 3, among others. While I can’t say that any of those were really great movies, I remember the times I spent working on really beautiful objects and with really fantastic pieces out of those movies so very fondly. It was a very important time in my life.

HIW: Just jumping back onto MythBusters, some of the stuff you do is pretty hairy – is it difficult to acquire health and safety clearances for the show?
AS: Early on we ran into a lot of roadblocks with the insurance companies. As you can imagine, Jamie and I represent a sizeable portion of Discovery’s income. As assets we have a value, and the insurance companies are not in the business of depleting that value or threatening it. But over the years as we have become better at designing things that we do safely, we have been given more freedom by the insurance companies, even though our stunts have got more elaborate and technically dangerous. This is not just because of our track record, but also our design team and fantastic safety officer, who is a stunt coordinator and stunt manager. He is the one who calls the insurance companies and calms them down.

HIW: And finally, what’s next on your
to-do list?
AS: Last year we signed a deal with Discovery to develop some new programmes for the channel; at the moment we are in that process, and it is really, really exciting. It is incredibly invigorating and exciting to create a show from the ground up, and we’re over the moon with some of the stuff lined up.

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