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Documentary filmmaker Mark Wexler set out on a four-year journey through the aging process and what it may be like to one day live forever. Don't let the subject matter throw you. How to Live Forever is a high-spirited exploration rather than a dour, finger-wagging sermon.

Wexler's trek took him to a Las Vegas funeral directors' convention and an Arizona cryonics facility. He also includes first-hand interviews with the king of fitness gurus, a former porn star, a 94-year-old surgeon, and the master of laughter yoga. And don't be surprised if he encounters a few martini-drinking, cigarette-smoking centenarians along the way. That's life-affirming!

How to Live Forever opens today at Landmark's La Jolla Village Cinemas. Writer-director Mark Wexler will be on hand Saturday, June 4 for a post-show discussion after the 4:45 and 7:30 pm screenings.

Read Matt Lickona's review.

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Fitness guru Jack LaLanne and Mark Wexler

Scott Marks: This is your third documentary as a director. How did you get into filmmaking?

Mark Wexler: I was a magazine photojournalist for many years working for Time and Life and National Geographic. I wanted to tell fuller stories and with filmmaking I could bring in music and interview people. It was a way to offer a richer experience. I love storytelling and feel that reality is much stranger than any kind of fiction. I also wanted to maintain a documentary feel, so I moved from photojournalism into making documentaries.

SM: Unless it’s a film directed by Ingmar Bergman, death is not a popular subject. Who is the target audience for this movie?

MW: I don’t think the movie is about death. People tell me after they see the film that it’s life-affirming and a very hopeful movie and — according to The New York Times — is lighthearted and has a great sense of humor.

SM: Perhaps confronting one’s own mortality is a better way of putting it than death, which sounds so final.

MW: Aging is a sensitive issue to a lot of people and a lot of people don‘t want to see a movie they think is going to depress them. I had the idea for it when I turned 50 and my mom passed away. When my AARP card arrived in the mail I started thinking if there are any ways to extend life. As a baby boomer, the idea of immortality, or at least living a very long life, is appealing. That’s what basically got me going on this four-year trek all over the world asking scientists, centenarians, comedians, and even porn stars what it would be like to live a long time.

SM: What was the general consensus of those you interviewed when asked if they wanted to live forever?

MW: I asked people if they would take a pill that would let them live 500 years. It was really split down the middle. Half the people said of course, and the other half said no.

SM: If given the choice, would you want to live forever?

MW: It depends on what day you ask me. Today, I’m having a pretty good day so I’d take the pill. Other days, maybe not.

SM: If I could stop aging and live for 500 years, you bet. I look at the way some people are when they hit 100 and can’t imagine how we’d look at 500. Like a dried-up sweet potato in a wheelchair.

MW: In the next 20 years it looks like we’re going to be able to extend our lives to 200 or 300 years. The model for this is when you turn 80, you should be able to replace body parts, etc. and turn the clock back to keep you around age 45. This time frame may be a little optimistic in that I think it may take a little longer, but a lot of the technology is definitely there and there’s more on the way. The first person has already been born who will live to be 1000 years old.

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SM: Considering the wide variety of characters in the film, why did you choose Buster Martin as your poster boy?

MW: Here’s a guy who is smoking and drinking and running marathons at 101. It’s pretty amazing and he’s a real character. People want to do all these bad things and still live a long life, and he is definitely doing that.

SM: My favorite moment in the film is when you are trying to get Buster to rephrase your questions so you won’t be heard on-camera asking them. He didn’t cotton to that.

MW: That’s one of my favorite moments, too. It told so much about his personality that’s alternately funny and so full of life.

SM: I have this problem with old-age humor. It seems that the older we get, people’s senses of humor seem to soften. As cute as it may sound, the idea of watching a group of seniors sing the Who‘s My Generation leaves me nonplussed.

MW: The centenarians all shared a few different things. One, they shared a sense of humor and also what they call in Japan ikigai, a reason to get up in the morning and do things. They are all internally optimistic and see the glass as half full. I had the pleasure of being around and soaking up these centenarians. It’s wisdom, too. Our society today is a very youth-oriented culture. It was really refreshing to be around these older people that do have so many sparks left in them.

SM: In too many cases entertainment that’s aimed at seniors seems to be kind of patronizing. I would hope that when I get older I’ll still be watching Scorsese instead of The Golden Girls and The Lawrence Welk Show.

MW: Your perception of what it will be like to get older is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those come true. Your mindset and your belief system about how you age really affect the process. One of the take-homes of the movie is while all those things are essential, how you think about things and what goes through your mind are equally as important

SM: As amusing as the film is, I would guess that at times this must have been a very hard movie to make. The film’s most poignant moment comes when Eleanor Wasson, the otherwise lucid 100-year-old, martini-drinking author, forgets where she is in mid-sentence.

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MW: When I interviewed her she literally glowed. She is an amazing person who could easily pass for 60. People in the audience gasp when it comes on screen that she’s 100. Even someone like Eleanor has their “senior moments,” if you will. I have plenty of them myself these days.

SM: Not to put a psychoanalytic spin on things, but you immediately mention your late mother in the beginning of the film. Why did it take an hour for you to get around to mentioning your dad, who is still alive and thriving?

MW: I did my dad already. (Laughs.) My last film, Tell Them Who You Are, was all about my dad and I wanted this film to be about my mom. My dad was a really important part of How to Live Forever, but my mom was the real inspiration for the film.

SM: Are you an only child or can we expect more sequels?

MW (Laughs.): My first film, Me and My Matchmaker, was all about a Jewish matchmaker and my dating life. The second one was about my family relationships, and the third tackles the meaning of life. My friends joke with me that I’ve done a trilogy.

SM: So there is a little Ingmar Bergman in you after all. After spending four years on this project, what take-homes impacted you as a filmmaker and a human being?

MW: I started out making the film thinking that I’d talk to a bunch of scientists, and they would tell me if I only ate 20 blueberries a day I’d get another year-and-a-half out of my life. As I made the film I soon realized that it’s not about the length of my life, but more about living in the moment and appreciating every moment. I tried calorie restrictions, which I think is a miserable way to live. I would definitely give up five years of my life to enjoy certain food groups. I think the take-home message is trying to watch myself and what goes through my brain — how you see the world and your belief systems rather than trying consciously to live a longer life. To live a happier and more fulfilled life is really the goal as opposed to anything to do with length.

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