‘Breakthrough’: Ana Lily Amirpour on How She Was Lured to Create an Animated Cancer Monster for Nat Geo

The acclaimed director joins Shane Carruth, David Lowery and more filmmakers to explore scientific innovations.
"Breakthrough," Episode 3 "Curing Cancer"
"Breakthrough," Episode 3 "Curing Cancer"
Asylum Entertainment

Art meets science on Nat Geo’s series “Breakthrough,” when critically acclaimed filmmakers like Ana Lily Amirpour decide to put their skills into telling stories about the latest innovations and how they can change our lives.

The “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” director spoke to IndieWire about why she decided to direct an episode of the series, which returns for a second season on Tuesday, May 2.

“I was excited to collaborate with Nat Geo because I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid; I grew up watching shows on nature and science with my Dad, who’s also a big fan,” she said. “And when I sat down with the producers of ‘Breakthrough,’ discussing possible topics I could tackle, I found myself drawn to the topic of cancer treatment without really knowing why.

READ MORE: IndieWire and FilmStruck’s ‘Movies That Inspire Me’: Ana Lily Amirpour Loves Robert Breton’s ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’

“Part of it was the angle; this was an optimistic discussion about cancer. With immunotherapy, doctors are harnessing the body’s own immune system in radical new ways. They are trailblazing new types of treatments that are able to take down diseases like cancer that have eluded us for years.

“Cancer is a scary word and also such a ubiquitous disease. Every single person I know has been touched by it. And in the months that followed me saying ‘yes’ to the show, someone in my family was diagnosed with cancer and suddenly the questions I was asking became very personal. It was a bittersweet and eye-opening experience. Talking about and understanding this disease is something that helped me deal with the experience of it, and I hope it can do the same for people who watch the show.”

Find out when Amirpour’s episode airs below, along with a guide to the other episode topics and when they’ll air:

"Breakthrough," Episode 1 "A Psychedelic Cure?"
“Breakthrough,” Episode 1 “A Psychedelic Cure?”Asylum Entertainment/Nat Geo

“A Psychedelic Cure?” – Episode 1

Director: David Lowery
Narrator: Mike Colter
Premieres: Tuesday, May 2 at 10 p.m.

Listening to the velvety-voiced “Luke Cage” star Mike Colter would transport anybody into a dreamy state, which may be why he’s narrating this installment about psychedelics. The episode follows English Countess Amanda Fielding, a drug policy reformer and activist, who wants to take the stigma off of psychoactive drugs and have people look at it as a useful tool.

Going off to an ayahuasca retreat in Peru or getting your hands on peyote may seem like unconventional remedies to outsiders, but it’s believed that psychedelics might have a profound effect on one’s behavior, especially those less than favorable ones. That’s right: psychedelic drugs are being explored as treatment for addiction, and in this world of overstimulation and excess, going back to old research could uncover the answers we need to change how our brains work… or malfunction.

"Breakthrough," Episode 2 "Cyber Terror"
“Breakthrough,” Episode 2 “Cyber Terror”Asylum Entertainment/Nat Geo

“Cyber Terror” – Episode 2

Director: Steven Hoggard
Narrator: Barry Pepper
Premieres: Tuesday, May 9 at 10 p.m.

“Saving Private Ryan” actor Barry Pepper lends his voice to this tale on (cyber) terror. The increase in cyber attacks isn’t just affecting our privacy and stealing our money; it’s creating major national security issues that could have disastrous effects on our nations and lives. For example, one “black-hat” ISIS hacker is trying to recruit suicide bombers to target a tourist site, but social psychologist Nafees Hamid is hoping to track him down.

But for every bad guy hacker out there, there is the “white-hat” good guy who is testing the limits of our security in order to keep us safe. “White-hat” hackers Jayson Street, Darren Kitchen and Khalil Sehnaoui reveal how they attend conventions for the latest hacking gear, combine coding with social engineering, and, yeah, even plan a bank heist.

“Curing Cancer” – Episode 3

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Narrator: Sheila Vand
Premieres: Tuesday, May 16 at 10 p.m.

Ana Lily Amirpour reunites with her “A Girl Walks Home at Night” star Sheila Vand, who acts as narrator for this exploration into the latest cancer treatments. Despite the disease’s ubiquity and devastating effects, Amirpour is unflinching and even positive in the way she approaches the topic. Using a toothy animated cancer monster, horror movie clips and interviews with top scientists and doctors, she paints a vivid picture of humanity taking on — and hopefully winning against — “the enemy among us.”

At the forefront is one therapy that created uber-powerful killer T cells from cells taken from cancer patients with a deactivated HIV virus. These new and improved T cells have even saved the lives of patients with Stage 4 cancer. In another treatment from France, “universal donor” T cells taken from healthy donors are deployed in patients who’s bodies won’t reject them. Re-engineering our immune systems is redefining how cancer is treated, and may be our answer to ridding ourselves of cancer for good.

“Game of Drones” – Episode 4

Director: Brendan and Emmett Malloy
Narrator: J.K. Simmons
Premieres: Tuesday, May 23 at 10 p.m.

READ MORE: ‘Genius’ Review: Einstein Gets a Superhero Origin Story, But a Human One Would’ve Been Enough

How can you say no to anything narrated with the warm, authoritative voice of J.K. Simmons? Throw in a punny title on “Game of Thrones,” a suspenseful aerial competition, and a topic relevant to everyone — whether they’re concerned with global warfare or Amazon packages — and the fourth episode of “Breakthrough” has across-the-board appeal. Focusing mainly on a two-week “unmanned aerial systems challenge,” more commonly known as the Game of Drones, Episode 4 will cover the exciting and terrifying aspects of these machines.

The Malloy brothers, who helmed the episode, are experienced music video directors, trained in capturing the energetic spirit of an array of artists, including Blink 182, The Black Eyed Peas, and Oasis. There’s little doubt they’d be be able to spice up even a less visually stimulating subject, but there’s plenty of opportunity in the air here.

“Predicting the Future” – Episode 5

Director: Shane Carruth and Kurt Sayenga
Narrator: Aaron Eckhart
Premieres: Tuesday, May 30 at 10 p.m.

READ MORE: The ‘Upstream Color’ Cheat Sheet: 10 Things That Might Help You Understand Shane Carruth’s Beguiling Sci-Fi Epic

The director of “Upstream Color” and “Primer” joins forces with an executive producer from the original “Breakthrough” series for an episode that sounds a lot like a modern take on “Minority Report.” Shane Carruth and Kurt Sayenga delve into the world of Deep Learning Neural Networks, a form of artificial intelligence analyzing data to predict the future. Some use it for weather forecasting while others use it to determine what areas will become hot spots for crime — a.k.a. where police need to send Tom Cruise next.

But while there are clear benefits to knowing what’s around the corner, there’s danger lurking as well. Experts like Harvard professor Pavlos Protopapas need the technology to give us enough time to prepare for an asteroid hitting the earth, but Dr. Eric Siegel warns that all that data wielded the wrong way can be just as easily turned against us. It might save the world or destroy it, which means who’s in charge of this fancy A.I. might mean the difference between life and death.

“Power to the People” – Episode 6

Director: Shalini Kantayya
Narrator: Chris Pine
Premieres: Tuesday, June 6 at 10 p.m.

Kantayya directed the Los Angeles Film Festival documentary “Catching the Sun,” making her the ideal candidate to put together an hour-long episode on harnessing the power of the sun to keep this world running. Power grids around the world are aging and will need to be replaced with new technology; quite possibly, micogrids. These self-contained power systems collect energy from the sun and store it in batteries.

Chris Pine narrates the final entry in “Breakthrough,” chronicling a dangerous journey made by a team of engineers on a mission to install one of these microgrids in a remote monastery. Punctuating that quest is a unique look at the future from the perspective of General Electric, which funded and produced the original “Breakthrough” series in 2015. President/CEO Steve Bolze and the Chairman of Energy & Finance for New York, Richard Kauffman, map out how alternative energy sources can help the world avoid a worldwide blackout, while spreading light to new corners of the globe

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