Tuesday, May 17th marks the second anniversary of a breathtaking event we should all know of, but don’t… One that set the stage for the making of a gothic horror film involving a cast of thousands, perhaps millions. The backdrop: an open Colorado sky; golden wheat fields; rows of whirling windmills — and sinister forces lying beneath. The basic plotline: a trio of military airmen; a rogue missile; an alarming ‘nuclear accident’ — followed by a major Air Force cover-up. Very few people knew. Too bad it wasn’t fiction.
Yet the details of this under-reported near catastrophic incident — that could’ve rocked our world, inside out, in less than five minutes — remain ‘classified’. Was this ‘nuclear mishap’ due to faulty equipment, hasty training, perhaps a cyber attack? We’ll likely never know. Yet there have been countless other accidents to date, worldwide. For this reason and more, filmmakers Eric Schlosser, Smriti Keshari, and Kevin Ford — the audacious co-directors of the bomb, a new groundbreaking, multimedia installation about the perils of complacency in our atomic age — want you to wake up!
“It’s like a murderer hiding in your basement; just because you don’t see him, it doesn’t mean he’s not there,” cautions Schlosser — also a renowned investigative journalist — whose vivid non-fiction book, Command and Control, on the dangers of our nuclear ignorance, ultimately inspired the making of the bomb. Debuting on eight screens at once, the large-scale immersive film and musical experience was coined Tribeca Film Festival’s “most ambitious” world premiere yet. Individually celebrated media artists in their own right, Keshari (Food Chains), Schlosser (Food, Inc), and Ford (Stone Barn Castle) formed their vision, profoundly shaped by Keshari’s instinct to “create an experience that had a deeper, almost multi-sensory connection to these weapons.”
Using art as an alarm clock, and live score to mesmerize, this cinematically forward filmmaking trio collectively teamed with powerhouse collaborators — United Visual Artists (on staging), Stanley Donwood (on art direction), The Kingdom of Ludd (on animation), and The Acid (on live score) — to help sensorially underscore the unsettling urgency of their message. Their collective work asserts: “If we could see these weapons, we would be more aware of them, and we would be scared. The way you might feel sitting in a small room with a grenade, even if the pin wasn’t pulled.” Ford further warns, “Accidents can happen. Machines are not perfect.”
Through graphic and audio rhythm and repetition, the bomb exists as an experiential film project, positioned “at the intersection of art, politics, and technology.” Boldly colorful marching formations of female soldiers from the East, kitschy b&w Cold War PSAs from the West, phallic weaponry ready to launch, hypnotic mushrooming explosions, scientists proselytizing, shell-shocked blast survivors; these merely scratch the surface of the imagery that alternately stuns, allures, and bombards its captive audience, encircled by octagonal projection, while a haunting soundscape surrounds.
Spellbinding. Sexy. Disturbing. Revolting. The experience is many things. Soon heading to other cities, the bomb closed the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival with a cinematic bang, yet opened a conversation worthy of your attention. We asked the dynamic collaborators — Eric Schlosser, Smiriti Keshari and Kevin Ford — to take the lead.
L.A. COLLINS: Simply put, how would you best describe the bomb to someone curious?
SMRITI KESHARI: “the bomb” is an immersive film and music experience, which puts viewers in the center of the story of nuclear weapons. The film is projected 360 degrees on massive floor to ceiling screens that surround the audience, as The Acid performs a live score in the center of the space.
KEVIN FORD: The audience stands in the middle of it all and is immersed in the feeling of the subject, which is nuclear weapons.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: A powerful, memorable life experience with great music.
LC: With Eric’s book, Command and Control, at the heart of the project — how did it shape what you wanted to reveal, expand upon, as collaborators?
KF: Eric’s book was a true wake-up call for me, and it took something as hard-to-comprehend as the threat of nuclear weapons and broke it down into very human terms. Accidents, for example. We can all relate to that … Using his book as an emotional guide, the goal was to create a film experience that would hit people’s hearts and allow them to feel the importance of all of this.
LC: Besides time and distance from the Cold War era, why are more recent generations much less pre-occupied by the topic of nuclear danger?
ES: These weapons are literally out of sight and out of mind, hidden away in underground bunkers and submarines beneath the sea. People under the age of thirty have no memory of the daily fear these weapons used to inspire. We’ve forgotten they’re out there.
LC: Growing up, what was your knowledge about nuclear threat vs. finally reading about it in Eric’s book?
SK: Throughout the years, I was aware of the headlines about nuclear weapons. But they always felt like a foreign concept. I never thought long enough about it or really understood the gravity of them …That is, until I read Command and Control. I personally understood the reality of living with these weapons. I couldn’t stop thinking about it…
LC: And with that, why is it an imperative for newer generation to be aware?
KF: With our nuclear weapons arsenal, we are literally sitting on ticking time bombs … And if a nuclear weapon were detonated in or near one of our cities, that city and its population could be literally wiped off of the map. It is a real threat right now because there are around 15,000 live nuclear weapons on the planet, and everyone of all ages needs to know about the dangers of these weapons — what they are capable of — and think about the possible consequences of a detonation, by accident or intentionally.
LC: Academy award winning actor/activist Michael Douglas, star of the 1979 nuclear plant thriller, The China Syndrome, participated in a great TFF panel discussion that preceded the bomb’s premiere. Having an ally in him, what does it mean to you?
ES: Michael Douglas is a thoughtful, generous man who truly cares about this [nuclear proliferation] issue — and has decades of experience in dealing with it. We are really grateful for his support.
LC: At times it seemed all eight screens played the same imagery, at other times they alternated. How it was to coordinate, or rather choreograph, all this material?
KF: We really leaned heavily on the brilliant minds at United Visual Artists to help us with spreading our film — which was edited on a single screen in the edit room — to the eight screens in the venue. They are absolute artists in what they do — using their own software even — and they were very aware of our intentions and helped us to create the interactive experience that you saw there.
LC: There’s definitely a visually absorbing and self-consciously manipulative (in a good way) aspect of the bomb. Your thoughts on using repetition, and color, and imagery?
SK: As a filmmaker, I always look at how composition and sequences to give deeper meaning. Often a scene can have so much emotion, without a single piece of dialogue. As we were diving through the hundreds of hours of footage, we focused on [that] … Whether it was a parade of perfectly lined soldiers and weapons, framing nuclear weapons as the ultimate symbol of power, or going into the blueprints of the machines to see their beautiful construct and sheer ingenuity.
ES: We wanted the film to be hypnotic and, at times, beautiful. These weapons have a strong allure. They’re cool-looking machines, and they symbolize immense power. But they also represent a profound death wish. “Sustainability” is a major buzzword today; even big corporations claim to support it. Well, nuclear weapons, in every way, represent the exact opposite of sustainability. They appeal to the urge for self-annihilation.
KF: Smriti, Eric, and I tinkered endlessly to find that balance that you describe. Each of us has our own sensibilities and so sometimes it was about pushing and pulling with each other to find those patterns, or to work on the overall flow of things.
LC: A piece of archival material — visual footage or audio recordings — that you find utterly alarming, or dangerously humorous, or hard to forget?
KF: There’s a shot that I can’t seem to forget that was pulled out of the final edit, and it showed a dog with half of its face missing — melted away — the result of an intentional nuclear blast test by the military. Very hard to forget that. In terms of humorous, it would have to be the absurd U.S. propaganda clip — by the “National Fix Up-Clean Up-Paint Up Bureau” which implied that people who had freshly painted homes might fare better in a nuclear blast. Their homes wouldn’t burn as easily — or something ridiculous like that?! …
LC: It was all SO sonically gripping in its rhythm and music. What were the discussions around the bomb’s soundscape and music? How did you experience the Acid’s score?
ES: The music had to be compelling in its own right. It had to be good enough so that you’d want to play it, without any film or visuals. The Acid wrote a score that takes you on a journey that’s thrilling, terrifying, and ultimately life-affirming. I can’t tell you how many people have asked where they can buy the soundtrack. The band did an incredible job not only in creating the score but also in performing it live, without any tape loops.
SK: As a viewer, at times it felt like The Acid was controlling the entire life performance of the screens and there was something incredibly symbolic about having them at the core. Ultimately, The Acid took you deeper in the emotional journey of the film, subtly integrating into the tension and build of the experience.
LC: You must’ve spoken with some of the attendees after… any curious, and/or notable reactions?
ES: A few people passed out during the first performance. Then we added an announcement before the show, encouraging the audience to move around, to lean on a friend if they feel faint. After that, nobody passed it. But the overall reaction was strong. I’ve spoken to quite a few people who were moved to tears. The most gratifying response came from people who found the piece energizing — and who returned to see it more than once.
LC: I absolutely concur with your bold, visionary choice, so please share — why were you compelled to screen the film in a 360 way?
SK: For quite some time, I had been thinking about putting people inside of a film, challenging the one-way, one-directional experience of viewing. Whether it’s a film, a theater performance or a live music show — these are always projected at you. But what if you were in the center of the story? How would your perception of the story be different, by simply changing the way you experience it?
KF: It [full immersion] was something Smriti suggested from day one … Just watching the film on a single screen allows you to gaze away, or perhaps drift off mentally at points … But when you are surrounded 360 degrees by the film you are simply engulfed by it, and our idea is that the issue impresses upon you even more.
LC: Given its ambitious scale, was this a difficult project to propose to the TFF programmers? And how was it to work them?
SK: [TFF Programmers] Genna Terranova and Paula Weinstein were thrilled when we originally proposed the bomb to them. They took a real risk in supporting something that hadn’t been attempted before, and so experimental in nature. New York was the ideal city to premiere the bomb, partly also because Eric and I are from there.
LC: The honor of your world premiere being programmed as TFF’s Closing Night event. Do describe!
SK: I still feel we’re floating on the good energy from it. … I feel like people immediately felt compelled to talk about it, both to understand their own experience and make sense of others. I have no words to encompass what it was like. It was really special.
ES: It was a real honor… And I love that Tribeca was willing to take a risk … The audiences were great. We had no idea how they would respond — this was literally the first time that the bomb had been performed live. And the reception at Tribeca has really encouraged us to take the show around the world.
KF: Tribeca was amazing … The reaction was incredible — people seemed emotional after the film and talked to me about nuclear weapons — and that was our whole goal: to get people thinking about them, and talking about them.
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L.A. Collins: Caught up in the last third of the bomb, and totally riveted by an unnerving series of archival images of Japanese atomic bomb survivors “making eye contact” with the camera (and therefore all of us) — I heard an ominous, loud thud. A man had passed out a few inches behind me; the music played on; the darkness maintained. I was unclear, at first — was it a performance, part of the immersive experience? It was not. He looked genuinely baffled. And as I tried to offer him a comforting look, while security helped him up — gotta’ admit, I was deeply stirred, and further reminded of the frailty of human existence. All the more reason to help spread the word globally, and push the trio’s vital, timely message: #MAKEARTNOTBOMBS.
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