“We live with almost 15,000 nuclear weapons”: meet the crew behind the bombBack to
the bomb is a true coming together of minds: a live music and experimental film experience, based on a book about nuclear weapons by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation), with the film montage directed by Kevin Ford and produced by Smriti Keshari, art-direction by Stanley Donwood (aka the artist behind Radiohead’s iconic artwork), animation by Donwood’s brother The Kingdom of Ludd, and a menacing live soundtrack developed collaboratively by electronic supergroup the Acid (Adam Freeland, RY X and Steve Nalepa).
The Acid’s live electronic-rock soundtrack throbs and pulses as the disturbing montage footage of nuclear tests, marching armies and apocalyptic devastation plays on giant twin-screens behind the band. We spoke with the author and directors behind the bomb to find out why and how they made this “hypnotic [and] terrifying” (IndieWire) multimedia installation.
ERIC SCHLOSSER (AUTHOR)
Nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear apocalypse are a constant threat, but what prompted you to tackle this issue right now?
“Back in 2007, I became really worried about the nuclear threat. And what worried me most of all was that nobody seemed to be talking about it. Most of the people just assumed that the nuclear threat went away when the Cold War ended. But it didn’t – in fact, things may be more dangerous today than at any other time since the early 1980s. So I’ve been trying to find ways to bring attention to the issue.
“I spent six years writing and researching my book about nuclear weapons, Command and Control. I worked with the director Robert Kenner on a documentary based on that book. And then I joined forces with Smriti and Kevin, with Stanley Donwood and the Kingdom of Ludd, with The Acid and United Visual Artists, to create the bomb, a wild multimedia piece about the beautiful machines out there that are quietly waiting to annihilate all of us.”
Do you think we’ll see the abolition of nuclear arsenals within the lifetime of anyone living today?
“Like President Obama once said, ‘If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.’ Well, I refuse to accept that another city is doomed to a nuclear oblivion, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That means we have to get rid of these weapons, every single one of them.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen the peaceful elimination of two terrible blights on humanity: apartheid in South Africa and the Soviet Union. So I’m hopeful and optimistic about the abolition of nuclear weapons. The alternative is mass murder on an unimaginable scale. But this sort of change doesn’t just happen. We need to make it happen.”
SMRITI KESHARI (PRODUCER)
Is it more or less difficult communicating meaning in a film that uses montage rather than dialogue and direct narrative?
“the bomb was made to deliberately ignite an emotional and visceral understanding of the nuclear reality we are living in right now. The idea of nuclear weapons and nuclear war is abstract and unfathomable. The human imagination is incapable of encompassing all the psychological variants of this reality. And it’s really hard for an individual to have an emotional connection to something that they can’t see, or feel.
“We live in a world with almost 15,000 nuclear weapons. These weapons are buried underground or at sea, they are out of sight and out of consciousness. There’s an entire system, processes, timing, reasoning that led us to this reality. In order to understand how we’ve gotten to this reality, we must first recognise the emotions nuclear weapons evoke – their allure, their beauty, their construct, and the ultimate death wish at the heart of them.
“the bomb certainly feels like something that happens to you, versus something you passively watch. In New York and Glastonbury, the bomb was experienced in 360 screens, the audience was inside the film; it was haunting and unsettling.
“In Berlin, we had the film inside the grand Haus der Berliner Festspiele theatre with the Acid performing a live score. We had no idea how it would be received as a single screen experience, but someone said it was an ‘abstract wonder and a literal nightmare’. And for Sydney Festival, we're quite excited to present it for the first time in dual screens with the live score by The Acid."
How did you come to connect with Stanley Donwood as the Art Director?
"I have been a great admirer of Stanley’s work for decades. The powerful visual identity he created for Polyfauna [an experimental collaboration between Radiohead, Nigel Godrich, Stanley Donwood and Universal Everything], and how brilliantly the music intersects with the visual world, speaks to the depth of Stanley’s work.
"When we first approached him about the bomb, we spoke at lengths about his connection to the nuclear issue, and attending his first Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demonstration as a teenager, and the gravity of those terrifying times. The same urgency and inescapable reality exists now. Yet, there’s almost a denial of it.
"Stanley's illustrations have a bold and political nature, underlined with modesty and humour. So, of course, when we first approached him to be the art director he mentioned having no knowledge of moving pictures. Alongside his brother, the talented animator The Kingdom of Ludd, he’s provided the bomb with a hallucinatory and visceral quality that combines archival film, government documents and bold animation.”
KEVIN FORD (DIRECTOR)
The music is a very core part of the film experience – did you work with The Acid from the very outset?
“In the earliest days of the project we used a variety of temp music just to give us something to edit to. Shortly after, it became clear to us that we’d be able to collaborate with the Acid and that changed everything in the best possible way. We were able to show them some of our previous work with the temp music just as a reference, and then they disappeared into their studio to create new music on a blank canvas.
“After that, things got really exciting. They would present music to us, and we’d place it in our edit, and we’d discuss it with them. It became a collaboration. Their music affected our edit and our evolving edit changed their music. In the end, the results were undeniably cool and something we all felt very proud of.”
Did you have any issues with sourcing the visual material for the film? Is there any footage in there that was particularly contentious?
“Thankfully we had a great team of archivists helping us to dig up some of the footage in the national archives, and for other chunks of material we were able to work with some companies who had already restored some of the old testing footage, which saved us valuable time.
“Some of the most obscure material we used came from DVDs which Eric had obtained while researching for his book Command and Control – for example, some of the declassified military training films. We embraced all of the different resolutions and textures that come from using mixed media like this, and we even exaggerated some of the textures with the help of our collaborators Stanley Donwood and The Kingdom of Ludd.”
the bomb is at Carriageworks for Sydney Festival on 23 and 24 January – secure your tickets here. Watch an excerpt of a film by Vice about the bomb below, and watch the full clip here.
Nick Jarvis is a journalist, copywriter and Publications Editor at Sydney Festival and Sydney Film Festival. He's written for Vice, Time Out, inthemix, Junkee and various other online media and street press over the years.