The Oscar hopeful reveals that from 1951 to 1992, Mercury, Nevada, was the site for the testing of 928 large scale nuclear weapons. Wind dispersed radioactive fallout from those atmospheric blasts (mushroom clouds) and underground testing (venting) in a seemingly unpredictable manner to people living “downwind.” The United States Department of Justice defines “downwinders,” also known as lab rats, as human beings who live in counties located downwind from Nevada Test Site in the states of Utah, Nevada and Arizona.
The film explains that the radiation led to various diseases, mainly cancer. Shapiro and Miller also highlight how Hollywood star John Wayne and numerous members of the cast and crew of the 1956 movie The Conqueror died, arguably, of cancer due to filming in Nevada close to the atomic testing sites.
Martin Sheen narrates Downwind, which features several interviews with various talking heads including Michael Douglas, who starred in the 1979 nuclear-meltdown movie The China Syndrome, comedian Lewis Black, John Wayne’s son Patrick as well members from the Shoshone Nation who were severely impacted by the nuclear radiation that spread to their land.
For Modine, who played American electrical engineer and administrator Vannevar Bush in Christopher Nolan’s movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, the issue hit close to home.
“I grew up in Utah,” says Modine. “My grandparents’ homestead was in Death Valley on land they shared with the Shoshone. My father grew up there and later died of cancer, like so many of our friends and neighbors.”
Variety spoke Modine about the documentary distribution landscape, the scariest scene in Oppenheimer, and how he and Harvey Weinstein are two very different producers.
As someone who grew up in Utah and had several members of your family from the area die of cancer, was Downwind a documentary that you have wanted to get made?
It’s a subject that I’ve been passionate about for a long time. With nuclear bombs and nuclear energy, it’s a wonderful solution to a problem. One is supposed to be a deterrent to war and the other one is a clean solution to our global energy problems. But the problem is that it’s what I call a half science, because it solves a problem, but creates another. It’s a kind of insanity.
Was the goal of the docu to open people’s eyes to this insanity?
Well, first and foremost we wanted to make people aware of this (downwind) problem. They (the U.S. government) are now talking about testing bombs again. This insanity hasn’t stopped. With all of the bombs that exist on the planet, why on earth would we need to make bigger ones? More explosive ones? It just really makes me wonder if we are all insane.
What was it like to tell the story of how the insanity started in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer?
I think that the most frightening scene in the entire movie is when you have a group of men sitting in a room and the Secretary of Defense says, ‘I’ve made this, list of 15 cities where we are going to drop the bomb.’ Then Matt Damon’s character (General Groves) says, “Bombs.” Now my character has just said that hundreds of thousands of people are going to die immediately from the fallout of the radiation and he says, “Bombs. We are going to drop one to demonstrate that it works, and a second to demonstrate that we can replicate it,” without a breath. It’s like, ‘What’s for dinner? Cornbread and peas.” On the day we were shooting that scene, I told Nolan, “You know what takes this into the realm of absurdity and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”? He said, “What?” And I said, “birthday cake.” You don’t have to change anything. Just put some balloons in the room and have us eating birthday cake because that’s how insane it was.
How did you and the team behind Downwind get Martin Sheen to narrate the doc?
They wanted me to do the voiceover originally but I was in London doing To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a three-hour play. So, I really didn’t have the voice to also narrate this film. I think it was my producing partner who suggested Martin Sheen, which made sense. In 1987, my brother Maury was arrested in Mercury, Nevada, alongside Martin Sheen, protesting the continued testing of nuclear bombs. Maury said the single smartest thing I’ve ever heard about the testing: “They know they work, why do they need to test them?”
Downwind premiered earlier this year at Slamdance and Gravitas Ventures eventually acquired worldwide rights to Downwind. Did it surprise you at all how hard it is to sell a documentary in the current distribution landscape?
Film distribution has always been complicated. It used to be, how do I get money to make a film? And then you would find a distributor. But now it’s, you’ve made your film. How do you find distribution? I don’t think it’s good that there are gigantic, international conglomerates that control the stream of information. I thought that the antitrust laws were put into place to protect citizens from people controlling the flow of information.
As executive producer were you making suggestions about what to film and what to cut during the edit?
The producers and the directors assembled and put the film together. We looked at early cuts and made contributions where we could. My producing partner, Adam Rackoff got Bill Plympton to do some animations to help visualize the storytelling. But I think that it’s very important to give the director the space to discover his or her film and then guide them or offer them suggestions. They used to call Harvey Weinstein Harvey Scissor Hands because he would take people’s films and recut them and stuff like that. Adam and I just offered suggestions and advice and it was theirs to take or leave. They’ve done a terrific job with the film and I’m really honored to be a part of it.