American-Australian director Jeff Daniels documentary Television Event is a timely reflection on the impact of the pivotal Eighties film The Day After and the way it helped change America’s stance on nuclear war. With deep archival footage, and a wealth of glorious interviews that frame the importance of the film amongst the era of positive, family friendly TV shows, Television Event is one of the best modern documentaries detailing the filmic creative process and the impact that entertainment can have on audiences around the globe.
In this interview, taken ahead of Television Event’s launch at the Castlemaine Documentary Festival and the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, Jeff Daniels talks about his initial viewing of the film as a kid, working in the orbit of famed documentarian Ken Burns, and how to create an archival documentary. This is a film you really do not want to miss.
Tickets for the Castlemaine Documentary Festival can be bought here, and for the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival here.
You started off in America and now you’re here in Australia. Do you call yourself an American-Australian or Australian-American? Does it matter which order they go in?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah, that is an interesting thing, isn’t it? Being from New York, we understand that a lot of people know and feel an affinity with New York, and are connected to it even if they haven’t been there. And I think we also feel that coming from New York to various degrees, we’re aware of what people think of us, we’re proud that people feel they want to connect. At least I do. I’m sure plenty of New Yorkers don’t, and they stay in their little quarter.
So it’s strange because, you know, am I Australian? Am I not? Am I Australian-American, American-Australian, or a New Yorker living in Melbourne or Melbourne-New Yorker? What the hell am I? It is a strange thing. I’m happy to be called Melburnian director, American-Australian director. I’m happy with that. That’s fine. It’s all strange, isn’t it?
I thought Television Event was absolutely fantastic. I think the first person I told to go and watch it was Lee Gambin, who I’m sure you might have been in touch with. He is all over this kind of stuff, loves this era. Getting to see him lap it up was really exciting.
JD: Yeah, we talked a few times and we have mutual friends as well. I worked as a school teacher for fifteen years at a local high school, and one of his good friends was the art teacher there. And I taught media. So we’ve talked a few times. Lee’s a lot of fun.
How did you kick off the investigation and research into The Day After? Where did this excitement come from?
JD: I saw The Day After when I was five years old. I didn’t see the entire movie; I was just part of a moment that was going on in the US. Everyone was watching The Day After or at least knew someone who had. So of course, all forty members of my family piled into my grandparents’ basement in Flushing Queens to watch [it]. They had the sense to put me to bed before that iconic bombing sequence. But I really did get the picture that these people I was being introduced to [in the film] with their simple Midwestern lives – they’re about to die a slow, horrible death. I got that point.
I think that’s something that was easy for a kid to understand at five: you pressed a button, and life as you know it is gone. And that really scared the crap out of me at that young age. There was also blanket advertising for the film. It seemed like everyone was talking about it, it was on news, it was on billboards. I think I remember seeing it on a bus stop before I went to school, and the iconography was these mushroom clouds with skulls on them. It was really quite horrifying.
It meant that I had questions, that I asked my mom who studied nuclear physics when she was at university, and my grandfather, who I lived with the time [who] was a photographer during World War Two. He photographed the effects of the bombing of Nagasaki, he was actually there taking photos from the epicenter and then out every half mile to see the effects of the bomb on the landscape and on people as well.
Eventually he showed me pictures when I was ten. Still too young but I had a lot of questions. He showed me these pictures that he took, and it was confronting. So it was a time when everyone seemed to be talking about nuclear war. And I had questions that were given answers by people who felt it important to talk about this stuff around the dinner table. So that’s how it kind of started for me.
My mum studied history, my grandfather was a big history lover. And I grew up really loving history and film, and I was able to marry that by interning with documentary filmmakers like Ken Burns, who I worked with on his jazz documentary series. I worked as a researcher and I was literally dumpster-diving for photos and going through people’s basements of people [who] worked for Columbia Records to look at amazing photos of Louis Armstrong smoking a joint with Billie Holiday at the Cotton Club. I was sitting there in a dank, smelly, cold basement looking at photos and thinking, “This is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I thought, “All right, if I can find a way to make a living doing this, then maybe I’m on the right path.”
The idea of looking later in life at what brought about this TV movie The Day After from a network like ABC, which at that time was known for making The Love Boat and Happy Days and Fantasy Island – what was motivating them to put nuclear war into the American living room? As a filmmaker earlier in life, I was asking those questions like, “How could this happen?” That’s when I met Nicholas Meyer and researched his writings on this matter and saw this fantastic story of corporate interests mixing with passionate storytellers and seeing how that happened to create something that was actually broadcast and became so influential. I thought, “Oh man, what a fantastic story that’s also meaningful and speaks to my values.” Everything just came together. I had to make this film.
I want to touch on Ken Burns for a moment because I’ve talked to a few documentarians who grew up and learned the trade in America who have been either mentored or worked in the sphere of Ken Burns. Can you talk about the importance of having somebody like Ken working so tirelessly in American filmmaking? I don’t think Australians might really get the impression of how important he actually is. But he is very prolific and very important, isn’t he?
JD: Yeah, he is. I never met Ken Burns in person, unfortunately, I worked with his producer and his writer and researchers directly and an associate producer as well, which was an amazing experience through my connection with this jazz documentary series. When he made Baseball and The Civil War, that’s stuff that everyone that I knew who loved documentary and anyone who just knew about documentaries – they knew about Ken Burns and his ability to make a photograph come to life through making primary sources come to life.
He allowed people to share my passion for history in that way. That’s what I’m talking about. When I speak to my sister about stuff like this, she’d go to sleep, she hated it, but she’d watch a Ken Burns documentary for a few minutes. And that’s all I needed. Eventually on iMovie, they had ‘the Ken Burns effect’, so every everyone knew Ken Burns, whether they wanted to or not, because of the move in on photos and things like that.
I think he also allowed US documentaries to actually get a step up in recognition throughout the world, because even in America, we recognised that it was Europeans and the British who really knew how to make documentaries. Ken Burns seemed to get us out of that rut and put us onto the international stage. It was part of the conversation. Some people felt that he was telling history as it was instead of his interpretation of it. So I was able to get that other view of Ken Burns where they’re like “Well, he’s not God, he just thinks he is.” But I appreciated his passion and how he was able to translate that to people who might not otherwise be interested in their own history or history in general.
One of the key aspects about your film is the archival nature of it. There is so much behind the scenes stuff, there are so many photos taken, and then also some of the scenes which weren’t actually in the final film are there in your film. How important is all of that to you as somebody who’s trying to make an archival documentary?
JD: It’s everything to me. You’re trying to create the zeitgeist of a time, but the best you could ever do is try and really say something that speaks to a person’s present moment, and that present is always changing. That’s why it was important for me to try and make this story of Television Event stay in the early 80s and not reflect on today. So it gives it a sort of evergreen quality when you’re trying to understand what was going on at this time, what people were thinking and then give an understanding of their motivations. There’s always something that you can relate to, there’s always something that speaks to you at the present moment, whenever that is, whether it’s 20 or 50 years from now.
That’s why history is important to me, because it always speaks to the present day. Not only does it show us how we got to today, but there are many things that we can relate to, and there are many things that we can also reflect on because things have changed. Things have changed quite dramatically in how we treat or recognise other people, and I think being aware of that has a certain power so that we’re able to understand like, “Wow, we’ve really come far” or “Damn, we still haven’t learned this lesson after that long.”
Also this idea of history repeating itself. I think that’s something that’s a pretty core understanding to me. If you can’t learn from mistakes of our past, you’re obviously doomed to repeat them. And we’re now in a spot again where nuclear war is – it’s always been there, but because we choose to forget about these more horrible parts of our past or even our present, they come back to us even worse, to a degree.
It was very important for me as well in Trump’s America which was when I was starting this film to remind people [of] that. You know, I saw a lot of members of my family finding it difficult to speak to each other. I saw this in a lot of families. And I thought when The Day After came out, 100 million people saw the same thing at the same time. They had a shared emotional experience and because of that, they were able to come together despite their differences to just talk. “I’m not trying to convince you otherwise, I’m just talking about how it felt to see what a nuclear war would look like if it happens in our hometown.”
That’s very important. We have the ability to talk to each other despite being polarised, and Reagan’s America was polarised. If we can remember that, it gives me at least some faith that we can again talk to each other despite our differences and keep that line of communication. Because our lives may depend on it on a number of levels. As Reagan says at the end of my film, we’ve learned that it’s better to talk to each other instead of about each other. That was the whole point of this film for me.
What do you think has changed since then that has made it difficult for us to unite together and talk about these things and actually create change?
JD: I felt that looking at 1983 itself in terms of the media landscape was also worth documenting. This is the period where you had more people watching network television in the United States, Australia, and Western Europe than ever before – or since cable television took over – [in] the month after The Day After came out. The numbers started to go down, and that reflected this fragmentation that we’re experiencing today where you can never get 100 million people watching the same thing at the same time in the US. Unfortunately, because of that you miss out on these shared emotional experiences and the ability to create some common grounds so that everyone’s talking about the same information points.
No one’s talking about the same issue in the same kind of place. And I think that that’s contributed to our ability to create echo chambers. It’s quite unfortunate that we have less abilities to create these shared experiences. I mean, that Kony 2012 film was watched by a billion people but over how many months. The momentum of it was stilted for that reason. You’d never see something like Kony 2012 on ABC. That’s [some] thing that’s great about our period, we can actually get large audiences to watch niche material that’s important for us to watch. But we don’t have these television events that are able to take from all of the other things that are going on at the time.
These grassroots anti-nuclear protests had been going on for decades before then and had created the momentum to give these key creatives who worked on The Day After the ability to communicate the horrors of nuclear war to a mass audience. In some ways, we’re missing out on that. In other ways, we have better tools to educate larger amounts of people throughout the world for a lower cost. I think that’s great.
But I felt this was this moment where you had the filter of a commercial network with creatives who were very well informed and deeply committed emotionally to telling a very well-researched depiction of nuclear war in America. It’s such a crucial time during Reagan’s Cold War. That was an incredible opportunity that I don’t feel we’ll see come again until the next big thing of media hopefully is able to move through the fragmentation and create that.
There’s nothing else like it really. It’s terrifying that somebody had the prescient notion to be able to present some kind of reality to us all.
JD: I think this is why I tried to concentrate on the conversation that The Day After started and Threads. They started a conversation among a generation that talked about this in school, so that that generation when they have kids, now are able to share what we’ve learned about the horrors of nuclear war so that the idea of older politicians from other generations using nuclear weapons as a saber to rattle and threaten other countries is seen as psychotic. It’s no longer seen as it was back in the 80s and the 60s and 50s as a necessary political tool to threaten others or deter them from using their own weapons. The Day After has done a lot to teach a generation that that is truly psychotic, and that the idea of surviving nuclear war is a life not worth living.
Even though we are now living in a more fragmented media landscape, you still do have the ability to show a generation that. Glee, I think, is an incredible example of a show that really hit a group of young people who grew up understanding that sexual and gender identities in high school is normal, it should be celebrated as part of being a teenager. That has done a great job to normalise that, and I think it’s really helped change the conversation globally really, to a degree. We still do have that ability to craft these kinds of conversations and change our cultural understanding of certain subjects that others would rather not talk about.
How long did it take you to do all the research and compile the interviews and film the interviews and then edit it? How long basically was the whole production of it?
JD: Oh, man. We independent documentary filmmakers have to work on a few films at the same time in order to make a living, and I’m still trying to figure that out. I was working as a school teacher while I was making this film and all of my previous films. Luckily, this film has put me into a place where I can spend more time now working on my films, but I mean, it was about three years on and off. 90% of my job is raising money to make these films. And what you’re doing is trying to constantly convince people who have money to be as passionate about the meaning behind these great stories and get as excited as you are about them.
So in doing that, you have to research, you have to find the material no one’s seen before, you have to speak to researchers who have dedicated their lives to just trying to collect material. I spoke with a number of people in Lawrence, Kansas who knew the cop who was guarding the set so that they could kind of get through and snap some quick pictures. And I spoke to as many members of the crew as possible to get their own photos, Polaroids that they took of people in different positions, some of the actors as well.
In doing that, through my experience of research which is a very necessary part of my process, I’m able to get an understanding of the zeitgeist of the time as well as the motivations of these people, 2000 people showing up at a fieldhouse to play people who had radiation scars and poisoning and were slowly dying. I got a story of a community that felt it was quite important to tell this story and it was important to show America what surviving nuclear war looked like, even though they may have even voted for Reagan and may agree that deterrence is the only way to stop a nuclear war. I got a full picture of what the United States was going through at this time through the eyes of Lawrence, Kansas.
It takes that time. If I had the luxury to not rush the research, the writing, the editing that goes into trying to tell a story like this, then it’s a great opportunity. And luckily, with the help of Screen Australia and Film Victoria who believed in the film very early on and principal support from Impact Partners, a collective of philanthropists who believed in the story, they said, “Yeah, take your time here, this is an important story.” And I’m glad they did.
There was a real push from the Liberal government last year to change the way that funding occurred in Australia. Which in my mind, that meant if those kinds of changes went through, we wouldn’t have a film like yours because they will probably look at it and go, “Well, that’s an American story, not an Australian one. We wouldn’t want to be supporting that.” Was there any kind of pushback from those funding bodies to begin with to bring in Australian view into it? Or were they happy to say, “Look, go off and make it and we’ll support it”?
JD: You know, I’m very glad that the people who are behind VicScreen [as] it’s called now and Screen Australia – my opinion is that the restrictions that are put in front of them are really just based on government restrictions that relate in no way to their understanding of what a good story that has clear relevance to Australian audiences is, and is worth funding. I think they also understand the value of a really good story that can help support practitioners here in Australia, key creatives and the many others who went into the incredible sound design and the colouring and the research that I had to do here. I worked with a team of very experienced assistant editors who just did the most amazing job helping me set up everything I needed in order to make this a solid film. All the people who I’ve always worked with throughout my career here in Australia – which is where my career making my own films has started – I’ve only received support from them despite my accent, despite my American upbringing and understanding of American stories.
I’ve always felt that I learned more about the United States living here in Australia, and felt that that was really this Australian perspective on the US that deserves to be supported. Not only does it help support the Australian and local film industry, but these are Australian perspectives on the world. So it really pains me that we’re already at a disadvantage because it’s so difficult to compete with the funding that’s available in other countries for film in general, but documentary especially is reliant on government funding. And so you’re really just hampering the Australian independent documentary film industry when you pigeonhole it to just doing what is perceived by the government in office at the moment [as to] what an Australian story actually is.
I absolutely understand the value of Australian voices, Australian accents, hearing that on television, growing up with that, but to say that Australian perspectives on the rest of the world shouldn’t be supported in some way, I think, is short-sighted. Luckily, I’ve only encountered people in these funding film bodies in Australia who believe that and have supported me to push that.
I think that’s a key thing as well. The impact of American culture in Australia deserves that kind of reflection of the Australian point of view back onto America. It is such a dominant presence in everything.
JD: Yeah, absolutely. In my research, some of the best material I found looking at The Day After was from a 4 Corners report done by ABC. Even back then, they understood that looking at what was going on in the rest of the world and reflecting on that with an Australian perspective was very relevant to Australian audiences. They were able to film a family watching The Day After live, that’s how I opened my film. They were able to give this perception of what Lawrence, Kansas was like at that time, that I was able to then use when Hollywood came to town.
Some of the best material that you can find that looks at what life was like in the United States comes from Sweden, this Swedish government film board, and from Australia and from other countries. It’s very important for us to look at each other and to document each other. So why wouldn’t we then support projects that look at other countries? They say very much [that] these stories speak to Australian audiences, they’re important for them to watch. Because of the support that the government was giving ABC and all these other places in the 80s, I relied on that in order to make my film as strong as it was. So you know, I’m grateful for that. And I hope that that perception and funding of the arts doesn’t go away. I think it’s vital for Australians. And, as it turns out, for Americans. I’m quite grateful for that 4 Corners report and others.
What has the impact of being a teacher had on you as a filmmaker? And then additionally, how has being a filmmaker had an impact on being a teacher?
JD: It was the best. It was great because you need to explain things simply but meaningfully to an audience that doesn’t care. (laughs) Trying to show your excitement for a subject that students might not otherwise be interested in was vital to my ability to teach something successfully. It allowed me to stay true to the fact that I need to show in this film how excited I am about it. I need to find some way to share that, because that’s the only way that I’ll create something that is hopefully full of personality and not just a cookie-cutter television documentary.
Not to knock TV documentaries but some of them are really a bit of a factory. It taught me to be true to what I’m truly interested in and to express that so that I can share that enthusiasm. Hopefully, that can come through. I am better at killing my darlings when I’m in the editing room which is so, so difficult. It was a great lesson for me, being a filmmaker.
I think what helped me in other ways was it takes years to make a film. And sometimes you don’t see the results of that for years after. Who knows what may happen in the world that can keep people from going into movie theatres? Being able as a teacher to write a lesson plan the night before or the week before and see the results quite soon is something that helped your emotional and mental wellbeing so that you felt like “Okay, all right, I’m not insane here. I’m doing the right thing. I’m getting some satisfaction from the work that I’m doing. I’m seeing results from that.”
I think it was a good balance in some ways, being a teacher, and a filmmaker. At the same time, I worked at a school that was very good at allowing me to work part-time as well. It meant I could actually spend time working on these films.
As somebody who is creating an archival film, what suggestions do you have for people who might watch this and go, “There are so many other films or cultural touchstones that I would like to tell that kind of story”? What tips would you have for people who are aiming to do something similar to what you’ve done here?
JD: You know, each film is different. What I did here is there was a story and everyone had their own version of it. So in that way, it kind of told itself. I feel like nostalgia creates a touchstone for us to move into and that’s great, but it’s meaningless, really, unless it has something to attach itself to. And so when I found that there was this great story of how people came together, people from different views, ABC and these key creatives and the US and Russia – all these people were trying to come together to do something. They were speaking different languages and they had to come together in order to create something meaningful that would speak to people. And only when they started talking to each other were they able to successfully broadcast their views and their message. And so I thought, “Okay, this is a story, this is kind of like a three-act thing that I can tell where I can hang stuff off.” It tells itself.
I think trying to find the story is one way of doing it. But in other ways, trying to tell the story is the last thing you want to do. I think it undermines the actual significance of an event that you’re trying to portray. It assumes that you can identify with the people who you’re trying to depict. And sometimes you’re not meant to identify with them, you’re not even meant to understand them. You’re just meant to have an understanding of what they’re going through in a way so that you can have solidarity with what they’re trying to do. It’s arrogant for us in certain circumstances to feel that we can relate to the character of this one person, I think that actually goes against a lot of what we’re doing.
So it really is different for different situations and different kinds of films that you’re trying to tell. And I think it’s important to understand that. Is this something that can be told through a story, and we’re having a bit of fun and telling a meaningful story? Great, okay, let’s go for that. That’s definitely going to be entertaining. Is it something where we’re not meant to relate to the main character or hate them or find them compelling in some way here or there but we’re simply meant to have solidarity with what they’re going through so that we can support them and recognise their agency? That’s a completely different kind of situation, and then you’re using archive in a far more creative way. You have to keep that in mind or else you’re just not telling an honest or effective story or your message is simply not really getting through. It requires a lot of thought and respect for the subject that you’re trying to depict.
When you watch a film like The Day After, you want something like this straightaway, this kind of deep-dive exploration. What festivals is it going to be screening at?
JD: It will be screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival at the Nova cinema. And it will also be screening at the Castlemaine Documentary Film Festival, CDoc which is a great honour. They have a very specific selection, it’s a very well curated festival. And yeah, it’s still screening at many other film festivals as well. I’m going up to South Korea for the Pyeongchang International Peace Film Festival there where it’s nominated for an award.
I was just able to announce that it was nominated for the Cinema For Peace Most Valuable Documentary Film of the Year, which is a great honour. I think they’re holding their gala in Kyiv or Lviv, Ukraine. Angelina Jolie will be there. It’s crazy. But I’m honoured that all the people who’ve worked on it – it’s been an international crew of people from Melbourne, from country Victoria, from Sydney, from Chicago and Los Angeles and New York, from Moscow as well, some incredible research done in Moscow. It’s been an international production. And it’s great that it’s getting this recognition. It’s been such a long tale during such a difficult time for independent filmmakers to screen their work because of COVID. I’m glad that it’s getting out there. Also, it’s going to be available online internationally from July.
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