A Conversation with Nina Gilden Seavey, Director of "A Paralyzing Fear"
by Andrea Meyer
Nina Gilden Seavey began her career in documentary filmmaking twenty
years ago, doing research and writing on other director’s projects. She
founded the Center for History in the Media at George Washington
University, the only institute in the country dedicated solely to
historical documentary filmmaking which she continues to direct. In 1990
she teamed up with Oscar Award winning filmmaker Paul Wagner (“The Stone
Carvers” and “Out of Ireland“), and they have since produced several
projects including the recent Discovery Channel special, “The Battle of
With the unusually large budget for a documentary of $980,000, the
majority of which came from the National Endowment for the Humanities,
“A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America” tells the story of
the disease from the outbreak of its first major epidemic in 1916
through the discovery of the Salk vaccine in 1955 and beyond.
Alternating between archival footage and interviews with living
survivors, the film reveals the disease that had the entire country
living in terror for years. It was a disease that struck haphazardly and
primarily at children. The societal paranoia and parental fear that
polio provoked and at the same time the collective determination to find
a cure was unprecedented.
indieWIRE: What drove you to make a film about polio?
Nina Gilden Seavey: I’m a filmmaker, and I think any filmmaker is always
looking for a good story that has never been told. I guess it must have
been in 1994, I had been interested in finding a new project. I’m
interested in science and medicine and was thinking about different
disease projects and realized that there was only one great triumphant
story, and it was the story of polio, and it had never been told.
iW: It never occurred to other filmmakers to tell this particular story?
Seavey: One of the ways I found out that a film had never been made on
the subject was because the March of Dimes, which was the organization
that fought polio essentially from the 1930’s through 1962, had put all
the archival motion picture into a warehouse in about 1962 and had never
let anybody go in there to find out what was in there. So, many other
filmmakers had approached them and they had always turned them down. You
couldn’t really make the film if you didn’t have access to the archives.
Well, I got access to the archives, and that was 3000 films and 5000
iW: How were you able to get access to the archives where so many others
Seavey: I had put together a very strong team. My partner of many years
is a gentleman named Paul Wagner. We put together a production team of
people like Geoff Ward, who did Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and
“Baseball,” Henry Hampton who did “Eyes on the Prize“, “The Great
Depression,” and “The War on Poverty,” and an array of historians and
anthropologists, and just a really strong group of people to advise us
on the project. I think the March of Dimes finally decided that this was
the film that should have the treasure. Once we were able to buy the
rights to the archive, we went to the National Endowment for the
Humanities and got a very large grant to make the film.
iW: What was it like talking to the survivors? Do they talk about the
disease in their daily lives, or is it painful for them to go back?
Seavey: It’s very interesting that you should ask that. I had assumed,
because we live in this era of support groups, and everyone talks almost
ad nauseum about their marginalization, that everyone wants to be seen
as part of some sort of marginal group. But polio people are not like
that. These are people who believe that they want to be in the
mainstream of society, and part of the way that they got that way comes
out of being disabled in the 1950’s, a time of great conformity. They
just transcended their disabilities by pretending in some measure that
they didn’t exist, and that ethic continued until this day. So, what I
found as I traveled the country talking to these people and their
families was that they had never gone back and reexperienced those
emotions. So when I brought them back to that place, you don’t see this
on camera, but every one of those people just exploded. It was painful
for them and it was painful for us as a crew.
iW: I was also struck by the way the entire country came together to
combat this disease, through the March of Dimes. That doesn’t happen
anymore, not to that extent. Are people more selfish now? Less generous?
Or was it the nature of the disease?
Seavey: I think it was the nature of the fear. They say that we will do
things for our children that we won’t do for each other. It’s harder to
imagine a big fight against tuberculosis but we will stand together to
protect our children from the ravages of a crippling disease. You have
understand that the March of Dimes really invented what is modern day
philanthropy. All of these appeals from the stars, the movie trailers in
the movie theaters, Henry Belafonte, young Rock Hudson, and all of these
things were very much inventions of the March of Dimes. Of course today,
every star has their cause, but in that day, it was brand new. The
poster child had never existed. This was invented by Basil O’Connor and
the March of Dimes and really by FDR. O’Connor was a Wall Street lawyer,
and he brought the notion of his business to philanthropy. You give your
dime and send it to the president. Everyone could give a dime. Now my
knocked on all the time for every cause in America, but this was like a
iW: You don’t really explore the parallels between the polio epidemic
and AIDS, but viewers are bound to see a connection.
Seavey: We hope so. First of all, the young Rock Hudson appears in the
film, and it’s not a coincidence. He introduces the coin card. Everyone
over forty has a polio memory which is usually one of two things.
Usually it’s a coin card, and the other is getting a sugar cube, because
everyone in America got that. So it is no accident that Rock Hudson
gives you what is the premier iconography to the fight against polio,
which is the coin card. The notion of isolation, of marginalization, of
fear, of the need to conquer something in order to get a hold of it, are
equally applicable to AIDS as they are to polio. Remember in Hugh
Gallagher’s interview, when the girl crossed herself when she saw him in
the street and he wanted to flee back to his hospital bed? That’s the
way people feel when they’re walking down the street and they’re clearly
in an advanced stage of AIDS. And we need to remember that. There is no
reason to fear these people. There is nothing wrong with them.
iW: Besides Marilyn Rogers, who is shown in an iron lung, you don’t
reveal the lasting handicaps of any of the polio survivors interviewed
in the film. And you don’t explore the lasting effects of the disease. I
was wondering why you made that choice.
Seavey: I really didn’t want to make a film about people’s
vulnerability. I wanted to make a film about their strength. This is not
a film about disability. This is really a film about disease and the
effect it has on society. You find out about these people in the film,
but you find out about it on their terms, and I think that’s the way you
give people dignity.
[“A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America” will be at New
York’s Film Forum March 4-10.]