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PARK CITY ’08 INTERVIEW | “Secrecy” Co-Director Peter Galison

PARK CITY '08 INTERVIEW | "Secrecy" Co-Director Peter Galison

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Competiting in the Documentary program at Sundance ’08, Peter Galison and Robb Moss‘ “Secrecy” takes on the world of hidden national security policy and analyses the implications of this secrecy, both for government and individuals. It combines animation, installations, music and interviews to, as Sundance’s Cara Mertes explains, “take us inside the inverted world of government secrecy as we share the experiences of lawyers, CIA analysts, and the ordinary people for whom secrecy becomes a matter of life and death.”

Directors: Peter Galison, Robb Moss
Cinematographers: Stephen McCarthy, Austin de Besche
Editor: Chyld King
U.S.A., 2008, 85 min., color & b/w, Sony HD Cam

Please introduce yourself.

I’m 52, grew up in New York City, and now live in Cambridge, Mass. Over time I’ve spent five years or so in Europe, mostly studying and teaching in Paris and Berlin–and after a long stint at Stanford I am now a professor at Harvard University where I’m lucky enough to have a kind of roving position where I can teach across fields–but my home base is in the departments of Physics and History of Science. I teach courses on a variety of topics including science and war, the philosophy of technology, the Einsteinian Revolution, science and architecture…and recently a course with Robb Moss (my collaborator on “Secrecy”) called “Filming Science,” where in addition to looking at the history of documentary film, each student goes into a laboratory and makes a 15-minute film about the practices used–a kind of scientific version of visual anthropology.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?

Most of my work is in print–I have written a book called “How Experiments End” about how scientists decide that they are looking at a real effect in the lab, and not some strange artifact of their apparatus or a fluke of the environment. More recently, I published “Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps” about the ways in which the explosive growth of coordinated clocks–to sync railways and map the world–shaped the new conception of time introduced in relativity theory. All of my work orbits around questions of visualization–in fact, the most recent book I wrote (simply “Objectivity“) is about the ways in which compilations of scientific images, known as scientific “atlases” helped create the very idea of scientific objectivity back in the nineteenth century. Images and objects come together in some of the exhibition work with which I’ve been involved. At the Center for Art and Media (Karlsruhe, Germany), I co-curated a large exhibit in 2001-02, “Iconoclash” that explored the heated battles between image-making and image-destroying in art, science, and religion.

Though my work has been mostly grounded in physics, my family of origin was much more oriented toward the arts. In fact, when I came to college my ambition was to combine mathematical physics and art. I never got to find out whether it would have worked–the artists thought it was swell; the mathematicians thought it was the single worst idea they’d ever heard. In any case I did do a course in video (back then a horrible affair with gigantic analogue tapes, a real nightmare for editing). But I loved it–and always wanted to do more film.

Have you made other films? How did you learn about filmmaking?

In the 1980s, I saw and was hugely impressed with Jon Else‘s “Day After Trinity.” I’d been researching the ferocious split between physicists who were for and against the hydrogen or H-bomb. Some saw this weapon–a thousand times more destructive than bomb that wiped out Hiroshima–as inherently genocidal. J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of those who opposed this next step in the arms race. He and his allies struggled to block its development. Arrayed against them were Edward Teller, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and another big block of physicists and chemists–they thought the world would tumble into Stalin’s hands if the U.S. failed to build the H-bomb and the Russians got it first. I knew many of the scientists who had participated in those confrontations back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and decided, with a collaborator, filmmaker Pamela Hogan, to make a film about it. Our film, “Ultimate Weapon: The H-bomb Dilemma” took a terribly long time–we finished in 2000, when it premiered on The History Channel“.

I learned a huge amount on the fly–mainly by making every possible mistake. I remember once, (what a shambles), I ruined an interview with a tough old pilot who had flown the plane that found evidence of the first Russian nuclear detonation. I’d found him, got him to agree to the interview, dragged the crew out to a distant trailer a hell of a long way from anywhere–I’d even lit the space reasonably well. Then disaster: I forgot to unplug the refrigerator and there was a God-awful 60-cycle hum during the whole sequence. Interview ruined. But out of that twelve-year, on- and off-again project I fell in love with filmmaking, and came away with many ideas about what I wanted to do next.

What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?

Nuclear weapons, radar, and the secrecy that accompanied them during World War II changed many things, of course. But the effect on science was huge–and as a historian of science I’ve been dealing with secrecy and science for a long time. I’d long wondered how the classifiers or censors figure out which piece of a process to delete from public access. So I began to explore the logic of the secrecy system, and was startled to realize how absolutely gigantic it had become, growing since 9/11 at a staggering rate. Secrecy–government national security secrecy–struck me as infinitely fascinating. The political stakes were clearly very high–power and access to knowledge were bound to each other at the hip. But beyond politics, state secrecy evoked such powerful responses at the personal level, in literature, in biblical association of knowledge and sexuality.

Robb Moss (a terrific filmmaker and colleague) and I–we’d been teaching that “Filming Science” course I mentioned–had long wanted to collaborate on a project, and I suggested we take on secrecy. Perfect. A great subject. But one where it seemed at first glance that there’d be nothing to see and no one to talk to. This dearth of obvious imagery actually intrigued us–the idea of using artificial spaces, artwork, and animation intrigued struck as as fascinating. As it turned out, in fact people from the shadow world would–and did–talk to us. And, happily enough, we didn’t need waterboarding to get them to speak rather expansively about the ways in which secrecy impacted their lives and resonated beyond the purely factual.

Peter Gallison, co-director of “Secrecy.” Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.

I’d say there were three key decisions in making “Secrecy.” First, as I mentioned, we wanted the experience of watching the film to reinforce its topic. One of our first interviews was in a bucolic setting out by the Chesapeake Bay. While crickets chirped and birds sang, we talked with a nuclear weapons security expert, whose job had been to protect the secrets of bombs that could eliminate human civilization many times over. He was terrifically interesting, but the clash between setting and content was overwhelming; it diminished the stakes.

So we began filming on a sound stage with highly-focused lighting and rear-projected images–this transformed the interviews and gave them both a certain sealed-off quality and a compelling intimacy. Second, from the get-go, we edited–we are lucky to have worked with Chyld King–and we never stopped editing over the whole of the last four years. The secret world is so unbelievably vast–around two million Americans work with clearance of one sort or another–that this was not going to be a scripted, encyclopedic study. Instead we decided to follow, much more organically, our exploration of the subject. In addition, from the first of our sound-stage interviews, we began working with our composer, John Kusiak, so that the music grew with the film. Third, in addition to archival material, still and moving, we wanted to include artists’ works and animation to evoke the resonant, associative aspects of secrecy–the hidden, sometimes seductive, sometimes terrifying world beneath what we consciously mean or can say. We wanted this artwork and animation to erupt from the film, to be a kind of alternate world to the one we were picturing and listening to in the main story.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project or making the movie?

As I think every director of an independent film knows, getting funding while maintaining autonomy is unbelievably difficult. Especially with this film–even more than my previous one–this was truly hard. I remember early on in the project many people would say to me: “so, are you making a “white paper” film, a news report with a diagnosis and recommendations? Or are you making a film that has a personal, more associative element to it? You can’t do both” Well, Robb and I were stubbornly persuaded we could do both–whether we succeeded is for others to judge, but come hell or high water we wanted to try. As for distribution, not yet…we shall see.

What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?

I know there’s lots of cynicism about festivals, but I am looking forward to those ten days like a combination of the eight days of Hanukah and the twelve of Christmas. I can’t wait to see the other films, to be immersed in a world where filmmaking fills days from beginning to end. I’m even looking forward to the chaos of deal-making, distribution, and industry side of things. Look, after four years lost in the making of the film, worrying about shortening a shot by a beat, improving a transition, introducing a theme, filling out a character–what a trip to see our film on a big screen with people who love movies and want to talk, argue, and party about them. Of course we’d like to come out of Sundance with a distribution plan. Maybe that will happen, maybe later.

How do you define success as a filmmaker?

I really enjoy films that push what documentaries can be. For me success means straining at the boundary between the personal and the political, to push even harder at ways of visualizing what isn’t on the surface. If I can continue to do that–to draw in artwork in various ways, to extend the boundary between animation, archives, and shot footage….that would be steps toward the kind of success I have in mind.

Please tell us about any upcoming projects you have…

I think about that a lot–I have some ideas that I want to try bits of to see if they might work. But I’m still very much exploring. No doubt I need some time after this project to let things settle, to figure out where I am.

indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.

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