Screening as a part of SnagFilm‘s streaming Midterm Madness series, Ben Goddard’s “Nuclear Tipping Point” delves into the debate surrounding nuclear issues. Goddard sat down with indieWIRE to discuss the Wall Street Journal article that inspired him to document the controversial topic, and his background as a filmmaker.
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
“Nuclear Tipping Point” is a conversation with former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn, four men intimately involved in American diplomacy and national security over the last four decades, whose efforts have reframed the global debate on nuclear issues and, according to the New York Times, “sent waves through the global policy establishment.” [Synopsis courtesy of SnagFilms]
Director Ben Goddard on his life as a storyteller…
As a “tweener” — that period when you are no longer a child but not yet a teenager — I became an avid reader and developed an interest in politics, an interest that was also stirred by my fascination with my Godfather who was a three-term Governor of Idaho and my surrogate Grandfather until his death when I was around seven years old. I idolized C. Ben Ross — for whom I was named — and would spend hours with old newspaper clippings of his career in politics. Reading about Governor Ben led to a love affair with politics and with communication.
At 13, I was writing a column for a local newspaper on teens’ views of the world. At 16, I was a rock-and-roll disc jockey, and in college I became involved with what was then called “educational television.” Now it’s the world of PBS. I moved from being a booth announcer to hosting a monthly public affairs show to producing documentaries for the station’s regional network. I discovered the magic and the power of being able to use words and visuals to tell a story, of building a truthful narrative from a particular point of view. That led to a brief career in commercial television news where I worked as a weekend anchor and produced news stories during the week. After a few years, I realized that I had more interest in making news than in reporting it and took my skills to political campaigns and a successful career as a political media consultant. Throughout my professional life, I’ve told stories on film and television in lengths ranging from 30 seconds to 90-minute feature films. A constant in this endeavor has been telling an important story — delivering an important message — in a way that captivates and educates the viewer.
Goddard on the genesis of his film, and the approach he took in directing the documentary…
Truth be told, the original idea came from former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). He, along with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and William Perry, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal advocating the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. I was taken by the concept of these four “Cold Warriors” — men who had dedicated much of their political careers to building the world’s largest nuclear arsenal — now saying, “Hold on! We don’t need these things anymore. In fact, we’d all be safer without them.”
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I had worked with NTI on a well-received dramatic film called “Last Best Chance,” a film that imagined what would happen if a terrorist group was to steal or make a crude nuclear weapon. Senator Nunn called and asked if I thought there was a documentary to be made around the WSJ article. I was very excited about the concept, and we launched what eventually became a nearly two-year project that permanently recorded and, I think, raises awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to life, as we know it on this planet. The power of their idea attracted Colin Powell, Michael Gorbachev and Michael Douglas to the project, all of whom gave generously of their time to make the film a reality.
I believed strongly that the film must boldly speak the truth, but that it should not be hysterical. So I staged the interviews with the four cold warriors, filmed over a period of nearly six months due to their busy schedules, against a simple black drape. They were elegantly but honestly lit to show their character and avoid theatricality. I wanted the story to be in their words so I shot with two cameras, and the main camera was fixed with a teleprompter. The prompter had no words but rather showed my image, as I asked them questions off-set. In this way they were speaking directly to me — and the viewer — never breaking eye contact or searching for which camera or person they should talk to.
We chose to make limited use of “b-roll.” When we did use it, we chose raw news footage to preserve the reality and urgency of the images on screen. Other “presenters” such as Powell, Obama, Gorbachev, Schwarzenegger and Beckett, were shot in a more “real life” format to preserve the unique position of the four Cold Warriors. While always approachable, the four stood apart from others who appeared in the film. The atmosphere I wanted to create was one in which their visual weight served to reinforce the weight of their words. They were expressing powerful thoughts, and they should be seen as coming from powerful personalities.
Goddard on the logistics challenge he faced in completing his film…
Logistics were the biggest hurdle. My subjects are still extremely busy and fitting a day of filming and numerous review sessions into their lives was a challenge. This was not just true of the four Cold Warriors. General Powell, for example, was able to give me about forty-five minutes. He marched in, we quickly applied make-up and he began speaking. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to get any second takes as there was a line of aides outside the studio door, each with a claim on the General’s schedule. President Gorbachev was a similar situation. I managed to catch him in a hotel room in Boston between a speech and a flight to Asia. I managed to ask half-a-dozen questions in the half-hour we had as his “handlers” paced the corridor looking from their watches to me with scowls on their faces.
Goddard on what he hopes audiences will take away…
Feedback from early screenings shows a high level of interest in the film and a great deal of concern after viewing it. I think the film raises important questions and suggests brave but realistic and logical solutions. It is my hope that the film stimulates discussion about the threat we face from nuclear weapons and that discussion will lead to action.
And on what’s in store for his future…
I am working on a number of public policy issues in the U.S. and in Europe and have begun work on a political novel that I hope to eventually turn into a film.