AN INDEPTH INTERVIEW WITH ATOMIC CULTURE VISIONARY JAYNE LOADER
On the occasion of the DVD re-issue of THE ATOMIC CAFE, one of the most entertaining and inventive documentaries ever made, CONELRAD is very pleased to present the following interview with one of that film’s co-creators, Jayne Loader. CONELRAD would like to thank Ms. Loader for her time and her thoughtful answers. For more information on THE ATOMIC CAFE see our review ATOMIC CAFE: HISTORY DONE RIGHT
CONELRAD: It's been twenty years since the release of the landmark documentary that you made with Kevin and Pierce Rafferty (just re-issued by Docurama on DVD). When you were first embarked upon making this film in 1977 did you think you'd still be discussing it in the 21st Century?
JAYNE: Never. But as the film started to take shape, I did have a hunch that it was either going to be a big success or an embarassing failure—nothing in between.
CONELRAD: Was there ever a moment during the making of THE ATOMIC CAFE when you were cognizant of the fact that you were creating an entirely new kind of documentary?
JAYNE: Yes, we were very conscious of that during the production process. We had certain formal principles that we chose to adhere to to make what we called a "compilation verite"—a compilation film with no Voice of God narration and no new footage created by us, the filmmakers.
CONELRAD: Who were some of your documentarian influences before starting THE ATOMIC CAFE and name some recent documentaries that you like.
JAYNE: Emile de Antonio, Bruce Conner, Phillipe Mora were some of the filmmakers that influenced us during the production process. The entire cinema verite movement influenced us, as did novelists like Robert Coover and theorists like Herbert Schiller and Gerry Mander. Right now? I've been working too hard to see any movies! I feel totally disconnected from what is going on in documentary cinema right now.
CONELRAD: Whose idea was it to resist—at all costs—narration?
JAYNE: It was an idea that the three of us developed together, as collaborators. All important decisions pertaining to The THE ATOMIC CAFE were (and continue to be) made collectively.
CONELRAD: Was it tempting to take director John Avildsen up on his offer to get John Belushi to do the narration?
JAYNE: Um, vast sums of money are always tempting—at least, to me.
CONELRAD: There seems to be almost equal interest in THE ATOMIC CAFE the sountrack as there is in THE ATOMIC CAFE the motion picture (at least from our readers). Was Atomic Music always part of the equation when the film was being structured or did it come later in the process?
JAYNE: We always knew we were going to use some kind of vintage music. And as soon as we knew that the movie was going to be about the Atomic Age (instead about propaganda in general) the music became more important, since the atomic bomb/Cold War songs are so great.
CONELRAD: By the way, what is your favorite "bomb" song and name the artist, too.
JAYNE: My favorite Cold War song isn't technically a "bomb" song and it isn't in THE ATOMIC CAFE either. It's called "I'd Rather Have the Blues Than What I've Got" by Nat King Cole. It's the main theme from Robert Aldrich's classic KISS ME DEADLY and the everything about it—words and music—epitomizes the existential dread and angst that were so much a part of the 1950s (and the film noir). I tried a million different ways to try to make it work in THE ATOMIC CAFE and finally had to drop it from the movie.
CONELRAD: Approximately what percentage of THE ATOMIC CAFE is derived from films that were obtained directly from U.S. government archives and was it the cost of newsreel footage that ballooned the budget to $300,000?
JAYNE: I don't really have those figures in front of me, but, yes, the commercial stock footage was expensive. You also should remember that we were working in film, not video, which has brought costs down for filmmakers today. At the time, $300,000 for a feature film was considered quite cheap.
CONELRAD: THE ATOMIC CAFE was serendipitously released during the Reagan Administration's forced civil defense revival. Did you hear from any back channel sources what the US government reaction was to film and its popularity?
JAYNE: No, not a word.
CONELRAD: Do you find it ironic that THE ATOMIC CAFE's DVD release coincides with a new color coded threat assessment system issued by a department called the Office of Homeland Security (Not to mention the Defense Department's stated goal of studying the development of new battlefield nuclear weapons)?
JAYNE: More like serendipitous. Seriously, I think there will probably always be some sort of (real or imaginary) threat and the government will always respond in absurd ways, which means THE ATOMIC CAFE should have a very long shelf life!
CONELRAD: Is there unused footage and music that you regret not being able to use in the original film that might find its way onto the 25th Anniversary Special edition DVD?
JAYNE: We have hundreds of cans of outtakes that didn't make it into the movie. I regret not being able to use more of the U.S. Army training films, which were made to prepare the troops for nuclear war, like MANUAL DAMAGE ASSESSMENT and THE MANAGEMENT OF MASS CASUALTIES which dealt with triage after a nuclear war. And MEMORIAL ACTIVITIES—which pertained to burying radioactive bodies.
CONELRAD: THE ATOMIC CAFE appears to have very well defined chronological parameters. Was there a conscious decision to limit the film to the "Golden Age" of Cold War paranoia?
JAYNE: Yes. We didn't want to include anything that looked as if it were shot later than the early Sixties, when civil defense was peaking. That's why we avoided the temptation to update any of the stories.
CONELRAD: What other documentaries have you done and are they available for purchase anywhere?
JAYNE: I've only made one other film, a compilation verite documentary about animals and animal rights called WHY DO WE TREAT THEM LIKE ANIMALS, which was truly a disaster of Biblical proportions. The production was shut down before the film was finished, money disappeared, lawsuits were filed, and one of my investors literally died from the stress. Last I heard, the negative had been eaten by rats!
CONELRAD: What prompted you make your ahead-of-its-time 1995 CD-ROM "Public Shelter"?
JAYNE: I was interested in experimenting with new forms, new media and the Internet. Plus, I had all those THE ATOMIC CAFE outtakes sitting around, which I thought I could finally put to good use! It seemed like a good idea at the time and I did learn a lot.
CONELRAD: You spent over five years making THE ATOMIC CAFE—how did you support yourself during those years and did it ever get so frustrating that the project almost died? What kept you going?
JAYNE: I didn't support myself and the project was never in any danger of dying for lack of funds. Lucky for all of us, my partners had inherited money and we used that to support ourselves while the film was being made. Had we relied on grants, we would have starved.
CONELRAD: What do you do when you're not answering persistent questions about THE ATOMIC CAFE?
JAYNE: I'm the Co-Master of Quincy House at Harvard University. In my copious spare time, I write novels.
Editor's Note: In December of 2004, Ms. Loader was kind enough to answer a few follow-up questions that pertain directly to DUCK AND COVER, the short subject civil defense film she and her co-directors re-introduced to the world in their documentary THE ATOMIC CAFE. Ms. Loader was contacted on the eve of DUCK AND COVER being inducted into the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.
CONELRAD: Did you actually see DUCK AND COVER as a child in the classroom? If so, could you describe that experience?
JAYNE: No, I don't remember seeing DUCK AND COVER as a child growing up in Fort Worth. Even though we did have civil defense drills--and the bomb shelter king of North Texas, E. O. "Soapy" Gillam, lived right across the street from me—someone in a position of power in the school system must have realized that Fort Worth, with all its military contractors (Lockheed, Bell Helicopter, etc.) was a prime target area and civil defense, for us, was a cruel joke.
CONELRAD: If the answer to the above question is "no," how did you first come to see DUCK AND COVER (who among your team re-found it?)? What was your initial reaction?
JAYNE: Well, I thought I knew the answer to that question (that we found it in the closet at FEMA, where we found the 4-H girls) but nooooo. What can I say? My mind is a sieve. Here's the correct answer from my partner Pierce Rafferty: 'My memory may be faulty (it often is), but I believe what happened was that DUCK AND COVER turned up at the Factual Film Archive and we got a copy after my research trip there ('78 or '79). Lance Bird and Tom Johnson had also discovered the film while doing NO PLACE TO HIDE. Who knows who found it first.' My initial reaction was, "Holy shit! I can't believe this f***in' exists. This is the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life." Then I realized that by editing it a bit, we could make it even funnier.
CONELRAD: Your film, THE ATOMIC CAFE re-introduced DUCK AND COVER to a new generation. The film and its title have become symbolic of the Cold War and the paranoid excesses of the post-9/11 world. How does it feel to be responsible for that?
JAYNE: Wow. It feels great. What more can I say?
CONELRAD: Of all the civil defense films you sifted through choosing footage for THE ATOMIC CAFE what made DUCK AND COVER stand out?
JAYNE: It was so incredibly absurd. But it had that wonderful jingle. And the animated turtle. And that narrator. It was perfect in every way.
CONELRAD wishes to thank both Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty for their time.
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