Jon Else: Wonders Are Many

By Brian Darr

Jon Else

Documentarian Jon Else has been showing us some of our country's most important and fascinating stories for three decades. He directed The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, which in 1981 became the first documentary to win a prize at the Sundance Film Festival, back when it was called the United States Film Festival. As a producer and a cinematographer, he's brought us everything from Eyes on the Prize and Who Are the Debolts? to The History of Rock and Roll and Tupac: Resurrection. His films as director have included Open Outcry and Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven. His 1999 film Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle sought to de-mythify Richard Wagner by looking at his masterpiece from a unique perspective: backstage at the San Francisco Opera.

With his prior experience with both arias and atoms, perhaps it was inevitable that Else would become the one to film the collaboration of composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars on an opera about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project called Doctor Atomic. This work, which featured Gerald Finley in the title role, premiered in San Francisco in 2005, played in Amsterdam in June 2007, and will reappear at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from December 14 through January 19. Penny Woolcock, who reinterpreted a previous Adams/Sellars opera collaboration, The Death of Klinghoffer, for film in 2003, will direct a new production of Doctor Atomic next year in New York and London. In the meantime, Wonders Are Many, which weaves timelines from 2005 and 1945 together into a compelling portrait of human ingenuity, is currently making its way around the international film festival circuit, prior to a PBS airing of an edited-down version in 2008.

I spoke with Else earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, in a corner of the busy Yarrow Hotel lobby, not far from the theater that had premiered Wonders Are Many, and precisely 26 years beforehand, The Day After Trinity. Chuleenan Svetvilas wrote for the San Francisco International Film Festival, upon giving Else an award in 2004, that "as an intereviewer, he has the ability to make people feel at ease." As an interviewee, he did the same thing, making me feel comfortable to take our conversation in directions I hadn't been sure I wanted to go.


You've said this film has been a culmination of your career thus far.

I've been saving string for this movie for a long time. Whenever you make a film, by the time you've finished you've learned how to make that film, but it's too late. But you keep collecting stuff. When I finished The Day After Trinity, I kept a shoebox full of stuff about nuclear weapons, about questions of secrecy, about J. Robert Oppenhemier. Over the years, more and more information and more and more footage became declassified. And in the last few years there were a couple of great new books about Oppenheimer. This stuff was sitting there on the desk, and I kept looking at it as I was doing other projects, hoping to someday return to this story.

Wonders Are Many

Why this particular approach, though?

When I heard there was going to be an opera, it took about five seconds to decide I was going to make this movie. What attracted me was the idea of making a movie about someone else trying to tell this story. I'd had my crack at it. Now John and Peter were gonna have their shot at it. That was irresistible. Starting about ten years ago, I got very bored with telling documentary stories that were single stories. I got very interested in trying to tell two stories at once, and have experimented with that for the last four or five films I've done.

This film really emphasizes that these stories, the one about Oppenheimer and the one about the opera, are two stories of creation.

You bet. You know, humans are capable of these astonishing creations. We make atomic bombs and we make grand opera and we make rifles, and we make hip-hop, and we make anthrax and we built the Parthenon. We are capable of these astonishing achievements and here was a chance to look at some really dark wonders of man through the lens of this fantastic music. Through the lens of this high art if ever there was high art.

One of the motifs the film uses is that of contrasting images of building the prop bomb for the opera, starting with shopping for parts at SCRAP (Scroungers' Center for Re-usable Art Parts), to the final product.

It's funny, that scene with the women from the prop department shopping for bomb parts was a scene that we thought for sure we would cut out for the television version. But everybody seems to like that scene, so I think we're going to rescue it from the trash heap.

Which means something else has to go, I guess...

Yeah, it's going to be very hard to cut down because [editor] Deborah Hoffmann intricately laced together these two stories so that if you take one little thumbtack out of the system the whole thing begins to collapse. It's not going to be easy.

Seeing John's, and Peter's, and the rest of the crew's working process is one of the real privileges of this documentary. Having attended the opera in San Francisco, I was fascinated to be able to see how it all came together. I imagine that it would be just as fascinating for people who haven't seen the opera yet too, though. Can you speak to that?

I'm sure you do not need to see the opera to see this film. If that were the case, we would have failed in making the movie. We deliberately chose about five scenes in the opera that we thought were accessible; there's a lot of the opera that's pretty rugged. It's not for the chicken-hearted. It's some pretty tough stuff... hard! We tried to get scenes that we felt people in a movie theater or watching television could relate to. We also chose scenes with music that I thought was particularly striking. There are some scenes that we covered in great detail that are not in the film.

Wonders Are Many

You've said that one of the reasons to revisit this material was to bring in perspectives on the strategic use of the bomb in World War II that hadn't been available at the time of The Day After Trinity.

Something that we did not properly address in The Day After Trinity was the fact that there were within the Manhattan project serious doubts raised about using this bomb, about actually using the weapon on civilians. There were not too many people, if any, who had doubts about building it, making it. They felt this was something that was going to happen, and it might as well be us that learned how to do it.

But within the Manhattan Project there were several petitions and letters to the president, and actually a fair amount of discussion among the scientists in secret. This of course was a secret project; it was highly classified. Not even Vice President Truman had been informed about the atomic bomb until he took office upon President Roosevelt's death. Within that veil of secrecy, the scientists, the physicists, and particularly the Chicago branch of the Manhattan Project, and also to some degree Los Alamos, debated whether it was the right thing to do. They thought that they were in a unique position to speak to the administration and to the war planners. To say, you know, "Whoa, hold the phone. Let's think here for a minute."

John and Peter used that petition in their opera. The character of Robert Wilson actually stands up and sings the petition to the President of the United States, launching fears of a nuclear arms race. It's something that always gnawed at me, that we did not get to that in The Day After Trinity. There's of course a great debate, still raging, about whether or not that bomb brought the war to an end. We didn't want to get into that debate, but we did want to acknowledge that Oppenheimer was really, in a way, not playing with a full deck of cards when he was involved in choosing targets, for instance. That there were some American generals, General Eisenhower, for instance, who felt that Japan was already defeated and that the use of the bomb would be a mistake. Curtis LeMay, the legendary Air Force butcher, thought it was a mistake to use the atomic bomb. He thought that Japan had already been brought to its knees.

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