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Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser on Command and Control

Based on Eric Schlosser’s book of the same name, Command and Control marks the second time Peabody and Emmy-winning director Robert Kenner has worked with the NY Times bestselling author – the first being on Food, Inc., Kenner’s Academy Award-nominated documentary inspired by Schlosser’s seminal Fast Food Nation. In their latest collaboration, though, the perils of agribusiness have been replaced by the too true tale of a near miss nuclear accident.

Weaving together archival news footage with present-day, first-hand-account interviews, the doc details the nail-biting events that occurred one September eve in 1980 at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas after a maintenance worker innocently dropped a socket – which subsequently punched a hole in the fuel tank of an intercontinental ballistic missile. I spoke with Kenner and Schlosser just prior to the film’s September 14th premiere at NYC’s Film Forum.

Lauren Wissot: So you two go back a ways – but how did you first meet and decide to collaborate? Was your working process on Command and Control similar or different from Food, Inc.?

Eric Schlosser: I’d been approached by a number of directors who were interested in making a documentary based on Fast Food Nation. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work with any of them. And then my mother-in-law, who’d recently produced a documentary, insisted that I watch a film of Robby’s called War Letters. She was convinced he was the best director to make a tough, intelligent documentary about our food system. I watched Robby’s film and realized she was right. I’m lucky to have such a cool mother-in-law.

As for working with Robby, Food, Inc. and Command and Control are both his films, not mine. But I have my say about every single thing in them – and sometimes he listens to what I say.

Robert Kenner: I was a huge fan of Eric’s Fast Food Nation and was excited by the opportunity to adapt it into a film. Eric hung in there with me when other directors were vying to make the film. It took years to get funding in place, so when we started shooting, the book was more like a template for finding similar, current stories we could film. Eric is a dogged investigator and was instrumental during this process. For example, he uncovered a new story about BPI and claims that their “lean-finely textured-beef” was being used in 75% of all processed hamburgers. BPI was the leading processor of the product that would come to be known to the public as “pink slime.”

Adapting Command and Control brought a different challenge. It’s an incredible book, but it wasn’t until I saw an existing Titan II silo that I could visualize the film. Keeping the Damascus story front and center, we essentially wrote a screenplay from interviews with the survivors of the incident and really pared down the historical context. Unlike Food, Inc., we weren’t searching for modern day stories, although we followed cheating scandals and ongoing accident investigations throughout the making of the film.

LW: I know you feared corporate lawsuits on Food, Inc., so I’m wondering if there was any government pushback with this latest doc. Any information you tried to obtain but remains classified?

RK: There seems to be interest from some members of the Air Force in screening the film. Others may be upset, but perhaps Eric should answer this question.

ES: I was expecting a lot of pushback from the government about Command and Control. The book strongly criticized the government’s management of the most important national security issue that America faces. But this was the first thing I’ve written that got me invited into the corridors of power. I was very surprised. There was a real eagerness among high-ranking government officials to review this history, discuss my criticisms, and engage in a dialogue about how to avoid these problems in the future. It’s kind of amazing that I was more strongly attacked and placed at greater legal risk when I criticized companies that make hamburgers and French fries.

LW: The doc is a minute-by-minute account of an event that easily could have ended in massive death and destruction – and as such, unfolds like a real-life thriller. What were your cinematic and/or novelistic influences in structuring the film? 

RK: For me this was a thriller from the get-go. It’s a techno thriller with the central idea that we’re much better at creating complex technical systems than we are at controlling them. There are very few documentary thrillers, so my influences were Paul Greengrass (Flight 93) and Tom Clancy novels.

We collected Air Force films and news clips and worked off existing footage whenever possible, but there was very little footage from the night of the accident. Of course there was no footage from inside the silo that night, so I shot to match Air Force training films and recreated the events that unfolded. The silo complex is an extraordinary location and frozen in the time period of the incident, so that allowed us to bring the terror of that evening to life.

ES: When I started writing the book, I set out to write a techno-thriller in which nothing works. The film really captures that spirit: all these elaborate, expensive machines constantly going wrong, just like in real life.

LW: I’m surprised so many people were willing to go on-camera with their first-person accounts about the Arkansas accident. But who declined? Did you attempt to interview the governor at the time, Bill Clinton?

ES: For the book, I interviewed General Lloyd Leavitt, the vice commander of the Strategic Air Command, who was in charge on the night of the accident and made a number of poor decisions. I tried to portray him as a complex character, not as a one-noted villain. But General Leavitt didn’t like the book, threatened to sue me, and refused to appear in the film, which is unfortunate. I wish we could have included his side of the story.

RK: Eric did the heavy lifting. He paved the way. I wanted to interview Bill Clinton, but with Hillary running it’s difficult to get him on camera.

LW: Ultimately, I think the thing that most shocked me about this story is that I wasn’t aware of it before Eric’s book. Any guesses as to why the Damascus incident (and other near-misses) seems to have historically been swept under the rug?

RK: At the time, the Damascus accident did receive a significant amount of media coverage. However, while the Air Force would neither confirm nor deny there was a warhead on the missile, they maintained there was never a possibility that a warhead could have detonated. So the story of a missile explosion was in the news and then quickly disappeared. But the bigger story of a 9-megaton warhead – with the explosive power of all the weapons in WWII including both atomic bombs — almost detonating in rural Arkansas was not covered. And unfortunately, these accidents continue to this day.

Image courtesy American Experience Films