Jon Niccum talks with "The Day After" director Nicholas Meyer
Some 200 Lawrence citizens came to Liberty Hall Thursday night to remember the historic film “The Day After” that on an evening a quarter century ago changed forever how Americans and other citizens of the world perceived nuclear war.
It was a remarkable movie viewed by 100 million Americans in one televised showing and the same number of Soviet citizens one evening three years later. During this several year span it is estimated that as many as 1 billion people in dozens of countries witnessed the horrors of nuclear war through this film shot mostly in Lawrence, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.
The film focused on an ordinary American family and other citizens, such as Dr. Russell Oakes played by the late Jason Robards, as they struggled to cope with the aftermath of the unthinkable. In the panel discussion that followed this special anniversary screening of “The Day After,” the director Nicholas Meyer, producer Robert Papazian, and casting director Jack Wright, shared many behind the scenes stories, from the writing and casting through the filming and editing of the movie. Other insights to the film and its public reaction were offered by one of the actors in the film, Jeff East, and by David Longhurst, who served as mayor of Lawrence in 1983 when “The Day After” was broadcast nationally.
Meyer said he was in psychotherapy at the time he was asked to direct the film and that he was not anxious for the assignment, but accepted. Meyer brought great talent to the film with writer Edward Hume, producer Papazian, and helped recruit some of the actors. When Robards was asked to play the lead, he immediately accepted, saying it beat signing petitions. This attitude was reflected in the commitments of others who signed on for this historic movie.
Jack Wright, whose daughter Ellen played the 12-year-old Jolene Dahlberg in the film, spoke of the remarkable realism of the film, with more than 1,500 extras composed almost entirely of ordinary Lawrence residents. In particular, Wright remembered the night scenes in the tent city along the banks of the Kansas River, filmed in a Lawrence shoreline park, which produced some of the more vivid and disturbing scenes. Wright spoke of walking through the camp, with hundreds of desperate survivors portrayed by the town’s residents in a setting so real that that many of the extras were weeping. Similar impressions were made in one of the final scenes of more than a thousand survivors on the floor of Allen Field House, a site known to millions of Americans for much healthier, happier images of championship basketball.
Nicholas Meyer spoke of his battles with censors at ABC and at one point had threatened to withdraw from the project after only one week of shooting. Meyer also shared the belief that several other key people involved in the film would follow suit. ABC got back to Meyer the next day, advised him that the attorneys were concerned about several of the scenes, but let it go at with that caveat. Meyer said that most all of the scenes were kept in the movie. The director also said that the original plan was a three-hour movie over two consecutive nights that would include numerous commercial interruptions. Meyer argued, fortunately successfully, that he should pare the film down to two hours and that it should be shown on just one night.
ABC agreed, telling Meyer that most of the sponsors had bailed out of the project anyway. It seems that at least one of the ABC principals involved with the film had wept at the initial screening; ABC was committed that “The Day After” be shown with maximum impact. Papazian also spoke of Pentagon efforts to censor the film through only offering the assistance of our military if the film included a clear statement that the Soviets had initiated the events that lead to the cinematic Armageddon. Papazian refused. The producer also spoke of the great lengths the writer Hume, director Meyer and he had pursued to ensure the scientific accuracy and realism of the film, even without the cooperation and assets of the American military.
Meyer and the others who made the movie spoke of the gallows humor that at times sustained them through the emotional and other challenges of making “The Day After.” One day, looking out over the dozens of shocked and straggling survivors, one of the crew asked, “What would happen if we had a nuclear war during the shooting of this film?” Another time as the film crew looked over a farm field strewn with dead animals covered gray by the dust and debris of nuclear war, someone quipped, “This used to be nothing but condominiums.”
On that night 25 years ago some of us in Lawrence deeply believed that something profound was happening because of “The Day After.” We participated in the Let Lawrence Live agenda of activities, developed by Josh Barron and Allan and Louise Hanson, leading up to and following the film’s showing. Some 1,000 Lawrence citizens joined the candlelight gathering and heard some moving remarks by Mayor Longhurst and others. One group of us, including my 8-year-old daughter Amy, whom we did not let watch the film, congregated inside the Campanile and sang “Give Peace a Chance” and celebrated that we were alive and able to make a commitment to ensure that never would America and the world face a nuclear holocaust.
America was awakened that night to the absolute horrors of nuclear war and Let Lawrence Live helped carry the message of empowerment and hope to both Lawrence residents and their fellow citizens across America. “The Day After” both numbed viewers across the globe, but also filled them with a commitment that Prof. Allan Hanson shared with Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline” broadcast the night after the historic broadcast, “The people of Lawrence aren’t depressed, the people of Lawrence aren’t desperate. I think they are dedicated and determined to fight and to work against the threat of nuclear war.”
Hanson’s words, spoken before and audience that gave him a thunderous applause, led Koppel to say, “If one could extinguish the danger of nuclear war by applause alone, Lawrence, Kan., would have just achieved that end all by itself. Unfortunately, however, we cannot.” Koppel was right. No one city, no one film, no one event, could possibly “extinguish the danger of nuclear war.”
President Eisenhower often stated that leaders ultimately follow the wisdom and demands of their people, saying “People to people will save the world.” As Meyer pointed out, President Reagan’s biographer has written that the president was deeply moved by a private screening of the film and it played a role in changing his perceptions of nuclear war and deeply motivating him to take action, made possible once a willing Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985.
In the seven years following the November 1983 showing of “The Day After,” the people of Lawrence assumed a role in citizen diplomacy initiatives that focused attention not only on the need to end the nuclear arms race, but also on the historical record of Russian-American relations and the benefits of building greater trust and cooperation. Led by Anne and Tom Moore, the Hansons, Mayor Longhurst, Dr. Mark Scott, myself and others, Lawrence groups proposed a summit meeting in Lawrence and focused national attention on the need for Reagan to meet with the Soviet leader, co-organized the 1985 Meeting at the Elbe of American and Soviet World War II veterans in East Germany and the Journey for Peace that visited four Soviet Hero Cities to honor the wartime alliance and call for greater superpower cooperation. These events were witnessed by more than 1 billion people worldwide through the media.
From 1983 on, more than 20 events were organized from Lawrence, culminating in the Meeting for Peace of October 1990 that brought together more than 350 Soviet citizens and 1,000 Kansans and other Americans in seven Kansas cities where workshops on business, medicine, education and other topics took place. The Soviet delegation was led by the son of Nikita Khrushchev and daughters of Marshall Zhukov and included the Russian cosmonaut Georgi Grechko and other famous and ordinary Soviet citizens from every republic and region of the USSR. Time magazine wrote that the event marked a symbolic end of the Cold War; within one year of the Meeting for Peace the USSR had disintegrated and a new democratic Russia was in its infancy.
During these and other events, several Lawrence citizens were honored to meet Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Dr. Alexander Yakovlev, the father of glasnost and perestroika who was hosted for several days in Lawrence, and other famous Russians from all walks of life. We received messages of gratitude from ambassadors in 1985 for the Meeting at the Elbe/Journey for Peace initiative, a letter of appreciation from the White House in 1986, and significant recognition in the Soviet Union and then Russia for our Lawrence initiatives for peace.
The words of Prof. Allan Hanson, head of Let Lawrence Live in November 1983, had proved prophetic. Lawrence citizens played an important role, beginning with the film and Soviet visit to the Kansas Relays in 1983, in inspiring citizen diplomacy initiatives in America, Russia and Europe, “to fight and to work against the threat of nuclear war.” The possibility of nuclear war was not extinguished—but citizens led the way in convincing their governments to begin serious nuclear negotiations. Agreements were reached by Presidents Reagan and Bush with President Gorbachev that greatly diminished the threat of nuclear war.
During the filming of “The Day After,” watching Jason Robards stagger through a heavily damaged Ninth Street in downtown Lawrence, my 8-year old Amy asked me, “Daddy, will we ever have a war in Lawrence?” The only answer I had was the same one countless other Lawrence citizens shared: to become involved as never before to work to improve relations with the people of Russia and to work for nuclear disarmament and a new basis of cooperation between America and Russia in areas of strategic importance and mutual concern.
As we mark the 25th anniversary of “The Day After,” we find once again that this same undaunted commitment to improving Russian-American relations and to lessening any chance of nuclear war is once again urgently needed. Only if American citizens and those of Russia and other nations again become active and involved in this issue, only then will there be a real chance to avoid what could become an even more dangerous Cold War. This is the sentiment of Prof. Stephen Cohen of New York University, Russia’s Sergei Rogov of the U.S.-Canada Institute, and other experts and officials of both countries who are concerned about the steadily worsening relations between Washington and Moscow, underscored by the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and Russian incursion into the former Soviet republic.
The images of “The Day After” must remind us of what the stakes are and what we must at all costs avoid.
My wife Irina and I invite the citizens of Lawrence to join us through the U.S.-Russia Foundation in making a renewed commitment to bettering relations between America and the Russian Federation. We invite you to join us in fulfilling our foundation’s motto, “Goodwill through Good Health” with initiatives to further public health education in Russia, a country whose people now have the world’s highest mortality in every single indicator, such as cancer, heart disease and tuberculosis. Help us promote all of the other areas where the two nations have strategic and common interests, such as abolishing nuclear weapons, halting global warming, promoting greater trade, exploring outer space together, and promoting one Europe where all nations, including Russia, feel secure.
As we approach Thanksgiving, let us remember President Reagan’s sentiments conveyed to us in December 1986 “to thank you for the efforts you and your colleagues in Lawrence, Kansas, have exerted to provide positive impetus to our search for global peace.” It is time to organize and go to work again to preserve all of the gains we have worked so hard to achieve in bi-national relations since “The Day After” inspired us to action a quarter century ago.
Bob Swan Jr.,
Chairman U.S.-Russia Foundation