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An Interview with Stanley Donwood, the Man Behind Art Direction of 'The Bomb' (and Radiohead)

We interviewed Donwood ahead of the premiere of 'The Bomb' this weekend in New York City.

by Alex Robert Ross
Apr 22 2016, 7:26pm

Smitri Keshari and Eric Schlosser’s new multimedia installation The Bomb has its ambitious premiere tomorrow night at Gotham Hall in New York, part of four shows in two nights for the project. The film itself is a disconcerting look at nuclear tests and missteps, plunging the viewer into old footage and warnings from Cold War-era panics right up to the present day. Live, though, the images will be beamed onto eight screens, pinning its crowd in, confronting and surrounding them with images of nuclear weaponry’s history of proliferation and terror. In the middle of the experience, electronic trio The Acid will be performing their disconcerting score, which we premiered "Theme 1" of earlier today.

Their music will be reacting to Stanley Donwood’s art direction on screen. Donwood, best known as Radiohead’s key collaborator on all things visual, his work has appeared on everything from Kid A to Thom Yorke’s solo work as Atoms for Peace. On The Bomb, Donwood was tasked with making the terrifying beautiful, something that has defined much of his career. The Bomb’s immersive, disturbing attraction is largely derived from Donwood’s aesthetic judgement.

We spoke to Donwoord about arranging the film, and perpetual fears of total, nuclear annihilation.

NOISEY: Where are you calling from right now?
Stanley Donwood: I’m at the very end of the Highline. I’ve come out for a bit of a walk. I’m seeing the developing history of Manhattan from this elevated railway.

So how did you get involved in the film?
I don’t actually remember. Eric and Smitri got involved because I’d worked on an app with Radiohead called PolyFauna. I kind of explained to them that I didn’t code it or anything like that. I part designed it. And I didn’t know anything about filmmaking or film. I didn’t know what an art director was. But they said it didn’t matter, I was the man for the job despite my protestations otherwise. In my teenage years I’d been really active in CND and all that anti-nuclear stuff, so I thought, “I should do this.” It’s one of those things in life where everything makes sense. So it started from there, really. From a position of complete ignorance, which is OK. I’ve learned a lot along the way.

So what does it turn out that an art director does, then?
Well, I’m not sure that my experience is in any way typical. It seems to consist of spending a lot of time in screening rooms watching nuclear explosions repeatedly and then quite a lot of time walking around, talking about what we’ve just seen and how we can change it and make it better. Weirdly, I sort of had to forget about the politics of it and concentrate on the aesthetic experience and how best to convey the message of the film visually rather than in a didactic way or as propaganda.

One thing that struck me about the film is that it’s almost uncomfortably beautiful. Is that a disconcerting thing to control?
“Make the horribly beautiful” is a short hand way of how I think of a lot of the work that I’ve done in the past. “Trivializing Nightmares Since 1993” is what I put on my notepaper which is probably quite accurate as well.

When you were watching all the footage, are you plunged into the fear that it’s trying to conjure?
Weirdly, no. Because I’m sort of looking at it from a detached point of view and I’m looking at it as color, movement. And trying to refine the narrative arc, the dramatic arc of it, such as it is. So it was down to things like how do you convey the bomb dropped on Hiroshima? How do we get that across in a visceral way to the audience? Everyone’s seen photographs, but how do we make that happen? So because of that - because I was spending most of my time writing little time-coded note to go along with the footage as it was at the time - my fear of the consequences of a nuclear accident or a nuclear act of aggression was tempered by being one step removed from the meaning of what I was doing. It’s only now, when my job has kind of finished, that I was reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a little book published in ’46. I was reading that on the plane yesterday coming over, and that upset me considerably more than any of the times that I’ve been working on this film over the last year and a half. I’m just reading reportage that’s about six people who experienced the attack on Hiroshima and survived and what happened in the days and weeks after the explosions. It’s a really upsetting little book. When I was young, I spent a lot of my time possibly unreasonably worried about nuclear war. But then, a lot of people were in the 1980s. The danger of nuclear war in the 1980s was quite high, and I think it was a lot more real as a potentially apocalyptic event than anything that contemporary terrorism is doing.

I was reading something similar in John Doran’s Jolly Lad - this perpetual fear of annihilation that dominated everything.
Absolutely. A lot of people, we became self-aware. That time in puberty when you stop being a kid and you stop being a solipsistic being that cares only about its own gratification. You become aware of your place in the world and as a part of society, whatever Thatcher might have said. And at the same time, you’re made aware that these adults that have been telling you what to do for the last fifteen years have created this monster, trying to go off at any moment. So my first engagement in politics was a street demonstration against the stationing of cruise missiles in East Anglia. My first political involvement in democracy was being dragged off the street by a policeman. And from that, I became very interested, joined CND and going on marches in London, going to talks. There was a film by Peter Watkins called The War Game that was commissioned by the BBC but then banned from being showed. So it was shown semi-clandestinely in peoples front rooms or little holes. So I met lots of people. My awakening into adult life coincided with the incredible fragility of it and the idiocy of the people who claim to be in charge.

So when you’re art directing for something like this, you say there’s a detachment, but there is a message to this film - are you aware of that political purpose while you’re making something like this?
Yeah, very much so. At the same time, I was very concerned - I didn’t want people to walk away feeling completely hollowed out, hopeless, bereft of any kind of feeling of empowerment. So we did want people to leave and to feel that we’ve got this planet. To talk of colonizing another one is blatant idiocy when we’ve got this one which we’re totally adapted to. So the film starts off and ends very beautifully. There’s a poetry that bookends an almost unrelenting hour of terror. I don’t think it’s a comfortable watch. The book that I read on the way here, Hersey’s Hiroshima, I read in some book that a woman had read that book and it had precipitated her into a two-year depression. So I’m really hoping that we haven’t made something that will do that, powerful though the film is. I don’t want people to feel that there is no future, the end is nigh. We want people to think the end could me nigh unless we do something about it.

Alex Robert Ross is a writer based in Brookyn. Follow him on Twitter.

VICE is a supporting editorial partner of 'The Bomb' and Tribeca Film Festival.