The Cold Blue is a new feature-length film, digitally restored, constructed from the material of 34 reels of raw, colour, footage shot during bombing missions in Germany.
Captured by William Wyler, it was originally shot for the 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle: A story of a Flying Fortress. This extraordinary, never-before-seen colour footage puts you 30,000 feet over Nazi Germany, battling killer flak, enemy fighters, and minus 60-degree temperatures.
Director Erik Nelson, who was in Dublin recently, talked to Paul Farren about the making of the documentary.
How did this project come about?
It came from a long-term passion of mine for World War II history and aviation and I had a friend who worked with Paul Allen, the reclusive billionaire, who also shared a passion for World War II aviation. They gave me some money to go and look for colour footage of WWII airplanes just because it would be interesting for historical purposes. That’s when we discovered William Wyler’s outtakes – and intakes actually – from Memphis Belle and the moment I saw that collection I realised that there was a feature film in here and pretty much this whole project crystallized instantly.
It’s a very beautiful, very sombre depiction of the B-17 bomber crews coming from England to Germany at the end of the war. How would you describe it?
The film is, in essence, a time portal that immerses you in the world of 1943 and the men who flew over Germany from England and the strategic bombing campaign. It catapults the viewer into a B-17, 25,000 feet over Germany with flak enemy fighters in unbelievable cold and strenuous conditions.
The transformation job on the footage was astounding. I couldn’t get over the beauty of it.
Originally I thought of this as an art film, not an historical documentary, maybe influenced by my work with Werner Herzog. So I tried to create something that wasn’t a traditional documentary but which was much more of an immersive experience, not unlike the Peter Jackson film [They Shall Not Grow Old, 2018] or Apollo 11 [Todd Douglas, 2019].
It’s interesting seeing this kind of restoration because it does have a most unusual and emotional impact, it certainly did for me. Some people might find it controversial in the way that it touches on certain aspects of the violence of the war and where people might see the voice it gives. But I thought it more profound than that because you did talk about the effect the war had on the citizens of Germany and the whole madness of that and so the story is there for people to go and check for themselves.
That’s it. This points you… it opens up the door if you want to walk into it and learn more. But you can’t tell the story without discussing the people on the ground. They often get dismissed in traditional World War II documentaries. It’s very much an unflinching, cold-blooded presentation of the realities of the time and viewers can find in it what they want.
I agree. It was a story is a bunch of 20-year-old men who were put in a terrible situation and made the best of it.
Terrified 20-year-old boys really, who were following the moral dictates of the time and found themselves in this insane position, day after day, mission after mission.
You were very lucky in being able to have anyone left to be able to talk to and give you that narrative. Tell me about that process going about meeting all these 90 year old men who’d been part of that.
We cast them – we worked with someone who knew who the survivors were and we created a composite crew: one guy for each section and we drove cross-country myself and the producer got in a car and paid house calls because that’s where you’ll find them – you go to them; they don’t go to you – and we spent an hour an hour and a half with each of them across the country: 9 guys, 9 different places. I knew they had to speak to the footage. I knew what was in the footage so I focused the interviews to compliment the footage I knew I had.
It was a highly charged emotional thing for these guys to look at themselves after all these years.
Yes. This trauma has never left them and this film opened up that door again for them and my questions opened it up for them, so it was a kind of therapy for them in some ways.
What were the biggest challenges for you once the project really heated up and began. Technically it must have been huge.
No, it pretty much went together very simply. There’s probably 7 active creative participants, 2 people on restoration, 1 person, David Hughes, whose previous film was Black Panther, on sound design, and Richard Thompson, who composed the extraordinary soundtrack.
It was an amazing soundtrack – very evocative and it crept up on you in terms of how it dealt with the emotional moments and how it tried not to be over-melodramatic, I suppose avoiding a propaganda-esque feel.
Exactly. It’s melancholy. That’s something about Richard’s music. He’s always had that kind of melancholy streak, very realistic, cynical streak. I’ve worked with him in the past – he scored my film Grizzly Man and a couple of other films with me.
What was his way into it? How did you discuss it with him?
He did what he wanted. I’d given him a copy of the finished film with what I thought were the appropriate music choices and he pretty much threw out my choices and did what he wanted, which is kind of what I was expecting him to do. And he made it far better than I could have dreamed.
Which is part of the joy of that collaborative process when you meet somebody you totally trust.
And the sound design deserves extra mention as well because that is a huge task to do justice to do something that… not that it was a case of guessing what it was like, but more to evoke that memory.
Well the good news is that we didn’t have to guess because we had access to a real B-17 and state-of-the-art audio recording and we knew where the cameras were placed because we had the footage – so it was probably the opposite of guesswork; it was more duplicate, it was more put the microphone at the right angle and record it exactly how it was. We had to create the sounds of Flak. I worked with the veterans who described what Flak sounded like so we did our best to duplicate that sound.
How’s the response been so far at the screenings for the piece?
It’s been terrific. It seems to be really striking a chord in people. With the success of the Jackson film and Apollo 11 and now my film, there seems to be a real interest in immersive bigscreen history and for some reason people are looking to escape into “the past”.
I couldn’t get over how huge the missions were from England.
Literally thousands of planes. That will never happen again. You’ll never see 1,000 airplanes in the sky at one time ever again in human history – that was once in human history and William Wyler happened to capture those images in colour film in 1943 and the raw footage that he captured has managed to survive for 75 years so that’s pretty extraordinary all around.
The work is phenomenal. Just to say again, I’ve never felt such an emotional touchstone to that time and place, in as much as you can have – it’s a bit of a time machine.
Thank you – that was the intention, to connect you to the past through the footage of men who were there.
In cinemas one night only July 4th http://www.mycineplace.com/
Dublin screening at IFI