The Man Who Saved the World/Peter Anthony

On September 26, 1983, Russian radar systems indicated that the US had launched a full-scale nuclear attack on the USSR. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the man in charge, and it was up to him to decide whether to launch a retaliatory attack or defy the Russian military and refrain from setting off an attack that would have wiped out most human life on the planet. In this thrilling documentary/feature hybrid, director Peter Anthony portrays the tormented inner life of the man who saved the world for us all. Click here to watch the trailer. •Availability: Friday, September 18: at Cinema Village, New York City, and Clinton Street Theatre, Portland, Oregon; Friday, September 25: at Arena Screen in Los Angeles and Cinema Detroit in Detroit, Michigan. The film will also be shown on September 26, the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Thanks to Adam Segal and Emily Karol, The 2050 Group, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Stanislav is a very tormented man. How did he feel about making the film?


PA:  It was very tough for all of us, because nobody knows what they’re getting into when they start to make a film. The first time I met Stanislav, I opened the door to his apartment and saw this pink curtain hanging on the window. Then I saw that it was really, really filthy in there, and I thought to myself, There must have been a woman living here once, picking out the draperies, but she’s not living here any longer, as it’s so filthy. I knew there was a personal story, but then he tells me, I’m almost seventy years old, I’m an old Russian colonel, I’m not going to tell you anything personal, I’m not going to get emotional in front of the camera. I thought, Fuck, man, this is not going to work out. How do we solve this?

I wanted to make a cinema-verite film, old school. I asked him, off camera, “Stanislav, how dangerous was it?”  And he said, “It was horrible, it was so dangerous. It destroyed my life.” I put the camera on, and you know what he does then?  He turns all the way around and tells me, “It wasn’t that bad. It was only five minutes. No problem.” He was scared to tell the truth.  My Russian translator thought he was like this because back in the day, if you complained about the Russian system, you’d either get shot or sent to the gulag, the concentration camps in Russia. It was still there inside of him, and he couldn’t let go of that.

Then I thought, That means if I do it like a journalist, or make an ordinary documentary, he’s going to lie through the whole film and it’s not going to be a true story. He’s going to pretend in front of the camera. So suddenly I had to make it almost into a fictional film; I had to direct him into getting the real story. It was really, really difficult. I never had the feeling that the film should be made like this, it just kind of developed.


DT:  It developed into something wonderful.


PA: When I started making this film, documentary was really, really hot, and now it’s really, really not. If you show a documentary in the theaters in Denmark, nobody’s going to watch it unless it’s about something they know. It sounds crazy, but when we showed the documentary to some students, they said, “The actress who plays his mother is really wonderful.” When I told them she was his real mother, they said, “Wow, it’s a real film?” I don’t know why they call it a real film, but I just had to go with that. I don’t want to call it doing it more sexy, but I just had to tell the story in a different way, I think.


DT:  It totally worked.  I found myself getting very emotional over the fact that Stanislav wouldn’t let people think of him as a hero. What kind of man is he?


PA:  He’s fantastic and horrible.  He’s both.  He’s horrible when he’s yelling, and when he’s drunk he’s the worst person on the planet. Then suddenly you go beyond his grief and all his pain and you think about what he’s done, and he’s fantastic. That’s what I love about him. When I was growing up, I always hated Superman movies. They’re so pitch perfect. They look good, they can do everything. And suddenly you have this man who’s almost like a villain in a way. He yells at people and does all this mean stuff, and then he has this fantastic big heart and did something great. I also believe that’s why he saved the world—because he’s so against everything. Can you imagine a normal Soviet citizen in his position? That man would just say, Let’s push the button.


DT:  A normal American . . . a normal anyone sitting in his position.


PA:  Exactly. I’ve met people in the States who used to launch missiles. They cried when they met Stanislav. They said, “I never would have even questioned it. I would have just fired the missile.”


DT: You used three different time periods in the film:  the reenactment of the events of September 26, 1983, the archival footage, and the footage you shot.  Did you have that structure in advance, or did you create it in editing?


PA:  I tried to structure it in advance, and I gave up. I actually made three movies. I made a story about a man, Stanislav Petrov, who was an old grumpy guy who saved the world but didn’t manage to save his own family. Then I made a story about back in 1983, a man who was young, who was at his height while he was living with a sick wife, saved the world and gets sacked. That’s what I made.

I used archival footage because when I thought about making this movie, everybody told me, “You have to be at least forty years old and you have to be a guy to be concerned about the story.” I thought that was stupid, and that we had to have younger people watch this movie. If we want to be concerned about nuclear weapons, it has to be the young people, because nobody’s changing our minds here in Denmark. I had to tell them about how scary it was at that time, because they don’t know anything about the cold war. They know about the Second World War, because you could see what was going on, so I made these three different layers. Then we edited with our hearts, just sitting there watching, editing, watching. It was hell.

It was difficult because I wanted it from the point of view of Stanislav Petrov.  I didn’t want a typical British documentary, with a man talking to the camera and then a flashback to what he was talking about. I wanted it to be flowing.  I didn’t want Stanislav to say, I was a young man, then here he is as a young man. At first we tried to make the film the way you normally do.  Stanislav would talk a little bit, we’d have a little bit of reenactment, then a little bit of Stanislav talking, but you never got into the emotional impact. So we had this crazy idea, Why can’t we just go to a feature film for ten minutes with the young Stanislav, and then go back and be with the older Stanislav for a long time?  I think it works so much better.


DT:  It’s amazing. Let’s talk about the reenactment. Like everybody else, I knew the outcome, but it was still heart-stoppingly thrilling. How do you edit a sequence when everybody already knows the outcome, as opposed to editing a sequence where nobody knows the outcome yet because you’re creating the outcome?


PA:  It’s horrible. When I suggested doing a reenactment, everybody said, “Who cares, because we know we’re not dead.” Well, I can see a film about JFK and I know he’s getting shot, but it’s still interesting. And I felt I knew exactly what I had to do. I had to go with the emotional impact. If I just had people sitting there saying, “Now it’s going to get really scary,” you’re not going to feel that.  But I could create a sequence where every moment was exciting, and that’s  what I did.

I was part of the hippy days, so I’m not a soldier. I haven’t been in the military, so I had to sit down with Stanislav for a long, long time to find out exactly how they talked and how they reacted, how they spoke to each other. At first I made it very dramatic. I started lying about what happened, but then I went back to exactly how it was, and I went with the feeling. Then I found out that when he went to report on the incident, the colonel he was reporting to was drunk. What the hell? That could only happen in real life, because as fiction it would be stupid. Then suddenly I found all these really small things that actually happened to him that night.  The alarm was too high, much higher than it normally was, so it was difficult for them to think.  There was a lot of stuff going on that night.


DT:  You mean the volume was too high?


PA:  It was five times higher than it normally was. Of course I couldn’t have twenty minutes where you couldn’t hear anything besides a loud alarm, so I had to change that a little bit. I got really, really nerdy into all the details. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Russian military you can swear when you’re talking to your superiors. I didn’t know about the way they reacted because I always saw the military from American films. I used a Russian military advisor who’d worked on films before, who told me how far we could go with that. I also used a lot of the Stanislavski method, because I’m really into that.

Our problem was that we had a really small budget and the reenactment was like a Hollywood scene, so we had to shoot forty minutes [i.e., of film time] in ten days. No rehearsals at all; we couldn’t do that. The actors flew in from Russia in the evening, and then in the morning we had to film the whole thing. I had to be on the set, standing with them, and acting as well.


DT:  You give a big part of the film to Stanislav’s personal life. Why?  I thought that was a really interesting choice.


PA:  When we first started out, everyone said, “OK, let’s just make a film about the cold war and what happened at that time.” I was talking to some of my young nieces about it. They thought it was scary that the world almost went under, but they thought it was almost more interesting that here was this man who could have been living on the street, a bum, and you could walk past this guy and never even glance at him, and you suddenly realize this man saved the world. Could he do something else wonderful?  And I knew we had to put this together.  You know, you can have fifty minutes of documentary, but if you want to extend that to more than an hour, you have to have a personal story, for me at least.  I have to get emotionally involved.


DT: How old are your nieces?


PA:  One is turning 18 tonight. It’s very, very important for me to look at younger folks and say, How can we get people involved to the point of at least discussing war?  Discussing nuclear weapons, discussing immigration, discussing religion. The best documentary in Denmark for the past eighteen years sold ten thousand tickets. For this film, we’ve already presold ten to twenty thousand tickets. It’s only from the younger people, who are between 17 to 28. The target group is almost all women, so it’s exactly the opposite of what we’ve been told.


DT:  That’s fascinating!


PA: And the message they have in common is that they’re all against nuclear weapons. I realized that if you’re Christian or Muslim, you don’t think that humans should have the ability to destroy the world. It should be Allah or God. So actually this movie is really, really broad. Last time we had 1,100 people in one screening, and five hundred of them were Muslim. They loved the film.  Suddenly all these people are backing me.  I think that’s very fantastic.


DT:  It’s extraordinary. What’s Stanislav doing now?


PA: He’s living in the same apartment you saw in the film, but he’s getting better now. Since the movie came out, people have been making donations—little girls chipping in five dollars, and the like. All this money we send to Stanislav. The funny thing is that he doesn’t trust the Russian banks. He says they’re still stealing. So what we do is we relay the money; one of our translator girls over there drives out and gives him the money and talks to him. They probably come to him every second or third month. In the wintertime, when he’s lonely, he’s sitting there drinking and not doing very well, then it turns to summer and we go to a festival, shooting whatever, and he’s living it up, and he becomes the Stanislav you see at the end of the movie.


DT: We seem to be very complacent about nuclear weapons today, as you said at the beginning of the interview. What do you think we can do about it?


PA:  What Stanislav says in the movie is so naïve, and that’s why I think it works. He says that we have to forget about the past. That’s so naïve, but it’s also naïve to think that we could just accumulate a lot of missiles and think we have peace. I show the film in Europe and people see his stories, and suddenly I’m surrounded by Muslim girls in full hijab, and they’re crying. When I  show the film in the US, I show it to right-wing Christians, Tea Party members, and they always think Stanislav’s a good person, a good human being. So at least we can start talking.

In my personal point of view, the world can’t keep on going like it is now. We’re sitting here, so rich in Denmark, and we won’t let any foreigners into the country because we’re afraid of losing money. I really think the future must be the youth, and I believe Stanislav thinks the same. That’s why we have to educate the younger people. In Denmark, a lot of my generation always thought that the young people only cared about Britney Spears and don’t care about the environment. It’s  not true. We just have to give them a little push.  We have to learn to at least think about it.


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