The Cold Blue

Scannain Talks The Cold Blue with director Erik Nelson

On July 4th, for one night only, Erik Nelson’s historical  documentary The Cold Blue will screen in cinemas across Ireland.

In 1943, William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most renowned and versatile directors, went to Europe to document the Air War in progress. Wyler flew actual combat missions with B-17’s – and one his three cinematographers was killed during filming. Incredibly, all of the raw color footage Wyler shot for The Memphis Belle was recently discovered deep in the vaults of the National Archives, and a new film has been constructed out of the material. 

THE COLD BLUE is 1 a meditation on youth, war and trauma, and stands as a tribute to one of the world’s great filmmakers and the men of the 8th Air Force who flew mission after suicidal mission in the Second World War. Nine of the very few surviving veterans were interviewed in the summer of 2017, and their voices take us through the harrowing world that Wyler and his cameramen captured in the summer of 1943.

Scannain caught up with The Cold Blue director Erik Nelson on his recent trip to Dublin.

Scannain: There’s a warmth to your movie that you only get from film stock, that you just don’t get from digital. There are some beautiful blues and yellows and the khakis in particular look amazing.

Erik Nelson: You know saturated Technicolor Kodachrome is something you can’t duplicate. The Sun and the Daily Mail both in their headlines had that it was colourised footage. Which made me crazy because no it’s not colourised, it just looks colourised because of its color.

The colours are so lustrous and it’s probably because of what Peter Jackson has just done with his World War I documentary.

Exactly. So that’s probably where they’re making the mistake. He literally animated over the existing footage. Colourised I guess is the right phrase but what you get is more than that. Is it CGI? Is it CGI that basically used that footage and a layer of animated CGI. He really split the difference. What we were faced with in The Cold Blue was that it’s the reel. There’s no augmentation and we had to restore and replace and clean up the film. We had to compensate for the the scratches that had been inflicted on the actual stock footage in London before it even came back to the United States. Every version of the Memphis Belle has those twin scratches through a number of scenes, you know every version.

What was your process for the restoration of the footage?

Well we did a 4k transfer. We went and took the footage which isn’t actually in good shape. It’s the sprocket holes that are starting to disintegrate. The National Archives transferred it to 4k video. Then we captured it and that allowed us to then digitally restore it and do what we needed to do with it. And we also restored the original Memphis Belle. We replaced over 500 shots in the original Memphis Belle.

You essentially remade the Memphis Belle from the original footage.

Well we had to recut it from scratch with exact framing accuracy. Ordinarily when you restore a classic film you find a better print. We didn’t find a better print. We found the raw footage and we cut it from scratch. The Memphis Belle has never looked better. Even when it premiered in 1944. It didn’t look better than this. It had the scratches it was murky. It had gone from 16 millimetre to work print to 35 millimetre dupes. We went from second generation film to digital.

It’s amazing that these directors like William Wyler went to war to document it. In some ways it was an act of lunacy.

Wyler was there among the “five came back” directors; Frank Capra, John Houston, William Wyler, John Ford, and George Stevens.They actually went to war. Ford was at Midway Island when it was bombed by the Japanese for example. And Wyler made a conscious decision to fly five combat missions in B17’s and that’s insane in the summer of 1943. It was suicide at that point. Clearly they didn’t have fighter escorts, the Germans way outnumbered them, the technology wasn’t there, they didn’t have the thermal equipment or heated flights. Wyler’s crew filmed a lot of different planes. It was not as straightforward as you think. He just basically grabbed a lot of footage and then figured out a narrative as he was making the movie. He was able to fast talk his way to get over there and get into it. And he kind of made it up as he went along. So then he came back and the amazing film footage for the Memphis Belle was found in there. And then the footage promoted the Memphis Belle to the star of the movie. It’s an interesting story.

Then to find that much footage available then in the National Archives…

It’s been hiding in plain sight, as much as I’d like to say that somebody kicked over a box and there it was. It’s been part of the National Archives collection and visible for years and years. I was working from file card logs that were done and typed up in the 50s which had the logs to it. So I didn’t discover the footage. But I appreciated the footage and I saw the potential in the footage the moment that I heard about as I was familiar with the Memphis Belle. So I sort of found this footage and started to write about it. And then the 4k technology we used is recent in the last two or three years, and the techniques we use to restore the footage are new. So you could not have made this movie three years ago. Plus we were able to go to widescreen from the three by four original without any loss whatsoever.

I do like how the stock comes in at the side every so often.

Well, that was intentional. To remind the audience of the provenance of the footage. You know, we were careful that we don’t overdo it. And we kind of stopped doing it after the overture to the film, after we see the plane spiral and once we really start the movie. I’m notorious for having multiple opens for my movie. So The Cold Blue has three different openings, we have the guy singing a song. Then we have the war bonds tour and the setup that we have the overture and then things start so we meet our guys. So we have like three chapters. It’s all done chapters to orient without breaking the spell. I don’t want to break the spell of the story. So if we see the guys on camera we’re ripped back to reality. I felt that the any time you break the spell, if you see somebody, you’re going to rip people back. And I’ve always been I’ve always been a real time travel fanatic. So this film was made of my two obsessions, World War II and time travel. My favourite Star Trek, written by my friend Harlan Ellison, is where they goes back to New York and the killer gets hit by the truck. It’s a time travel story. Yeah. And I really wanted to make The Cold Blue a time travel story, but also to capture that period and to capture their experience while they’re still alive there. So that’s it, a last call. It’s the last to the best. And these guys are in their mid 90’s today. And I wanted to ask them questions they haven’t been asked before. So often in World War II documentaries, it’s telling me what you did. You saw history, what did you know? Where were you in the day? And then you did what? And it is all part of a bigger story. And I was more interested in what did it feel like? What are the small details? What was your day to day job like? You know, I wanted to get the day to day activities,

You can hear the real emotion when they relive those experiences.

Yeah, talking about this with some of the guys is like yesterday, and they all have their war rooms. I mean, this is 75 years ago. And for these guys, it was the defining moment of their lives as it would be. I mean, you can’t even imagine flying 25 to 35 missions, doing that, you know, just that day job. Or as Bud says, “I flew five straight days and after the fifth day, I just didn’t care anymore”. Five 12 hour days back to back. You do that, where you go through that, where it’s a 14/15 hour day, where you get up at dawn and then spend an hour and a half flying around England getting oriented to fly across the channel. And then your temperature is equal to Mount Everest. You know, we try to get those details. 40,000 to guns pointed straight up at you that could fire shells five miles. A precision shot with German efficiency, you know that it’s incredible.

That was the thing that you get from the film, that sense of time when they’re talking about “it’s five hours over, five hours back and you’re like on target for maybe 20 minutes”.

We think of a five hour flight. Wow, that’s a long flight. In the United States that’s New York to Los Angeles if we’re flying the right way. So imagine doing that with that level of concentration and then trying to land the plane or if the plane was damaged then having to navigate your way back. Just how taxing it was on the crew day after day, and then they would keep upping the missions. It

This is what we lose perspective on because now modern warfare is different. With drones and smart bombs and whatever it’s antiseptic, it’s clinical. It’s murder by distance.

But you know, if you’re a front line, you know, tell that to Marine in Fallujah. But in aerial combat yes. Very sanitised. In World War Two compared to World War One where they were open cockpit. You know, the things those guys did. You know, that’s even more insane. And that’s part of it too. I really want people to just exponentially realise what people did. And keep it, keep the story fresh. Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was a huge inspiration for this film. I wanted to do big screen history. And I always joked that my film was better than Dunkirk because my footage was real. And we premiered in June of last year, six months before the Peter Jackson film, and nine months before Apollo 11. So you know, that it’s interesting that there’s a kind of a trilogy of films that are all doing the same thing. When I finally saw the Jackson film in December, I was stunned to see how similar was. Some of the same situation you’re having with that scenario. The film and the soundtrack…he took the same kind of fanatic care that we did to get the sound right.

It was very interesting to see that side of it, because all you had was film stock.

Right. We didn’t have the original audio. That’s a making of in its own right. In the event in the cinemas you get to see the Making of and it really lays it out. I was somewhat disappointed that a lot of people say the best part of The Cold Blue is watching the making of it. Which is no, you’re not supposed to see that. Well, it’s not that you’re not supposed to see that. But you’re not supposed to like it more than everything else.

It’s definitely a film designed to be seen in cinemas.

It absolutely is. Sure if you have the 60 inch big screen TV with a sound way up and the lights down, then you’ll get it. But there’s nothing like seeing it on a huge screen with surround sound. We spent a lot of time finessing the soundtrack to this and making sure that it works in theatres. So the version that will be seen on July 4, that’s the version of The Cold Blue that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Yeah, totally comes like Brigadoon. We’re here one night and we disappear. So, you know, we’ll let it be on Blu-ray or video or some broadcast certainly. Is it going to be a diminished experience? Absolutely. One key thing is the soundtrack. Richard Thompson composed this incredible score. I worked with him on a number of projects, but he really topped himself on this one. It’s an amazing score. It’s hard to imagine the film without the orchestral score that he brought to the party. And again, when you get that sense being there and the Dunkirk analogy comes in again. I saw Dunkirk on the screen, and being the World War II buff you know, that was a real puts you right in the middle of things. And it really stuck with me. And it had a very kind of linear but nonlinear design that made you work towards it. It didn’t kind of spoon feed it. So there was some things that I liked about Dunkirk that I tried in a completely different project and then tried in different forms. Even this, this is a composite mission. You know, we have chapters, we’re not doing the story of one mission, we’re doing the chapters, and we break the chapters up. So we go back need to the King and Queen of England, you do that chapter in the middle of the mission. So it was tricky to get it all to kind of lay out across the film, to put it together was tricky, but it went together very, very fast. In the script, I think it took a day probably to write the full script to the movie. Pretty much most of it was there.

So then when it came to that process, the editing of it, because you’re working with so much footage, did you convert everything or identify what you wanted before hand and just convert that?

We had the 15 hours and I screened it all. So I knew, I made my own notes, I didn’t look to the ones from 1950. And I saw shots that leapt out at me. And the whole genesis of the idea was to do it with what the cameraman got, with what the cameraman did. If you sent a bunch of Hollywood cinematographers up today in seven teams, they would probably come back with pretty much this footage. The difference is how it was edited. So I let shots go longer. Scene shots. There’s one great shot where you see three mechanics working on a plane in the Memphis Belle, you see the guys working on the plane and they see that shot. In the raw footage you see the shot and the camera is on a truck and the truck pulls backwards, and you reveal the whole plane. It’s like the world’s first steady cam shot. It’s amazing shot when you get on the truck. So obviously I wanted the full shot. When I saw the things in the footage I kind of grouped 10 to 12 different chapters, like how cold it was. I could see what your mini stories are.

So that let you steer the interviews.

The interviews were like surgery. I never spent more than an hour and a half from knocking on the front door to leaving. Myself and my producer Peter Hancock, we drove cross country and we showed up at the guy’s house with the family usually there. We would show the guys some dailies, which we would film them watching because I knew I wanted to have that just to see it. I used little GoPro camera, consumer $400 GoPro camera, checking the monitor with my iPhone, and then we shut down. And then I’d move in and I do an interview. I didn’t want to crowd them. And I didn’t want to do bright TV lights. I told them in advance that “I’m not going to be asking the kind of questions you’re used to asking”. So they kind of thought the questions I’m sure were trivial. Why do we care if we had a dog? Or what, you know, the contrails ere like, they look like contrails! Yeah, but what did they really look like? And then once you start asking more involved questions they would come out more and more. We just went back and put it all together, picked the best things the guys said, set it against the best pictures and put it out. That’s when we restored. So we didn’t restore the 15 hours, we restored the 72 minutes that went into The Cold Blue and the additional 30 minutes of extra footage for the Memphis Belle.