Remembering Unsung Heroes: A Conversation with Filmmaker Peter Anthony
September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov saves the world from disaster at the peak of the Cold War when tensions between the US and Russia are running high. Decades later, he lives alone in a one bedroom flat on the outskirts of Moscow, his life unravelling around him. But then the United Nations invite Stanislav to New York to reward him for his contribution to the world today and as he embarks on a spectacular journey to save himself, meeting Robert De Niro, Matt Damon and Kevin Costner on the way, this unlikely real life hero reminds us how close we came to Apocalypse and how precarious the world still is today.
THE MAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD is Danish director Peter Anthony’s first feature length documentary. The film is produced by Jakob Staberg and music is by Kristian Eidnes Andersen (Only God Forgives, Nymphomaniac). The film premiered at the 2014 Woodstock Film Festival where it received honourable mentions in two categories; the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the James Lyons Award for Best Editing of a Narrative Feature.
The Fan Carpet‘s Jay Thomas in association with Acting Hour spoke to Peter Anthony ahead of the DVD release of The Man Who Saved the World…
I just want to say thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us, and also for creating what I consider to be one of the most important films of our time. It was truly amazing, and I thank you for bringing it into the world.
Thank you so much.
I guess my first question would have to be, what brought you to the story of Stanislav Petrov, given that he is not yet a household name?
First, I read an article in a Danish newspaper, Weekendavisen, by a journalist called Anna Libak. A story about a man who saved the world from nuclear war. And I thought that this cannot be true, that this has to be a mistake, this article. Then I looked it up and saw that there was a little program up, NBC Dateline, about Stanislav. Then I realised, oh, I really have to dig into this story.
Yes, it is definitely a very important story. But what prompted you to adopt a more cinematic approach, as opposed to a traditional documentary?
At first, I did try to approach it almost like a journalist, like Cinéma vérité, with the camera just observing everything. But when we went to Stanislav for the first time, we conducted the interview behind the camera and he would start talking, for example, about what happened on the night of September 26th. But when I put out the camera, he would start changing his story. For example, when he was off-camera, he would say, “it was a very terrible evening, really tough on my nerves and almost destroyed my life.” But then when we put the camera on, suddenly he would say, like, “Oh, what’s the big deal? It was only five missiles. It wasn’t that bad.”
So, we just realised that we needed to do this another way, and then we had to skip having to doing the fly-on-the-wall camera. Then I realised that Stanislav, after all these years, had put up a facade from the Russian military. He was very afraid to reveal secrets about the evening on camera. So, what I realised was, that back in 1983, September 26th, when Stanislav was under so much pressure, he stopped using his head and started using his heart. So we did was go a little bit evil and put a lot of pressure on top of him. We kept asking him the same question, putting lots of camera and lights on him. Then suddenly he would just loose the feeling of the camera being there. He would freak out and yell at me, and start telling us what really happened, with no filter on. Then we started thinking that this is not the ordinary way to make a documentary, let’s make this into a film instead of just a documentary.
It was definitely a decision that paid of, managing to capture the attention and draw the audience in. I was curious, what the reaction has been to this approach? When people see the style of the film?
Yes, what have you found the reaction to be? Because you could almost say that this is essentially a brand-new genre that you have created with this film.
Yes, exactly. Mostly from here in Denmark, there are two journalists from the big newspapers that are really very old-school, and don’t understand how we can blend two realities I would call it – the more cinematic look with the documentary. They were a little bit afraid over what was real and what wasn’t real. But then ten of the biggest papers here in Denmark just think it’s fantastic. They had never seen this style before, and it was just very, very appealing to them. I met one of the biggest journalists in Denmark, and he just loved the film. He told me that five years ago, you never would have seen a film like this but somehow it just worked.
Yeah, it definitely seems like the first of its kind. Hopefully you have started a trend.
Yeah. Lots of people have called me and asked why I have blended fiction and facts. But for me, it’s not blending fiction and facts. Everything is fact, just with a narrative feature feeling. I’m not sitting back and inventing funny stuff to put into the movie. It’s all real.
Was it difficult blending these cinematic scenes with the real, human and emotional moments?
Oh my goodness! Almost impossible. It was almost impossible. [Laughs]. It took us ten years to make the film…
… Because it was really really difficult. First of all, when I started this film, I wanted to be something else. I didn’t want to make a BBC documentary. I think they’re brilliant at that stuff, you know, with the talking heads and reenactments. For me, I never wanted to have the voice-over feeling. I wanted to be in the moment. The point-of-view always had to be with Stanislav and his life. Also, what really interested me in doing this film is that when you talk to older people, what happened in the past feels just as personal as what just happened five minutes ago. When talking about the night and his wife, it was like it was happening right now. So, that’s why I also had to make the reenactment, so that you could just cut between the two stories – the story of the younger Stanislav and the older. But without the BBC style, saying that this is Stanislav talking and then, oh, now we are back in the bunker, in black-and-white. The way we did it was that we made two films, in a way. We made a film with the older Stanislav. Then another, that could almost stand on its own, with the reenactment. And then we just cut them together, to create that feeling.
Yeah, it was truly amazing. Speaking of the reenactments, what was the process of finding the young Stanislav. Did you hold auditions?
The process was very, very difficult. Because we had $200,000 to create a one-hour feature film. [Laughs]. It’s not very much. And we had to shoot it in ten days. So, we really didn’t have a big budget. So what we did was, we had to go to Riga to shoot it, because it is too expensive to film in Denmark or Russia. Then we hired Russian actors from Russia. I couldn’t afford to go to Russia and cast them, so Sergey [Shnyryov] who plays the younger Stanislav, we had make a video-cast. It was very, very difficult to find an actor that looked like Stanislav. I think it took us half a year to find one.
Wow! Well, you definitely picked well. He was a very strong and talented actor and did a great job with his parts of the film.
His acting was very strong, but he also really looked like Stanislav. He is a very handsome man, very tall and well-built. A true soldier.
Indeed. What did Stanislav make of the finished product, of seeing his life recreated for the screen?
Unfortunately, Stanislav hasn’t seen it yet. He has seen chunks of it, but he hasn’t seen it all in all. We want him to see it with an audience, and right now we haven’t been able to show it to him yet. It’s been shown in the United States and in Belgium, and different parts of the world, but we haven’t been able to show it in Russia yet. Hopefully we will soon be able too.
I hope so. Given the importance of the message, it definitely deserves to go around the world.
So what do you hope the impact of this film will be on those that do see it?
Well, I hope we do raise awareness to the danger of nuclear weapons for the younger generation. I think the older generation knows about it, but it’ll be the younger ones that will make the changes to the world hopefully one day. I mean, I think a lot of the older generations are lost, in a way, and stick too firmly to our opinions until the day we die. But the younger people, who aren’t as aware of nuclear weapons, I really hope that they see the film, become aware, and act up. You know? Because when I have shown the film around the world, everybody – democrats and republicans alike – can agree on one thing at least. That nuclear weapons should never have been made. I mean, we’ve been supported by both Christian groups and Muslim groups, who also agree that only God or Allah respectively should make this decision, not a human-being.
Definitely, so you still think this is an issue that is more relevant than ever and should be addressed today?
When I talk to scientists, they all say that the scariest thing is the destruction of the world and the biggest threat to that is still nuclear weapons. I think five or ten years ago, people thought it was about the environment. But they even started to lose that feeling. And nuclear weapons are a really tricky thing right now, especially with the tension rising between NATO and The West, against Russia. And also between the Middle East and NATO.
Yeah, there are definitely scary things going on.
Also, what do you think of the chatter on the internet that suggests that this is a film that should be shown in schools, in order to show the younger generation a different way of handling situations in war and towards people in general. Is that something you agree with?
Yes. Funnily enough, here in Denmark, we actually pre-sold 20,000 tickets before the movie even went to theatres. And mainly those tickets went to younger people. People going to high-school, and I think that’s very important. We got a fantastic review, from one of the best magazines in Denmark, saying that it definitely, for the next ten years, should be a part of school programs. I think that, yeah, that could be very important. Because, you know, the cold war is something, at least in Denmark, that is very important and should be talked about in school. But there are not many stories about that time that is as appealing and meaningful as Stanislav’s story. When I have shown this film to young people, between 16 and 29, they come out afterwards, most of them crying and blown away, mostly about the story of this one man, but also the knowledge that all of these deadly weapons are still out there.
Exactly, it is quite unbelievable really.
Yeah, we had one kid that told us that she was basing her final exam on our film. She came to the studio every single day, and suddenly she was talking to her Father and Grandfather and the whole family was getting involved. It was really amazing, a truly amazing story to tell. That people across generations and all walks of life can be connected somehow.
That really is how it should be, given that this an issue that affects everyone.
I think so, too.
Speaking further along the lines of online discussion, there is also a belief that Stanislav be at least nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, I really think so. Nuclear weapons are a really such an important target. I remember when I was in the states and talking to the people from the United Nations. It was mostly off-camera, but they were all official people, and all were so afraid of nuclear weapons. As well dirty-bombs and things like that. I mean, when Osama Bin Laden was still alive, he was very close to making a dirty-bomb and terrorists are still very much interested in weapons like that. So I think that, first of all, Stanislav saved the world. But also, if he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, it would truly get his story out there. And I think that is very important. He definitely should have one.
Yeah, one-hundred percent.
It’s very rare to see such courage. What I think of Stanislav was that he was a lousy soldier, but he was a perfect human-being. That’s what I think the Nobel Peace Prize is about. Having simply the courage to stand up and choose compassion over orders and retaliation. He wasn’t even just thinking about Russia, he was thinking about the collapse of the entire world. That was very rare and unique for that time.
Even in this day and age, it is probably quite rare for people to think like that. This definitely is, as said before, a story that needs to be told and has a message that should go around the world.
It seems to have made some progress in that regard, given the inclusion of such celebrities as Kevin Costner in your film. Was that pre-arranged or something that happened organically, or even by accident?
Yeah, yeah, when you see the film, it could almost seem as though I planned the story that way. It fits so perfect. But what really happened is that the first time I met Stanislav, I was there for three weeks, and on the last day we were standing outside his little flat. It was a very poor area, with lots of rough people lurking around. We kept being told that we needed to hurry into our cars and go, with all the equipment. We suddenly, Stanislav comes over with a large plastic bag, filled with mail from the US. There were letters from such as a twelve-year-old girl from Oklahoma, saying that she had collected five dollars because her parents had been alive at the time, and she was extremely grateful to him. It was heartbreaking stuff. But then, I saw this other letter that said it had been sent by “K. Costner”. I can’t remember the studio, but I asked Stanislav, “Who is this?” And he just said, “Oh, that’s just Kevin Costner.” When I asked him, “What the f**k? Why didn’t you tell me?” He just said, “You never asked.”
[Laughs] And then, it turned out that Kevin Costner had seen the same episode of Dateline on NBC, about a man who had saved the world and a man that, also, had nothing. He was so heartbroken by the story, that he had sent Stanislav a letter and fifteen-hundred dollars. Stanislav said that it was almost fate, because he was such a big fan of Kevin Costner’s. Because one of the films Stanislav had always liked was one called Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and of course, Dances With Wolves.
So Stanislav had apparently tried to write back, but he couldn’t write a letter in English. So he gave up. So I translated the letter and we sent it off to Kevin Costner.
That was an incredible meeting.
Yeah, it really was fantastic.
I think I would remiss if I didn’t ask the very question that was frequently posed over the course of the film: What would you do to fix the situation faced by the modern climate, if you yourself was king of the world?
Well, what I learnt when working on this film, through working with Stanislav. I know it’s very banal what Stanislav says in the film, that we need to forget about the past, move on, and try to forgive our opponents. And then start working on creating a dialogue instead of hatred. I think it’s the only way to do it. I think, me being brought up in Denmark, growing up in the 70s and 80s, everything we knew about Russia was probably from Western media. We were really scared of Russia and the war, but we didn’t know much about it. What we knew about it was all from American sources. So I think there is a whole image of Russia that maybe wasn’t true. Having met Stanislav, I definitely think we need to forget about the past and what we think we know.
Definitely, I think you emphasised that point also on a very human level, in the scenes with Stanislav and his mother. Are they still in touch since they reconciled?
I don’t think so, as she lives in Ukraine and he lives in Moscow. It’s very far away. We, however, are still in touch with Stanislav. The way we do it is that actually, once in a while, he receives money from fans in the US. We also send him money through people who drop by and check in on Stanislav, and check how he is.
That’s fantastic to hear. So, what’s next for The Man Who Saved The World? Are you planning to distribute the film further?
Yeah, yeah. We’ve just found out that we are selling more tickets than any documentary done in the last eight or ten years. It’s going really, really fast. We found out also, that in Denmark, we are not going to have one release in cinemas but two or three. It’s an underground film that can just keep growing. We are probably going to do the same in America. We are working on that right now. It’s going to be distributed through different cinemas throughout the states and we are going to build it up.
It definitely seems like a film that could easily snowball.
Yeah. First of all, we released the film in around fifty universities such as Columbia University. This was in January, in order to generate interest amongst younger people that could spread the word. And it seems as though it is working.
Well, that is hopefully so, and hopefully this helps to contribute to that and helps to spread the also and carry this truly important story and message even further around the world.
Thank you so much.
Thank you again for taking your time talking to us, and we hope to see more in the future.
THE MAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD IS OUT ON DVD ON MONDAY JUNE 29