Nicholas Meyer: Remembering ‘The Day After’ 35 years later
For those who remember, the November 1983 ABC broadcast of The Day After generated a firestorm of controversy even before it aired.
The film depicts the effects of World War III on Lawrence, Kansas, a Midwestern city that houses underground ICBM missile silos. When those missiles are launched, the residents realize it’s only a matter of minutes before their Soviet counterparts strike them.
Those not instantly vaporized must face the inevitable consequence of radioactive fallout, and the daunting, if not impossible, prospect of rebuilding society.
Edward Hume’s teleplay had been rejected by more than one director who simply didn’t want to tackle so depressing a topic. For Nicholas Meyer, coming off the blockbuster Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), The Day After was an opportunity to illuminate the subject of nuclear annihilation. His intent was simple – to make it as honest and realistic as possible, and to retain the integrity of Hume’s writing.
As he detailed in his 2009 memoir “The View from the Bridge,” it wasn’t a Cold War between Meyer and ABC; it was a heated one. The network was concerned about how graphic the film would be, how long it would be, and whether it would attract advertisers. The latter issue worked to Meyer’s advantage because there were no commercial interruptions after the bombs hit. Before airing, the White House and the U.S. Army requested cuts (both were denied). In the end, both Meyer and ABC conceded some battles – and The Day After became an event.
In an exclusive interview with YES! Weekly, Meyer graciously offered his thoughts about the making and legacy of The Day After, and how it remains relevant.
“Artists are not the best or ‘definitive’ judges of their own work,” he observed. “An artist loses all propriety authority over his or her creation when it is complete. Then it’s out in the wide world for everyone to make of it what they will. My opinion, then, is no more or less valuable – or accurate – than anyone else’s. I think the film ‘holds up’ because the topic has not gone away – it has become more urgent, alas – (and) as such, the movie qualifies in my mind as the most worthwhile thing – so far! – I’ve had the chance to do.”
The first-rate cast included Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, John Cullum, Amy Madigan, and Steve Guttenberg (then billed as “Steven”). Filming on location in Lawrence served two purposes: It lent an authentic flavor to the proceedings and, perhaps just as importantly, it was far enough away from Hollywood that Meyer wouldn’t have to deal with pressure from the network – or so he thought.
“The actual shooting was, surprisingly, more or less like making any other movie – that is to say, a series of narrative, emotional, and logistical obstacles to confront and overcome, trying to organize and get the best results from a team of dedicated professionals before and behind the cameras,” he said.
“I think everyone knew that what we were doing was ‘different’ from the usual movie … and the actors, as I recall, did have the hardest time. Steve Guttenberg, I remember, had nightmares. But all in all, we were a professional operation, taking pride in our work and, to a large and gratifying extent, in one another. It was especially interesting to me to see the intermingling of professional and novice actors and how seamlessly and respectfully they worked together.”
In addition to earning 12 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special and Outstanding Directing in a Limited Series or Special, the initial network broadcast was watched by 100 million people – a record for a television movie that still stands, and years later it was revealed that, upon viewing the film, President Ronald Reagan was so distressed that it led him to rethink the nation’s nuclear policy.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics has released The Day After on DVD ($19.95 retail) and Blu-ray ($29.95 retail), each boasting both the 122-minute broadcast version and the 127-minute theatrical version, retrospective interviews with Meyer and Williams, original trailers, and audio commentary featuring film historian Lee Gambin and comic artist/writer Tristan Jones.
When the film was released on VHS and DVD, Meyer was able to restore some footage. “There’s no question that I prefer my cut of the movie and certainly wish some scenes that the network excised had remained in the film,” he admitted. “That said, I cannot gainsay the film’s effectiveness and its contribution to humanity’s most urgent problem – along with climate change, now. If it helped postpone the inevitable, I’m more than pleased.”
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.