SAN FRANCISCO — It seemed to have everything. Plutonium and an opera chorus. Physics and poetry. Baudelaire and the Bhagavad-Gita. Babies born while the "father of the bomb" works on the ultimate destroyer of life.
For documentary filmmaker Jon Else the question was how to go behind -- and beyond -- the already amazing scenes of "Dr. Atomic," the haunting San Francisco Opera production about the device that forever will haunt the world?
It was a challenge Else had hoped for ever since he made "The Day After Trinity" in 1980, the documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II. Else's new documentary "Wonders Are Many: The Making of Dr. Atomic" will open Saturday during the San Francisco International Film Festival's 50th anniversary. The documentary features the patrician, New England-born and bred, white-haired composer John Adams, an eminence with a self-deprecating sense of humor, and the opera's director Peter Sellars, an impish dynamo, full of passionate persuasion. On Sunday, after delivering his optimistic "State of the Cinema" address, Sellars will fly to Amsterdam to prepare the international premiere of "Dr. Atomic."
Else had been shooting a documentary on Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse restaurant, when he heard that an opera about the bomb was in preparation. "It took me all of three seconds to know what my next film would be. I got Adams' number and to my amazement he answered the phone. He knew who I was because he and Peter had seen 'The Day After Trinity' and were in the early stages of working on the libretto.
"We shared a lot of the same values about that astonishing moment in world history. We shared a belief that art can make a difference to culture and society and politics. We shared an interest in the moral conundrums and complexities of this story."
In particular, all three were fascinated by the baffling, erudite figure of Oppenheimer who named the test site Trinity, inspired by John Donne's poem whose words "Batter My Heart Three-Person'd God" reverberate throughout the opera. What particularly excited Else was their decision to make the centerpiece of Act 1 the secret meeting, organized by physicist Robert Wilson, to debate the use of the bomb over cities where thousands of people would die though the war was almost over.
In grappling with the disparate issues that emerged before the bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945, Else shifts scenes from the opera shop where the stage bomb is being made to choral rehearsals enlivened by Sellars' exhortations, to Adams worrying about how his notes will sound when sung, to Oppenheimer's bedroom where lead singer Gerald Finley is baffled by his mysterious erotic poetry lines, to the upsetting last-minute major cast change. Throughout, there are previously unseen glimpses of Oppenheimer, recently declassified footage on the bomb and the carnage in Japan.
Else, a lanky, humorous 63, first saw a lightning atomic flash at age 6 when his artist father took him into the backyard of their Sacramento home before dawn to observe the light from one of the bomb tests being conducted 300 miles away at the Nevada test site in the 1950s. That glow, he said, "must have lodged itself into my consciousness."
Else worked on voter registration in the 1960s civil rights movement and met Haskell Wexler, who was making a film on freedom riders. It was the first time Else realized that "people could make films about interesting things." While he studied film at Stanford University, he got a "wonderful" education processing negatives.
Opera was not on his agenda. Else had seen only one before he was 45. Later, planning a documentary on the San Francisco Opera's "Ring Cycle," he listened to a Wagner recording. His first reaction was unprintable. Since then, he has become a fan.
As for "Dr. Atomic," he said, "It's not for the chicken-hearted. It's real beefy opera. Part of it has some of the greatest music I've ever heard and parts were just not for me. Parts make you tear up. I warned my crew to stay focused and not to cry. Still, there were moments when the opera was just too strong for us and it broke through that professional shield we needed to stay focused."
Perhaps what remains in focus for the audience is the shot of Picasso's anti-war masterpiece "Guernica," followed by Sellars' moving talk to the chorus. Only silence is appropriate, he says, as they wait for the countdown to the explosion because "art is not up to such sheer horror." " 'In our century,' " he quotes Samuel Beckett, " 'some things must remain unspeakable.' "